As Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson began their first full season on Doctor Who, the show received close to its lowest overnight viewership ratings ever - but, as any fan knows, that's far from the full story.


Following the BBC's deal with Disney, it was previously announced that, for the first time ever, new episodes will debut on BBC iPlayer at midnight to coincide with them dropping around the world on Disney Plus.

It was a controversial move to say the least, but hardly surprising in the streaming age. As viewing habits change, for better or for worse, our favourite shows must change with them.

So, for the first time, a huge proportion of fans will have stayed up until the early hours to watch the Fifteenth Doctor and Ruby Sunday encounter a baby farm run by babies before travelling back in time to the 1960s to meet the Beatles and save humanity from the villainous Maestro (Jinkx Monsoon).

It marks a new era for the Doctor Who fandom, and is somewhat reminiscent of when the Harry Potter generation would queue up outside bookshops at midnight. Instead of clicking the TV on five minutes before broadcast for fear of missing anything, many of us are refreshing iPlayer as the clock hits 00:00.

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One thing that has also changed as a result of this is overnight ratings. Now, linear ratings have hardly been an accurate measure of success for a long time, because fewer and fewer people watch TV live. You would think that's obvious (although has someone tried telling the various news outlets using the viewing figures for a cheap headline to trash the new season?).

Ncuti Gatwa as The Doctor and Millie Gibson as Ruby Sunday in the doorway of the TARDIS in Doctor Who
Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor and Millie Gibson as Ruby Sunday in Doctor Who. Yoshitaka Kono/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

Of course, the 2.6 million and 2.4 million overnight rating figures for Space Babies and The Devil's Chord will end up being just a fraction of the total audience.

Considering the episodes were first released on iPlayer a full 19 hours previously, and will have a home on the iPlayer Whoniverse (hopefully) forevermore, it was inevitable that fewer people than usual would be watching when the show aired that evening on BBC One.

There are plenty of other reasons for those ratings, too. Some have said the good weather meant people weren't inside watching Doctor Who live. Some have blamed the month of May for being TV's dead spot. There are hundreds of reasons the ratings ended up as they are, some more impactful than others.

But that doesn't mean these ratings don't matter. For one thing, it's pretty incredible that they weren't the lowest ever. These two episodes had been available for almost 19 hours already, and people still tuned in live, proving that, even in the streaming age, demand is still there for event TV.

The watch parties that have defined Doctor Who's modern history and built communities were still happening, and despite the barrage of spoilers on social media and in the news, millions of people still wanted to wait. Crucially, families were still sitting down together on a Saturday night to watch Doctor Who.

Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson as the Doctor and Ruby Sunday in Doctor Who. They're dressed in 60s outfits outside the TARDIS and they're holding each toher looking frightened.
Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor and Millie Gibson as Ruby Sunday in Doctor Who. BBC Studios/Bad Wolf,Natalie Seery

Slightly less sentimentally, it's going to be incredibly important for the higher-ups at the BBC and Disney Plus to see who's watching, how many are watching, and how they're watching.

The ratings for those who watched on iPlayer won't be out for a few more days (they're unveiled seven days after broadcast), but I have no doubt they'll be big - especially if that 10 million figure for Gatwa's first episode, Christmas special The Church on Ruby Road, is anything to go by.

Let's face it - ignoring the naysayers and trolls, Doctor Who is at a hugely exciting point in its history. Having turned 60, it's got a fresh new feel thanks to a significant increase in budget, a showrunner who doesn't just know the ropes, but basically created them, and two powerhouses of acting as its leading stars.

But it's also a brave new world for Doctor Who as the 60-year-old institution fully embraces the streaming age. There have already been bumps in the road (for instance, the reaction to the midnight release time in the UK), but that's all part of the journey.

So, as the powers that be decide where to take our favourite TV show in the future, as it (fingers crossed) heads to its 70th birthday, its 80th and beyond, knowing just how people are watching and where they're watching is going to be essential.

Should we take those 2.6 and 2.4 million figures and declare them the be all and end all? Absolutely not - they should be taken with an absolutely gigantic handful of salt.

But knowing that, with the episodes already available and spoilers galore out there, more than 2 million people are still sitting down on a Saturday night to watch Doctor Who does matter. I would say it's a very, very good sign.

Doctor Who continues with Steven Moffat's Boom on 18th May on BBC iPlayer and BBC One.


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