While Torchwood was created as a shady entity in Doctor Who, UNIT was an equally dark organization in the classic series. UNIT was introduced during Second Doctor story “The Invasion,” where Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, who had previously appeared as a colonel, led the British chapter of a United Nations taskforce devoted to investigating alien attacks on Earth. The Second Doctor was eager to help, leading to the Third Doctor taking an official position as UNIT’s scientific advisor during his exile on Earth. The working relationship between the Third Doctor and Brigadier proved uneasy, however, as the Doctor’s inherently peaceful nature often clashed with the Brigadier’s military mindset.
Nostalgia has muddied this point significantly, with later appearances of Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier in Doctor Who obscuring the often antagonistic relationship he held with the Third Doctor. As a consequence, UNIT steadily lost its darker edge. This may explain why Russell T. Davies created the Torchwood Institute when reviving Doctor Who in 2005. Torchwood gave the Doctor a morally-questionable alien-fighting organization he could work against without sullying the name of UNIT and the beloved Brigadier, effectively reviving UNIT’s original purpose in Doctor Who and showing what the original task force could have been had nostalgia not intervened.
Why Modern Viewers Forget UNIT’s Darkness
Conflict between the Doctor and UNIT was best showcased in “Doctor Who and the Silurians.” The Third Doctor nobly tried convincing the Silurian leader that his people and the humans could share Earth. Unfortunately, the Brigadier declined to wait for the Doctor to negotiate a peaceful resolution and followed orders to bomb the Silurian’s base before they could fully mobilize their cryogenically frozen people. Parallels can be drawn to David Tennant Tenth Doctor story “The Christmas Invasion,” which marked the first major appearance of Torchwood in action. Much like UNIT, the Torchwood Institute destroyed the Sycorax flagship after the Doctor negotiated a peaceful resolution to their invasion of Earth.
“The Christmas Invasion” set the tone for ongoing conflict between the Tenth Doctor and Torchwood until the organization reformed under Captain Jack Harkness’ management. The more mature slant of the Torchwood series that followed, coupled with the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia, served to help Doctor Who forget that UNIT was not always portrayed as a heroic organization. Doctor Who‘s reintroduction of a new more science-focused UNIT led by the Brigadier’s daughter, Kate Stewart, has done little to help this perception. Nor did the fact that Nicholas Courtney’s later cameos glossed over the Brig’s nature as a career military man inclined to shoot “five rounds rapid” first and ask questions later.
UNIT Has Returned To Doctor Who, But Will It Have The Torchwood Edge?
UNIT was reborn yet again in the 2022 Doctor Who story “The Power of The Doctor,” with Kate Stewart hiring former companions Ace and Tegan as freelance specialists. With a new base in downtown London and access to advanced alien weaponry, the new UNIT seems to be following more closely in the footsteps of Torchwood, despite its more science-focused edict. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the new-look UNIT will return to a darker, antagonistic role in the adventures of David Tennant’s Fourteenth Doctor and Ncuti Gatwa’s Fifteenth Doctor in Doctor Who season 14, and whether the edge that Torchwood stole will be restored.
Next: Doctor Who Has Wasted UNIT: How Russell T. Davies Can Fix It