"UNIT dating"*: it's the continuity niggle SO egregious that it has even crept into the programme's own dialogue (in "The Sontaran Stratagem", if you must know) and even Dr Woo himself cannot tell you whether his adventures with UNIT took place in the 1970s or the 1980s.
There just ISN'T a solution to keep EVERYONE happy; the evidence all contradicts itself.
But there's no avoiding it and, with the BBC releasing the Black Guardian trilogy on DVD, this is as good a time as any to sort it out once and for all.
Daddy Alex's advice: back away now!
All right, for those of you still with us, the story so far…
The very first UNIT story, well UNIT-ish, in that it introduced us to the Brigadier, even though he was only COLONEL Lethbridge-Stewart on that occasion, was "The Web of Fear".
Now, in "The Web of Fear", Dr Woo, Jamie and Victoria arrive in a mysteriously deserted London but fortunately they meet someone they know: Professor Travers, along with his daughter Anne. They previously met the Prof in Tibet in the adventure with "The Abominable Snowmen" which was three stories ago for them but rather longer for Prof Travers, in fact he says (episode two, scene nine):
"Why that's... that's over... forty years ago!"
Two scenes later, and while Victoria is explaining their time machine to her, Ms Anne clarifies further:
"And you met him - when was it you said? In 1935? In Tibet?"
So, the earliest possible dating for "The Web of Fear" is 1975 (and probably later).
The NEXT story, where we are introduced to UNIT properly, is "The Invasion" where now-Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart refers (episode two, scene eight) to the business with the Yetis in the underground: "Must be... four years ago now."
Which means that "The Invasion" has an earliest possible date of 1979.
Jumping ahead to "Planet of the Spiders", the Brigadier tells Sarah Jane (episode six, scene twenty-nine):
"One time I didn't see him for months. And what's more, when he did turn up, he had a new face…"
which suggests a gap of "months" between "The Invasion" and "Spearhead from Space" (though in itself that's odd, referring to a gap of "months" when the Doctor's immediately preceding absence was of "years").
The clues become a little thinner on the ground after this: "The Mind of Evil" suggests that the Master has spent a year masquerading as Emil Keller, giving an unexpected twelve-month gap between the first two stories of season eight; "The Dæmons" takes place on a May Day; "The Day of the Daleks" on a 13th of September.
Generally we can assume that they DO take place in the same SEQUENCE as we see them broadcast – "The Mind of Evil" has to follow "Terror of the Autons" as the Doctor has the Master's dematerialisation circuit; "The Sea Devils" has to come after the Master's capture in "The Dæmons" and so on.
The place where there IS a little doubt, at least Mr Tat thinks they might be better the other way around, is between whether "The Ambassadors of Death" or "Inferno" comes first or second. But we have to accept that "Ambassadors" is the first, because of the Doctor's remaining p'ed off with the Brig for blowing up the Silurians. Nor can, I'm afraid, "Colony in Space" where Dr Woo takes Jojo on a daytrip in the TARDIS take place before Mr the master fixes it for him in "The Claws of Axos".
Although whether Mr the Master experiences them in the SAME order is another question entirely! In a LOT of ways it would make LOADS more sense if he experienced "Colony in Space" FIRST – having stolen the Time Lords' files on the Doomsday Weapon, why waste time with Nestenes and Axons and Mind Parasides (oh my!) – and only THEN came after Dr Woo on Earth for REVENGE. Unfortunately, he recognises Ms Grant, so that one's up the swanny too.
Could we take a clue from POLITICS? The British Government during Dr Woo's exile is, er, rather peculiar to say the least. Mainly because no one in the Doctor Who production office knows the difference between a Permanent Secretary and a Secretary of State. Or a Secretary from the Typing Pool, either, in all probability.
We DO however, get a couple of glimpses of who is Prime Monster: in "The Green Death", the Brigadier gets a top level spanking from the Ecology Secretary, who hands him over to "Jeremy", who many people assume to be Liberal Leader Mr Jeremy Thorpe. Then, in "Terror of the Zygons", the Brig addresses the First Lord of the Treasury as "Ma'am". Which, in spite of what we now know about la Thorpe, probably does NOT refer to Dame Jeremy. In spite of all too many fanboys bending over backwards to suggest that "Ma'am" is Our Shirl (Tom Baker) or possibly Ms Barbara Castle (Tower of London) in a Labour Government of the mid Seventies, it's just too, too prescient of Queen Maggie, Prime Monster from 1979, elected after all those Labour energy projects (Wenley Moor, Stahlman's Gas Drill, Nuton Power Station and so on) go a bit TOO White Heat of Technology and explode.
Anyway, eventually Dr Woo rescues the Time Lords from Mr Omega, regenerates and finally leaves the UNIT era behind. But not without a final tantalising clue:
During their terrifying adventure with Sutekh, Last of the Osirans, in "Pyramids of Mars", Sarah Jane suggests just nipping off because they KNOW the World isn't going to end in 1911, no matter what Mr Sutekh wants. So Dr Woo dials up the space year 1980 – and remember that this was shown in 1975 so that's five years into the future even then – and shows them a future Earth blasted to flinders.
"But I'm from 1980" says Sarah rather plaintively. And anachronistically.
And not long after that though the Doctor leaves Sarah Jane behind (in Aberdeen, as it turns out) and loses all contact with Earth of the present, near-present or UNIT era-whenever. His next chums, Leela and K-9 both come from the future, the tin dog from the year 5000 and Leela from even further, and then Lady Romana, the Time Traveller's wife, comes from Gallifrey.
The next time we meet anyone REMOTELY local it's Ms Tegan Jovanka and she is as absolutely contemporary as its possible to be – to the extent that "Four to Doomsday" establishes that she first enters the TARDIS on 28 February 1981, which is the date of broadcast of episode one of "Logopolis" when indeed she first enters the TARDIS.
All back in synch until the 20th Anniversary Year, and the story "Mawdryn Undead".
Here Dr Woo arrives at a dead posh public school and is surprised to find that Ian Chesterton couldn't make it, so the maths class is being taken by a retired Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, amnesiac fist class. And it's 1983.
Worse, troublesome Tegan has gotten translated in time and winds up in the year of Mrs the Queen's Silver Jubilee, 1977, and meets… well who do you think? And he's already retired then!
So, it's 1977 and the Brig has retired from UNIT at least two years before he founds it.
Has, perhaps, Mr the Black Guardian been messing with TIME?
Understandably, a LOT of Doctor Woo fans have been quite upset by this contradiction for some time, and often go to ludicrous lengths to assert that their version, and only their version, of the Doctor's history is the right one.
The MOST barking of them try to "re-date" "Mawdryn Undead", perhaps moving the bunting to 1982 to make it the Royal Wedding rather than the Jubilee. That is obviously nuts.
The other extreme is to say that since "Mawdryn Undead" RELIES on the dating in a way that "The Invasion" really doesn't, that it must be the dating of "The Invasion" that is ignorable, and all the UNIT stories are actually set in the year they were broadcast, "The Invasion" falling back to 1969, "Spearhead from Space" being 1970 and so on, allowing the Brigadier to retire after 1976's "The Android Invasion" or "The Seeds of Doom" where he is said to be in Geneva.
Now there ARE a lot of incidental things that you COULD use to suggest a contemporary date for UNIT adventures. There are, for example, no CARS to be seen that are manufactured later than the date of filming (unless you count the Whomobile… no?), and the registration numbers are a giveaway too. Classically, there are price labels in pounds shillings and pence in "Spearhead from Space" and the taxi fare to the Ministry of Science is "three and six" in "…and the Silurians" which would make them both pre-Decimalisation. And you COULD choose to date the stories by the haircuts and fashion sense. Though of course that would mean that you should insist on dating "The Long Game" (clearly dated to 200,000 AD), New Earth (clearly dated to 5,000,000,103 AD) and Utopia (clearly dated to 100,000,000,000,000 AD) all to take place in 2006.
CLEARLY the production team couldn't INVENT next year's model cars nor next season's fashions, and as often as not they just forgot or never realised the need to cover up or disguise the more blatant "now-isms".
But you can tell that they had an INTENTION of a "near-future" setting, and they included the odd little thing to be slightly startling to say "this is not quite today": usually it's a VIDEO TELEPHONE. Though casually tossing in a population of eight million for London or suggesting that the Prime Monster is a woman are other classic examples.
The PROBLEM was that the production teams CHANGED, and so just how FAR into the future that intention lay changed too.
The initial UNIT conception by Mr Peter Bryant and Mr Derrick Sherwin was for TEN years into the future, hence all that dating in "The Invasion", and hence the stories in season seven that they commissioned (even if they didn't end up PRODUCING them) having HUGE leaps forward in technology, like experimental fusion reactors built under Wenley Moor or a British Space Programme that has landed on Mars (using Quatermass IV rockets, no doubt).
But then the team that takes over are Mr Barry Letts and Mr Terrance Versatile Disks who are much more cautious, even "conservative" about how many days-after-tomorrow this is, and we drop the dating hints and technology things become a little bit less removed from the present day.
When Messrs Hinchcliffe and Holmes take charge they want to start throwing out little hints and clues that unsettle the audience, so the business with the "original" console room, the rules about regenerations and THOSE faces in "The Brain of Morbius" are all of a piece with the unexpected suggestion that Sarah is actually from five years into the future.
Ultimately the series falls into the hands of the pairing of Producer Mr John Nathan-Turner and script editor Mr Eric Wayward, and the thought is that UNIT is part of the programme's HISTORY, and so they set UNIT and the Brigadier's retirement in the relative past. Even Mr Wayward has since admitted that this was a cock-up.
So you are left with CHOICES:
Present Day +10 years:
Agrees the dating of "The Invasion" (and arguably "Battlefield", broadcast 1989, set – at least according to the novel – in 1999)
Present Day + 5 years:
Agrees the "I'm from 1980" dating of Sarah Jane (and arguably this is what the new series adopted when the Cyberman head in Mr Van Statten's museum in "Dalek" was labelled "London Sewer, 1975")
Present Day +1
Agrees the dating of "Mawdryn Undead" (at a pinch) (and arguably makes sense of the fashion statements, if not the non-regulation UNIT haircuts).
Basically, they're sort of in the future. A bit. Pick one and accept that you are WRONG when watching some stories.
Not satisfied with that? Oh, all right, how about this:
Perhaps, Mr the Black Guardian HAS been messing with time.
What draws him to Brendon School in 1983 in the first place? Why draw the Doctor and Mawdryn into collision in THIS particular time and place? Why, of all the aliens on Earth (yes, there are LOTS, we know that from Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures) why pick weaselly Turlough?
Maybe it's because this is a WEAK SPOT in space and time, a place where the Black Guardian CAN do the sort of mucking about needed to set up his nya-ha-ha-ha-haaa plots. And if it IS a weak spot in time, the most logical cause of that is… the Brigadier himself. We know that the story is going to see him temporally duplicated. But Mr Black Hat arrives before that… so, what if it's more complicated still?
What if the 1977 Brigadier who is "retired" and working at Brendon Accademy for Bullying Backward Boys is ALREADY temporally duplicated!
Just suppose that, after "The Seeds of Doom" when we last hear of him, there is an UNSEEN adventure for the Brig when he ends up getting SENT BACK in TIME.
Arriving in the 1970s, the FIRST thing that he would do is contact the DOCTOR.
And the Doctor would say: "My dear fellow, I can't possibly help you. Don't you remember, the Time Lords have stranded me here! And you talking to me like this risks the most awful PARADOX, not to mention the Time Lords adding penalty time to my Exile. I suggest you go and lose yourself somewhere until you catch up with the time you came from. Good bye!"
This would explain why when we find him he is doing something so utterly unexpected as being a teacher in a boys school: it's as out of the way and unlikely to bump into himself as he can think of.
When Dr Woo asks him how long ago he left the army, the Brigadier tells him "seven years ago". But AT THE TIME, the Brig is suffering from AMNESIA and the Doc has yet to break through Alistair's mental block with sepia-tinted flashbacks.
Now looked at like that, it doesn't MATTER whether the UNIT stories (or at least some of the later ones) ARE set in the 1980s; there is no contradiction because the 1977 date does not give us an upper limit on the year that the Brig retires.
Now, perhaps someone can explain why the Doctor thought it was a good idea to post Sarah Jane a K-9 in-a-box three years before he met her!
*no, I'm NOT going to make the joke about Mr Mike Yates and Ms Jojo Grant.
Anyway, he ends up with Sergeant Osgood, as all true-hearted fans of "Happy Ending" know.