The new series of Doctor Who is notable for its inclusivity. Much attention has rightly focused on the long-overdue casting of a woman to play the Doctor and on Jodie Whittaker’s predictably superb performance. Those of us who believed that a woman Doctor was desirable, not only for gender equality but also to refresh Doctor Who, seem to have been vindicated. Diversity in the show has also benefitted from the introduction in ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ (2018) of the Doctor’s first Asian companion (Yaz), first middle-aged companion (Graham) and fourth Black companion (Ryan). Yaz’s and Ryan’s recruitment into the TARDIS contributes to a sense of celebration of Britain as a multi-racial country. Graham’s efforts to secure an emotional relationship with Ryan as grandson are not merely touching but also reflect how ‘complicated families’ are now part of life in Britain and beyond. Furthermore Graham’s expressions of feelings for Ryan also erode notions of the ‘stiff upper lip’ Brit and of natural gender difference in the articulation of emotions.
Doctor Who’s cultivation of a different sort of inclusivity may have attracted less attention. It concerns the show’s ambitions to reflect Britain as a geographical whole. The Doctor speaks in a Yorkshire (Northern English) accent. The opening episode is set in Sheffield, in Yorkshire. Two of the companions speak in Sheffield accents whilst Graham has a cockney, London accent. So three of the four TARDIS crew speak in Yorkshire accents and none uses RP – Received Pronunciation – the standard form of British pronunciation of English based on a Southern English accent and traditionally heavily promoted by the British Broadcasting Corporation in earlier decades to the exclusion of regional accents. This ‘critical mass’ of Northern accents is remarkable, especially given the conflict with the production team which Christopher Eccleston engendered by using a Northern accent to play the ninth Doctor.
No less remarkable was using Sheffield as a setting, enabling the use of several one-off or minor characters also with Yorkshire accents. Doctor Who’s London-heavy tradition was only marginally eroded by staging the last series ostensibly at a university in Bristol in the south west of the country. The Bristol setting was compromised through the non-use of Bristol accents let alone Bristol landmarks. In sum Bristol got a raw deal as an ‘anywhere-but-London’ token setting. The shift to Sheffield seems more genuine and it is to be hoped that it becomes a base for more than one adventure. Furthermore the Doctor’s manufacture of a sonic screwdriver from Sheffield steel gently connotes optimism about the North’s industrial future, forming a contrast to Brit-grit films about the city such as The Full Monty (1997) which do not see beyond the post-industrial.
But the changes go further. Since 1963 Doctor Who has introduced us to an array of non-Earth humanoids. Part of the vast ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which Doctor Who requires of its viewers is that the universe is full of species who look just like us. These non-human humanoids overwhelmingly spoke in RP accents, certainly in ‘classic-series’ Doctor Who. This was the case even where the characters were working class, such as the Peladonian miners in ‘The Monster of Peladon’ (1974). Possibly RP provided a kind of neutrality, an umbrella under which alien voices could be imagined. This tradition has now been eroded in ‘The Ghost Monument’ (2018):
GRAHAM: ‘Scuse me! We are human beings! Show a bit of solidarity!
EPZO: (in a Northern English accent) I’m Muxteran, she’s Albarian.
ANGSTROM: (in a Northern Irish accent) Never even heard of Moomanbeans!
Time will tell if aliens with an array of British accents become another Doctor Who fixture for viewers to accept. In the meantime it serves to emphasise, like so much else, Doctor Who’s mission of representing the United Kingdom and emphasising its rich diversity – even in outer space.
Danny Nicol is Professor of Public Law at the University of Westminster and author of Doctor Who – A British Alien? (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) as well as works on capitalism, neoliberalism, judicial power and global/European integration.