Doctor Who cares? Are viewers getting fed up with long-running series?
Last Saturday’s Doctor Who was called ‘Thin Ice’. It saw the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) touching down in Regency London, where the Thames is frozen over and something with a fondness for eating people is lurking just below the surface.
It was an entertaining episode, packed with clever ideas and smart dialogue, and certainly one of the finest of the Peter Capaldi era. Yet, the title was bitterly unfortunate.
For Doctor Who as a whole is skating on very thin ice indeed right now. The question seems to be how long one of the BBC’s oldest flagship properties can last before the ice cracks and it sinks below the point of rescue.
According to overnight viewing figures released on Monday morning, 3.8 million people in the UK watched the episode, the third in the current series.
This was 500,000 fewer than watched the previous week’s episode and a full million down on the one before that. That’s a serious decline.
It’s worth pointing out that the on-the-night audience is no longer the only measure of a programme’s success. Once viewers who recorded the episode or watched it on the BBC iPlayer over the subsequent seven days are factored in, the number is likely to be a couple of million higher. But it’s still the key one for terrestrial channels like BBC1.
The truth is that the Doctor Who audience has been on the slide for some time now. Various reasons have been advanced: the scripts had become too convoluted and hard to follow; the BBC’s habit of moving the programme around the schedules confused and frustrated viewers; younger fans used to the youthful Matt Smith just didn’t take to the 59-year-old Capaldi’s more serious, intense Doctor.
This series — the first full one in 18 months — was supposed to halt the rot. The scripts are tighter, clearer, more focused and more fun than they’ve been for a while. The chemistry between the Doctor and his new companion (a vitally important component of the series) is stronger than that between him and Jenna Coleman’s Clara, who Capaldi “inherited” from Smith.
The fact that Capaldi — who, by now, looks completely at home in the role — is leaving at the end of the series was also expected to provide an audience boost. It hasn’t happened. Instead of stabilising, the ratings are getting worse.
The latest drop in viewing figures couldn’t have come at a worse time for the BBC, which is gearing up for the unveiling of the new Doctor before the end of year — and quite possibly before the end of the series rather than in the Christmas special, which is the traditional hand-over point.
Despite the Beeb’s continued denial that Capaldi’s replacement has already been signed up, it looks almost certain it will be Kris Marshall, star of My Family, Love Actually and, until a couple of months ago, Death in Paradise.
It’s telling that the bookies, who usually get these things right, have stopped taking bets on the 43-year-old actor. It’s even more telling that Marshall himself hasn’t commented. Logic dictates that if he’s keeping schtum, then he’s most likely got the job.
The rumours have already incurred the wrath of the hardcore Doctor Who fans — Whovians, as they call themselves— who have mounted the kind of pre-emptive backlash not seen since a bunch of saddoes campaigned against Daniel Craig being cast as James Bond. We know how that worked out.
Then again, plenty of Whovians also complained back in 2009 when the then 27-year-old Matt Smith was announced as the new Doctor. We know how that worked out too.
Putting all this to one side, there’s arguably a more straightforward reason why Doctor Who is in trouble: people are simply fed up with it. The face may change, but the formula remains the same.
How many times can you watch the Doctor and his latest (usually female) companion tangle with Daleks and Cybermen — knowing all the while that there’s no real peril, nothing genuine at stake and that they’ll always save the universe — without it growing stale?
So, what’s the alternative? I don’t know. But it’s probably not hiring Kris Marshall to do exactly the same thing all over again.