Doctor Who ratings have been rising and falling since 1963, and are often the subject of intense scrutiny. We take a look at some of the biggest peaks – and deepest troughs – in the series’ history.
Despite getting off to a solid start, the Doctor Who ratings skyrocketed after the debut of the villainous Daleks in late 1963 / early 1964. This triggered a period that is affectionately known as ‘Dalekmania,’ synonymous with the similarly-named ‘Beatlemania’ that was sweeping the country at the same time. Indeed, the Daleks’ first serial saw the Doctor Who ratings increase from 6 million to 10 million across its seven episodes, and they remained high for the ensuing weeks of William Hartnell’s first season.
And by the time he began his second in late 1964, the ratings hit a new high. In particular, the Daleks’ second serial ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ saw the Doctor Who ratings peak at 12.4 million viewers for its final episode, frequently exceeding 13 million in the serials that followed.
The first ever decline in the Doctor Who ratings took place during the epic story ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan,’ which spanned an unprecedented 12 episodes. And although this story is often regarded as one of the greats of the First Doctor era, it was markedly more adult in tone. And by the time the next serial ‘The Massacre’ aired, the ratings had dipped to an all-time low of 5.8 million – soon to be beaten by the final episode of ‘The Savages’ with 4.5.
The arrival of the Second Doctor in 1966 helped the Doctor Who ratings out of their slump – no mean feat considering that (at the time) the idea of recasting the lead role of a popular show was a risky one. Patrick Troughton’s first story ‘The Power of the Daleks‘ peaked at 8 million viewers for episode five, and the ratings remained consistent for the remainder of the Second Doctor’s first season, hovering around the 7 – 8 million mark.
But as with the William Hartnell era, the Doctor Who ratings had dipped by the time Troughton ended his tenure. His final story – ‘The War Games’ – was particularly hard-pressed, with its eighth episode recording the (at the time) lowest-ever figure of 3.5 million.
Interestingly, this lull signalled the dawn of a new wave of popularity for Doctor Who. In 1970, the series began broadcasting in colour, and it had a new Doctor in the shape of Jon Pertwee plus the beginnings of a new ‘UNIT family’ spearheaded by the ever-popular Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The Time Lord may have been exiled to Earth, but this was no barrier for the British public. Pertwee’s first season started with 8.4 million viewers, and peaked at 9.3 for ‘The Ambassadors of Death.’
The show’s popularity would only increase under the new production team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. With the introduction of the Master and new companion Jo Grant, the Doctor Who ratings continued to rise, hitting 10.4 for the second episode of ‘The Day of the Daleks’ (a height that hadn’t been seen since the Hartnell days) soon to be followed by 11 million for the second episode of ‘The Curse of Peladon.’
Arguably, Jon Pertwee left Doctor Who at the peak of his popularity. His final story ‘Planet of the Spiders’ saw 10.1 million people tuning in for the first episode, a height that would be beaten by the arrival of Tom Baker in the subsequent story ‘Robot’ which peaked at 10.8 million.
By 1975, the Doctor Who ratings were in the midst of consistent highs that would soon be topped by the incoming production team of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. To this day, the Fourth Doctor era is one of the most-viewed in the series’ history, with 13.6 million people viewing the second episode of ‘The Ark in Space’ which (at the time) was a new record for the show.
What is the most viewed Doctor Who episode?
After this, there are too many high-scoring stories to list (at least in this article!) with the Doctor Who ratings frequently exceeding 10 million viewers, which is an impressive streak to maintain over a three year period.
There was, however, a dip during the early Graham Williams period (the producer who followed Hinchcliffe) but these figures were soon bolstered by a renewed interest in the show, as well as a series of strikes at ITV. For these reasons, the 1979 story ‘City of Death‘ saw a dizzying 16.1 million people tune in for its final episode – a figure that has yet to be topped.
Interestingly, the Doctor Who ratings suddenly went into a rapid decline. As Tom Baker began his final season in 1980, the viewing figures dropped to their lowest in years, with just 5.2 million people tuning in for the third episode of ‘The Keeper of Traken.’
It is impressive, therefore, to think that the arrival of Peter Davison in 1981 doubled the Doctor Who ratings, which peaked at 10.4 million for the final episode of his first story ‘Castrovalva’ and continued to hover between 8 – 10 million throughout Season 19.
The show’s popularity would continue as Doctor Who headed towards its 20th anniversary, and the 90 minute special saw a respectable 7.7 million tuning in.
At this point, Doctor Who was in a period of consistency. The production team had been in situ for three years under the stewardship of John Nathan Turner, and he would remain with the show until its cancellation in 1989. And the Doctor Who ratings remained strong as Colin Baker took over the TARDIS, with Season 22 beginning with 8.9 million viewers and ending with 7.7.
And so the show’s (temporary) cancellation in 1985 was a surprise for many, particularly when the lack of popularity and declining quality were cited as reasons for its axing, which didn’t seem to reflect the reality of the time. Ultimately, Doctor Who only went on an 18 month hiatus, and John Nathan Turner was told to introduce more comedy and (eventually) re-cast the Doctor.
What is the least viewed Doctor Who episode?
This was when the Doctor Who ratings went into a decline that they never recovered from, at least during the Classic run. Colin Baker’s last story ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’ opened with just 4.9 million viewers, hitting a low of 3.7 during its opening segment ‘The Mysterious Planet.’
And even the introduction of a new Time Lord in the shape of Sylvester McCoy couldn’t win back the gaze of the viewing public, although one important factor in this decline is the fact that Doctor Who – for the first time in its history – was scheduled opposite Coronation Street. ‘Time and the Rani‘ began the Seventh Doctor era with just 5.1 million viewers, and by the time 1989’s ‘Battlefield’ came around, the Doctor Who ratings hit an all-time low with just 3.1 million tuning in for its opening episode – the lowest figure in the series’ history, and a record that ‘Battlefield’ still holds to this day.
Of course, the Doctor Who ratings saw a surge when the programme returned under the guidance of Russell T Davies, with 10.8 million tuning in for the Ninth Doctor‘s first episode. After this, we see a few ‘exceptions to the rule’ when it comes to the ratings. Certainly, Doctor Who saw some of its best ever scores during the RTD era, but many of these were for Christmas specials such as ‘Voyage of the Damned’ which had a rating of 13.1 million, the highest New Who rating to date (matched by the subsequent special ‘The Next Doctor’) and the second highest viewing figure in the whole of 2007.
Then there are other specials such as ‘The End of Time’ parts one and two which performed excellently, with 11.6 million and 11.8 million apiece. And although these were Christmas and New Year specials, it’s likely that they’d have performed well anyway as they were the last to feature the Tenth Doctor David Tennant.
Otherwise, some of the best ‘mainstream’ episodes of the Tenth Doctor’s run were ‘The Stolen Earth’ and ‘Journey’s End’ which scored 8.8 and 10.6 million respectively, the latter being the first Doctor Who episode in history to be the most-watched programme of the week.
Incidentally, the lowest figure in the RTD era was for the Series Two episode ‘The Satan Pit’ which saw 6.1 million people tuning in.
Meanwhile, the Doctor Who ratings began strongly for the Steven Moffat era in 2010, with 10.1 million tuning in for Matt Smith’s debut ‘The Eleventh Hour.’ As with Tennant, the viewing figures rose for the Christmas specials such as ‘A Christmas Carol’ (12.1 million) and ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’ (10.8 million.) Matt Smith ended his run with ‘The Time of the Doctor’ – a Christmas special that saw 11.1 million people tuning in.
At the same time, the Matt Smith era possibly had the most impressive Doctor Who ratings of all time with 12.8 million people watching the 50th anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor,’ although the final figure is probably much higher than this as it was simulcast around the world and screened in cinemas. Indeed, the episode won a Guinness World Record for being the world’s largest ever simulcast of a TV drama, being shown in 94 countries simultaneously.
Steven Moffat continued to oversee the programme into the Peter Capaldi era in 2014, and the Doctor Who ratings remained strong for the actor’s debut in ‘Deep Breath’ with some 9.2 million people tuning in. And despite the positive start, the overall ratings did begin to drop as his tenure progressed, with viewing figures of 6.5 million for the first episode of Series Nine ‘The Magician’s Apprentice.’
As the Twelfth Doctor’s era progressed there were a couple more dips, with 4.7 million tuning in for the Series Ten episode ‘The Eaters of Light,’ which (at the time) was the lowest figure of New Who. However, the Doctor Who ratings improved for Peter Capaldi’s final story ‘Twice Upon a Time’ – which was also the last for showrunner Steven Moffat – with viewing figures of 7.9 million.
Are Doctor Who ratings down?
And finally we come to the Jodie Whittaker era, which was overseen by showrunner Chris Chibnall and began in 2017. The Thirteenth Doctor made an impressive start, with the Doctor Who ratings seeing a significant rise for her debut episode ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ with 11 million viewers. And although the Doctor Who ratings dipped as Series Eleven progressed, they remained respectable, with 6.7 million tuning in for the series finale ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.’
At the same time, the Thirteenth Doctor era has one of the sharpest ratings declines in the history of Doctor Who. The Series Twelve finale ‘The Timeless Children‘ achieved viewing figures of 4.7 million, and Jodie Whittaker’s penultimate story ‘Legend of the Sea Devils‘ almost became the lowest rated episode in Doctor Who history with 3.5 million viewers. Indeed, its overnight figure of 2.2 million is possibly the lowest of all time. To date, ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’ is the second lowest rate episode in the history of Doctor Who, the next being the first episode of ‘Battlefield.’
But the future of the Doctor Who ratings remains to be seen with an epic 90 minute finale due in autumn 2022, which will mark the BBC’s centenary as well as the regeneration of the Thirteenth Doctor and the return of classic companions Tegan and Ace.
What is your prediction for the future of the Doctor Who ratings? And will they see a rise when Russell T Davies returns as showrunner? Let me know in the comments below.
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