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The Female Doctor: Did The Gamble Pay Off?

Well, that’s it. Season 11 of Doctor Who; the first ever to star a woman in the lead role; is done and dusted.

After the incredible level of hysteria that the announcement of Jodie Whittaker in the lead role caused, a backlash that prompted show-runner Chris Chibnall to respond in a decidedly un-British way; we’re left with only one question to answer. Was it worth it?

There are only two ways of gauging the answer to that question: ratings, and fan response. Let’s look at the ratings first.

The 13th Doctor is a Rating Success

If that sentence surprised you, you’ve probably been sucked in by various online sources misrepresenting the ratings; some of whom could probably be accused of having an agenda. The first episode of the season, entitled ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’, brought in an audience of over ten million viewers. A figure that the series hadn’t hit since 2013, and the peak of popular 11th Doctor Matt Smith. At no point during Peter Capaldi’s entire tenure in the TARDIS did the show bring in anything above nine million.

Granted, ratings declined a little after that, but such things are inevitable; there was always going to be a group of people who tuned in out of curiosity and to see whether the revamped show was for them, and then tune back out when they decided that it wasn’t. The real question was whether this series could attract – and hold – the casual Doctor Who audience who’d been there for the peak of Smith and Tennant’s time in the TARDIS, but appear to have wandered off since. In short, would this gamble pay off?

Gambling is a common allegory used when replacing the actor playing the Doctor. If that’s the case, then this latest incarnation is the largest gamble in the show’s history. Not only was the lead actor replaced, but a female was cast as the Doctor for the first time. Add to that a change in the show’s lead writer. On top of that, a complete redesign of the TARDIS. No characters at all from previous seasons, completely new companions drawn from diverse backgrounds, no Daleks and no Cybermen. Even subtly, in the background, the music that’s underpinned the show since it came back in 2005 was gone. Murray Gold left as composer when Steven Moffat laid down his pen for the final time. In his place came Segun Akinola with a completely different style. In terms of both the visual and audio, this season of Doctor Who resembled none that had gone before it.

But to call it a gamble is to misunderstand both the concept of modern gambling and the Doctor Who audience. Ask any player on slots sites like Money Reels player and they’ll tell you that before they start a game, they’ll find out the “Return to Player” rate of whichever game they’re playing. That’s the percentage of money paid in that the game will, on average, payback out over time. The higher the RTP rate, the more chance they have of finding a winning combination on their slot game. In basic terms, it means it’s possible to at least partially predict how likely you are to win before you start playing; it’s not an out-and-out gamble.

The same is true of Doctor Who’s viewership. There is a hardcore support for the show; comprising of an audience who will continue to watch whatever happens. That’s what makes it possible to experiment with the show the way that has been done both this season and in the past; not everything will work, but the persistence of that reliable audience means disastrous ratings are almost impossible.

When all was said and done, Season 11 consistently scored between two and three million more viewers per episode than any season of Doctor Who has sustained since 2014. Whichever way those who are still unhappy with the show’s direction wish to paint it, that’s a success.

Viewer Feedback Is Largely Positive

Again, this might come as something of a surprise to you. Any time there’s an official Tweet, Facebook post or YouTube video released by the show, those who are unhappy with the new era are quick to comment negatively on it, giving the impression that the show has been poorly received. Look at any reliable metric, however, and you get a completely different picture.

The vast majority of fans accepted Jodie Whittaker immediately. Her portrayal is a significant departure from her predecessor Peter Capaldi’s crabby old Scotsman, but isn’t that the point of regeneration? Whittaker’s Doctor is innocent, breathlessly energetic, quirky and full of an almost-human charm of the kind that was always David Tennant’s trademark. Tennant, it should be pointed out, remains one of the most popular Doctors of all time.

Reading selective opinions from one website is one thing, but statistics become more difficult to argue with for those who try to insist the season has been a failure. A quick look at Rotten Tomatoes reveals a rating of 94% for the season as a whole. Metacritic award it four out of five stars. Only in IMDB do we see a negative trend compared to Season 10, where the episode-by-episode ratings are considerably lower. We suppose that’s a case of ‘you can’t please everyone’.

The season wasn’t perfect, by any means. It arguably lacked a consistent or genuinely scary alien threat. Some of the inclusiveness did, at times, feel forced and grating. The absence of an overall season arc, or two part episodes, made the storytelling feel a little simplistic in places. But it was still, both in terms of ratings and critical response, a runaway success.

Most importantly of all, it’s been renewed for another season. After the show breaks with tradition again by eschewing its usual Christmas special in favour of a New Year one, the entire cast will return to filming, and the Doctor will see us again in 2020.

That means whether you loved it, hated it or were completely indifferent to it, the new era of Doctor Who is here to stay.



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