Kate Stewart and UNIT are back on our screens in Doctor Who: Flux! Blogtor Who takes a look back at five times the defenders of the Earth were bang on target
UNIT are back! The international task force dealing with anything from this world, or beyond, hasn’t graced our screens since 2016’s The Return of Doctor Mysterio. They were noticeably absent as a Dalek cut its way across Sheffield in 2019’s Resolution. But fans were shocked by the revelation that the UK had withdrawn from the UNIT arrangement to save money. Thanks to Survivors of the Flux we now know the hidden reason behind that. While Craig Parkinson’s silkily malicious Grand Serpent may have forced UNIT to ‘go dark,’ they’ll be back fighting the good fight, defending the human race, in next week’s finale. But in the meantime let’s take a look back at five of UNIT’s greatest missions since their introduction in 1968.
UNIT’s leader Lethbridge-Stewart first appeared in the previous year’s The Web of Fear, commandeering a detachment of the regular army to defend London’s sewers from Yetis. But it wasn’t until Season Six’s The Invasion that we learned he’d since been promoted to Brigadier. And, more importantly, that he was now in charge of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT). UNIT’s remit would be to protect the Earth from any further alien threats, and investigate homegrown fringe science threats. Survivors of the Flux may make UNIT dating more complicated than ever. When UNIT was formed, and when Lethbridge-Stewart joined may be a little unclear now, but let’s assume that’s more time meddling by the Grand Serpent…
At eight episodes, The Invasion was epic even by classic Doctor Who standards. And it draws unusual tension by the down to earth nature of the threat. Billionaire industrialists plotting global conquest with a power mad scheme may be outlandish James Bond stuff by normal standards. But for Doctor Who, armed guards shooting down people in the street, and Cybermen erupting from manholes at St. Paul’s were terrors uncomfortably close to home.
Nicholas Courtney’s performance as the Brigadier is immediately the lynchpin that grounds the entire UNIT format
The Invasion also features UNIT at their most glamourous and exciting. UNIT HQ is a C-130 Hercules, a flying command platform ready to swiftly respond to extranormal threats anywhere in the world. And all decades before Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Bus. There are rescues by helicopter, and races against time to make missile counter-attacks. In the final battle, literally dozens of UNIT troops joini the fight against the invading Cybermen.
Most of all, it has Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, steely and determined but bound by his orders and procedure. His use of the Doctor as a plausibly deniable asset, able to infiltrate International Electormatics when UNIT have been ordered not to, is unique in their long relationship. While the Brigadier’s brinkmanship with the British Ministry of Defence becomes one of his defining characteristics. He may be a soldier, but he’s one who will always push back against orders that are illegal or just plain stupid.
Spearhead from Space
It’s 1970, on our sofas, at least, the year on screen is a little less clear. The Time Lords have exiled the Doctor to Earth and UNIT becomes the new path by which he enters the plots. No longer will he simply materialize out of thin air into the middle of a problem on an alien world. Instead, UNIT will investigate some strange goings on in the home counties, dragging their scientific advisor with them. It’s a huge shake up of the format that’s a make or break moment for a show that had seen viewing figures spiralling over the previous couple of years.
Spearhead from Space gives it everything its got. Arguably Doctor Who is still on television tonight because Robert Holmes’ UNIT adventure is so compelling. Taking a healthy fistful of the plot of Quatermass II for inspiration, it’s another story that plays up the gritty investigation side of the intelligence task force’s remit. Aided by being stylishly filmed entirely on film and on location, it often feels more like a contemporary spy thriller. A gritty drama more akin go the Ipcress File than earlier seasons of Doctor Who.
Meanwhile, the scenes of the Auton mannequins slaughtering people in the streets during their dawn uprising is possibly the most violent the show has ever been. And new companion Liz Shaw and new Doctor Jon Pertwee combine with Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier to make a perfect trio. They’re effectively Doctor Who’s answer to Star Trek’s classic holy trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. The UNIT family would get more cozy and familiar as time went by, but it would never be as stylish and classy as this again.
Terror of the Zygons
At the other end of the spectrum, Terror of the Zygons is the last of the regular classic UNIT era. They would appear again, with small appearances in the likes of Seeds of Doom, or billed as encores for an old favourite, like Battlefield. But this is the last in the classic formula. The Doctor as UNIT Scientific Advisor, teaming up with the Brigadier, Benton and the team to investigate rum goings on. It’s also one of only two team-ups for the Fourth Doctor and the Brigadier, and underscores what a shame that is. The chemistry between Tom Baker and Nicholas Courtney is magical. The additional alien quality Baker brings to the Doctor plays wonderfully off of the Brig’s weary tolerance of his behaviour. While it also softens the Doctor’s occasional rebukes of his friend and his methods.
Moreover, it introduces one of the best designed monsters Doctor Who has ever had with the Zygons. And even if it only widens its scope as far afield as Scotland, the dashing about from Loch Ness to London, and the threat to kill world leaders, all make it seem much more epic and expansive than the usual UNIT fare. Plus, the Doctor, Brig and Sarah Jane face the actual Loch Ness Monster! A feat so impressive it stops even Rose Tyler in her tracks.
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky
When Doctor Who returned in 2005, UNIT appeared only briefly as a group of faceless officers, immediately killed off by the Slitheen. We first see them again properly in The Sontaran Stratagem, under the command of new boy Colonel Mace. They’re also at the strongest and mightiest, with literally hundreds of UNIT troops under Mace’s immediate command. Sights like UNIT in a pitched battle with dozens of Sontaran invaders also provide the kind of action not seen since the taskforce’s very earliest days taking on Cybermen and Autons. And if the Brigadier’s Hercules flying base was impressive, it’s got nothing on the Valiant helicarrier.
Most impressively, though, is that while the Doctor’s antagonism towards the military mindset dials up to 11 in this story, Mace proves him at least partly wrong. The Doctor dismisses fighting the Sontarans as beyond UNIT’s abilities. Yet Mace defies the Doctor’s expectations. He finds his own solution to the aliens’ suppression field without the Doctor, getting his men back in the fight. He also calls in the Valiant to clear the fumes, again surprising the Doctor with his ingenuity. And he shows the courage of his convictions when he meets Commander Skorr on the battlefield and, rather than take the easy shot, insists “you will face me, sir,” before taking down the Sontaran killing machine with a single shot. It’s a shame we never saw Mace again. But then we’d never have had his replacement…
The Zygon Invasion/Inversion
It’s Kate Stewart who was back in charge of UNIT tonight. She was first introduced in 2012’s The Power of Three, and it’s remarkable how Steven Moffat succeeds in creating a real sense of a new UNIT family in just a handful of appearances. The Day of the Doctor adds her scientific Girl Friday Osgood to the mix. By the time The Zygon Invasion comes around they’re beloved Doctor Who favourites. Once more, there’s a real sense of scope here, with Kate and UNIT tracking down the Zygon conspiracy from London to New Mexico to the Middle East and back again. Meanwhile, it’s paranoia driven conspiracy thriller vibes bring UNIT back to their earliest roots. We explore Osgood in more depth than before and she evolves from a cute commentary on nerdy fandom to a character with real heart.
And, of course, there’s that speech. The centerpiece of The Zygon Inversion subverts the ending of a typical UNIT story. The Doctor often sues for peace between humanity and the monsters of the month, but to no avail. The Brigadier might set off explosives in a Silurian cave, or Jo explode Azal in a puff of illogic. But violence and destruction prove unavoidable. Nobody ever just sits down and talks. But here the bravest thing Kate Stewart does is close the lid of her Osgood box, and step back from the brink of war. Of course, she now doesn’t even remember that (“Shame,” as Brigadier Bambera might say). But she’s clearly grown even more formidable and insightful in the six years since we last saw her.
Honourable mention – UNIT: The New Series
That’s just five on many outstanding UNIT skirmishes on television. But Blogtor Who would be remiss not to mention the superb UNIT series from Big Finish too. Kate Stewart and Osgood continue to lead their team through nine boxsets of new adventures so far. And other great characters join them, like Colonel Shini (Ramon Tikaram), Captain Carter (James Joyce), and Lieutenant Bishop (Warren Brown). Together they form a true new generation of UNIT family.
And their various missions contain highlights like Kate forging a fraught alliance, peppered with delicious dialogue, with the Jacobi Master. And their enemy is a partially converted Cyber-Osgood! We also get to see a sexy femme fatale Osgood from an alternate universe similar to the one seen in Inferno, an Auton invasion via the world’s 3D printers, and Kate reactivating Benton, Yates, and Jo as UNIT operatives to combat the Silurians. And those are just a few highlights. Plus, the heads of Big Finish writers must be buzzing tonight with possibilities for a UNIT Goes Dark sequence.
For any Kate Stewart fans delighted to see her back, checking out Big Finish’s UNIT series is an absolute must.
Doctor Who: Flux continues next Sunday at 6.20pm on BBC One, and on BBC America and AMC+ in the US, with Chapter Six: The Vanquishers
In the final epic chapter in the story of the Flux, all hope is lost. The forces of darkness are in control. But when the monsters have won, who can you count upon to save the universe?