Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Now a big theme of series eight/season thirty-four is the idea of soldiers and how the Doctor is ultimately a military general. It was an interesting theme that brought back the ‘new U.N.I.T’ first introduced in 2011. But as I watched the show I really did wonder: Why is U.N.I.T in the show in the first place? Do they actually fit in with Doctor Who? Or are they one of the biggest blunders the show has ever made? Well lets find out.
First lets get the housekeeping out of the way. The real-world reason why U.N.I.T exists. U.N.I.T, as we first recognize it, appears in the 1968 serial The Web of Fear, which was only discovered to exist a year ago. However, I’d argue that the concept of the organization first appears in 1966’s The War Machines. In that episode a crazy computer threatens to take over the world with the titular war machines, leading the Doctor to stop them and save the day. Believe it or not this was the first time the Doctor battled a threat and saved modern day Earth, three years after the show debut. Can’t even say it’s an alien menace, since the computer is human-built. Now this isn’t the first time the Doctor has saved the Earth (that honour goes to The Dalek Invasion of Earth), but this is the first time a story has been set in the modern day (well, modern when it first aired). And it’s not to The Web of Fear that we have another story about saving the modern day world from an alien threat (yes, the Doctor saved the world from an alien threat, and yes there were episodes set in the modern day, but neither both at the same time besides The Faceless Ones, where the enemy wasn’t exactly evil, so I’m gonna safely discard it cos I’m lazy like that). Anyway, if The War Machines is the start of the idea of saving the world from outside threats, The Web of Fear cerements the concept. And it’s hear we first get introduced to U.N.I.T, featuring the famous character Colonel Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Yes before he was the Brigadier, he was a Colonel. And, in a hilarious twist of fate, the original story hints at him being a villain to try and fake-out the audience. In fact we don’t even get the scene where he and the Doctor first meet, even in the story itself. Anyway, the day is saved, until 1968’s The Invasion, where the Cybermen took to invading the Earth once again. This time Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, recently promoted, joins with the Doctor to save the day. And in many ways, this serial is one of the most important serials in Doctor Who history.
At this point in time, Doctor Who needed to work on cost-saving measures. Hence their decision to set the next few seasons on Earth, coinciding with the Doctor’s exile to the planet. Since it’s cheaper to film in an actual quarry then to lie and say it’s some alien planet, they elected to start the seventh season of Doctor Who on Earth. And since they needed a way of giving the character somewhere to live (and a convenient way of putting him right in the path of aliens), they integrated the Doctor into the U.N.I.T family. This format continues through most of the Third Doctor’s run before dying away in the Fourth, leaving the Brigadier to pop up most occasionally in the Fifth and Seventh Doctor’s era. Flash-forward to 2005 and U.N.I.T gets name-checked again, although changed from the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce to the United Intelligence Taskforce for legal reasons. And so they pretty much continue to appear now and again, sometimes being a part of the episode, other times being ignored entirely. Continue to 2012, where Kate Lethbridge-Stewart makes an appearance (a character who only previously existed in the expanded universe, so make of that what you will), before appearing again in 2013 to celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th (and, for as much as the episode focused on ‘New Who’, it was nice for it to be a U.N.I.T story of sorts that featured a reoccurring monster from one of U.N.I.T’s last stories). Jump to 2014 and they’re in the finale again, taking centre stage. So that’s the history of U.N.I.T. Initially created as a way of hand-waving the Doctor’s existence on Earth, ended up becoming a vital part of the show’s mythos. But the taskforce’s existence is still a puzzling one. Why would the pacifistic Doctor ever join up with a military organization? Why would he even befriend a military man in the first place?
One of the defining stories of the Pertwee era is The Silurians, which famously ends with the Brigadier killing the titular aliens (although technically, since they inhabited Earth before man, they’re non-aliens in that regard) to protect mankind and the Third Doctor calling out the action as being barbaric. And sadly, we never really get this concept explored any further in the five years Pertwee is on-screen, or the length of time U.N.I.T appears. It’s a bit of a disappointment this ethical debate is never explored. But it does make one wonder why the Doctor sticks with U.N.I.T so much after it. Well there’s a few ways of looking at it. Firstly there’s the practical side of things. Taking not only the Doctor’s exile into account, U.N.I.T exists as an easy way of saving the day. They are a resource the Doctor can use to exploit, even if he doesn’t agree with their methods. They can get through the doors he can’t sonic open, and provide the fire-power he morally objects to. In short, they are the gun to shoot the baddie, one that he himself doesn’t need to fire. Simple enough, right? But the logic extends beyond that. The Doctor and U.N.I.T co-exist in a linked relationship. Both need each other. U.N.I.T needs the Doctor because, well, he’s the Doctor. He’s very, very useful. However, as mentioned above, the Doctor needs them as well. He can’t fight a war on his own. But U.N.I.T never truly liked the Doctor. He was too much of a wild card, prone to flying away at a moment’s notice, and being wholly unreliable. Thus the two forces were forced to tolerate each other, grudgingly admitting that they needed each other to survive. But there’s one really crucial reason why the Doctor and U.N.I.T exist the way they do.
It was a touching moment where the Doctor finally gave the Brigadier the salute he’d always desired. The Doctor himself admitted that all Lethbridge-Stewart needed to do was ask, underlying the respect the Doctor had for this man. Bear in mind this is a being who has spent most of his life actively attacking the military for existing, so to see him readily admit he’d do this for one human is rather touching. But the character of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart is a complicated one. On the one hand, he and the Doctor have a great respect for one another. He is willing to listen to the Doctor and to trust the man with his life, but at the same time he’s willing to stand up to the Doctor and stop him from going too far. Now the Brigadier was a great leader for one simple fact: He’d never send his men into a situation he himself would not go into. Indeed a lot of the time he was on the front-lines of the fire-fight, risking his life to protect his men. He was a fantastic leader that lead rather than commanded. And in a way the Doctor saw that in the man and respected him for it. After seeing two lifetimes worth of cowardly men who commanded from afar, the Doctor respected a man who was willing to put his own life on the line to help others. Not unlike the Doctor himself, in fact. So the Doctor respected the Brigadier because, in a way, the Brigadier was the Doctor. They shared the same ethos, just different views on how to solve the problem. As the Brigadier put it, just once, he’d like to meet an alien menace not immune to bullets. But it’s this friendship between these two men that cannot be undersold. In one expanded story all the Doctors attended the Brigadier’s funeral, being all nice and respectful (even if some did argue at the wake). Indeed the Doctor was there for many moments of the Brigadier’s life, always by his side in one form or another. I could go on gushing about the character of the Brigadier, but I feel like there’s only one to end this. When Nicolas Courtney passed away, it was a tremendous loss, since it denied us the opportunity to ever see the Brigadier interact with the modern Doctors. Especially Doctors who had just fought in a great war. The two would have connected greatly on this point and would have made for an interesting story. Sadly that was never meant to be, although the show did refer to him twice in unusual ways. But what often gets lost is how great Nicolas Courtney was as an actor. We believe that the Doctor and the Brigadier have a lifelong friendship because we see them on-screen together bonding. But we forget that, for Nicolas Courtney, he was acting with a complete stranger. It had been years since he’d been on the show and, to the best of my knowledge, he had never acted with Peter Davison or Sylvester McCoy before. And yet he managed to treat these men as if they were the same man played by Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. He managed to make that connection survive, even though the actors standing before him were complete strangers. Imagine if you had to meet some random person and pretend that they were your closest friend. It would be a tough job for any actor, let alone an actor who had gotten so close to the original Doctors. And yet Nicolas Courtney pulls it off in such a convincing way that we’re willing to look past the obvious weirdness, and instead focus on the bond between the two men. Nicolas Courtney brought a lot to the role, but I think it was this thing above all else that cerement him as the staple of Doctor Who. In 1970 the show very nearly faced cancellation. And I can say, with no hyperbole whatsoever, that Nicolas Courtney was one of the defining factors that helped it continue to air today. Here’s hoping the daughter of his character can continue that legacy he lay forth.
So there you have it. My examination of the U.N.I.T concept as well as a tribute to an actor who left us far too soon. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.