3.7m people watched The Witch’s Familiar – just the second episode of Season 9 of the rejuvenated Doctor Who, starring Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. Not since Battlefield back in 1989 has Doctor Who ranked so lowly in live audience viewership.
However you look at it, this is a startling fall from Deep Breath‘s debut barely 12 months ago, which hauled in 6.8m ‘live’ viewers, and even the least-watched episode from last year, which was the underwhelming The Caretaker at 4.89m.
Without venturing into the yes-it-is-no-it-isn’t nonsense of arguing over statistics, Doctor Who’s audience figures have been remarkably stable over the last five years, hovering around 7-8m every week once the tricky assimilation of catch-up, on-demand and other sources are taken into account. Whether it’s been scheduled at the standard 7pm-ish start time, earlier or later; against Ant & Dec, X-Factor or live sport; in Spring or Autumn; starring Eccleston, Tennant, Smith or Capaldi. The latter’s debut season, Season 8, averaged out at around 7m – the lowest since the series returned in 2005.
The last two weeks suggest that even an average figure of 7m is no longer attainable. The final audience figure for The Magician’s Apprentice seems to be around 6.5m – and past viewing figures suggest, unlike the classic Season 26, they are likely to decline across the 12-episode run. Yes, the figures for The Witch’s Familiar – scheduled opposite England V Wales game in the Rugby World Cup – were out of the ordinary.
As telling as the overnights however are the consolidated figures from The Magician’s Apprentice. That this block-busting series debut episode – featuring the return of Missy, Davros and Skaro – couldn’t muster anywhere near 7m suggests that the 2005 paradigm (just like its Dalek equivalent) is dead and buried.
What can this mean? The later timeslot, over-familiarity with Moffatian scripts, less engagement with the TARDIS crew and, perhaps, fatigue with the show’s massive profile over the last ten years seem to have caught up with it. Perhaps engaged youngsters will be inclined to view on catch-up, but maybe there’s a risk that the later scheduling will not pick up young viewers who are unfamiliar with the show.
The potential threat to Doctor Who is its future as an ongoing television programme.
Unlike Battlefield – a story scheduled on the same day, at the same time, as the previous eight stories, with only three other channels realistically possible and without the attendant complications of time-shifting – there are many factors involved in figuring out what’s happening with Doctor Who’s viewing figures. Either way it seems beyond much discussion that the show is slowly but steadily shedding viewers.
In 1989 relatively weak viewing figures were given as the main reason for ‘resting’ Doctor Who, despite a consensus that the show was enjoying a quality not seen as constantly since the 70s. But Doctor Who is currently in no danger – as a brand. The potential threat to its future is as an ongoing television programme.
It’s possible to extrapolate – via BBC America and Worldwide revenues, where Doctor Who is the best-rated and described as a ‘top three’ brand respectively – that Doctor Who is worth at least £75m annually (BBC America and Worldwide have reported annual revenues of $550m and $1.8bn as recently as 2012-13). That’s a very wonky guesstimate but, given its extraordinary merchandising potential and increasingly global reach, it seems not an unreasonable one. It’s also self-evident that it doesn’t cost that much to make it every year. Given that the Beeb has already lost one-third of its top-three performers in Top Gear this year, it’s unlikely to to be keen to write off another.
But there are people behind the scenes waiting for their turn to make a Doctor Who movie, eyeing up the potential of a franchise as big as Harry Potter. If money is the reason that Doctor Who won’t be leaving the public eye any time soon it’s also the reason why it might leave the small screen.
Central to all of this is the role of Steven Moffat, Doctor Who’s show-runner for almost six years now. Moffat has written or co-written 40 full episodes of Doctor Who by now, with the latest of these set to go out at the end of Season 9. That makes Moffat comfortably the most prodigious writer in Doctor Who, as far as television is concerned. Add to this his myriad responsibilities as show-runner, which can only be guessed at, plus his responsibilities as show-runner and writer on Sherlock.
That this man, in his mid-50s, has the energy to continue in these responsibilities is extraordinary – Capaldi recently said that it’s “absolutely vital that we have Steven working on it and having a vision on the whole thing” – but they also allow him a level of influence previously unseen in British television. When an attempted coup was launched in 2011 with news of a rebooted Doctor Who on the big-screen by Harry Potter director David Yates, Moffat’s response was, by the terms of public discourse, remarkably brutal. Behind the initial announcement was Jane Tranter, key to the return of Doctor Who in 2005 and then the head of BBC Worldwide. It’s not clear what the view within White City may have been, but Worldwide are clearly itching to make a Doctor Who movie.
Moffat’s curt response at the time was to describe reports of the film as a ‘weird fantasy’ – later explaining that the notion of rebooting Doctor Who was ‘nonsense’, ‘insane’, ‘intolerable’ and ‘a straightforward insult to the audience‘. In the meantime there have been several forays into cinemas for Doctor Who – and the unprecedented (since 1963) repeat BBC1 showing on a Sunday afternoon. Both are interesting developments given the tension between TV and cinema – and the current ratings slide.
What’s more, in a 2015 radio interview Russell T Davies declared that he’d be delighted to be asked to write a Doctor Who film. That Tennant and Billie Piper clearly remain the TARDIS crew most firmly embedded in the public’s consciousness – and that both are still of an age to be considered sufficiently bankable in Hollywood – adds grist to the mill, no doubt to Moffat’s dismay.
More recent comments have suggested more equanimity, with Moffat conceding that the show belongs to the BBC and it’s very much up them. But leaked emails between BBC Worldwide and Sony suggest that bean-counters are very keen but the creatives are putting a block on a movie. This, quite clearly, means Steven Moffat.
Seen in this context, there is a power struggle over Doctor Who – an extraordinary position for the show to be in given how toxic the show was to the BBC in the 80s and 90s. But just as Russell T Davies was finally allowed his turn to make Doctor Who on television following repeated failures of the BBC and various US partners to make a film, could a combination of Worldwide and US studios be poised to launch their bid for a movie franchise in the context of dwindling ratings? Those leaked Sony emails also revealed that the BBC believed there’d be a film ‘within eight years’ and that the current TV production team were committed to including a film within that timeframe.
Currently there is no commitment to a whole series in 2016 and we know that one of the sticking blocks over a film is that it would take a good 24 months to write, shoot, market and distribute a film. That could mean no Doctor Who on the small screen for three years, by which time Peter Capaldi would be 60. Co-ordinating the way that the film industry works with the extremely fast-moving world of TV entertainment will be a challenging proposition for anyone.
At the same time an overworked Steven Moffat is surely nearing the end of his time with the series. It’s two years since he admitted in a DWM interview that he was nearer the end – of his time as show runner – than the beginning. But if Moffat cannot block a Doctor Who movie then surely he’d want to write it? For the money, for the profile, for the bouquets and also because he’d want to make sure that any film was true to the show’s established ethos and history. No reboot, no parallel continuity, no gun-wielding Doctor, pneumatic companion or rapping TARDIS.
If we assume that all of this is broadly correct, or not wholly incorrect, the dwindling viewing figures for Series 9 – and concomitant suggestion that Moff’s writing is losing its appeal and Capaldi does not have the broad appeal of Tennant and Smith – might make the prospect of a Doctor Who movie more likely.