Doctor Who: “The Ratings Are Falling! The Ratings Are Falling!”

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Is the sky falling on Doctor Who? Matthew Kresal thinks not...


The overnight UK viewing figures for Saturday the 19th of September 2015 are in, and Doctor Who had 4.56 million viewers. As a result, a certain section of fandom has gone into a bit of a meltdown.

Why? Because it's the lowest viewing figures for a season opener that the New Series has had to date. Fans digging through the ratings of Old Who have pointed out that you have to back as far as 1989 to Battlefield Part One to find a season opener for Doctor Who with ratings that were that low. That was, of course, the opening episode of what turned out to be the final season of the classic series. That fact has thrown some fans into panic mode.

So the questions start to be asked: Has the Great British Public given up on the series? Is it Moffat's fault? Is it because Peter Capaldi's Doctor is a “grumpy old man” who doesn't appeal to those who tuned in to see David Tennant and Matt Smith? Is our favorite TV series weeks or even days away from being pulled off the air?

First off, let's stopping panicking for a second and think. The figure we're talking about is the overnight viewership which doesn't include a number of factors that will be used to give the “final” rating for the episode later in the week. This is a figure which always increases and will likely add a million or more viewers to the episode.

But, people cry, there are still less viewers than there was a few years ago. That is something which is true. It's also true that this is the case across the board with the UK experiencing something similar to what happened here in the US a decade ago, and that has seen more people watching programs later than “live” (that is when they initially air). This is something that has had an effect on programs that aren't reality shows or soaps, as any serious glance at overall UK ratings over the last few years has shown. The RTD era, and the earliest days of the Moffat era, didn't have those factors to deal with.

In the end, I can't help but feel that the UK figures keep getting an overreaction from fans. The "problem" (and notice I put that in inverted commas) is that we know Doctor Who was canceled once and we live in continual dread of the day it will happen again. Never mind the huge global success of the series and the fact that this same episode had record ratings for BBC America and did extremely well in Australia. Never mind that it's still the highest rated program for its day on BBC One, with a couple of hundred thousand viewers putting it ahead of Casualty. Never mind the huge amount of people who are watching it on the iPlayer (and that Doctor Who consistently does well on there and has since 2010). Never mind that looking at UK viewing figures from the last few years has shown that people are increasingly watching non-soap and non-reality programs at their own leisure. Oh no, we continue to worry about overnight viewing figures that are unofficial and often inaccurate.

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment:

Let's say the ratings are in a slide. Let's say that despite everything that has been reported, despite being a global success, despite everything else, let's say that the BBC do pull the plug on the TV series. Is that really the end for Doctor Who?

No it isn't. If time has shown us anything, Doctor Who will survive. It might not be on the telly anymore but it will continue. We live in a day and age when the series is going in not one medium but several at the same time. There isn't just the TV show but an ongoing novel range (plus at least two spin-off novel ranges including one featuring the Brigadier), the Titan comics and the audios of Big Finish Productions. The Doctor and everything associated with him has become a cultural touchstone and, I think you'll agree, an icon. Even if the TARDIS isn't flying on screens, it will be somewhere else. Like Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor will always be going somewhere, somehow.

Are the ratings falling? Perhaps. Should we be panicking? I don't think so. For whatever happens, The Doctor will remain what he said he was in last year's finale:
“I am an idiot, with a box and a screwdriver. Just passing through, helping out, learning.”
And may he always be so.

Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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