However much we’d like to, it’s impossible to separate the Seventh Doctor era from the grim recollections of Doctor Who‘s cancellation. As we all know, Doctor Who hasn’t always been as popular as it is now, and it seemed that, just as it was getting back on track, it was no more.
Despite being cancelled in 1989, the show was on the rocks for quite some time before that. For now, we’ll put aside the hiatus that hit the Sixth Doctor era after grumbles about violence. One of the killing blows dealt to Doctor Who was the Audience Reaction Report for Season 24 – which is as close to a death sentence as you’re ever likely to find.
This unsettling three-page report shows just how unpopular it became in the mid- to late-1980s, with the BBC as well as the general public.
Season 24, I would argue, isn’t as bad as its reputation.
Time and the Rani may have been a misstep, but Sylvester McCoy hits the ground running (yes, he’s not as mysterious and manipulative as later on, but he’s a great Doctor from the off); Paradise Towers was a great take on JG Ballard’s High-Rise (even if the writer, Stephen Wyatt reckons he wasn’t influenced that much by the novel); Delta and the Bannermen showed a considerate, compassionate, and clever Doctor; and Dragonfire was a solid introduction for Sophie Aldred’s Ace – and gave us that glimpse at a darker Doctor – so much so that Steven Moffat would later comment how he was falling out of love with the show until that final speech drew him back in because, as he says, the story of a sad clown is the story of everyone.
But here, the Audience Reaction Report tears it apart, straight away noting that “the popularity of Doctor Who has continued to decline.” In fairness, it also states that its average audience of 4.9 million is pretty good considering it was opposite Coronation Street (the soap boasted an average audience of about 15 million), but also that the AI has gone down to 60, 9 points lower than Colin Baker’s final season as the Sixth Doctor.
A further hit at Seventh Doctor fans (and there are a lot of us!) is the summary that says “neither the Doctor nor his assistant Mel [Bush, played by Bonnie Langford] were popular with the reporting viewers.” Pretty harshly, a considerable 56% of respondents wished Mel had been eaten in Paradise Towers…
Only 28% of those questioned said the stories in Season 24 were good, and 30% said they liked “nothing” about the show. Nonetheless, 58% still agreed that Doctor Who was a family programme.
The most gut-wrenching statistic, however, is that only 46% of those taking part wanted to see a new series of Doctor Who. Indeed, 37% of those questioned had decided to stop watching. This naturally means that the series had already lost much of its audience when exceptional stories like The Curse of Fenric, Remembrance of the Daleks, and Ghost Light were broadcast.
Published in February 1988 and compiled by Clive Graham, this is a pretty damning report, especially for a TV show that was about to get fantastic again under the fresh air provided by Script Editor, Andrew Cartmel. And it’s not all bad: Sophie Aldred at least received a warm welcome – more so, in fact, than even Sylvester!
It’s an interesting, if damaging, report from a time when Doctor Who wasn’t the BBC’s jewel in the crown. But then, the Beeb isn’t known to appreciate their most popular shows to the extent they should. The overriding feeling you get from reading it is, sadly, that cancellation was inevitable. This report alone didn’t rob children of the 1990s of Doctor Who, but it did add to the growing concern for the series.
You can, uh, enjoy (and we use the term very loosely) the report now, online courtesy of the BBC Archive. Proceed with caution and thank the stars Doctor Who did rise again from the ashes.