Did they change UNIT history in Survivors of the Flux? Doctor Who season 13

; Date: Mon Nov 29 2021

Tags: Doctor Who »»»» Doctor Who Season 13

In Survivors of The Flux, we're treated in passing to new information about the origin of UNIT. A General is in charge, who turns to Prentiss (a.k.a. The Great Serpent) for advice. The person we'd always identified as being in charge, Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart, is nowhere to be seen in any form. Nicholas Courtney, who played Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart, is credited as an off-screen voice, but described as a "Corporal" rather than a "Colonel". What's going on?

Source - BBC

In televised Doctor Who, UNIT was first shown in the Second Doctor episode, The Invasion. The commanding officer is presented as Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart. UNIT was presented as a military task force, associated with the United Nations, and tasked with covering paranormal and extraterrestrial threats to planet Earth.

While The Invasion was the first time UNIT was seen on-screen, it was the second time that Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart was seen. His first appearance was in the 2nd Doctor episode, The Web of Fear. In that episode, he was a Colonel who happened to show up and take charge of a chaotic situation in which a Yeti had taken over the London Underground.

UNIT did not exist in that episode. According to a 2014 interview with Terrance Dicks in Doctor Who Magazine, they came up with UNIT during production of The Invasion.

It's been awhile since I last watched The Web of Fear, but do not remember it being clear that the Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart character was anything other than a regular Army officer. UNIT was not mentioned at all, and Lethbridge-Stewart may have been a regular Colonel not assigned to any special task force of any kind.

According to (en.wikipedia.org) the Wikipedia page about UNIT, it seems the scripts for The Web of Fear and The Invasion were worked on somewhat at the same time. The script writers were suggested to introduce UNIT earlier than The Invasion, and to use common characters in both it and The Web of Fear. This is perhaps important in establishing The Web of Fear as UNIT's first outing, sort of, even if the name was not explicitly used.

In The Invasion, Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart explains he has been promoted to Brigadier, and has been placed in charge of UNIT. This suggests that UNIT perhaps existed earlier.

How does Survivors of the Flux change UNIT's history?

In Survivors of the Flux, we're introduced to a General who (in 1958) has been tasked with launching UNIT, to deal with extraterrestrial threats. It appears from the cast list that this general is named Farquhar.

Ten years later, in 1967, making it slightly after the events in The Village of The Angels, this general is walking through the halls of UNIT HQ along with Prentiss (a.k.a. The Great Serpent). While walking the halls, there is an offscreen voice that sure sounds a lot like Nicholas Courtney playing Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart. The cast list includes Nicholas Courtney, so they must have reused some audio clips.

The general explains that voice as "That's our new Corporal", and that they'd brought him in after they'd missed the events at The Post Office Tower. This refers to the 1st Doctor story, The War Machines.

How did Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart go from Corporal to Colonel to Brigadier in the short time between then and the events of The Web of Fear and The Invasion? This does not make sense.

Enlisted men do not make the jump to the Officer corps so easily. It was my understanding that Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart had been in the Officer corps for a long time.

The episodes in question aired in:

  • War Machines aired in June/July 1966
  • The Web of Fear aired in February/March 1968
  • The Invasion aired in November/December 1968

Who knows how the transmission dates correspond to dates intended inside the show.

But, taking this at face value, we're expected to believe that Corporal Lethbridge-Stewart somehow becomes Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart within 4 months? Does this make sense? No.

Further.. in televised Doctor Who during the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc Doctor's time frames, Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart was shown as being in charge of the UNIT branch in the United Kingdom. He was shown interacting directly with UNIT high command in Geneva. He did not have to work through a commanding officer, but went direct to Geneva when necessary. When UNIT was in charge of security for high level political meetings, it was Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart who was in charge of everything.

But in Survivors of The Flux, we're shown a layer of control that has not been shown before. It's implied that Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart was in charge of something, because Kate Stewart describes how she and her family have been involved with UNIT for decades. Yet, this Prentiss character (The Great Serpent) is shown as being in control starting in the mid-1980's.

I'm surmising that the Prentiss character would occupy a role of civilian oversight of a military operation. Therefore, Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart was head of the military group, and Prentiss was the civilian overseeing it. But, if that were the case, then in all those instances where Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart was calling Geneva for this or that, shouldn't he have first called his civilian superior in London before calling Geneva?

In other words, this doesn't make sense. The continuity doesn't correctly fit together between what's shown in The Survivors of The Flux, and what was shown in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc Doctor's time frames.

And, if you think this is way too much analysis for a television show -- this is what Doctor Who fans do.

More importantly, it raises a question of whether the events regarding Jodi Whittakers Doctor occur in the same universe as the events we've seen for previous instances of The Doctor. Maybe the UNIT Continuity issues as I describe here are because it was in a different universe in which Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart was an enlisted man rather than an Officer.

Prentiss/The Great Serpent is The Master who helped with launching UNIT?

In another post, I'm suggesting that The Great Serpent is actually The Master.

So... If that's accurate, and it seems it is, then doesn't that mean The Master had a hand in starting UNIT? Something to think about.

About the Author(s)

David Herron : David Herron is a writer and software engineer focusing on the wise use of technology. He is especially interested in clean energy technologies like solar power, wind power, and electric cars. David worked for nearly 30 years in Silicon Valley on software ranging from electronic mail systems, to video streaming, to the Java programming language, and has published several books on Node.js programming and electric vehicles.