Move Over Marvel! One Quirky Sci-Fi Version of SHIELD Just Got Rebooted
UNIT is back.
In 1965, Stan Lee created the Earthbound secret organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D. in an issue of Strange Tales. But since 1968, a very SHIELD-ish sci-fi group has been on TV, doing a lot of things that SHIELD does, but with a decidedly more quirky feeling. Over in the Doctor Who universe, there’s UNIT, which stands for Unified Intelligence Task Force, and now, after being utterly run into the ground, UNIT is back.
In the latest trailer for the 60th anniversary Doctor Who specials, we see the return of UNIT, and this time, with a very Avengers-esque, SHIELD vibe. Mild spoilers ahead.
UNIT’s Doctor Who history
UNIT first appeared in the 1968 Doctor Who serial, “The Invasion,” in which the international group assisted the 2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton). Most notably, starting with Jon Pertwee’s 3rd Doctor in 1970, the Doctor actually worked for UNIT during his exile on Earth. (Which began with “The Spearhead from Space.”) Hilariously, the internal Doctor Who canon is rife with contradictions about when the majority of UNIT’s history in the 20th century actually begins. Although the 3rd Doctor’s era was aired in the early ‘70s, the series has various contradictions that indicate that this era may have actually happened in the ‘80s. If you’re unaware of the “UNIT dating controversy,” it’s a Whovian rabbit hole from which many have never escaped, but for the casual fan, just know this: the Doctor 100 percent worked for UNIT in the ‘70s or ‘80s, and those episodes mostly aired in the ‘70s. This is why in “The Day of the Doctor,” the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) refers to UNIT as his “job,” while in “Death in Heaven,” Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) says the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is “on the payroll.”
Originally conceived as a part of the United Nations, UNIT isn’t a British paramilitary group per se, and in theory, is just as much of a scientific organization as it is a security force. In the classic Who era, the leader of UNIT was Brigadier Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, though, starting with the 2011 episode “The Power of Three,” The Brigadier’s daughter, Kate Lethbridge-Stewart is in charge, which has remained the case from the 11th Doctor’s era, all the way through David’ Tennant’s new 14th Doctor.
During Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor era, we were told that UNIT’s funding was cut partly because of Brexit, meaning that the group didn’t exist in any functional way. But, this idea was retconned slightly during the events of Flux, in which we learned that UNIT had been infiltrated by an alien named Prentis, who either seemed to cause UNIT to be formed, or to alter its history. Either way, by the end of the regular run of the Flux season (2021), UNIT seemed to be an ad-hoc organization with Kate Stewart, once again, leading the charge.
But then, in 2022’s “The Power of the Doctor,” UNIT seemed to be fully restored, and the Doctor quipped, “Nice new building!” We never really got an explanation for how this happened, and now, with the 60th-anniversary specials, UNIT seems bigger than ever.
Doctor Who goes full Avengers
In the big trailer for the 60th-anniversary specials, we see the Doctor (David Tennant) in a helicopter, en route to a new UNIT HQ, a building that looks a lot like the Avengers tower from the MCU. Fans on Twitter and elsewhere are already going nuts pointing out this similarity. This shot also reveals the TARDIS is being hauled by said helicopter, which is exactly what UNIT did with the TARDIS in the 50th-anniversary special, “Day of the Doctor.”
To be clear, Russell T. Davies — who was the 2005-2010 showrunner, and has now returned to run Doctor Who — has been sneaking in Avengers references into Who for a while. The airborne ship the Valiant from “The Last of the Time Lords,” and other 10th Doctor episodes, was an homage to SHIELD’s Helicarrier. Though, interestingly, when Doctor Who depicted the Valiant in 2007, the MCU didn’t really exist yet, meaning the Helicarrier mostly existed in comic book form at that moment. So, even when Who is referencing SHIELD, it often seems to beat Marvel to the punch when depicting certain things on screen.
And, with UNIT’s new base in the 2023 specials, it seems like Doctor Who has rebuilt the Avenger’s tower before the MCU has even figured out what the Avengers are even doing. Turns out, Earth’s mightiest heroes are probably from Gallifrey.