Before 2005, the glory days of Doctor Who were the super-cheesy ‘70s and ‘80s for many fans. You might think Austin Powers invented ruffled shirts and jabots, but truly, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor rocked that kind of outrageous style in the ‘70s in a big way. And while he was rocking velvet jackets and puffy shirts, Pertwee’s titular Doctor worked on Earth, specifically for a UK agency called UNIT.
This era of Who history has always been a strange blip, and now, the contemporary Doctor Who has made it even weirder. Here’s how Doctor Who: Flux really fluxes with the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s canon in a big way.
Spoilers ahead for Doctor Who Season 13, “Survivors of the Flux.”
Doctor Who UNIT history explained
Starting with the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Who canon established that an organization called the United Nations Intelligence Task Force (“UNIT”) was specifically in charge of investigating alien activity on Earth. In 1970, after the Time Lords exiled them to Earth, the Doctor began working with UNIT as an unofficial adviser. This primarily resulted in collaborations between the Second, Third, Fourth Doctors and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), one of UNIT's founders.
In the contemporary era of Who, UNIT appeared throughout the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) era. The Brigadier was eventually succeeded by his daughter, Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), who worked with both the Eleventh (Matt Smith) and Twelfth (Peter Capaldi) Doctors, starting with the episode “The Power of Three.” Kate Stewart also had a huge role in the multi-Doctor crossover episode, “The Day of the Doctor,” during which the Eleventh Doctor claimed that working at UNIT was still his “job.”
In the 2020 Doctor Who episode, “Resolution,” the Doctor learned that UNIT didn’t exist anymore, which means that Kate Stewart has not appeared in the Jodie Whittaker Thirteenth Doctor era... until now.
How Doctor Who: Flux changed UNIT canon
Because the galaxy-destroying event known as “the Flux” has displaced various people from the future, including the villainous Prentis (Craig Parkinson), better known in the distant future as “Grand Serpent.” In a new interview, current Who showrunner Chris Chibnall says that Prentis “inveigles his way into the birth of UNIT.” Throughout the episode, we see Prentis taking out high-ranking UNIT officials to gain a foothold over one of Earth’s most influential organizations.
But does this mean we’re now dealing with an alternate Who timeline? Has this always been a secret part of the Who timeline? Or does the temporal displacement of Prentis effectively create a new timeline?
In the episode, it seems like Doctor Who wants to have it both ways. In one scene that happens in 1967, Prentis notices the Doctor’s TARDIS parked in an office at UNIT. Presumably, this was Jon Pertwee’s TARDIS, although we don’t see any historical Doctors in the episode. That said because Kate Stewart makes her triumphant return in a 2017 “flashback,” it’s made very clear she is in touch with the Doctor and will not hesitate to call them to deal with Prentis.
But which Doctor does Kate Stewart know at this point? 2017 is an interesting year in the UNIT timeline because it’s right in the middle of Capaldi’s final season. At the end of the Capaldi era, in “Twice Upon a Time,” it established that the First and Twelfth Doctors were responsible for saving the life of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s ancestor. Still, we didn’t know what was going on with UNIT after the episode “The Zygon Inversion” in 2015. In this new episode — “Survivors of the Flux” — Kate calls Osgood and says she’s “going dark.” In the preview for the next episode, it seems Kate is leading a rebellion on Earth against the Sontarans.
But the question remains: Does this version of Kate Stewart have the same memories of the Doctor as before?
Doctor Who: Flux might have rebooted the show’s timeline
Suppose we assume Prentis wasn’t part of the “original” timeline and isn’t lurking in the background of various Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker episodes. In that case, it feels likely we’re dealing with a slightly altered history of Earth within the context of Doctor Who. And if that’s true, then it feels possible we could be dealing with retroactively new details in the Doctor’s biography on Earth. (Or maybe even alternate Doctors?)
If Prentis has changed the way UNIT has behaved since the beginning, did he change the course of the Doctor’s life too? The recent comments from Chibnall seem to slice both ways. On the one hand, UNIT’s demise in 2020 was something Chibnall claims they were always going to explain. So, if UNIT under Prentis is a retcon, how far back does it go? In “Survivors of the Flux,” we get the impression Prentis has been there all along.
And if that’s true, then perhaps there are new retro-Doctor Who stories that can suddenly be told — stories that may not have to adhere to canon at all.
Doctor Who: Flux finale airs on BBC America (via the AMC+ app) on December 5, 2021.