Doctor Who: the 1988 report that sounded its death knell

This BBC audience reaction report was one of the first nails in Doctor Who's coffin in the late eighties…

“Not for publication” is printed at the top of the 1988 audience reaction report for Doctor Who’s 24th season. It’s there for the purposes of BBC confidentiality, but could equally be a pain-saving instruction to save Sylvester McCoy fans the distress of reading the show’s three-page death sentence.

Because this report is painful stuff. Compiled in February 1988 after the broadcast of McCoy’s first four serials as the Doctor (from Time And The Rani to Dragonfire), it doesn’t mince its words in describing audience apathy and antipathy towards late-eighties Doctor Who. Looking back with the knowledge that the wilderness years were around the corner, each unimpressed audience response and scathing comment feels like another nail being hammered into classic Who’s coffin.

To begin with, the numbers weren’t good. While viewing figures were slightly up on the previous season at just under 5 million, the Appreciation Index (a TV show popularity scale out of 100) had dropped from 69 to 60, much lower than the 75 average for UK drama in the same period.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Mel’s Personal Index Ratings (a similar out-of-100 popularity scale but for individual TV characters) were 46 and 34 respectively, “extremely low” figures notes the report, which goes on to inform us that “a popular character, such as Jim Bergerac played by John Nettles can receive a personal index rating of around 90.” Bully for Bergerac.

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Bonnie Langford’s Mel, who handed over the Companion spot to Sophie Aldred’s Ace in the final episode scrutinised by the 1988 report, Dragonfire, came in for a particular drubbing from the sample audience. Mel “can only be described as unpopular”, the report stated, adding “indeed, 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.”

Death-wishes weren’t the end of Mel’s ignominy. When respondents were asked to specify what, if anything, they disliked about season 24, almost one quarter chose Langford’s character. Her vocal chords appeared to be the main problem, with audience members being irritated by Mel’s shrieking ability. One wag, in reference to Langford’s youthful role as the fractious Violet in Just William, observed drily that “she can still scream and scream and scream until she’s sick”.

Sylvester McCoy fared somewhat better with this sample group, with only 9% answering that they disliked him in the role as the Doctor. Though his average personal index rating was 46, it had started at 44 with Time And The Rani (fair, perhaps) and risen ten points to 54 by the end of Delta And The Bannermen – still not however, reaching Colin Baker’s own, fairly modest itself, 66.

The report paints a picture of growing disenchantment with Who. “The popularity of Doctor Who has continued to decline”, it summarised, even amongst lifelong fans. “A core of loyal and enthusiastic fans of Doctor Who remains, although their number seems to be decreasing with each successive series.”

Why? You may well have your own views on that, but according to the report at least, the perceived increasingly “silly” tone and quality of serials judged “not as good as previous stories” played a part. Only 47% of the sample audience agreed that Doctor Who was an entertaining programme, and only 28% agreed with the statement that that season 24’s stories had been good, while 49% were in disagreement with that statement.

When asked what they liked most about the series, “the end” was one disparaging answer, accompanied by “very little”. A significant 30% of respondents simply answered “nothing” in answer to that question, far outweighing the voices of the 14% who praised it for, amongst other things “comical eccentricity” and McCoy’s natural charm in the role.

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Unlike Bergerac and Casualty, which were holding on to their audience series by series, the figures showed that people were switching off from Doctor Who at the same rate as Boogie Outlaws and Pulaski (no, me neither), two other BBC shows losing viewer attention. It didn’t help of course, that Who had been infamously “scheduled to death” on Monday nights against ITV’s Coronation Street.

The real hammer blow came with the line stating that less than half of the sample audience (46%) wanted to see another series of Who, a significant drop from the above-average 59% who said they wanted to see a new run after the previous season. Despite those ill-wishers, two further seasons were made of course, but it seems the writing was on the wall for Doctor Who at that point. Whatever and however Seven and Ace did, the show’s reputation was tarnished and its number was up at the BBC.

For the time being, at least. But that’s a different story.

See the report in full at the BBC Archives (where it’s also available in Text format) below. Read it and weep, pointy-headed Doctor Who fans…

With thanks to the BBC Archives

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