FOR UNIT, THIS SERIES
TAKES PLACE BETWEEN
THE TV EPISODES "LAST
OF THE TIME LORDS"
AND "THE SONTARAN
SIMON GUERRIER (1)
IAIN McLAUGHLIN (2, 5)
CLAIRE BARTLETT (2, 5)
JONATHAN CLEMENTS (3)
JOSEPH LIDSTER (4)
IAN FARRINGTON (1)
JASON HAIGH-ELLERY (2)
JOHN AINSWORTH (3)
EDWARD SALT (4, 5)
BIG FINISH UNIT CDS#1 - 4 (ISBNS 1-84435-092-4, 1-84435-114-9, 1-84435
-115-7 & 1-84435-116-5) RELEASED BETWEEN
DECEMBER 2004 AND
(1 25-MINUTE EPISODE & 4 70-MINUTE EPISODES)
DECEMBER 2004 - JUNE 2005
BIG FINISH AUDIO SERIES
1. THE COUP 2. TIME HEALS 3. SNAKE HEAD
4. THE LONGEST NIGHT 5. THE WASTING
If a decade ago you were to ask a Doctor Who fan to imagine a UNIT spin-off, then I dare say that most would envisage a quaint little series set back in the “Blood and Thunder Days” of the 1970s, that would see the likes of Sergeant Benton, Captain Yates and even Corporal Bell fending off the incessant advances of miscellaneous monsters. And so in late 2004, when the long-mooted spin-off finally materialised as an ultra-modern, cutting edge, pseudo-political audio drama that sounds like a half-way house between The X-Files and 24, a lot of listeners were surprised, to put it mildly. But just become a series doesn’t reflect expectations, doesn’t mean that it can’t smash them.
UNIT is quite unusual in that it doesn’t have a regular cast as such; instead, Big Finish have applied the principles of squad rotation to audio drama. Nicholas Courtney appears in three of the five tales, as do Nicholas Deal’s Colonel Dalton and Robert Curbishley’s Lieutenant Hoffman, and headliner David Tennant only clocks in for the latter half of the final instalment, despite his character’s presence (or lack thereof) underlining each of the four main features. Only one main character makes it all the way through the series, not only appearing in every story, but carrying them too: Colonel Emily Chaudhry, delectably played by Siri O’Neal.
UNIT is very much Chaudhry’s personal story. Most listeners will be hooked by the promise of a knighted Brigadier (who’s actually a General now, not that anyone refers to him as such) returning to action, but it’ll be Chaudhry that holds them rapt. UNIT’s second in command and political officer, Chaudhry is a very different breed of soldier to those that we’re used to from the Blunder Days. Described by her commanding officer as “posh totty”, Chaudhry has the plummy voice of a silver-spoon nepotist, but it soon becomes evident to the listener that she’s not so easily pigeon-holed. Intelligent, resourceful and yet disarmingly approachable, O’Neal makes her character very easy to love, whether you’re looking at her from the point of view of a lowly grunt, a superior officer, a fraught press contact or - most importantly – an engaged listener. There are even hints of a history between the Colonel and the Doctor – a history borne out in a number of Big Finish’s Short Trips. These qualities make Chaudhry the ideal woman to champion this audio incarnation of UNIT, particularly when it’s faced with the type of threat that it is here.
The series is comprised of four feature-length episodes and a twenty-minute freebie teaser, each of which is superficially self-contained. However, like most of the Big Finish spin-offs, there is an overarching narrative here that encompasses the whole series and sees UNIT threatened by a new paramilitary organisation whose only duty is to the UK’s government – the Internal Counter-Intelligence Service, or ICIS. The rise of ICIS is painted on a canvas of rising international terrorism, a swell in “little England” separatism, and a palpable increase in strange goings on (more by accident than design, this series seems to be set in the post-Aliens of London world of terribly “public” invasions and increasingly elaborate D-notices). Accordingly each episode’s principal terror is complemented by mounting political tension that, by the series’ end, has become the real focus.
The UNIT story begins with The Coup, a twenty-minute episode originally given away with Doctor Who Magazine and now available as a free download from the Big Finish website. Written by Simon Guerrier, this scene-setting piece puts many of the key players in place and sets the tone for the rest of the run. In some ways, it’s disproportionately thrilling, as Guerrier leaves listeners with the firm impression that the Brigadier’s rash actions here have heralded a new era not just for UNIT, but the whole world, which isn’t quite borne out as the series progresses. The Coup is an exciting little freebie nonetheless, and one that definitely does its job – having listened to it, I went straight back online and purchased the series.
Iain McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett’s Time Heals opens the series proper, and in doing so has to take something of a step back from the hard-line dramatics of The Coup. The found-ations for the series’ ongoing storylines are all laid here – the incumbent UNIT Commander, Colonel Brinnicombe-Wood (a parallel version of whom appeared in the popular Sympathy for the Devil), has disappeared, and so Colonel Chaudhry finds herself under the command of hard-nosed doubter Dalton, a regular army officer who has no idea about what UNIT deals with, and no inclination to find out. O’Neal and Deal’s characters thus make for a charming, if a little imitative, double act, as they investigate a spate of bizarre deaths caused by a couple of misguided scientists who’ve managed to lay their hands on a matter transporter, which they want to reverse engineer to “feed the world”. You can imagine the carnage.
Jonathan Clements’ Snake Head is a more compelling tale, not so much because the plot is that much more interesting than Time Heals, but because by now the series has settled into its groove. This time around,
The series’ penultimate episode, Longest Night, seems to pick up almost straight after the events of the preceding tale. As Britain’s Prime Minister prepares to sign a ‘Euro Combine Treaty’, enraging the country’s growing number of euro-sceptics, London suffers a series of terrorist attacks. Those that survive are brainwashed to do the bidding of ICIS’s Major Kirby, as he prepares to seize control of the state and ensure that Britain doesn’t surrender its sovereignty without a fight.
Joseph Lidster’s script is suitably dark and thrilling, and is replete with those deft character touches that generally lend his scripts that extra ounce of credence. Supporting characters such as the Deputy Prime Minister, Vineeta Rishi (Meena Cartwright), are used to stunning effect as Lidster really sells the full horror of mind control. It may be an old chestnut, but it’s never been more polished than it is here. Better still, Lidster seems to have a firm grasp of what listeners are looking for in a UNIT series, dexterously balancing intrigue and incident, and backing up his principal events with some shocking, and arguably even heartbreaking, character moments. If you think that Torchwood personnel have short life expectancies, then their UNIT cousins’ are practically zilch.
McLaughlin and Bartlett return to script the season’s final instalment, The Wasting, which like its predecessors does exactly what it says on the tin. A real slobberknocker of a story, this episode sees a virulent virus sweep the whole planet, causing whomever it infects to decompose whilst they still live. Rival nations accuse each other of biological warfare, and as the bodies hit the floor UNIT can only guess as to whether humanity will wipe itself out before the plague does. It’s that grim.
In Britain, martial law is declared, which ICIS capitalise on in order to fit up UNIT in the hope of discrediting, and thus destroying, the organisation. In response, the Brigadier drags the convalescing Chaudhry from her hospital bed and takes her on a mission to rescue Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood, whom they have learned is a prisoner of ICIS. The truth, however, is rather more complicated. Those used to seeing David Tenant play the ultimate hero will be flabbergasted by his despicable portrayal here, which only goes to show just how damned versatile the man is. His scenes with Chaudhry hurt.
Tired old phrases like “action packed” and “edge of the seat” simply do not do The Wasting justice. As grotesque and bleak as it is stimulating, this desolate tale rounds off the season with real force. For all its despair though, there is still a little light for listeners at the end of the tunnel – it seems that the old Greyhound has life in him yet, as the Brigadier – admittedly rather deprecatingly – accepts a position at Trap One as the newly-promoted Chaudhry’s scientific adviser. I can’t help but wonder what a second season might have had in store for such a peculiar partnership, but sadly it was not to be.
And so whilst the Brigadier may be on hand to pass the torch, and even Harry Sullivan plays a remote role, UNIT is a brand new series for a brand new era – and I loved every second of it. Were it not for David Darlington’s understated theme tune paling in comparison to Murray Gold’s UNIT Rocks, I wouldn’t have a bad word to say about it. Those longing for the half-comic Tea-Bag Mysteries of a bygone era may not approve of this series’ darker, grittier storytelling, but I’d still wager that they’d find themselves engrossed by it.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
No date is given for the events of this series, but it is made explicit that they take place some time after 11th September 2001, the events of which are referenced more than once.
Furthermore, we can infer from how "the Brigadier" (now a General and Knight of the realm) is portrayed that he is almost certainly “pre-regeneration”, placing these events between his non-knighted appearances in The Shadow in the Glass and Minuet in Hell (set in 2001 and 2003, respectively) and Bernice’s wedding in 2010. This is compatible with the Brigadier’s wife, Doris, being reportedly alive and well here.
Additionally, UNIT is still heavily affiliated with the United Nations here – indeed, much of the season’s story pivots upon that association – which would mean that these events take place prior to The Sontaran Stratagem (set 2009), by which time UNIT had become the "Unified Intelligence Taskforce." This fits with Captain Winnington’s 1980s birth date and the public’s rising awareness of matters strange following the events on Downing Street in 2006, as depicted in Aliens of London / World War Three. The recurrent mentions of "Albion Hospital" (which appeared in a number of ninth Doctor stories) strengthens this feel.
As this series' ill-fated Prime Minister of Great Britain is male, but neither Harold Saxon nor Brian Green, then the events of this series most likely take place between Saxon’s (apparent) death in 2008 and Green’s election.
Taking all of the above into account, the events of the UNIT audio series are best placed in or around 2008, after Harold Saxon’s fall but before the advent of the "Unified Intelligence Taskforce."
On a side note, Chaudhry and Hoffman had previously travelled with the sixth Doctor for a while prior to this series, as documented in a number of short stories published by Big Finish.
THE UNIT DATING DOSSIER
It was the production team’s original intention that the UNIT stories were to take place some time in the audience’s “near future.” Some contemporaneous publicity placed Spearhead from Space in the 1980s, and Sarah Jane even hinted that she might be from 1980 in Pyramids of Mars. Mawdryn Undead would forcefully retcon such a far-flung setting (as if the fashions on display hadn’t already), but to this day the question still burns – did the UNIT stories take place on or around their dates of broadcast, or some years later? Are you a David Bishop man, or a Gary Russell? A UNIT Revisionist, or Classicist? And how do you feel about sandwiches?
Much is made of prescient scenes such as the Brigadier’s conversation with a female Prime Minister in Terror of the Zygons (broadcast 1975), or even the prevailing political climate in serials such as The Mind of Evil and Day of the Daleks (broadcast in 1971 and 1972, respectively). In including such elements in their stories, the writers were patently trying to set their stories in a time yet to come, but still within touching distance, subtly suggesting that all these wonders and terrors were just around the corner. One might compare their approach to that of Russell T Davies in the revived series, or even the makers of the popular US thriller 24 (which is on all fours when looked at closely). Nevertheless, when trying to date the UNIT stories, these little touches don’t really carry any real evidential weight – different universe; different history; and, most palpably of all, more television channels.
Above: How it all began - the “London Event” of 1971, as depicted in The Web of Fear
To look at the television series as a starting point, as we must, only two dates appear to be fixed. The first is the “Shoreditch Incident” of 1963, as depicted in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks, which later stories would posit saw the seeds of UNIT sewn in Group Captain “Chunky” Gilmore’s Intrusion Counter-Measures Group. The second is Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s retirement from active service in 1976 and RSM Benton’s in 1979, as established in Peter Grimwade’s controversial 1983 serial Mawdryn Undead. A mutable third presents itself in The Web of Fear - no date is ever mentioned on screen, but if one takes the date for The Abominable Snowmen suggested in the dialogue (1935), takes into account the noted passage of more than forty years, and then does the maths, a late 1970s setting is revealed. The Invasion is explicitly set four years later. It doesn’t take a Charles Babbage to work out that something is amiss.
The “C-19” novels of the mid-1990s embody two very different takes on UNIT dating, which I shall use here to represent the two opposing sides of the argument. The “Classic” view was put forward by Gary Russell when writing his 1996 novel The Scales of Injustice. Russell opined that the events of The Web of Fear took place in 1971 (approximately three years after the serial’s broadcast), The Invasion in around 1975 (six years after its broadcast, as it was originally billed in the Radio Times, and as in accord with the earlier novel Iceberg) and Spearhead from Space in 1976 (around six years after its broadcast), with the rest of the Pertwee / Baker UNIT stories following over the next five or six years. This theory does not account for the dates given by Grimwade in Mawdryn Undead, and even fudged the dates suggested by The Web of Fear (though that story’s dialogue did, admittedly, offer a little wiggle-room), but it did respect the original premise that UNIT stories were meant to be set in the near future.
Above: UNIT mop up after the Cyberman invasion of 1975, as depicted in The Invasion
David Bishop’s novel, Who Killed Kennedy, took a “Revisionist” or “Grimwade” approach, tying the UNIT stories and their forerunners to events in real-world history that occurred on or around the time of the serials’ original broadcast dates (the eponymous Kennedy assass-ination being something of a case in point). This approach provided for the Brig’s retirement as established in Mawdryn Undead, but put two fingers up to the idea that the UNIT stories weren’t contemporaneous. In fairness, Bishop included a cop-out bit of waffle at the book’s end to allowing the two views to be reconciled by those inclined to do so (something about the book’s narrator, James Stevens, possibly having his dates muddled), but this doesn’t really ring true, and was probably included as an in-joke as much as anything.
Televised stories after the “Blood and Thunder Days” are less troublesome to place. With its King and five pound pieces, Battlefield was demonstrably set several years after its date of transmission – 1997 seems to be the year generally favoured, as it was put forward by the serial’s author when he penned a New Adventures authors’ guide. Even the revived series’ UNIT episodes can be dated without undue difficulty, each taking place a year or so after its broadcast on the basis that just prior to his regeneration in The End of Time, the Doctor confirmed that he first met Rose in 2005, placing Aliens of London in 2006 and so on.
Above: The Blood and Thunder Days begin with Spearhead from Space - but in 1970, 1975, or 1976?
However, when we widen the canvas to include the innumerable stories told in the spin-off media, matters are made even more problematic as The Sontaran Stratagem has to be reconciled with the existing post-2009 UNIT stories; Eternity Weeps with The Death of the Doctor; Battlefield, The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, The Shadow in the Glass, Minuet in Hell and Enemy of the Bane with The Three Companions; and The Dying Days with… well, everything else. It’s not impossible if one keeps an open mind (Liz Shaw escaping certain death on UNIT’s Moonbase, the Brig getting forgetful in his dotage, old soldiers doggedly referring to UNIT as the “United Nations Intelligence Taskforce” long after it’s changed its name…), but it certainly requires a keen suspension of disbelief.
Ironically, in attempting to stamp finite dates on the UNIT adventures, Russell, Bishop and particularly the iconoclastic Grimwade have only given rise to perpetual contradiction, as some authors inevitably favour Russell’s more romantic “Classic” approach, whilst others stick with Bishop’s simpler and grittier “Revisionist” one. Nowadays, the convention across the spin-off media appears to be to make vague references to the 1970s and hope for the best, but the Wilderness Years’ novelists were a law unto themselves (particularly Messrs Parkin, McIntee, Stone and Miles), and the current crop of television writers are nothing if not mischievous. Helen Raynor gifted the Doctor a cheeky line in The Sontaran Stratagem, and The Sarah Jane Adventures have done their best to add fuel to the fire, introducing a birth date for Sarah (circa 1951) that yields a date of 1973 / 1974 for Invasion of the Dinosaurs, in which she claims to be 23 years old - to date the most compelling evidence in support of “Revisionist” theory.
I have tried to come up with a simple explanation that contradicts as few stories as possible. If I apply Occam’s Razor to the available evidence, then I end up making a UNIT sandwich, with the Pertwee / Baker UNIT stories falling in the mid-1970s. This approach preserves the production team’s “near future” doctrine, at least for the most part, whilst still allowing for the cut-off date put forward in Mawdryn Undead and perpetuated in novels such as No Future.
To begin with, I must agree with Russell’s pragmatic placement for The Web of Fear (1971), and thus the date that he suggests for The Invasion (1975) too - with the important caveat that it’s very early 1975. Spearhead from Space could follow in fairly short order; perhaps a little earlier that Russell might opine, but not by much in the grand scheme of things.
“The service quickly expanded, making our presence felt in a golden period that
spanned the sixties, the seventies, and, some would say, the eighties.”
We are buoyed by the fact that the length of the Doctor’s employment with UNIT has never been resolutely determined. We know that, from his unique perspective, the Doctor was on the organisation’s payroll for the entirety of his third incarnation, but how much time passed for UNIT in the interim is another matter entirely. Indeed, as so succinctly demonstrated by Colony in Space’s bookends, the Doctor could disappear off into time and space, only to rematerialise a few seconds later from UNIT’s perspective. This effectively allows for years’ worth of TARDIS travel within a few seconds of UNIT time, allowing for Terror of the Zygons to be set just days after Robot, for instance.
Most people generally infer that around six years passed for UNIT between Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom, broadly in line with the time that had passed for viewers, but this is difficult to reconcile with the Brigadier’s 1976 retirement established in Mawdryn Undead. Accordingly, I’m inclined to suggest that all of the UNIT stories between Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom took place throughout 1975 and 1976, and Battle-field is dated to 1997 by authorial intent. This could also allow for The Ghost of N-Space’s explicit 1975 setting, depending on whether or not you want your 1975 incursions weekly (on a Friday, obviously, as per The Doll of Death) or fortnightly.
Above: UNIT in 1997, as seen in Battlefield. Consistency at last?
The evidence in support of this hypothesis is more explicit, and thus more persuasive, than any evidence against. The latter is comprised of a few hazy references in later adventures to earlier adventures taking place “years ago”, whereas Season 9’s bookending tales both explicitly take place in the month of September - potentially as little as four weeks apart. This would place Day of the Daleks, The Sea Devils and The Time Monster (and probably a couple of novels and / or audios too) in September 1975. Given their patent propinquity, this seems more likely than the suggestion that Day of the Daleks and The Time Monster sit a full year apart.
Even so, in order for this theory to even come closing to holding up, we’d have to swallow the premise that the Brigadier did not retire until very late in 1976; the events of Seasons 7 to 13 occurred within the space of two years, despite being broadcast over six (which is, admittedly, pushing it rather, even taking the condensed Season 9 into account); Sarah Jane lies (or, less likely, is mistaken) about her age in Invasion of the Dinosaurs; and her “1980” line in Pyramids is a just throwaway comment, perhaps even rounding up on her part.
I know what you’re thinking. Surely it would be more plausible to shift The Invasion back to, say, 1972 or even 1973, and have the Pertwee-era stories take place over a longer period? After all, in conversation people often round up or down or even blatantly exaggerate, and as the 1971 date for The Web of Fear is a bit of fudge anyway, why not just give up and fudge The Invasion’s date too?
Above: Colonel Mace and his 2009 troops show the warriors of Sontar what they can do in The Poison Sky
Such an approach seems sensible, on the face of it, but it would lack the compatibility with “Classic” UNIT dating that “Sandwich Theory” preserves. Besides, even when the tales are listed, inclusive of all the relevant novels and audio dramas that have been released to date, we are still looking at less than one incident every fortnight during ‘75 and ‘76. Even allowing for a gap of several months between The Invasion and Spearhead from Space at the start of 1975, that’s not much to keep the troops occupied. No wonder the third Doctor got so fed up before his exile was lifted – he must have been sat twiddling his thumbs half of the time.
In my view then, “Sandwich Theory” is the lesser of three evils. It may be full of as many holes as a Swiss Cheese, but that’s still fewer than either of the alternatives. Whatever theory you choose to accept, there will always be some piece of evidence that doesn’t quite fit with it, but with this theory such evidence is all borne of Sarah Jane-based conjecture, which isn’t quite as significant as, say, the date of the Brig’s retirement or the formation of UNIT. Some will of course argue that the point is moot - as my good friend Chris McKeon will tell you, in the minds of a lot of fans the UNIT stories have become wed to their broadcast dates and, in many cases, fond childhood memories too. I fear that no matter how well-reasoned or logical anyone’s arguments, there may be no shaking that.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
(STORIES RELEASED 1963 - 2010)
REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS
THE WEB OF FEAR
1975 / 1976
DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURIANS
SHADOW OF THE PAST
THE AMBASSADORS OF DEATH
THE EYE OF THE GIANT
THE BLUE TOOTH
THE SCALES OF INJUSTICE
THE DEVIL GOBLINS FROM NEPTUNE
TERROR OF THE AUTONS
THE MIND OF EVIL
THE DOLL OF DEATH
DAY OF THE DALEKS
THE FACE OF THE ENEMY
THE SEA DEVILS
THE TIME MONSTER
THE THREE DOCTORS
THE WAGES OF SIN (UNIT SCENES)
DANCING THE CODE
THE GREEN DEATH
THE THREE COMPANIONS: THE BRIGADIER'S STORY
THE TIME WARRIOR (UNIT SCENES)
THE PARADISE OF DEATH
THE GHOSTS OF N-SPACE
ISLAND OF DEATH
THE KILLING STONE
TERROR OF THE ZYGONS
THE ANDROID INVASION
THE SEEDS OF DOOM
MAWDRYN UNDEAD (1977 SCENES)
THE FIRES OF VULCAN (UNIT SCENES)
MAWDRYN UNDEAD (1983 SCENES)
THE DYING DAYS
THE KING OF TERROR
THE SPECTRE OF LANYON MOOR
THE SHADOW IN THE GLASS
MINUET IN HELL
THE ALGEBRA OF ICE
ALIENS OF LONDON / WORLD WAR THREE
THE WARKEEPER'S CROWN
THE SOUND OF DRUMS
UNIT: THE COUP
UNIT: TIME HEALS
UNIT: LONGEST NIGHT
UNIT: THE WASTING
THE SONTARAN STRATAGEM / THE POISON SKY
THE STOLEN EARTH / JOURNEY'S END
THE THREE COMPANIONS: BREWSTER'S STORY
THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES: ENEMY OF THE BANE
HORNETS' NEST (CONTEMPORARY SCENES)
PLANET OF THE DEAD
THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES: THE DEATH OF THE DOCTOR
DEMON QUEST (CONTEMPORARY SCENES)
THE SHADOWS OF AVALON
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