A commissioned essay for Assad Khaishgi.
Since Doctor Who first hit upon the idea of doing stories set in the present day, a fundamental aspect of its mythology has been the question of how civil authorities might respond to the bizarre events that take place in the Doctor’s wake. The most enduring answer to this question is UNIT, the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, formerly the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce – a military organization specifically focused on unexplained events, particularly aliens. This, in turn, is most iconically connected to the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who, in which the Doctor was at one point a full-time employee of UNIT living on Earth, and throughout his tenure treated UNIT headquarters as a sort of home base on Earth to which he would regularly return. But while this is the most iconic iteration of UNIT and thus of officially sanctioned responses to alien threats, it is not the only version of either, and must be taken in a larger context.
At first, the governmental response to crises was imagined to be ad hoc. Part of this can be explained by the fact that the first two present day crises – The War Machines and The Faceless Ones – took place on the same day. The government simply responds to them to the extent that they find out about them, and they are treated as, in effect, freak occurrences. Where this begins to shift is The Web of Fear, which also introduces the character with whom UNIT is most associated: the Brigadier. Well, sort of. As we said back at the time, The Web of Fear is clearly not trying to introduce a major new character, nor for that matter an official and consistent answer to how the government will handle alien attacks. Instead, it assembles a military crew straight out of a bunch of standard war movies, and then drops a character named Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart in as a commander midway through. Lethbridge-Stewart is notable as a relatively realistic, sensible military commander – quite unlike the cliches he’s generally surrounded by. He’s an effective officer put in impossible circumstances, and he acquits himself well considering.
On his second appearance, however, in the next year’s The Invasion, Lethbridge-Stewart has seen a promotion to Brigadier, and is now in charge of UNIT. This constituted a major shift in his character. Where before he was a reasonably straightforward military character who got dumped into a strange situation, now he was the person designed to lead a human response to the unknown. This still required being imperfect, not least because the entire point is to have the Doctor be the person who gets things right, but he’s nevertheless a character who is designed for the purpose of doing extraordinary things. This is, in and of itself, a major shift. The first three big “a threat to contemporary Earth” stories are all based around the idea that this is out of the ordinary. But from The Invasion on, threats to contemporary Earth are sufficiently common that there are standard responses to them.
This is crucial to understanding the definitive UNIT period, namely the Pertwee era. Because the real role that UNIT played in the early seventies was specifically as a television military. They’re no longer a sincere effort to answer the question of what the government’s response to aliens would be. Instead, they’re a standard guest cast on a television show. And like much of the Pertwee era they’re a bit camp, perhaps more Dad’s Army than Doomwatch. They’re firmly part of the ridiculous world of Doctor Who, and not our world’s attempt to react to Doctor Who smashing into it. In some ways this is best demonstrated by the one earth-based story they’re not in, The Sea Devils, where their absence allows Malcolm Hulke to do a very different sort of earth-based story with much more character drama. When UNIT was around, any greedy, selfish, or otherwise bad-acting humans had to be pushed off to other agencies, so that UNIT could remain more or less straightforwardly the good guys.
At the center of this was the Brigadier. Like the Doctor, he’s, after an ill-judged and slightly rough start, a firmly heroic character, generally relied upon to be the one sane man in a world of lunatics. And UNIT was, in effect, his squad. Yes, he had supervisors he butted heads with periodically, but they were all defined by not really getting UNIT or the nature of the threats they faced. The Brigadier was the highest ranked person who actually understood that the Earth was regularly invaded by aliens. The effect, as discussed in the previous essay, was to distance the world of Doctor Who from our world, so that aliens did not so much invade the viewer’s world as they did the Brigadier’s.
And so Doctor Who found itself in an interesting position. On the one hand, UNIT filled the necessary role of having a standing explanation for how the various alien schemes the series would present, both in the Pertwee era and later, were dealt with by governmental authorities. On the other, UNIT was very clearly an extension of one specific character. And so it is unsurprising that when that character departed following Terror of the Zygons in 1975, the nature of UNIT rapidly shifted. It made two further appearances in The Android Invasion and The Seeds of Doom, but without the Brigadier to anchor it, it became a generic military outfit that the Doctor happened to have connections with, devoid of any meaningful character. Tellingly, in the next story to be heavily set in present-day Britain, The Hand of Fear, UNIT isn’t called in, and yet the whole thing plays out basically the same way The Seeds of Doom does.
And that’s basically it for UNIT for a bit. The next time the Doctor actually directly engages with any sort of official government response to something is in Time Flight, where UNIT sits in the background – they’re not called in, but are instead just checked with. There’s also a suggestion that UNIT might be a subdivision of something called “Department C19.” The particulars of this aren’t clear, but it’s clear that there’s been some sort of reorganization – the Doctor directs people to call “Sir John Sudbury,” and merely to give his regards to Lethbridge-Stewart. This is, of course, appropriate for early Thatcher – reorganizing the government’s response to alien threats with a vague goal of increasing “efficiency” or some other bland term is exactly the sort of thing that would have happened in 1982. And this is further reinforced in 1983 when we see the Brigadier retired to become a maths teacher, unattached to UNIT, and further suggesting that UNIT has been merged into some other organization. In any case, they’re seemingly off the stage – something that exists in name only, but that has no direct impact on anything in the series.
This distancing from UNIT is reversed in 1989, however, when the Brigadier is brought back again in Ben Aaronovich’s Battlefield. Here UNIT is reimagined with an emphasis on the United Nations part of it. UNIT, especially in the novelization of the story, is portrayed as an international organization – a pleasantly utopian view that fits with the anti-nuclear weapons message of the story. The Brigadier is present, but his role is clearly to symbolically hand off the organization to a new generation and a new vision, allowing us to view this diversity-heavy vision of international cooperation as the rightful heir to the Brigadier’s 1970s heroism.
The problem, at least for UNIT, is that the Brigadier survives Battlefield, which means that the organization’s intrinsic tie to his specific character persists. And sure enough, in the new series, whenever UNIT shows up there’s some sort of explanation, whether at the time or later, about how the Brigadier is tied up in Peru. In his absence, UNIT becomes a relatively faceless and nondescript organization – they’re essentially the brand of soldiers who show up in Doctor Who stories, but no effort is made to have a standing cast. Indeed, the Davies era focuses more on making sure its newscasters are the same across seasons than it does in making UNIT anything other than a particular set of costuming decisions for when they need soldiers.
That’s not to say, however, that there’s no thought put into the larger question of the official response to alien threats. It’s just that all of this gets pushed over to Torchwood, Russell T Davies’s own quasi-UNIT. In many ways, this is a more sensible approach. Torchwood is a quasi-secret agency, famously “outside the government, beyond the police,” which has enough official jurisdiction to investigate, but not so much that they actually find themselves frequently tangled up in red tape (at least, not before they get themselves very tangled in Children of Earth). It’s worth noting that, after their introduction in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, Torchwood is effectively reduced to a single team centered around one heroic figure, John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness, who exists in the same tradition of square-jawed camp that both Pertwee’s Doctor and Courtney’s Brigadier hailed from. Yes, it’s full of gratuitous sex and violence, but it nevertheless clearly a conscious and deliberate modernization of the old dynamic of UNIT, fine-tuned for the present day.
By the end of Torchwood, however, the organization is in tatters and, worse, American, which left a gap in the question of what exists to interface between the Doctor and the need to have civil authorities respond to a given present-day crisis. And so in Season Seven a new look UNIT is debuted, headed by Jemma Redgrave’s Kate Stewart, the daughter of the Brigadier. With only two stories to date for this new UNIT, it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions. Redgrave’s performance, in particular, is odd – she seems to prefer playing Kate as someone who is weighted down in part by her family legacy, which is a strange decision (albeit one set up in Downtime, the 90s fan film in which her character debuts, played there by Beverley Cressman) that puts her character at a slight remove from proceedings. But the secondary character of Osgood, played by Ingrid Oliver, is tremendously promising.
This new UNIT is clearly intended to serve as a standing support cast again. But it’s also clear that the standing support cast is only there for certain size tasks. UNIT doesn’t appear in The Caretaker or Flatline, and it doesn’t appear to be UNIT coordinating the response in In the Forest of the Night. (Indeed, the Doctor seems to consciously decline to call them in The Caretaker.) Instead they’re designed to show up in stories where they are specifically thematically required (such as The Bells of Saint John, where their cameo nicely ties into the revelation that it’s the Great Intelligence behind all of this). So in Day of the Doctor they are there to provide a link to Doctor Who’s heritage and history, while in Dark Water/Death in Heaven one can probably safely assume that they’ll be there to develop the “soldier” theme across Season Eight.
But in this regard, it’s also worth pointing out that the Moffat era has developed a similar UNIT-like supporting cast in the form of the Paternoster Gang. The only issue is that the Paternoster Gang doesn’t exist to handle alien invasions in the present day, but rather in Victorian London. Despite this, they fulfill much the same function of UNIT – to the point of being an organization that extends out of one particular memorable character, in this particular case Madame Vastra.
All of this reflects a fundamental shift in the program. At this point, it’s done so many alien invasions that the question of how the civil authorities will respond is easily answered with “however the writer finds it convenient.” UNIT has become what its prevalence in the Pertwee era always meant it would be – a piece of Doctor Who’s legacy, firmly a part of its world and not ours. And so, when it’s helpful to have a standing cast of characters who carry resonances with the show’s past, they exist. When other solutions make more sense, they’re used. What originated as a solution to “how do we start doing present day stories in a show that was initially defined so that the present day was the one place it couldn’t go” has instead become one part of the show’s history, as the initial question has vanished to where it doesn’t even make sense to ask.
And so in the end we return to more or less where we started – the fact that UNIT, and the entire tradition it represents, is in reality simply an outgrowth of the iconic character of the Brigadier. Because in many ways, the show got it right, if not quite the very first time, at least among the first times they tried thinking about the question of what sort of government response to alien invasions you’d need. And for Doctor Who, what you need is an ever so slightly camp square-jawed hero who embodies the British self-mythology of keeping calm no matter how outrageous the circumstances. And in this regard, it’s worth pointing out that the Brigadier is the one human character ever to be honored by a name that is in fact a title and a definite article – that is, the one human character to be named like the Doctor. Once you have him, everything else is just variations on the theme.