Recently I enjoyed rewatching one of Patrick Troughton’s very best adventures, The Invasion. An veritable saga of a story ,spanning eight thrilling episodes, the adventure also featured the return of Colonel Leighbridge-Stewart, previously seen in The Web of Fear, and now promoted to the rank he’d be best known for – Brigadier. The adventure also features the first on-screen appearance of U.N.I.T. – the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce; a military grouping set up to investigate (as the Brigadier would say in Spearhead from Space) “the odd; the unexplained; anything on this world … or even beyond it.”
And that got me to pondering a question that I then put to my followers on Twitter:
Intrigued? Allow me to put the case to you for each, not just in my words, but according to those who responded …
Spearhead from Space
For many people, U.N.I.T may have first appeared in The Invasion, but the U.N.I.T. era refers specifically to the time in the show’s history where the Third Doctor served as their scientific advisor, and spent a disproportionate amount of time helping the Brigadier out of scrapes. Through this lens, the U.N.I.T. era began when Jon Pertwee tumbled out of the TARDIS in 1970.
It is beyond dispute that Spearhead from Space is part of the U.N.I.T era; but the majority of fans believe that the era started the previous season when Patrick Troughton helped the Brigadier and the nascent taskforce to repel an invading force of Cybermen. It is well known that The Invasion was in part a trial run for the concepts planned for Season 7 – a longer adventure, set on earth, and with a regular supporting cast across the whole season. While the Doctor may have arrived and escaped in the TARDIS, in many respects it is not that different to many of the stories from the Pertwee era – indeed I theorised that a colourised version would fit in very nicely with the Pertwee era!
The Web of Fear
While The Web of Fear is very much a U.N.I.T. style adventure, and also is the first to feature Nicholas Courtney as Leighbridge-Stewart, the majority of fans who responded to the poll did not regard this as the start of the U.N.I.T era, because the Brigadier is heading up the regular army rather than the specialist taskforce. It is arguable that the seeds of The Invasion were first planted in the Web of Fear however, which may be why some fans do feel that this adventure marks the beginning of the Doctor’s association with U.N.I.T.
Nobody who replied felt that The Faceless Ones merited inclusion in the poll, which I had included as a representative for the pre Web of Fear adventures that were clearly set on contemporary earth, rather than a historical or future setting.While The Faceless Ones (as best as we can judge from surviving material) has the hallmarks of a U.N.I.T. adventure, it was correctly pointed out that the first adventure to really embody these criteria was in fact The War Machines. Although definitely not a U.N.I.T adventure, you can certainly spot a common thread running through The War Machines, The Faceless Ones, and The Web of Fear, all leading up to the establishing of U.N.I.T in the Invasion.
The more fascinating response (which I had not anticipated!) was to take a much narrower interpretation of the U.N.I.T era – which would embody the ‘U.N.I.T family’ of the Third Doctor, Jo Grant, The Brigadier, Captain Yates, Sergeant Benton, and Delgado’s Master. This definition would limit the U.N.I.T era to Seasons 8 to 10, and begin with Terror of the Autons. Personally, I think that’s a little on the late side!
Fans clearly seem to agree that an adventure merely being ‘in the style of’ a U.N.I.T adventure is not sufficient grounds to qualify their inclusion in the U.N.I.T era. The Invasion seems to be the compromise point that most fans land on -few dispute that the era is definitely underway by the time Patrick Troughton has regenerated in Jon Pertwee, but are more reticent to allow for the appearance of Alastair Gordon Leighbridge-Stewart as the watershed moment. As one commentator said above, the adventures prior to The Invasion were the groundwork for the U.N.I.T era; The Invasion would then become the foundation stone for the era that began in Season 7.
As usually seems to be the case in Doctor Who fan debates, nobody is either 100 per cent right, nor 100% wrong! And perhaps after all, it’s okay to say that it doesn’t matter exactly where the U.N.I.T era began …