a real world point of view
The UNIT dating controversy is a problem of retroactive continuity (retcon) which has attracted considerable interest from fans and professional Doctor Who writers alike. It has also been the subject of a 2 entertain DVD documentary, The UNIT Dating Conundrum, included in the special edition release of Day of the Daleks. It has even made its way back into DWU narratives. These have most prominently included a sly remark made by the Tenth Doctor in TV: The Sontaran Stratagem and on-screen graphics seen in TV: The Lost Boy — but writers in other media have occasionally referenced the controversy, or attempted to solve parts of it.
The essential problem
Though replete with additional nuance, the nub of the narrative problem is easy to grasp. Mawdryn Undead tells viewers that the Brigadier retired from UNIT in 1976. However, the events of The Invasion, the first story in which UNIT properly appears, occurred in 1979. Thus, the UNIT dating controversy is, broadly speaking, an attempt to understand how the Brigadier could have retired from UNIT before UNIT even existed.
Writer Ben Aaronovitch has notably opined that there is simply no way to retcon the problem.
There is nothing you can do about [Mawdryn Undead]. It's just stuffed. You just pretend it's taking place in an alternate universe . . .
Terrance Dicks has said he deliberately avoided giving dates during his time as script editor precisely so he could avoid these sorts of continuity headaches. Consequently, the biggest period of UNIT involvement, the Third Doctor's era, has only comparatively mild contributions to the dating controversy.
No television story actually featuring UNIT gives a clear year. Day of the Daleks comes close. It implies at one point that Jo Grant had just said the year, but Terrance Dicks was keen to keep the dating deliberately vague. The problem, which arguably should be called "the Brigadier dating controversy", exists primarily because of two appearances of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart when he wasn't employed by UNIT.
The first was his debut story, The Web of Fear, when he was still a colonel in the regular British Army. Here, he meets the Second Doctor, Jamie, Victoria and crucially, Professor Edward Travers. Victoria says that they met Travers in 1935 in the Himalayas, which they did in The Abominable Snowmen. It is further revealed that 1935 was "forty years ago", tacitly setting The Web of Fear in 1975. In a later adventure, called The Invasion, the Second Doctor again encounters the newly-promoted Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The Brigadier says their last meeting was "four years ago now", ostensibly putting The Invasion in 1979.
Viewers got no dialogue with a firm year for the whole of the Third Doctor's era. In Pyramids of Mars, however, it is claimed several times that Sarah Jane Smith is from "1980" several times and briefly revisits the year. Since she was the Third Doctor's final companion, and spent a good deal of time at UNIT, this has some implication for the theoretical date of UNIT stories set in seasons 11 - 13. It's not particularly clear what to make of the statement. One possibility given by The UNIT Dating Conundrum is that the entire lot of UNIT stories from Spearhead from Space to The Seeds of Doom (where the Brigadier is still in UNIT but away in Geneva) happens from 1979 to 1980. Another possibility is that she may just be speaking imprecisely. Whatever the case, her statement is not a clear violation of the continuity established by The Web of Fear.
What breaks UNIT dating is Mawdryn Undead. This story firmly and explicitly has the Brig retiring from UNIT in 1976, the year The Seeds of Doom came out. The Fifth Doctor confirms that "a year later" from the retirement is 1977, which offers viewers no wiggle room whatsoever. Because it's flatly impossible to have the Brigadier retiring before he's even become the Brigadier, a fundamental discrepancy indisputably exists in televised Doctor Who narratives.
Other dating problems
Other problems with the timeline exist.
- Aside from the aforementioned problems with Mawdryn Undead, the story also tells viewers that Sgt Benton left UNIT in 1979. This only adds to the overall UNIT confusion, since viewers saw him being quite actively employed by UNIT in 1979, during the events of The Invasion. Since viewers also see Benton come back after The Invasion, it's even harder to swallow this Mawdryn Undead line.
- At the time of the Third Doctor's regeneration in Planet of the Spiders/Robot, Sarah has a UNIT pass which reads "1974".
- The Sarah Jane Adventures story Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? shows Sarah Jane Smith as a thirteen-year-old girl in 1964. That would imply that Sarah Jane met the Doctor in her early twenties (Elisabeth Sladen's real age at the time). Similarly, in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Sarah explicitly states her age as being twenty-three. Though not a part of the original televised "UNIT dating controversy", The Sarah Jane Adventures deepened the problem.
- Jo says that 1926 is "about forty years" earlier than her own time. (TV: Carnival of Monsters) What exactly she means by "her own time" is ambiguous. If it means her present day, then the Third Doctor UNIT stories take place in the 1960s. On the other hand, if she's talking forty years from her birth, then her present day would be sixty-odd years later, since she's in her early twenties when with the Third Doctor. However, since she's only approximating — "about forty years" — it's difficult to draw any firm conclusions from her statement. The difficulties of her statement are made worse by the fact that one of her character traits is an ineptitude for math and science. She could have simply gotten her sums wrong.
- In A Girl's Best Friend, Lavinia Smith tells Sarah Jane that the crate containing K9 Mark III arrived in 1978. Other parts of the story specify that Sarah Jane has been back on Earth for some time and she was working on Earth when the box arrived. This would place the relevant UNIT stories in the mid-1970s at the very latest.
- In the 2007 Sarah Jane Adventures story The Lost Boy, a page from Sarah Jane Smith's UNIT dossier is clearly legible on screen. In it the following sentence appears: "[UNIT] quickly expanded, making our presence felt in a golden period that spanned the sixties, the seventies, and, some would say, the eighties." This is part of the WEB: UNIT website started in 2005.
There are many other details that confuse the picture.
- Some stories feature calendars, but these can contradict one another. The Green Death features two such references: one calendar — that in the colliery office — says the story is set in February in a leap year when 29 February falls on a Sunday. (1972 is the only one in the 1960s-1990s) However, it is clearly mentioned in the dialogue that the mine has been out of action for a year. The other — at Global Chemicals — says April. In The Android Invasion, the calendar in the pub gives the date every day as "FRIDAY 6 JULY". In 1975, 6 July was a Sunday; the nearest years in which that date fell on a Friday were 1973, 1979, 1984 and 1990.
- The Prime Minister in The Green Death is "Jeremy", meaning Jeremy Thorpe of the Liberal Party, which jokingly implies he was going to win the 1974 general election. (The Liberals were a minority party). This would set the story in late 1974 at the earliest, a year after the story aired.
- Where politics are concerned, the stories offer a picture very different from when they were transmitted. Jeremy Thorpe was Prime Minister in The Green Death, which he never was in real life. There is a female Prime Minister in 1975's Terror of the Zygons, four years before Margaret Thatcher attained the position; the BBC's website claims this Prime Minister is Shirley Williams, who was never even a party leader in real life. 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 two stories. However, by Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Robot the Cold War is over. In Battlefield, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart refers to "the King" in a near future, but this could be just a figure of speech as Lethbridge-Stewart is old enough to remember when there was last a male monarch on the throne.
- Mao Tse-Tung is implied to be alive at the time of 1971's The Mind of Evil, or is at least referred to by Fu Peng as "our Chairman". In real life, he died in 1976, which would date the story before that.
- The stories don't usually try 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. An exception is The Invasion, where the fashions deliberately don't jibe with then-current fashions, suggesting a near-future setting for that particular story.
- In the 1970 serial The Ambassadors of Death, Sergeant Benton comments that the distress signal SOS was done away with "years ago."
- The road fund licence (tax) disk on the Doctor's roadster, Bessie, in Robot, is dated to expire in April 1975. All registration year letters on the number plates of fairly new cars in the programmes made in the early-to-mid 1970s are contemporaneous.
- Two years before Sarah Jane Smith was travelling with the Fourth Doctor, Britain had a Space Defence Station for alien attacks and space freighters (implying they're taking the freight somewhere) that could reach Jupiter.
- On the occasions that money is mentioned, most amounts given correspond to those in use at the time. 1970's Doctor Who and the Silurians features pre-decimal currency, when a taxi driver asks Masters for "Seven and six", i.e. seven shillings and sixpence (37½p in decimal currency), while Sarah Jane Smith needs only 2 pence for a call from a public telephone box in 1976's The Seeds of Doom. In real life, the United Kingdom adopted decimal currency in 1971 and was subject to significant inflation.
- The technology displayed on occasion is more advanced than reality. The United Kingdom has a fully functional space programme that sends missions to Mars and Jupiter (TV: The Ambassadors of Death, The Android Invasion); 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; and there are two artificial intelligences, the first created in the late 1960s. (TV: The War Machines, The Green Death) Most of this technology is not seen in episodes set in the 1980s and onwards. The Invasion has videophones being used at International Electromatics and by the Ministry of Defence's Major-General Rutlidge. In The Claws of Axos, aired three years later, there is a videophone conversation between Mr Chinn (presumably a high level Ministry of Defence Civil Servant) and the British Defence Minister. The characters appear to be using standard technology.
- Britain has a seventh manned Mars mission and an astronaut corps by the time of The Ambassadors of Death, without a mention of one in previous Earth-set stories. Who Killed Kennedy attributes to cyber-technology recovered after The Invasion but this still means Britain ran seven missions between The Invasion and The Ambassadors of Death; General Carrington was a Mars astronaut in the past and it's implied some time has passed. The Android Invasion says that two years ago, there was a British mission to Jupiter. Both Sarah Jane Smith and Jo Grant both believe that interstellar travel was close to being developed at seperate times (Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Colony in Space respectively). The later Remembrance of the Daleks establishes the British Rocket Group operating in 1963; The Dying Days has the Mars Probe series go up to thirteen probes by the late 70s and a fourteenth Mars Probe sent in 1997. However, by the time of The Christmas Invasion (aired 2005 and set in 2006), the British government is boasting about sending an unmanned satellite; in Death of the Doctor (aired 2010 and set around that time), UNIT have a moonbase and their own rockets; by the The Waters of Mars (aired 2009, set in 2059), humanity still hadn't perfected interstellar travel, a Mars base is a highly significant achievement, and Britain lacks a space programme at all.
- The BBC has a third channel, BBC3, in 1971's The Dæmons. In 1971 the BBC had only two channels (though they aspired to launch a third channel in subsequent years). (The actual BBC Three, a digital television channel, was launched in 2003.)
- Battlefield (made in 1989) is set in an unspecified near future. The Brigadier has retired from teaching for a few years; he is not many years older than he was in Mawdryn Undead. He's now married, when he lived alone in Mawdryn. Major Husak is from Czechslovakia, rather than the Czech Republic or Slovakia, but there are also five pound coins and the Brigadier refers to "the King".
- In The Sontaran Stratagem, the Doctor says he worked for UNIT in "the 1970s, or was it the 80s?", a reference to this controversy.
- The Brigadier appears in TV: Enemy of the Bane, an episode dated as occurring around the year 2009 (based upon its setting within the recent Whoniverse); however the Brigadier is considerably aged for someone who, based on other evidence, would have been active in UNIT only twenty years earlier.
Published books, contemporary interviews, publicity material and behind the scenes documents all point to uncertainty amongst the production team as well.
- 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 a continuity 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 have 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 any date.
- The 1974 novelisation Doctor Who and the Sea-Devils, which Malcolm Hulke based on his own The Sea Devils, 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 K9 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" in-universe UNIT website 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 25 January 2005 was the 35th anniversary of UNIT's involvement in "Project Waxwork" (the concluding episode of Spearhead from Space was broadcast on 24 January 1970). These would date the stories as being contemporaneous with their original broadcast. With a joking nod to the controversy over dating of the original stories, the site also notes that "[UNIT] quickly expanded, making our presence felt in a golden period that spanned the sixties, the seventies and, some would say, the eighties." This sentence became part of on-screen canon in 2007 when it was visible during a scene in The Lost Boy, an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
- According to onscreen production notes for the DVD release of The Time Warrior, a line was struck from the script during Linx's interrogation of Sarah in which she would have explicitly stated her year of origin as 1974.
- The UNIT Dating Conundrum documentary on the Day of the Daleks DVD release looked at the in-universe evidence for the dating of the UNIT stories. It drew the conclusion that there was no reasonable way to reconcile the statements from Mawdryn Undead to those in Third and Fourth Doctor UNIT stories.
Stories in other media have also offered dates for the UNIT stories but have had little success in producing a clear answer:
- The novelisation Doctor Who and the Carnival of Monsters by Terrance Dicks, published in 1977, has the Third Doctor and Jo Grant visiting what they initially believe to be a vessel in the year 1926; Jo states that this was fifty years before her time. The first chapter establishes the story taking place immediately after the events of The Three Doctors, therefore putting that adventure in 1976 (unless Jo was rounding her numbers, which still places it in the 1970s).
- 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 novelised version, 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 the year 1975.
- Novels in the Virgin New Adventures and the Virgin 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 to individual authors to decide on dates. This resulted in a number of contradictions. Events in The Invasion have been variously dated to the late 1960s, mid 1970s and late 1970s. Battlefield was assumed to take place in 1997.
- Who Killed Kennedy, published in 1996, ties several televised stories to real-life 60s and 70s political events, like the electoral defeat of the Wilson government. In doing so, it has stories taking place a few months before they aired.
- The Dying Days has Mars Probe 13, the last British Mars mission, taking place in 1977. The story is set in 1997.
- The 1998 BBC Past Doctor Adventures novel The Face of the Enemy, by David A. McIntee, suggests that Mawdryn Undead may take place in a parallel universe where the Brigadier retired in 1976.
- It is stated in the 1999 Eighth Doctor Adventure Revolution Man by Paul Leonard, when Sam Jones was released from prison in 1967, there was a document containing the Brigadier's initials and the UNIT call sign, although both the Eighth Doctor and Sam knew that the Brigadier was still Colonel and UNIT didn't yet exist.
- In the two-part Eighth Doctor Adventure Interference, also published in 1999, Sarah Jane Smith is uncertain whether her experiences with the Doctor and UNIT took place in the Seventies or the Eighties. At the end of the "What Happened on Earth" portion of the novel, she asks the Doctor about this, and he replies, "Temporal slippage. ... My fault, I'm afraid. I think it's currently the 1970s, but—" and is interrupted.
- In the Big Finish Productions audio play The Coup, released in 2004, 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 (he is likely rounding up). There is no indication as to which year The Coup takes place but the following The Longest Night says ICIS's Captain Andrea Winnington born in the 1980s; this would place it in the late 00s at the earliest.
- The IDW Publishing comic The Forgotten, first published in 2008, shows the Third Doctor during his exile on Earth, dated 1972.
- The Fourth Doctor audio dramas The Valley of Death and The Oseidon Adventure have the Brigadier in charge of UNIT (but absent) in 1979.
- 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