We’ve all become so used to the idea of the internet as a repository of all wisdom and knowledge that sometimes it’s a bit of a shock to discover it doesn’t necessarily contain everything you’re looking for. There have been masses of Doctor Who-related material online since the earliest days of the medium, and so you would assume something cogent and insightful was available on any topic related to the show.
However, I’m currently mulling over a piece about the sometimes peculiar intersection between real-world history and the series’ version of it, and it occurred to me that it’d be quite hard to do this without addressing just when some of the present-day stories are supposed to be set. This, in turn, would inevitably lead us on to the dreaded topic of the UNIT Dating Conundrum. So I had a quick look around to make sure there was a decent, clear, well-written article available on this topic, just so I could be confident newcomers to the show would be able to bring themselves up to speed.
And you know what, I could only find one, and I think it leaves a bit to be desired. So just for my own satisfaction, and as background to other pieces on in-universe history which may appear in future, here’s a look at when the series’ present day episodes are actually set (and the thrilling continuity disasters resulting from this). Knowing this stuff will enable you to walk amongst serious Doctor Who fans unnoticed and unremarked upon. (I can’t think why you would want to, but still.)
Present day episodes are rare to non-existent in the first four or five years of the programme. We’re not given an on-screen date for the setting of the very first episode, but this is retroactively dated to late 1963 in Remembrance of the Daleks. Parts of The War Machines, The Faceless Ones, and Evil of the Daleks all seem to be taking place simultaneously on the same day in mid-1966, to judge from the on-screen dates (very slightly near-future in the case of the first story, then progressively less so, for obvious reasons). So far, so (fairly) straightforward.
Then we come to 1968’s The Web of Fear and suddenly things get interesting. This is a sequel story, set ‘forty years’ after its precursor – which was The Abominable Snowmen, set in the mid 1930s. So The Web of Fear is apparently set around 1975, moving the ‘present day’ of the series nearly a decade into the future.
The same year’s The Invasion is a further sequel, established as taking place four years down the line – which means UNIT, the organisation which has been a staple of the show’s universe ever since, came into existence sometime between 1976 and 1979. This appears to establish a solid timeframe for the long run of present day stories that appeared between 1970 and 1976: assuming the stories occur over the same period they’re broadcast in, the third Doctor arrives in exile around 1980 and carries out his final assignment on secondment to the WEB round about 1986.
Groovy fashions from 1979, apparently. It’s like punk never happened…
Even here, of course, there are more problems than you can concisely shake a perigosto stick at. Britain, it appears, is using pre-decimal currency around 1980 (during Doctor Who and the Silurians) – in the real world it went decimal in 1971. The Prime Minister during The Green Death, presumably set in the early 80s, is a man called Jeremy – although, to be fair, a woman is in Number Ten by Terror of the Zygons, two years later. Sarah, in a story made in 1975, claims to be a native of 1980, when (given our hypothesis) her home time is at least five years later. This is before we even get to all the charming examples of wonky futurism the series indulges in, such as the British space programme (The Ambassadors of Death, The Android Invasion), ‘futuristic’ TV channels (BBC3 appears), and UNIT’s occasional use of high-tech weapons (most visibly the laser cannon in The Seeds of Doom). Even so, it all hangs together. Just about.
This is largely due to the efforts of the script editors of the period, Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes, who – particularly the former – went out of their way in order to maintain the conceit of an unspecified near-future setting. At one point, the specific date on which Day of the Daleks is set becomes a plot point, which Dicks gets round by having Jo indicate it off-screen, as revealed by the rather inelegant dialogue ‘You’ve already told me what year it is…’
Unfortunately, the 1980s production team were perhaps not as familiar with this conceit as they should have been, as the present-day stories at this point are all set in their year of transmission – which makes a certain kind of narrative sense, in terms of allowing the audience to identify with the setting. So Attack of the Cybermen‘s 1985 setting is significant to the (excuse for a) plot, for example, as is the (unconvincing) November 1988 background of Silver Nemesis.
However, given this period is widely criticised for being too interested in continuity, it’s a bit ironic that in terms of dating stories there are (relatively speaking) serious contradictions, all due to ignorance (intentional or otherwise) of previous work. K9 and Company is set at Christmas 1981, which in order to work means that all the UNIT-related stories between The Invasion and The Hand of Fear must have occurred in the space of two years.
It’s when Mawdryn Undead appears on the scene that the continuity anomaliser really blows a fuse, however. Here we are boldly told that the Brigader retired from UNIT in 1977 – which is fine if you extend the set-in-the-year-of-broadcast principle back in time to the 70s stories (the Brigadier was last on screen in 1975), but utterly irreconcilable with the implied dating of The Invasion to 1979. (Yes, seasoned Who fans, I’m going over basic stuff. But think of the younger generations.)
This single continuity error is at the dark heart of Doctor Who’s fictional universe, impossible to escape, impossible to ignore, impossible to incorporate into any coherent history. DVD documentaries have been made about it (The UNIT Dating Conundrum on the jollied-up version of Day of the Daleks, which covers this topic concisely and entertainingly). The old FASA role-playing game had a valiant go at coming up with an in-universe explanation for it (too much TARDIS-use around 1970s and 80s Earth had mucked up the timelines). Whenever anyone has a go at presenting a history of the fictional universe, they make a point of acknowledging that the UNIT dates are an insoluble problem.
This didn’t stop DWM having a good go at coming up with an ambitious, if somewhat off-the-wall solution, which also deals with the slightly odd nature of the Brigadier’s retirement. A senior soldier would, according to some, automatically receive an honorary promotion on retiring, so why is the Brigadier still a Brigadier? Why is he teaching at a prep school at all? (Is the UNIT pension so poor?)
It is compulsory for any discussion of Bad Continuity in Doctor Who to include a photo from Mawdryn Undead. So here it is.
The solution suggested was that the 1977 version of the Brigadier is himself a time traveller from the late 80s, zapped back there by unspecified means during an unseen, post-Terror of the Zygons adventure and living a purposely quiet life in order to avoid meeting the younger version of himself who, in 1977, would be in the process of setting up UNIT in the first place. It hardly qualifies as Occam’s Razor in action but it’s the best solution on offer if you really care about this sort of thing.
One curious area which I haven’t seen receive much attention is the status of the final UNIT story from the original run, Battlefield. This enthusiastically resurrects the idea of UNIT stories happening in an unspecified near-future, and specifically draws attention to it: ‘we are in the future,’ the Doctor reminds Ace when she is shocked by the prices in the local pub, there’s a possible suggestion of voice-activated phone technology being in use, and – most tantalisingly – the Brigadier himself dismisses a phone call with ‘I don’t care if it’s the King!’ The implication is obviously that the UK is ruled over by a male monarch at this point.
At the time of writing, this is not the case in the real world, and it definitely wasn’t the case in-universe at the time of Voyage of the Damned, which features Liz Two as a character (and is set in late 2008, as we shall see). Sadly, the intriguing prospect of Battlefield being set further into the future than the present day of the revived series does not have legs, simply because it features the Brigadier, whose death is referred to in the (apparently) present-day setting of The Power of Three (though, as we shall see… well, all in good time). The Brig’s reference to the King is presumably a rather odd figure of speech – possibly he’s referring to the King of Peru, given how much time the Brigadier appears to spend there in later life.
The revived series has not been above making the odd joke about the intractability of the UNIT dating question – in The Sontaran Stratagem the Doctor himself admits he can’t actually remember whether his initial stint as UNIT’s scientific advisor was in the 70s or the 80s. However, this is not to say that the revived show and its spin-offs have an entirely spotless record in the dates department.
The End of Time establishes that Rose meets the Doctor at some time in 2005, which means that – very briefly – we’re back in the territory of on-screen year and year-of-broadcast being the same. However, almost at once the present-day setting shifts a year into the future (in the opening moments of Aliens of London, to be precise), which remains the case for most of the Rusty Davies era. You can say what you like about the dramatic merits of the Christmas shows, but the fact they initially share a present day setting (and refer to their precursors) makes it easy to keep track of which year the ‘present day’ is supposed to be.
The ‘one year ahead’ situation persists until Journey’s End, which was broadcast in 2008 but – given the three Christmas specials between it and Aliens of London, set in 2006 – can’t be set any earlier than 2009. It’s a bit unfortunate that the series itself muddies the water on this in The Waters of Mars, by explicitly dating the Dalek invasion of Journey’s End to 2008, but you can’t have everything.
There is also the slight oddity of the main part of The Eleventh Hour taking place in 2008 (‘two years’ before the Ponds’ wedding, which is in June 2010), which means that from the point of view of planet Earth, the Atraxi blockade happens before the near-crash of the Titanic (Christmas 2008), the business with the Adipose, and so on. Funny how no-one mentions it to the tenth Doctor (or even tries to phone him up during it), but there you go.
The dates hang together pretty consistently, which is even more impressive when you consider that there were three shows sharing a fictional universe in simultaneous production for several years in the late 2000s. One has to assume that all three share the one-year-ahead timeframe, which presents a few minor problems with car tax discs being out of date and so on, but this is much less of an obvious poser than, say, the decimal currency slip in Doctor Who and the Silurians.
However, if the 1977 Brigadier of Mawdryn Undead is the continuity nightmare of the original run, then the year 2009 in toto is shaping up to be the great unmentionable of recent continuity, because the amount of stuff which appears to happen in this one year is astonishing.
(This assumes that The End of Time happens at Christmas 2009 – it’s not obviously impossible that it could be Christmas 2010, but this does mean some of the tenth and eleventh Doctors’ present-day Earth adventures occur in a sort of jumbled simultaneity, which has never been how the series has approached this sort of thing in the past.)
Anyway, here is everything that happens in Who-world in 2009, if you do the sums and pay attention:
The entirety of the third season of adventures for the tenth Doctor (must occur after Voyage of the Damned (set at Christmas 2008) and before The End of Time (Christmas 2009).
Planet of the Dead (reference is made to the events of The Stolen Earth – and the story must happen prior to The End of Time, as Naismith is still in business and advertising on the side of the bus).
Series 2 and 3 of The Sarah Jane Adventures (reference is made to the events of The Stolen Earth in series 2, while the tenth Doctor’s final encounter with Sarah is at Christmas 2009 – this must mean her third-series wedding, which he attended, happened earlier in the same year).
The final episodes of Torchwood series 2. Fragments‘ on-screen dating, miraculously, doesn’t commit any major blunders. However, it dates Ianto’s joining the team to ’21 months earlier’. As this was after the Battle of Canary Wharf, which happened in 2007, it places both Fragments and Exit Wounds to some point in 2009.
All of Torchwood: Children of Earth, which obviously follows the second series, but concludes prior to The End of Time (Jack leaves Earth at the end of the miniseries and is still off-world in the Christmas show).
UNIT staff in 2009 getting ready to file some serious overtime claims.
Cripes, that’s a busy year. It only gets worse when you realise that Torchwood‘s second series must conclude prior to The Poison Sky (the Donna’s World version of this story indicates Toshiko and Owen are already dead by this point), and Journey’s End must in turn be finished prior to Easter 2009, which is when Planet of the Dead is set. That’s a lot to squeeze into three and a half months.
(One unintended consequence of all the above, taken at face value, is that Martha Jones comes across as emotionally volatile, to say the least: early in the year it’s implied that she’s engaged to Tom Milligan, but by the end of the year she’s married to Mickey Smith – a bit of a whirlwind romance as she’s already on her honeymoon during Children of Earth. I give it a year at the outside…)
Once we get into the eleventh Doctor’s tenure, things initially calm down a bit – presumably Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures are back to year-of-setting and year-of-broadcast being identical, given that the Ponds’ wedding happens on the day the episode depicting it was broadcast, and the same being true of the Doctor’s cross-my-fingers-not-really ‘death’.
However, from the Ponds’ point of view, the latter part of the eleventh Doctor’s second series occurs in Autumn 2011, at the end of which he (sigh) fakes his own death and they don’t see him for two years (the period is given at the end of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe).
The production team, whether deliberately or not, have kept fairly quiet about the fact that the ‘present day’ for the Ponds at the start of the most recent series was at least 2014 (given their reconciliation with the Doctor at Christmas 2013). Adding the super-extended time period covered by The Power of Three means that the Ponds’ home time in The Angels Take Manhattan is no earlier than 2015.
As I said at the time, this makes it a bit curious that the ‘present day’ sequences of the New York story are specifically dated to 2012 – this was a trip back in time for them anyway! Which leads one to wonder why they didn’t stay in 2015 for their American trip… given that Amy apparently becomes such a famous model she is accosted by autograph-hunters while out shopping (as seen in Closing Time), popping back to a point before she becomes such a celebrity may just have made for a less stressful holiday for everyone (at least, that was the plan…).
However, there is one final thing to consider. If 2009 is the first big problem of revived continuity, the second is Miracle Day – when exactly did it take place?
Miracle Day (from the spin-off of the same name) was presented as a massive global event, unfolding over many months and with after-effects which would take a long time to fade. However, it has never been directly referred or even alluded to in the present-day stories of the parent series. The first episode of Miracle Day indicates that it occurred around the same it was broadcast: thus placing it in late 2011.
This is very unfortunate from the continuity cop’s point-of-view: had the miniseries been given a vague date, or a slightly near-future one, it would fit fairly neatly into the two-year gap between the late-2011 scenes at the end of The Wedding of River Song and the Christmas Day 2013 conclusion of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.
But it wasn’t, and so we are forced to either wonder why Rory and Amy never mention Miracle Day to the Doctor despite the fact it is apparently in progress at the time of Let’s Kill Hitler, or banish it from mainstream Who-world entirely. This latter would practically constitute an admission of defeat and – worse than that – that the overall history of the fictional universe is not completely coherent. We can’t have that.
On the face of things, the new companion is the first not to hail from contemporary Earth (but as long as Moffat is running the show, it would be very unwise to take things entirely at face value). Even so, one would have thought this would free the series up considerably in terms of when its present day actually is. Will they stick to the three-years-ahead currently in place, or revert to a same-year or one-year-ahead formula? I don’t know that for sure, but I’m pretty certain that sooner or later they’re going to mess it up – and people like me will be waiting to explain exactly how, in horrifying detail.
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