Doctor Who: is it too complex, and do the ratings spell trouble?

Doctor Who is getting a bit of a battering in the press this week, with stories about overly complex plots and falling ratings. Here’s our response...

Seemingly inspired by an innocuous tweet from Vernon Kay, Doctor Who has found itself back in the headlines this week, as a range of stories have appeared suggesting that it’s getting a bit of a battering in the ratings.

Furthermore, there’s also a strong suggestion that the show is apparently getting too complicated. And I wanted to address both of those points here.

The Ratings

Let’s do the ratings first. The source of the latest round of stories here was the news that last Saturday’s excellent The God Complex episode pulled in 5.9m viewers at its peak. Against it was an episode of All Star Family Fortunes, hosted by Vernon Kay, that scored 6.2m. Kay’s tweet, therefore, ran that “Wow! The Time Lord can beat the Daleks but not Family Fortunes! Great!”

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This story was then picked up, being reported in various flavours in the likes of The Guardian and The Sun, which, depending on which source you read, will either tell you that Doctor Who was beaten in the overnight ratings, or that the ratings are in crisis. As it stands, only one of those are true.

The initial snapshot overnight ratings give you the figures of the number of people who watch an episode ‘live’, as it’s being transmitted. This, though, is only part of the modern day picture.

Back in the 1980s, if a show such as Doctor Who had got 5.9m viewers in a Saturday teatime slot, fire and brimstone would be called in. But it’s not the 1980s, and the number of ways that someone can watch a show has changed.

So, there’s those who catch an episode of Doctor Who on a repeat screening. There’s those who record in on a Sky+ or TiVo box and catch it later in the evening, or a day or two later. There are those who watch Doctor Who on BBC iPlayer.

In short, the number of ways to watch an episode is constantly evolving, and yet the reporting of ratings is still based on an archaic system where it’s only the people sat in front of the telly at Saturday teatime that count.

Let’s take a look, to see what difference it makes when the real ratings are considered. We’ll use The Girl Who Waited as an example. On initial transmission, the reported overnight ratings for the episode stood at six million, a 26.8 per cent share of the audience, that made it the third most-watched television programme of that day on UK TV (behind The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing).

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The consolidated rating, which includes figures for those who record the show, and then watch it within a week, was 7.6m, which lifted Doctor Who to a 30.8 per cent audience share. This isn’t a number available for instant reporting the day after, obviously. And thus it rarely gets reported with the same level of exposure.

Then, there’s the numbers from the iPlayer to factor in. We don’t have figures for The Girl Who Waited, but if you hark back to Let’s Kill Hitler, that was requested via the iPlayer service 0,99m times in just five days. The most popular Doctor Who episode of the current series on iPlayer is The Impossible Astronaut, which was accessed 1.93m times.

So, for the sake of some fag packet maths, let’s say a million people will have watched The Girl Who Waited on iPlayer. That would take the total figure for the episode, excluding BBC Three repeats and such like, to 8.6m.

With no disrespect to All Star Family Fortunes, the show that’s being used as an unlikely yardstick against which Doctor Who is measured, that’s a far more instant, disposable show. It’s also one unlikely to add too many to its instant overnight ratings.

In short, Doctor Who, when everything is added up, will have comfortably beaten it in the ratings, if the ratings really are the absolute measure of success (heck, how many All Star Family Fortunes DVD boxsets and action figures do you own?)

But we’re still not done.

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What’s forgotten, too, is that Doctor Who is growing outside of the UK, as well. The American ratings this year, buoyed by a decision to transmit much, although not all, of series six in tandem with UK transmission dates, have been on the up. And the worldwide popularity of the show is increasing.

Again, if you’re going to do a like-for-like against All Star Family Fortunes, you can hardly say the same of that show.

To be clear, then: when you dig into cold, hard facts, there’s little evidence that Doctor Who ratings are in trouble at all. But then that’s a less interesting story to report, perhaps.Too Complicated?

The second criticism being directed at the show is that it’s become too confusing, and that viewers are complaining. According to a report in The Sun, fans are arguing that “the storylines have become too complicated”.

I’m not quite sure where to start with this.

Certainly, there’s an argument that episodes have become a little less self-contained, perhaps, given that series-long narratives have been woven in for the past two years. And there’s certainly a boldness and intelligence to what’s being put on the screen.

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I’d happily listen to an argument, for instance, that The Big Bang needed a healthy conversation afterwards to get your head around. But are we saying that’s a bad thing now? Is adding a degree of complexity to a Saturday teatime show something we should be resisting?

Personally, I think that Doctor Who is asking a little bit more of its audience over the course of a series run, but there’s still plenty in each episode to make it work on a more simplistic level, if that’s what people are after. I do despair a little, though, that when a show is willing to treat its audience as human beings with brains, its gets criticised for it.

Surely the problem lies with the rest of the Saturday evening schedules?

At best, you’d have to suggest that The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing are brain-neutral shows, and at worst… well, you can fill in the blanks there. Either way, I do wonder why we’re criticising the beacon of a show that’s not dumbing down. Heck, when was it wrong for a TV show to be clever on a Saturday?

I say this fully appreciating that, at times, Doctor Who has become a bit of a puzzle. I’m still happy to listen to theories as to just how the Doctor got out of the Pandorica, as I’m not sure I’ve fully wrapped my head around that yet. But that’s, surely, part of the fun?

Doctor Who is bold, brave television, with some wonderfully intricate storytelling, and I maintain my feeling that it’s going through a golden age right now. It’s a show worth talking about, worth championing, and worth celebrating.

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And, interestingly, if you ask most kids, they have no trouble following it at all. If anyone gets stuck with the show, I suggest they ask my seven-year old about it.

Thus, rather than finding different sticks to beat it with, isn’t it best that, from time to time, if we just express some appreciation that we’ve got the show, and the incredibly talented people working on it, in the first place?

Just a thought.