Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
UNIT dating controversy
The UNIT dating controversy refers to an ongoing debate in Doctor Who fandom about exactly when the stories featuring the fictional military organization known as the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce actually take place in the timeline of the television series.
The exact years in which UNIT operates are never made precisely clear and there has been much confusion and continuing fan debate on this subject. Although there is strong evidence that at least some of the production team intended for the UNIT stories to take place in the "near future", this policy was not consistently applied. Whether the stories take place contemporaneously with the broadcast dates, a few years in the future or even a few years into the past is therefore highly debatable.
No television story actually featuring UNIT gives a clear date onscreen. Several other stories offer dates, but they have a habit of contradicting one another, whilst a whole host of unused dialogue and scenes, internal production memos, books by the contemporary creative teams and other media have all combined to confuse the matter further. It is not even clear when the contemporary production team intended the stories to be set as different contributions on different occasions confuse one another.
The following precise, or near precise, dates are established in dialogue:
- In the 1968 story The Web of Fear it is said that 1935 was "over forty years ago", thus making it at least 1975. In The Invasion , the first story to feature UNIT, it is said that the events of the earlier story took place "about four years ago", making it 1979 at the earliest. This would place the UNIT stories featuring the Third Doctor and the Fourth Doctor in the 1980s.
- In the 1973 story Carnival of Monsters , the Doctor's companion Jo says that 1926 is "about forty years" earlier than her own time. This would place the Third Doctor UNIT stories in the 1960s.
- In the 1975 story Pyramids of Mars, the Doctor's companion Sarah-Jane states "I come from 1980". This would place the Third and Fourth Doctor UNIT stories in the late 1970s.
- In the 1981 spin-off K-9 and Company Sarah-Jane has been back on Earth for some years, with the Doctor having left a present for her in 1978. This would place the relevant UNIT stories in the mid 1970s at the very latest.
- In the 1982 story Time-Flight , which has a contemporary setting, the Doctor wonders if Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has become a General by now, implying that it is several years since his time in UNIT.
- In the 1983 story Mawdryn Undead it is established that Lethbridge-Stewart retired in 1976 (and was not promoted to a General) and worked at a British public school from 1977 until at least 1983. The story features two timezones - 1977, which features celebrations of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, and 1983, which is repeatedly confirmed as taking place "six years" later.
- In the 1989 story Battlefield the Brigadier has now retired completely and the Doctor tells his companion Ace (from the late 1980s) that they are "a few years in your future".
In addition, there are many other contradictory details that confuse the picture.
- Some stories feature calendars, but these can contradict one another. The Green Death features two such references, one which says the story is set in February in a leap year when February 29 falls on a Sunday (1972 is the only one in the 1960s-1990s), but another says April.
- Where politics are concerned, the stories offer a very different picture from the time when they were transmitted. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is called "Jeremy" in 1973's The Green Death (intended to be Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe who never attained that position) and is a woman in 1975's Terror of the Zygons (four years before Margaret Thatcher attained the position). In the much later Battlefield the monarch of the United Kingdom is a King. The United Nations is more interventionist than its 1970s real-life counterpart, whilst the Cold War at times is on the verge of turning into World War III in some of the earlier stories, but by Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Robot the Cold War is over. Mao Zedong is alive at the time of 1971's The Mind of Evil and in real life he died in 1976, which would date the story before that.
- With a few exceptions, none of the stories attempt to predict future fashions or technology, except when it is central to the plot. The result is that the stories look very strongly like the 1970s. In the 1970 serial The Ambassadors of Death , Sergeant Benton comments that the distress signal SOS was done away with "years ago."
- On the occasions that money is mentioned, most amounts given correspond to those in use at the time, such as 1970's Doctor Who and the Silurians featuring pre-decimal currency whilst it costs 2 pence for a telephone call in 1976's The Seeds of Doom , even though in real life the United Kingdom adopted decimal currency in 1971 and was subject to significant inflation. In the later Battlefield, a vodka and coke, a glass of lemonade and a glass of water in a village pub costs 5 pounds (paid for with a £5 coin that, at the time of writing, is not in common circulation).
- The technology displayed on occasion is significantly more advanced than reality. The United Kingdom has a fully functional space programme that is able to send missions to Mars and Jupiter. Laser guns are in development in 1974's Robot and then used by UNIT in The Seeds of Doom . Many of the science establishments seen are engaged in extremely advanced research.
- The BBC has a third channel, BBC 3, in 1971's The Dæmons. In 1971, the BBC had only two terrestrial channels (though had aspirations to launch a third channel in subsequent years). The actual BBC Three, a digital channel, was only launched in 2003.
Published books, contemporary interviews, publicity material and behind the scenes documents all point to a degree of uncertainty amongst the production team as well. For example:
- A document prepared during the making of The Invasion by director Douglas Camfield states that he assumed the story was set in 1976.
- The Radio Times and an announcement at the start of the original transmission of the first episode of The Invasion state that the story takes place in 1975. Announcements and publicity material were normally produced by the series' production office, usually by the script editor.
- In a pair of 1969 interviews then-producer Derrick Sherwin and newly cast Doctor Jon Pertwee told the press that the series (and thus the UNIT stories) would be set in a near future time when things such as space stations would become reality, with Pertwee confirming this would be in the 1980s.
- A recorded but unused line in 1971's The Claws of Axos discusses comets due in the period 1969-1975, strongly pointing to an early 1970s setting for the story. By this time Sherwin had moved on as producer.
- The 1972 book The Making of Doctor Who , written by then-Script Editor Terrance Dicks and regular writer Malcolm Hulke, dates the 1970 story Spearhead from Space to 1970. However the second edition of 1976 (rewritten by Dicks alone, after he had stepped down as Script Editor) does not specify a date.
- The 1974 novelisation of The Sea Devils , also by Hulke, refers to North Sea Oil starting to be exploited in 1978, indicating an early 1980s setting for the story.
- The 1981 Writers' Guide for the proposed series of K-9 and Company stated that Sarah's travels with the Doctor (i.e. from The Time Warrior to The Hand of Fear ) took place between 1973 and 1976.
- The 1983 story Mawdryn Undead was originally written with a different former companion in mind and much has been made of how this generated the UNIT dating "mistake", though other early 1980s stories and the above mentioned guide support Mawdryn Undead's dating of the story.
- The "official" UNIT website (http://www.unit.org.uk) produced by the BBC for the 2005 series notes in its history section that UNIT was formed in 1968 in response to the "London Underground" incident (The Web of Fear), and in its news section that January 25, 2005 was the 35th anniversary of UNIT's involvement in "Project Waxwork" (the concluding episode of Spearhead from Space was broadcast on January 24, 1970). These would date the stories as being contemporaneous with their original broadcast.
Spin-off stories in ofter mediums have also offered dates for the UNIT stories but have had little success in producing a clear answer:
- The 1993 radio play The Paradise of Death by early 1970s producer Barry Letts is set at the time of the later Third Doctor stories and appears to have a 1990s setting, most notably references to Virtual Reality. (In the 1994 novelisation, however, Letts limits these references.)
- The sequel, 1996's The Ghosts of N-Space , which is set again around the last Third Doctor stories, sees the sighting of a comet which appears every "157 years" and which was last seen in "1818", making it 1975.
- The novels in the New Adventures and the Missing Adventures line written in the 1990s took the editorial view that the television stories were set some time in or around the 1970s and left it down to individual authors to decide on dates. This resulted in a number of contradictions - for example the events of The Invasion have been variously dated to the late 1960s, mid 1970s and late 1970s.
- The BBC Books novel The Face of the Enemy, by David A. McIntee , suggests that Mawdryn Undead may take place in a parallel universe where the Bridgadier retired in 1976.
- Ben Aaronovitch , author of Battlefield, in a chronology prepared in-house for New Adventures writers, states that the story is supposed to take place around 1997.
- In the Big Finish Productions UNIT audio play The Coup, the now-General Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart states that UNIT has been fighting alien invasions for forty years, and that he "put down" a Silurian base thirty years before. Of course, these could be approximations, and there is no indication in which year The Coup takes place.
- Parkin, Lance, Doctor Who: A History of the Universe - From Before The Dawn of Time and Beyond The End of Eternity (London, UK: Virgin Publishing, 1996), ISBN 0-426-20471-9
- Miles, Lawrence & Wood, Tat, About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who - 1970-1974, Seasons 7 to 11 (New Orleans, LA: Mad Norwegian Press, 2004), ISBN 0-9725959-2-9
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