Doctor Who beats Strictly: 13 reasons why
Why is the new Doctor Who such a hit and what can a 55 year old show tell us about the current direction of broadcasting? Research The Media’s Richard Marks investigates.
The final consolidated BARB ratings for the week of 1 October are out and the most watched show on British television - narrowly beating two episodes of Strictly - was the debut episode of the new Doctor Who with 10.9 million viewers. That’s the highest first episode for a new Doctor since the show began in 1963, narrowly beating Tom Baker in 1974 and Christopher Eccleston in 2005.
How has a 55 year old show reinvented itself yet again and how did new showrunner Chris Chibnall and the BBC pull this off for a thirteenth time?
Here are 13 reasons why. Yes, it’s a ‘listicle’, but unlike some less reputable sites, those good folks at Mediatel Newsline won’t make you click 13 times to boost their stats. So, all on one page and in no particular order…
1) A female Doctor. The idea had first been mooted as early as the late 1980s and has reappeared each time a new Doctor was cast but mostly as a gimmick to generate PR (they wouldn’t… would they?). However a female Doctor now appears logical and very much part of the Zeitgeist (the success of Wonder Woman, a female lead in Star Trek).
Whilst another quirky young male actor with a winning smile could have been a safe choice for the BBC, it would not have generated the levels of interest and curiosity that drove these chart-topping viewing levels. Chris Chibnall insisted on a female Doctor when approached to take on the show, whilst Steven Moffat skilfully prepared the ground with the Master becoming ‘Missy’ and other timelords being seen to regenerate to a different gender.
2) Jodie. From the moment that the new Doctor was revealed in a teaser video after last year’s Wimbledon final, it was apparent that Jodie Whittaker was inspired casting. With just one look at the Tardis in that clip, she was the Doctor – the first full episode simply confirmed it.
3) BARB Dovetail. Jodie’s debut actually had 10.5 million viewing on a TV set, which placed it second behind that evening’s Strictly. It was viewing on PCs, tablets and smartphones - as measured by BARB in its four screen dashboard launched just two weeks beforehand – that nudged the Doctor into first place.
234,000 watched on a PC, 110, 000 on a tablet and 22,000 on a smartphone. Whilst this was enough to secure the #1 slot in the charts, it’s significant that still 96% of viewing was done on a TV set. TV isn’t dead and neither is the TV set itself.
4) Bradley Walsh. Not only did he bring his acting skills to Doctor Who itself, but for the second episode ITV actually scheduled The Chase – hosted by Walsh, against himself. Not only did Who get an impressive 7.1m in the overnights – a lower drop than usual, but The Chase managed 4.8m viewers itself. Bradley Walsh, national treasure?
5) Sundays. BBC schedulers must be breaking out the champagne. Successfully transplanting the show to Sundays has been a masterstroke. Wedged between Countryfile and Strictly the show is now firmly situated in the Park Lane of scheduling real estate.
On Saturdays the show had been bouncing around the early evening, its slot seemingly dependent on the variable lengths of other shows and eventually felt a bit lost as a result. In its family friendly regular 6.55pm Sunday slot it has the chance to build a regular audience as the Autumn nights draw in. Sunday is the new Saturday.
6) Representation. The first Doctor Who story back in 1963 had a female producer (Verity Lambert) and an Indian Director (Waris Hussein), both rarities for the era, so arguably the show has a tradition of representation. This new series is particularly diverse, both in front of and behind the camera in terms of writers and Directors.
This isn’t about being politically correct, its about depicting authentic characters that people can relate to. It would be wrong to claim that white male writers can’t write a female Doctor or BAME companions, but strong representation on the writing staff enhances a wider world view, authenticity and believability.
7) Keep it simple. Well as simple as a show about a gender swapping time travelling alien in a police box can be. You will note that none of these points will imply that somehow Doctor Who was broken and is now fixed. Each new iteration tends to be a reaction to what has come before.
Russell T Davies pulled off the unlikely resurrection of the show, whilst Steven Moffat’s Who became a truly global hit. Chibnall’s approach is a conscious effort to make the show more grounded, more relatable and – so far – more linear and less ‘timey wimey’. This won’t be for everyone, but may hold more appeal to a Sunday family audience.
8) A welcome mat. This series is deliberately constructed as a jumping on point for new viewers. No returning aliens or reliance on past plot points. When asked by journalists what new viewers ‘need to know’ if they want to jump on board, Chibnall’s answer has been ‘nothing’. You don’t need to have seen anything before. Just watch it.
9) Marketing. The BBC took a bit of a risk with the marketing of this series. TV and film trailers tend to be loud and frenetic, a compilation of all the best explosions, aliens and end of a huge tease. That can make the subsequent viewing of the show or film itself something of a let down: you have seen all the best bits already.
Marketing for this series was more subtle, focusing on the four lead characters and being careful not to reveal too much in terms of plots or monsters. This led to frustration amongst fans desperate for information, but created a genuine sense of anticipation and excitement. Sometimes less is more.
10) An appointment to view. Whilst it does seem to be widely accepted that linear viewing remains healthy for certain genres (news, sport, reality) drama has increasingly been seen as a primarily time-shifted genre, with the rise of the box set and binge viewing.
Was the BBC at any point tempted I wonder, to do a ‘Killing Eve’ and dump all 10 episodes on iPlayer at the same time? If so, I suspect Chibnall dissuaded them as he is a proponent of appointment TV.
Chibnall’s own Broadchurch and more recently Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard showed that dramas can still attract huge audiences watching live and – guess what – releasing just one episode a week builds anticipation and demand. Scarcity of supply is as valid a tactic as the box set route.
11) Production. The new show is a clean sweep in terms of its production. A new production team, shooting on anamorphic lenses in 2:1 ratio to give a more filmic experience and a move from the John Williams-influenced orchestral scores of Murray Gold to the subtle electronic soundscapes of Segun Akinola. Episode two (The Ghost Monument) is arguably one of the best looking shows yet produced on British TV
12) Brexit. Much academic work has been done on the influence of current affairs and the public mood on entertainment. It can reflect troubled times but when the going gets tough, we want something escapist and uplifting, to stop worrying about a No Deal Brexit or Brett Kavanaugh and have an injection of optimism.
The latest iteration of Who eschews the darkness and dystopian paranoia of much contemporary fantasy. Just look at the promotional image at the top of this page, heavily influenced by Frank Bellamy’s 1950s Dan Dare cartoons. This show will be fun.
13) Doctor Who fans. With any relaunch, whether a TV show, a magazine or a fashion brand, it is vital to retain the existing fan base, to widen appeal without alienating the existing customers.
Tabloid journalists have managed to find disgruntled Who fans claiming that a female Doctor is a betrayal and that the BBC has somehow destroyed their childhoods.
Rest assured they are in a tiny (if vocal) minority. Who fans have been overwhelmingly welcoming of the idea of a female Doctor. Perhaps I am misty eyed about fandom, but my experience of it is welcomingly inclusive and, since the 2005, relaunch increasingly gender and age balanced.
Maybe somewhere out there right now a five year old girl has become entranced by the show and will go on to run it, like Davies, Moffatt, Chibnall and Verity Lambert before her.
Richard Marks is Director of Research The Media @Richardmlive