Doctor Who ratings are often the subject of scrutiny. Indeed, few TV programmes command ratings-related headlines in the way that Doctor Who does. But when it comes to bums on seats / eyes on screens, which is the most watched Doctor Who story of all time?
Well, there are a number of contenders. For instance, Doctor Who ratings often see a spike during a regeneration story; the Tenth Doctor’s demise in ‘The End of Time’ certainly drew crowds, with an average of 11.7 million people turning up to see him cry, “I don’t want to go!” Similarly, 11.1 tuned in to watch Matt Smith regenerate into Peter Capaldi in the 2013 episode ‘The Time of the Doctor.’
And then we have that other ratings magnet – the Daleks. The metal mutants from Skaro played an important role in the programme’s ongoing success, and this is reflected in the 1964 Doctor Who ratings (at the height of so-called Dalekmania) when ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ pulled an 11.9 million-strong crowd – the average figure across the six episodes. Equally, its sequel story ‘The Chase’ attracted large audiences, averaging close to 10 million.
And then we have ‘The Day of the Doctor’ – an adventure that included multiple Time Lords, the Daleks, returning companions and a regeneration, making it a historic piece of television. It also marked the programme’s 50th anniversary, being broadcast on the 23rd November 2013 – 50 years after the transmission of the very first episode.
But in ‘The Day of the Doctor’s case, the ratings are a bit harder to discern. In the UK, the episode had an official, consolidated figure of 12.8 million, making it one of the highest-rated stories of all time. But it was also simulcast in 94 countries, and screened in cinemas, making the actual figure a little hazy. Arguably, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ could be the most watched Doctor Who story of all time, in terms of how many people watched it simultaneously during its original broadcast.
But when we focus solely on the UK, there’s no doubt that it’s the Christmas specials that have seen some of the best Doctor Who ratings. Indeed, 13.1 million people tuned in to find out if David Morrissey was the next Doctor in ‘The Next Doctor,’ whilst a whopping 13.3 million sat down to watch the 2007 special ‘Voyage of the Damned,’ which guest starred Kylie Minogue.
For this reason, ‘Voyage of the Damned’ could be the most watched Doctor Who story of all time. It just depends on how you look at it.
You see, another contender is the 1993 Children in Need skit ‘Dimensions in Time’ – a charity two-parter that saw the return of all the surviving Doctors, plus a plethora of companions, monsters, and even the villainous Rani played by Kate O’Mara. On average, this off-beat story pulled an audience of 13.7 million viewers, making it a definite contender for the ratings top spot. But is it canon? (Answers on a postcard.)
And while you’re pondering ‘Dimensions in Time,’ consider this: what do we make of Doctor Who ratings that were calculated during a strike by ITV (one of the main TV channels in the UK.) You see, when ‘Destiny of the Daleks‘ was first transmitted, it pulled an enormous average audience of 13.5 million. But would all these people have tuned in if ITV had been transmitting? Was this result influenced by the strike? It’s likely, but we will never know for sure.
Similarly, we have this problem with the subsequent serial ‘City of Death,’ which – on paper – is the hands-down winner of the Doctor Who ratings, achieving an average audience of 14.5 million – with a whopping 16.1 million tuning in for the final episode. This is the single, highest figure ever recorded for a Doctor Who episode.
But again, ITV was on strike at the time, meaning that viewers had little else to watch. Did this event tip the scales in the good Doctor’s favour?
But we must be technical about this. Officially, ‘City of Death’ is the most watched Doctor Who story of all time, in terms of UK viewing figures. And this is ironic, given that it is also cited as a fan favourite. Indeed, a 2014 Doctor Who Magazine poll named the story as the fifth greatest of all time. So in a way, it’s fitting that ‘City of Death’ also achieved some of the highest ever Doctor Who ratings, given how cherished it is in the hearts of Whovians.
Of course, things can change. The Doctor’s story never ends, and a brand new series is currently in production. Will we have to update this article in a year from now? And what do you make of ‘Dimensions in Time’? Is it canon? Let me know in the comments below.
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