Is Doctor Who in danger of being cancelled? Well, first let's make the obvious point that it was already cancelled, back in 1989. So the question probably ought to be: is it in danger of being cancelled again.
To find out, join me on a fascinating journey through the last decade and a half of New Who...
The Ratings of Doom
If you've been keeping your ears to the Doctor Who rumour machine recently, you will doubtless have stumbled upon something declaring that current showrunner Chris Chibnall has "killed the show", and that doom is imminent. These rumours of impending disaster aren't actually that new – British newspaper The Sun has been reporting "lowest viewing figures ever" for Doctor Who for about a decade now… but that's a publication that loves to make titillating scandal out of anything and everything, and it's wise to take its stories with a grain of salt.
The truth is: Doctor Who's ratings have fallen steadily over the last decade or so. As indeed have the ratings for all television shows. A key reason for this is that broadcast television is now facing increasing competition from streaming services such as Netflix, and the battle for eyeballs has never been fiercer. Take a look at the following chart which shows the number of viewers (in millions) for another British television institution, the gritty soap Eastenders, versus the numbers for Doctor Who. Both show decline in both the highest and the lowest viewing figures in each year 2005-2019, with a number of spikes in the Who ratings corresponding to special events like the 50th Anniversary in 2013 or the debut of the first female Doctor in 2018. If we look at the ratings, it's fairly clear that Doctor Who is actually holding off the rot at least as well (if not better) than Eastenders.
But viewing figures are not the most interesting metric when it comes to judging the 'health' of a BBC show with respect to cancellation. That's because Auntie Beeb, as a public broadcaster, is willing to concede to the idea that not all of its programmes need to be as successful as Doctor Who at attracting viewers. For the last forty years, the BBC has commissioned reports on Audience Appreciation, which is presented as a number out of 100 known as the Appreciation Index (AI) that is calculated by getting people to rate shows out of ten, average the scores, and then multiplying the mean value by 10. Take a look at a graph of New Who's AI scores from 2005 to present:
The BBC doesn't like to share these figures for individual shows… but they do for Doctor Who because, well, the AI scores are consistently good. If you look at the image above, it looks like a steady decline, which indeed it has been (more on this below), but that's because I condensed the x-axis on the chart so we could see the changes clearly. Here's the same data shown with a zero point of origin on the vertical axis.
It's almost completely flat.
That's because New Who has never scored below 75 on its Audience Appreciation - even Love and Monsters managed to score a 76 (indicating an average audience review score of 7.6), which is below BBC One's target average of 81 but is still a very respectable score for any TV show to get.
Some quick disclaimers… the BBC changed data supplier in 2012, switching to online surveys and increasing the sample size from 1,000 to 20,000. This presumably means the later data is more accurate than the earlier data (in so much as any thermometer for aesthetic judgement can be accurate!), but there's no discernible impact from this particular change. Also, these ratings are based on people who watched the shows as they were broadcast and were exposed to all the surrounding media fuss, they were not taken in a controlled environment (neither would there be any point in doing so). This means, as we'll see shortly, there's some fascinating hype effects on the AI ratings for Doctor Who.
How low would AI have to drop before the show would be at risk of cancellation? Well, it's widely discussed that the start of Sylvester McCoy's time as the seventh Doctor in 1988 the classic show pulled in Appreciation Index scores of 60, with Bonny Langford's character of Mel being singled out for particular dislike. As the BBC report stated:
56% of respondents who answered a questionnaire on the Paradise Towers story wished – as seemed likely at one point during the course of this adventure – that she had been eaten.
As a start, then, we can eliminate any risk of the BBC cancelling a programme that is still pulling in average AI's of 80+, especially one that is (in the wake of what happened to Top Gear) their only remaining flagship brand for export. The scores would have to drop by 20 points or so for this to be a risk, and that's not even remotely close to what's happening.
But there's a lot more we can glean from trawling through the AI scores with a curious eye…
Arc of Entertainment
The annotated version of the blue chart (below) gives us an intriguing peek into what the audience for this show has thought about individual episodes, and allows us to take a closer look at what we might call the Arc of Entertainment for New Who. After some digging, I have several hypotheses as to the behaviour of the AI scores that might be interesting to mull.
Let's start with the lowest points. These are all during Russel T. Davies and Julie Gardner's run. One is the oft-unpopular Love and Monsters, with its played-for-laughs monster, the Abzorbaloff. Honestly, while it may seem quite amazing that this one still pulled in a 76 this is a hugely inventive episode, and the genesis of the 'Doctor-lite' episodes that soon after give us the outstanding Blink. In many respects, this is a perfect example of Davies strengths and weaknesses – it's wildly creative (giving us an entirely new format for a Doctor Who episode), while also being hugely indulgent (it's sometimes rumoured that the monster is modelled on real-life Doctor Who superfan Ian Levine...). It divides fans, and the score of 76 reflects that divide – scores of 8 and 9 are being averaged with much more dismal values.
But then we get the other two episodes to score 76: Rose and The End of the World. Now among New Who fans, these are simply not stories that provoke obvious ire, and it seems to stand in some need of explanation as to why Rose in particular could rival Love and Monsters as allegedly the worst New Who episode according to Appreciation Index scores. However, there is a highly likely explanation for this. When New Who began to air, its audience included a great many classic Doctor Who fans, along with a (larger) number of newcomers with less or no experience of the franchise. Dedicated Whovians did not, on the whole, like Rose… it felt like a weak rehash of Spearhead from Space. Similarly, The End of the World took some flak for seemingly writing over some parts of the backstory (although, let's be honest, the Whoniverse has always been self-rewriting, as Moffat arguably parodies in The Big Bang). My suspicion is that these low ratings from (some) classic fans dragged these early episodes' AI scores down – but after that, the detractors simply stopped watching, and the AI scores begin to rise.
Another thing the AI scores reveal about Russell T. Davies stint as showrunner is that Davies mastered the build. I personally never liked his slightly slapdash way of building up to a climax at the end of each season, but I was weaned on Chris Claremont stories where the building up was far more textured (it's far easier to plan long-term stories in comics than in TV shows). The bottom line is, Davies method worked, and it did so despite largely hermetically sealed episodes, which is an incredibly difficult balancing act. The Parting of the Ways (series 1 finale), Doomsday (series 2 finale) and The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (series 4 finale) all show huge spikes that speak of the immense satisfaction viewers felt as Davies arc stories paid off. (The series 3 finale also peaked above the rest of its series, but only just.)
But hang about – The Stolen Earth/Journey's End aren't just an end of series spike, they're the highest rated episodes of New Who ever at 91 approval. How is that possible? Call me a humbug, but those stories are pretty weak (at least some other Whovians agree with me on this). Yet they have two enormous advantages. Firstly, it was highly publicised that David Tennant was leaving, and Tennant was (and is) so popular that this hype train left its impact (even though it would be a year and a half before Davis and Tennant would actually bow out). Plus, bringing back both Captain Jack and Sarah Jane was an honest-to-goodness crowd-pleaser, and even more so for fans of Davies and Gardner's spin-off shows. Crossovers often do well in the short term. Hindsight doesn't always look back upon them kindly, though.
State of Gradual Decay
And so to Steven Moffat, a much more consistent showrunner than Davies in many respects. His only AI dud is Mark Gatiss' Sleep No More at 78 (just above Davies three barrel-scrapers with 76). It's another format-breaker like Love and Monsters, and it also divides fans. (I don't much like it, but I probably wouldn't single it out over other lacklustre moments in Capaldi's tenure). Moffat proved weaker with his series arc plotting than Davies, though, and his only end of series spike is his first one, The Big Bang. Look at the crash immediately afterwards with A Christmas Carol. Ouch. Loveable Matt Smith can't rescue this one from being a bummer. Moffat does, however, achieve something that Davies never quite managed – a spike for a series opener, Asylum of the Daleks. Another crowd-pleaser with a great story and tons of fan service (yes, you can buy my love with a Special Weapons Dalek), and the back door debut of Jenna Coleman to boot. Moffat's 50th Anniversary specials The Name of the Doctor/The Day of the Doctor are a huge spike at the end of series 7 - although we're 'only' talking 88, here, which is an utterly fantastic AI score that other shows would kill for, but amazingly not the 91 that Davies' fake-out exit achieved. And this is with David Tennant reprising his role as the Doctor, of course…
That failure to crest above the wave, despite frankly blowing all of Davies finales out of the water in terms of writing and production quality, is a sign of something that is going to seriously afflict Moffat's time as showrunner… audience fatigue. The AI scores are in a trajectory of consistent decline from the moment Moffat takes over – don't be fooled by the story that its Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker that kicked off a downward turn, the slowdown has been a decade in the making, and it's at its most tangible with Moffat's second Doctor, Peter Capaldi. Deep Breath, Capaldi's debut, is a notable dip from where the show had been previously (admittedly the anniversary was a tough act to follow!), and Capaldi's only readily apparent peak is World Enough and Time (which incidentally, I love), and that wasn't the finale for series 10, but merely the set up. The final two Capaldi episodes drop 2 points apiece, bowing out at just below where he came in. It is also during this period that Doctor Who merchandise sales drop, although to be fair, they peaked in Tennant's run and never recovered, just like Dalek toy sales in the sixties.
Finally, Chibnall and Whittaker. (I've duplicated the annotated chart here so you don't have to scroll so far to check it.) Here, the AI scores start to become seriously up-and-down, but the highs of 83 are directly in line with the fatigue effect that began with Matt Smith and made itself a comfortable rut during Capaldi's time in the TARDIS. Jodie Whittaker's debut in The Woman Who Fell to Earth is very healthy in AI terms, on par with stronger Capaldi/Moffat episodes certainly, and there's another bump with Spyfall (which personally I'm less fond of) – and then there's the gobsmacking Fugitive of the Judoon, which weirdly scores the same 83 approval as the first Whittaker story despite wildly greater love from the supportive parts of the fan-base. Something's definitely up here – what?
There are at least two factors that can help explain this pattern. Firstly, the contrasting down-strokes. The Tsuranga Conundrum, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos ("Worst. Finale. Ever." - although it's not actually a bad episode), Orphan 55, Praxeus, and Can You Hear Me? all dip notably into the high 70s, although none go below Orphan 55's disappointing 77 (justified in my view). When a show can't consistently satisfy the audience there's none of the hype boost that Tennant/Davies secured, and it means that better episodes score lower than if they were surrounded by stronger work.
The other problem is the fan revolt. I don't know what proportion of the Whovians at large is involved, certainly not enough to make the AI scores do anything other than preserve the general trend that began with Moffat's ascension to the throne, but as with those 76 scores for the first two New Who episodes, it inevitably drags down your AI scores down when you offend the fanbase. And whereas classic fans gave it up in two episodes, Whittaker/Chibnall haters apparently keep on watching, even though they're not enjoying themselves. But if this is a factor, it's a reminder that the disgruntled fans are in the minority, otherwise we really would be facing cancellation, instead of a continuation of the same general pattern since Tennant, Davies and Gardner left. Also, if we acknowledge this factor, we have to wonder what the scores would be if the rebels just stopped watching...
Who vs Who
Finally, I want to share this intriguing chart which shows all the episodes by each Doctor in order, even though taken out of context this will seem like priceless ammunition for the anti-fans. Frankly, we're all free to tell whatever story we wish, but what we see here offers a much more intriguing tale than just the long-running trend of decline.
Obviously, Whittaker is below Capaldi who is below Smith who is below Tennant. That's the audience fatigue effect I was talking about as much as anything (go back and check the blue charts above to confirm this). But we can look at this story very differently, not as a competition but as a means of drawing more general conclusions about the AI patterns of New Who.
- Christopher Ecclestone fights from 76 up to a whopping 89, and goes out with a genuine bang. He and Davies (and Julie Gardner – she really ought to get more credit than she does) literally save the show here with this fight from "should be on BBC Two" to "centrepiece of Saturday night telly".
- Tennant is wildly variable at the start, dipping to his 76 low in his first year in the role, but then wins the battle for hearts and minds and climbs all the way to his triumphant exit.
- Matt Smith comes in higher than Tennant (he's riding on the love for Tennant, and the expectations that Moffat's episodes under Davies/Gardner had justifiably created), but it's all gently downhill from here, the show understandably unable to get back the national moment of hype created by Tennant's departure, even though the 50th anniversary gives it a great shot.
- Capaldi's pattern is very much like Smith's, but further deflated by the fatigue effect – he too gets his exit peak, but it's slightly premature, his final two appearances all sliding downwards.
- Jodie Whittaker's trace is nowhere near as stable as Capaldi's, but it's about the same jaggedness as Tennant and Smith at the same point, taking the overall trend in AI decline into account. It's almost as if – and stop me if you've heard this before – the show just went through a major transition and is still feeling out the consequences of that change...
I know I won't convince the anti-fans with any of this analysis, but that isn't really why I undertook this investigation. I was merely curious as to what the Audience Appreciate Index values would reveal if I examined them with a little data visualisation. Having shown you the results, let me finish with three claims that neatly bookend everything discussed above:
- Doctor Who is in no danger of cancellation. If you're hoping for this out of spite, I'd suggest stopping watching is a better strategy, because then you'll be genuinely in control of your own experience of Doctor Who going forward. (Big Finish would love your support if you do ditch the TV show.)
- New Who audience scores have steadily fallen since David Tennant announced his departure. The slide in AI scores began with the 'Year of Specials' (2009) and continued throughout Moffat's run and beyond. However, the falls are merely a few points in size, and the overall pattern remains essentially flat.
- Whittaker/Chibnall have not killed the show, and their next series together could potentially outperform Capaldi/Moffat at the equivalent point in their run, but the heavy-handed moralising will need to be handled more elegantly (all the low points in series 12 featured prominent 'lessons').
This is all rather exciting to me – I would rather a showrunner who is willing to take risks with new writers and suffers a few duds than someone who was consistent with their quality but whose shows were unambitious. The funny thing is, it seems like all the New Who showrunners fit that description, one way or another. Whatever happens next, I'm definitely not bored of the show… I'm ready for more.
What about you?
All data quoted belong to the BBC.