26 December, 2007

Rats Join Sinking Ship

Bloody hell, Doctor Who was good last night. It had the titanic, Kylie, Bernard Cribbins and the funniest Queen-related scene ever. In the words of my favourite film reviewer ever*, 'it made me laugh and it made me cry'.

The Titanic might have been a difficult sell to an audience sandwiched, as this episode was, between two grimfestive episodes of EastEnders, but trust Russell T Davies to find a way to make it tense and exciting without it feeling bleak. Sure, it wasn't the actual Titanic, but a space ship of the same name and design, but the first shots of the ship cruising above the planet Earth have to be the single best special effects ever made for British TV.

I got a bit teary-eyed at a few points - the frustration and shock of the young midshipman, shot by his loony captain and unable to do his duty while the captain lives, was heartbreaking, as were the deaths of the fat couple who wrong-footed me by being instantly likeable (Debbie Chazen is best-known for her co-starring role in the dismal sketch show Tittybangbang so I wasn't prepared for how good she actually turned out to be). But the biggest shock came with Kylie Minogue's character Astrid taking a decidedly active and terminal role in the conclusion to the adventure. I'd heard rumours that her character would turn out to be something a bit magical (based on her first name being an anagram of 'Tardis') but when that turned out to be wrong it was even more upsetting.

Then the final credit: 'Dedicated to Verity Lambert OBE'. I knew it was coming, but it still got me choked.

... and I wasn't pissed either.

So, I had high expectations for the ratings, which I didn't think would be available until tomorrow. The overnights (as reported by BBC News) are suggesting 13.8 million, with a peak just under 15 million at one point. Blimey - this is the show they couldn't get people to make, never mind watch, in 1989.

There are only a very few stories of the original run of episode of this series that managed to get ratings that high. Three stories in 1965 ('The Rescue', 'The Romans' and 'The Web Planet'). 'The Ark in Space' in 1974 and 'The Power of Kroll' each had individual episodes that peaked at around the 13 million mark, and only 'Destiny of the Daleks' and 'City of Death' went above 14 million (the latter reaching 16 million, thanks in no small part to a lengthy strike taking ITV off air).

The TV landscape has changed a lot over the years; the days when EastEnders can pull in over 20 million have long gone. Home computers, videogames consoles, multi-channel TV and home video / DVD have all combined to ensure TV is no longer a medium that can unite a nation. But Doctor Who last night was seen by about a quarter of the population of the UK, about 50% of the viewing public. The equivalent would be something like 25 million viewers in 1979.

It really puts the embarrassment of being a fan for the last 20 years into perspective. A show that was once so niche that even the regular viewers didn't like it now has an audience who might not call themselves fans but still love it to bits. With TV in the state that it is, that's no bad thing. Just ask ITV, whose highest-rated programme peaked at 8.9 million (a 35.4% share of the viewers). Sad though I am about this, Coronation Street can't claim to be the nation's favourite any more. 'Eighth-most-popular' is about as close as they get.

In 1988, when Doctor Who was watched by about 4 million people out of habit, it was scheduled up against Corrie. Some might say revenge is a dish best served cold, and on Christmas Day...


* Some woman I once worked with, whose only criteria for a 'good film' seemed to be a binary opposition of emotions.

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