Fast Return Switch #004: What UNIT Dating Controversy?

In this episode of the podcast, I deal with the so-called UNIT dating controversy, which suggests that we, and everyone in the Doctor’s universe, have no idea when Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart headed the organization. Were all the records destroyed and people’s memories erased? Did something timey-wimey happen? Of course not. Hopefully, we can put this issue to rest once and for all.


What U.N.I.T. Dating Controversy?

If you’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for any length of time, you’ve probably heard by now of the “U.N.I.T. Dating Controversy.” There were some in-jokes made about it in recent episodes of Doctor Who, having to do with whether the stories featuring the Doctor and U.N.I.T. took place in the 1970’s or 1980’s, and this may have prompted you to look it up. Or you may have been a fan for a long time and knew about it already. But to be honest, there really isn’t all that much to argue about. It’s very clear when those stories took place, if we interpret the show according to the principles of canon that I outlined in Podcast #2. If you haven’t listened to that episode yet, I recommend you cue it up and give it your ear.

Let’s go back to the story The Web of Fear, which features the first appearance of Lethbridge-Stewart, who later will become the Brigadier who heads U.N.I.T. The story never states explicitly the year in which it is set, but it does provide some chronological indicators that imply it. First, in episode one, in the scene set in the museum, we are told that the Yeti creature, which Professor Travers brought back from Tibet, has been in the museum for 30 years. The implication is that Travers returned from Tibet about 30 years previously. But then in episode 2, Travers recalls that he first met Jamie and Victoria “over 40 years ago.” Jamie and Victoria, you see, had met him in Tibet, when he first encountered the Yeti. Why the discrepancy between episodes 1 and 2? It would seem that The Web of Fear originally was set in the present day, but Story Editor Derrick Sherwin made the decision, somewhere in between the shooting of episodes 1 and 2, to set The Web of Fear rather in the near future. So he increased the length of time between the Tibet adventure and this current one from 30 years to over 40 years. Terrance Dicks, who wrote the Target novelization of The Web of Fear, repaired the discrepancy by changing the period that the Yeti was in the museum from 30 years also to 40 years. In what year did the Tibet adventure take place? (This, by the way, was depicted in the story The Abominable Snowmen earlier in the season.) Victoria tells Anne in episode 2 of The Web of Fear that they were in Tibet in 1935. This would mean that The Web of Fear must be set sometime after 1975.

Now the first U.N.I.T. story is The Invasion. In that adventure we are told that it has been four years since the Brigadier has seen the Doctor (in The Web of Fear), so this would indicate that the first U.N.I.T. story is set sometime after 1979. The run of classic U.N.I.T. stories, from Spearhead from Space to The Seeds of Doom, would therefore have to take place from about 1980 forward. Five winters are depicted in this run, so that would mean at least 4 years pass during this period.

The problem is that, even though the years of these classic UNIT stories are never stated in dialogue, indications are that they take place, not in the 1980’s, but in the 1970’s. So, for example, in The Green Death, a calendar is shown, which has the month February as a leap year, and the 29th of the month falls on a Sunday. In the entire period from the 1960s to the 1990s, only 1972 would fit that calendar. Also, at the time of the Third Doctor’s regeneration into the Fourth Doctor (Planet of the Spiders and Robot), Sarah Jane Smith carries a U.N.I.T. pass dated “4th April 1974.” In Robot, the Doctor’s roadster Bessie has a road fund licence disk set to expire April 1975. The Fifth Doctor story, Mawdryn Undead, adds support to these dates when we are told that the Brigadier retired from U.N.I.T. in 1976 and Sergeant Benton in 1979. And in Pyramids of Mars, Sarah explicitly states she is from 1980, and this is after the time she spent with the Third Doctor and UNIT. So the UNIT stories must precede 1980.

How should the inconsistency be solved? Let’s go back to the rules of interpretation I laid out in episode 2 of this podcast. They provide a sound and logical way to resolve these kinds of issues. And this particular controversy is rather easily rectified.

One of the rules I laid out was that more explicit material must interpret less explicit material. That is, if two parts of the canon appear to contradict, we should choose the more explicit over the less explicit and allow the explicit to define the meaning of the implicit. In this case, the dates given in Mawdryn Undead, and the date seen on Sarah’s U.N.I.T. pass, and Sarah’s own words are the most explicit. In The Web of Fear and The Invasion, the years are not explicitly given. Therefore, the implicit material in The Web of Fear and The Invasion needs to be brought into line with the explicit material, which places the U.N.I.T. stories in the 1970s.

Another rule of thumb is that in the case of continuity errors, the interpreter of canon should disregard the writer’s original intention. As I said then, the inconsistency is difficult enough as it is without also throwing into the mix whatever was going on in the writers’ minds when they wrote it. So yeah, Derrick Sherwin wanted The Web of Fear and The Invasion to be set in the near future. But he wasn’t explicit about it in the show itself, and we need only concern ourselves with what was actually said or seen in those stories.

An explanation that I suggested often works in the case of continuity errors is that a character in the show has made a mistake somewhere. In this case, I think the best explanation is that Professor Travers simply misremembered or misstated how long ago his Tibet trip was. Indeed, Julius Silverstein the museum curator stated it was 30 years ago, and Travers later misspoke and said 40 years ago. It makes sense to think that Silverstein was right and Travers was wrong. Travers is clearly shown to be going a bit around the bend in this story. He is not in full control of his senses anyway. He simply got it wrong. If we assume The Abominable Snowmen was in 1935, as Victoria said, and it took place over 30 years ago. That would mean The Web of Fear takes place after 1965, and The Invasion after 1969. Everything else falls into place.

This interpretation has the advantage of being the simplest. One of my canon rules was: Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. This is the principle usually called “Occam’s Razor.” The more elaborate the explanation for an inconsistency, the less believable it is. Andy Frankham Allen, the writer of the short story “The Enfolded Time,” came up with a theory that the Doctor’s frequent visits to Earth in the 70s and 80s resulted in a time distortion that caused the events of 20 years to be squeezed into 10. And nobody on Earth was aware of the problem, as they were an intricate part of it. That’s how he solved the problem. Now let me ask you, which is more believable? That this time folding scenario occurred, or that Professor Travers misspoke? Simpler explanations are better.

In the last few years, references to the dating controversy have been made in the show. In “The Sontaran Stratagem,” the Doctor says he worked for UNIT in “the 1970s, or was it the 80s?” Not to be outdone, Steven Moffat brought it up again in “The Day of the Doctor” and in “The Zygon Invasion.” The difference is, whereas in “The Sontaran Stratagem” it was simply an inside joke for the fans, Moffat tries to write the conundrum into Doctor Who lore. Kate Stewart says there was a Zygon invasion in the 70s or 80s, “depending on the dating protocol.” Nothing more about it is explained, but she states clearly that UNIT has more than one way to date an event. That’s all fine and dandy, except it suggests that a dating protocol exists that still uses years in the same fashion as conventional dating, i.e., counting from the presumed birth of Christ, but somehow they are about 10 years off. Why would two dating protocols be so similar? Why would you need the second one? I can see if you were going to use a dating protocol that, say, counted from the creation of UNIT or from the birth of the UN or something. But a dating system that simply changes 1970s to 1980s or vice versa? Where is the sense in that? And this just raises more questions, because it implies that both the Brigadier and the Doctor in Mawdryn Undead were using an unconventional dating protocol in their everyday conversations with people, one that sounded like the dating everyone was accustomed to, but in fact wasn’t. Difficult to swallow. The fact is, if you asked Kate Stewart in what year she was born, what year she graduated from school, or how old she is, she would be able to tell you. I’m sure the information is on her driver’s license. How could she and everyone else not know? How could it not be recorded anywhere? It strains credulity beyond its acceptable limits.

By assuming that Professor Travers just messed up in one statement that he made, the UNIT dating controversy ceases to exist. Earlier I referred to a statement made by Sarah in Pyramids of Mars that she is from 1980. Some have argued that her statement is at odds with the view that the Brigadier retired in 1976, because Sarah will have two more UNIT adventures after Pyramids of Mars, and the Brigadier is still part of UNIT at that time. But if the TARDIS can travel backwards and forwards in time, how is there a contradiction? She can be from 1980 and travel back to the 1970s to have those adventures. It’s not an issue. Yes, some may say, “but she got into the TARDIS at the end of Terror of the Zygons, which was a UNIT story. Does that not indicate Terror of the Zygons occurred in 1980?” Only if you assume a short time has transpired between Terror of the Zygons and Pyramids of Mars. Is it not possible that she has been with the Doctor a few years? It’s feasible. Therefore, there is no contradiction.

I do hope that Chris Chibnall doesn’t unnecessarily muddy the waters further in this regard. There really is nothing to be concerned about. The UNIT stories clearly happened in the 1970s. Explicit statements in the show establish this beyond doubt. Let’s leave it at that. There are far more interesting and substantial conundrums in the show to be concerned about. More on those in future.