Doctor Who ratings have often fluctuated over the years. Let’s take a look at the worst-rated episodes of all time, and examine why more people didn’t tune in.
It’s no secret that the Doctor Who ratings took a hit in the 1980s. The programme had effectively been axed by the BBC, who wanted to invest in new types of programmes. This resulted in something of a backlash among fans and viewers alike, and as a result Doctor Who was given a stay of execution. Despite this, it was still absent from people’s screens for 18 months before quietly returning in September 1986.
And despite the outcry when the programme was axed, few people tuned in for Season 23’s debut story ‘The Mysterious Planet.’ It was unusual for the Doctor Who ratings to be so low for a season opener, and overall the serial averaged just 4.35 million viewers.
The reasons for this are unclear. Certainly, Colin Baker’s Doctor had proven to be a challenge for some viewers, but this had been the production team’s intention. And at the same time, his less predictable persona hadn’t driven people away; his first full season had performed well in the ratings, with viewing figures averaging around the 7 million mark.
So it’s unclear why the Doctor Who ratings took a dive when the series returned. Only 4.9 million people tuned in for its opening episode, and even though ‘The Mysterious Planet’ is seldom regarded as a Doctor Who classic, people could hardly have known this before watching. And even though the story dipped to 3.7 million for its finale, this kind of drop-off was quite standard over the course of a Doctor Who serial.
Of course, publicity is key in the run-up to transmission, and it may have been that ‘The Mysterious Planet’ was poorly advertised. If people didn’t know that the programme was on, they could hardly be blamed for missing it.
So a lack of marketing may explain the Doctor Who ratings dip; it seems more likely than the general public just “going off” Doctor Who during its 18 month break.
That being said, public perception may have been dented by all the bad press the programme had been receiving. In 1985, people were exposed to a series of stories in the newspapers about how the BBC had no faith in Doctor Who, and this may have affected their view of the programme.
But whatever the reason, it is clear from watching ‘The Mysterious Planet’ that there is nothing inherently “wrong” with it. Whether or not it is an enjoyable story, however, is a matter of opinion.
The same is true for a similarly low-rated adventure. 1989’s ‘Ghost Light’ was the last classic story to be filmed and, sadly, it is one that has received some of the lowest Doctor Who ratings of all time with an average of 4.1 million viewers. And, interestingly, this is an adventure that has gone on to become a fan favourite. It is generally regarded as being one of the strongest of the Seventh Doctor‘s era, alongside other adventures such as ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ and ‘The Curse of Fenric.’ And, again, these serials struggled to find an audience at the time of transmission.
So what was going on? Why were the Doctor Who ratings taking such a hit? The answer is a bit clearer in this case. Two years previously, the BBC had taken the decision to move Doctor Who to Monday nights, meaning it was scheduled directly opposite the popular British soap opera Coronation Street. Moreover, very little promotion was done to let people know that Doctor Who was on; the Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy remarked that even his friends and family didn’t know that the series had returned.
And by the time ‘Ghost Light’ was shown, Doctor Who had been moved to Wednesdays, and was still opposite Coronation Street. Moreover, the lack of publicity around the new timeslot must have added to the confusion and made it difficult for people to find it. Indeed, the Season 26 opener ‘Battlefield’ currently has the lowest Doctor Who ratings of all time with an average of just 3.65 million.
And whilst its author Ben Aaronovitch has since described ‘Battlefield’ as his “first failure as a writer,” the 3.1 million people who tuned in for its opening episode could not have known this in advance. And whilst ‘Ghost Light’ did not have the most straightforward of plots, its viewing figures sat consistently around the 4 million mark across its three episodes. These Doctor Who ratings were low but, clearly, the storyline wasn’t putting anyone off.
Moreover, Season 26 is now highly-regarded among Doctor Who fans. It was the first of the Seventh Doctor’s seasons to be released on Blu-ray, and for many it is the epitome of The Cartmel Master Plan (referring to the plan of the series’ script editor Andrew Cartmel, who hoped to inject more mystique into the programme.) Again, its season finale ‘Survival’ is now considered to be a classic adventure by many.
Cartmel spoke about his era’s continued popularity on the Season 24 Blu-ray set, saying that in some ways he felt as if he was having the last laugh, as most of the other shows from the late 80s were now “the dust of history.”
So what can we learn about Doctor Who ratings from the series’ worst-performing stories? What is the explanation for their low viewing figures?
The answer is a complicated one. The storytelling probably wasn’t a factor, given that even the debut episodes had low scores. And whilst adventures such as ‘Ghost Light’ won’t have appealed to everyone, its consistent week-to-week performance demonstrates that it was keeping people invested.
At the same time, the fact that Doctor Who was regularly changing its timeslot can’t have helped. And the Doctor Who ratings certainly suffered as a result of Coronation Street.
What do you think is the explanation for these low Doctor Who ratings? And what is your favourite story out of ‘The Mysterious Planet,’ ‘Ghost Light’ and ‘Battlefield’? Let me know in the comments below.
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