“Lots of planets have a north,” Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor protested when Rose Tyler questioned him about his non-southern accent in the opening episode of the revived Doctor Who way back in 2005. However, until the most recent series starring Jodie Whittaker and her trio of predominantly Yorkshire-hailing companions, the programme has never felt particularly, well, Northern.
But sod feelings, can data prove that the series that ended on New Year’s Day with the Thirteenth Doctor once again defeating the Daleks was the most Northern? Or, indeed, t’most Northern*. Yes, I wrote “series” not "season" because when a programme has been running as long as Doctor Who has (56 years and counting) there needs to be a way of concisely differentiating between things. Classic Who split itself up into "seasons", so let's not allow ourselves to get confused.
With the show’s setting changing every week, our perception of its regional identity is shaped in large part by its actors’ backgrounds and that seems a decent proxy for determining its relative Northern-ness. So, going back to the start of the revived series, I tallied series-by-series the regional upbringings of its cast to resolve this conundrum once and for all. Or at least until the next series starts in 2020 or an obsessive Doctor Who fan (apparently there are a few of them) comes along and questions my methodology.
This was a straightforward task for most of the actors who have appeared in the series – nobody disputes that Peter Capaldi is Scottish or Billie Piper is a born and bred southerner – but some were born in one region and raised in another, so where it is debatable, I have made a completely arbitrary ruling. For this reason, Glasgow-born and Illinois-raised John Barrowman, who appeared throughout the first five years of New Who as Captain Jack Harkness, is treated as a Scot.
The accent and the gun may say American, but the birth certificate says Scottish. We think, since we haven't actually seen it.
The backgrounds of some cast members were not easy to identify – series 8, for example, prominently features several child actors as the pupils of companion schoolteacher Clara – and where that is the case they have been excluded from the tally.
To reflect a cast member’s prominence in the series (and thus the amount they contribute to the regionality of that year), their region is awarded a point for each episode they appear in – Matt Smith provides the Midlands with 13 points in his first full series, for example – and generally an actor is considered sufficiently prominent in the episode to make it worth awarding their region a point if they appear in that episode’s Wikipedia synopsis. Cameos by real-life newsreaders and celebrities are therefore usually excluded, the handful of charity specials have been omitted and the run of specials from 2008 to 2010 (the ones that culminated in David Tennant regenerating) have been treated as their own mini-series, rather than being folded into a single mega-series 4.
The results, going against everything Doctor Who stands for, are presented here in a linear format.
Other than the overwhelming dominance of the south in the early seriess and showrunner Steven Moffat’s fondness for Scotland and the Midlands after taking over from series 5, it’s hard at a glance to see what the results reveal. The number of actors, as well as the number of episodes, in each series fluctuates and where regions are neck and neck the lines unhelpfully overlap.
What we need are the regional proportions expressed as percentages and presented in a sophisticated stacked bar chart.
The backgrounds of the Doctors and their companions obviously skew the totals – look at the near-disappearance of Scotland after Peter Capaldi departs at the end of series 10 – but it is possible to declare definitively that series 11 is the Most Northern series of (new) Doctor Who, both by the number of Northern actors featured (33, against a previous series high of 19) and their prevalence (taking up 43% of the wider cast, up from a measly 1% in series 5). The data does not lie, even if it is being used for tongue-in-cheek pop culture journalism.
The results also highlight one often-ignored question: just what the hell does Doctor Who have against Northern Ireland? Discounting Caitlin Blackwood, who plays the younger version of Amy Pond and was born in Belfast but raised in Inverness, the first actor from the region doesn’t pop up until series 7, with Jonjo O'Neill’s um, memorable turn as McGillop, a UNIT scientist, in feature-length special The Day of the Doctor.
Recent seriess have been kinder to that historically uncontroversial segment of the Emerald Isle, with an appearance by Belfast’s Michael Smiley in series 8 (Into the Dalek) and Susan Lynch of County Armagh in the most recent series’s The Ghost Monument, but Northern Ireland is still by far the most under-represented part of the United Kingdom. With a population of around 1.8 million (about 2.7% of a total estimated UK population of 66 million), you would expect actors from the region to pop up at least a couple of times every series.
In our fractured Brexit climate, with fears Northern Ireland might succumb to its southern cousin’s backstop-free allure, surely the time has come for Doctor Who to do everything it can to remind us of the integral part the region plays in our country when the show returns to our screens next year. And maybe bring in a few more actors from the similarly underrepresented Wales while it’s at it.
* I apologise unreservedly and will, at the earliest opportunity, attend Northern diversity training to learn about the region’s rich culture while enjoying gravy and chips and whatever a hotpot is.