The most obvious deviation from our world to that depicted in Dr Who is establishment of UNIT and later Torchwood. Are these essential elements of Dr Who and what is gained or lost by their presence?
UNIT were introduced in order to change the format of the show. Confining the Doctor to Earth UNIT were there to give the main character allies and a means to repel alien invaders.
Since then UNIT and the Doctor have continued to co-operate, even able to summon the Time Lord to deal with the latest emergency. Even when they aren’t in an episode themselves the Doctor would still use his UNIT pass to open doors while on Earth.
There can be no denying that UNIT are an excellent idea, giving personality to what otherwise could have been faceless army soldiers and ever changing commanding officers. The Brigadier must be one of the most beloved characters on the show who wasn’t a regular companion (in so much as he didn’t travel in the TARDIS frequently).
The question then is what type of campaign does the games master want to run. Will the game be set on 20th to 21st century Earth frequently enough that player characters will need UNIT, which would suggest they’ll also be dealing with a lot of large scale alien threats?
Something to think about is ‘Aliens of London.’ Much is made in this story that this could be the moment in history where the public becomes aware of aliens. At first the Doctor is even reluctant to get involved because this could be where mankind grows up and takes its first steps into a galactic community.
We soon saw how this premise had to be continually retconed as more and more very public alien invasions were written off as delusions or hoaxes in order to maintain a society that still mirrored our modern world.
The lesson here is that if you are going to do something on a large scale that it will have consequences. If you want to have human history resemble what we know then keep any alien intrusions covert.
‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ is a good example of this. It allowed the military to come into conflict with the Daleks in 1960s London but on a small enough scale that it was believable that the public wouldn’t be aware of it.
The events of the UNIT-era Doctor Who stories are more difficult to justify, although the book ‘Who killed Kennedy’ does a good job of showing how an outsider viewed them. When you have shop dummies gunning people down in the street, Yeti in the underground and rogue dinosaurs marauding around the East End someone is going to notice.
If you do decide that alien encounters in our past and present are infrequent and small then there is no need for a specific military organisation to deal with them. There are many advantages to this.
Most noticeably it removes a safety net for the player characters. It can be tempting, upon discovering an alien threat, for the player characters to simply contact UNIT and point them in the right direction. If the Doctor and his companions knew that there wasn’t an organisation with the capabilities to deal with the menace then they’d be forced to deal with it themselves.
Certainly there are still opportunities for the PCs to mix with the military but the relationship would be different. As in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ half the battle is getting the army to realise they’re dealing with something from another planet.
With out UNIT the Dr Who universe suddenly feels more realistic. Trips to the 70s and 80s no longer suffer from realising that these historical events happen alongside global alien fighters and a British space program.
For those willing to embrace the fictitious nature of the Dr Who universe then history can be adapted to include their presence. Any companion hailing from the late 20th century and onwards will likely be aware of them and that they deal with alien threats, even if that is only a rumour.
The Doctor might even be aware of several of their operations. Only later would he discover that he is the scientific advisor the historical records refer to. During the course of play he and his companions dip in and out of the UNIT timeline, even becoming part of the reason they were formed.
For a drastic reimaging that would tie UNIT into the Dr Who mythos even more tightly the campaign could start with the capture of the Doctor (and his grand daughter). Dr Barbara Wright is assigned to convince the mysterious alien to give up the secrets of his TARDIS, while Lt Ian Chesterton makes sure that he doesn’t try to escape.
Before they know it he’s tricked them, using the TARDIS to escape with the UNIT members on board. Dr Wright is intrigued and convinces Ian that his threats of violence against the Doctor are useless, since they need his knowledge to get them home.
This would set up a very different dynamic for the TARDIS crew, changing their motivations. The Doctor might use time travel to show them the wonders he can offer and prove his motives are pure, Barbara would want to gather as much information as she could and test the limits of travelling in time while Ian would protect Barbara, follow his instincts to fight alien threats where ever they found it and ultimately get back to Earth so the information can be shared.
Going further a reimagined 21st century could have the presence of alien life a known fact, captured technology used for the benefit of mankind and public debates about the organisations actions.
A utopian view would have flying cars and colonies on the moon. A dystopian view would have random sweeps for illegal aliens, restricted movement and identity cards used to identify anyone who shouldn’t be there.
All of these points can be applied to Torchwood, although that organisation works better without the existence of UNIT. By their nature they are a secret organisation. No one need be aware of what their true function is, only that they occasionally release technology that seems surprisingly advanced.
We’ll examine this further when we look at reimaging the adventures of the Doctor.