Magic Bullet Productions

Women of Paris, Men from Atlantis

By James Cooray Smith

Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 450

The viewing figures for “Destiny of the Daleks” and “City of Death”, the first two Doctor Who serials of the 1979/80 series, are often described as the programme’s “best” ever. That usually comes with a caveat, however. It is normally noted, in discussions of these episodes, that ITV, British television's original (and at the time only) commercial network, was entirely blacked out by industrial action during the weeks they were transmitted, leading to unusually high numbers of viewers for these eight episodes. However, little further discussion of this fact, or what it might mean, is ever really entered into. This article is an attempt to assert some context over numbers usually looked at by Doctor Who fandom without any sort of contextualisation.

Before we try that, however, let’s have a look at those numbers ourselves:

Destiny of the Daleks Episode One 13m 28
Destiny of the Daleks Episode Two 12.7m 39
Destiny of the Daleks Episode Three 13.8m 28
Destiny of the Daleks Episode Four 14.4m 37

City of Death Episode One 12.4m 50
City of Death Episode Two 14.1m 44
City of Death Episode Three 15.4m 34
City of Death Episode Four 16.1m 16

These are, unequivocally, some of the largest numbers of viewers achieved by Doctor Who in either century in which it has been transmitted. While four episodes had scored 13m or over in 1965, with two in 1975, 2 in 1976 (one of which was a repeat!) and two in 1977, “Destiny of the Daleks” Episode Four was the first Doctor Who instalment to break the 14m viewer barrier. “City of Death” Part Four was, and indeed remains, numerically the series’ highest ever individual rating, with Part Three its second. Doctor Who would not manage 13m viewers again until Christmas Day 2007, and no episode since “City of Death” Part Four has garnered more than 14m TV viewers, although some would exceed that figure were their TV and iPlayer viewers added together.

There is more to ratings, and how they express popularity, however, than the raw number of people who actually watch something. That may sound fatuous, but it’s not without truth.

The ITV strike created a unique situation, one where Doctor Who was fishing in a much larger pool of viewers than normal; one that contained committed ITV viewers who were open to watching BBC One simply because the alternative viewing options were ITV’s test card or BBC Two (which, at this point in its history, was still largely committed to its original remit and provided little in the way of straightforward entertainment programming).

Doctor Who's sole "competition" for viewers in September and most of October 1979 reflected this. It consisted of eight weeks of programming from the Community Programme Unit. This was a BBC division which reported on issues considered to be of interest to niche or minority communities, and which allowed members of the public to contribute to, and sometimes even produce, items about community concerns.

During the transmission of these two stories, the Community Programme Unit’s productions included documentaries about a National Front hustings and local black community responses to it, a documentary made by an 18-year-old single parent, and a discussion of police violence.

These items are all worthy, interesting and worthwhile (and indeed exactly the sort of thing a national broadcaster should be doing) but they aren’t undemanding early evening Saturday family fare. Many viewers who actively disdained Doctor Who would probably end up watching it when faced with BBC Two’s scheduling.

Given this, it must be conceded that the astonishing ratings for “City of Death” Part Four are, notwithstanding the qualities of the episode itself, probably related to the fact that the only other viewing option was a monthly report on community action about underreporting of exposure to hazardous material in workplace environments.

The ITV strike ended suddenly the week after “City of Death” Part Four (20th October 1979) as accommodation with Trades Unions was hurriedly reached, and the service was up and running again on the early evening of Wednesday 24th October.

ITV re-opened with a strong line up. This was organised by Thames Television as a national provision, but represented popular productions from most regions of the federal ITV in its programming. Beginning with a 5:45pm news bulletin from ITN, the schedule continued with The Muppet Show (with guest star Dudley Moore) at 6:05pm, bafflingly popular Brummagen Soap Opera Crossroads at 6:35pm (both from ATV), Thames’ own sitcom George & Mildred at 7:00pm, Coronation Street (then as now a powerhouse for Granada) at 7:30pm, Yorkshire TV’s incomprehensible quiz show 3-2-1 at 8:00pm, the first episode of Thames’ subsidiary Euston Films' excellent Quatermass at 9 and, after the ITN News at Ten, a late film première: Chinatown (almost certainly the best film ever directed by a man who pled guilty to raping a child and then fled the country to escape punishment), at 10:30pm.

It would be an exaggeration to say Doctor Who’s ratings collapsed following ITV’s return, but “The Creature from the Pit” Part One (27th October 1979), the first episode with opposition from the commercial channel, only gathered 9.3m viewers, a loss of 6.8m people, well over a third of the audience who watched “City of Death” Part Four, most of whom would have defected to ITV for the first episode of a new series of Mind Your Language.

(It would be mischievous, but essentially accurate, to point out that a third of Doctor Who’s audience was uninterested in watching community programming in which British Asian people represented their own concerns on television, but jumped ship to a racist sitcom at the earliest opportunity.)

Viewers didn’t have to watch Doctor Who or BBC Two during the strike, of course; they could switch the television off instead. This seems like a good point, but the counter to it is surprising: Many did. Doctor Who’s ratings during these weeks fall short of the combined ratings one would expect for BBC One + ITV. This may seem like an unfair demand, but some BBC programmes were capable of achieving this benchmark.

Perhaps we need a more concrete example: BBC One’s (superb) detective series Shoestring began the night after “City of Death” Part One, and gradually built its audience from the very high starting point of 18.7m for Robert Banks Stewart’s series opener “Private Ear” (greater than any episode of Doctor Who ever shown) to a high of 23.2m for “An Uncertain Circle” on 21st October 1979, the day after “City of Death” ended.

Essentially, while these Doctor Who figures are impressive, they need to be seen within the specific, hugely uncompetitive environment of September to October 1979. This is where the number belongs. “City of Death” Part Four’s viewing figure would, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, constitute a higher number of viewers than anything shown on UK television that wasn’t part of the 2012 London Olympics, a Royal event, or a competitive match for the England men’s national football team. This is a striking juxtaposition, but not an appropriate context in which to look at the figure.

This is where another number, the chart position of Doctor Who, is perhaps more useful in determining the success of the series with audiences. (This is the number in the final column on our list.) The chart positions for these eight episodes are nothing exceptional for Doctor Who. Let’s have a look at the episodes which premièred in the same slot a year (minus a day) before these eight episodes, i.e. the first two stories of the 1978 series:

The Ribos Operation Episode One 8.3m 42
The Ribos Operation Episode Two 8.1m 36
The Ribos Operation Episode Three 7.9m 38
The Ribos Operation Episode Four 8.2m 36

The Pirate Planet Episode One 9.1m 30
The Pirate Planet Episode Two 7.4m 52
The Pirate Planet Episode Three 8.2m 44
The Pirate Planet Episode Four 8.4m 46

As you can see, the chart positions (excluding “City of Death” Part Four) are directly comparable. “The Pirate Planet” Part Three achieved the same chart position as “City of Death” Part Two with just over half the number of viewers who tuned in a year and a week later. “The Pirate Planet” Part One charts twenty places higher than “City of Death” Part One does a year later, despite getting only three quarters of the viewers of the later episode.

Another indication of the overall increase in viewers prompted by the ITV strike can be garnered by looking at the Doctor Who repeated in August 1979, just before the new series started:

The Androids of Tara Episode One 6.2m 49
The Androids of Tara Episode Two 10.4m 43
The Androids of Tara Episode Three 10.5m 43
The Androids of Tara Episode Four 9.6m 41

The ITV national blackout began on 10th August, one day after the repeat of “The Androids of Tara” Part One. “The Androids of Tara” Part Two, six days later, sees a large increase in viewers, but without a commensurate rise in chart position. Because almost all other BBC One programming experienced a similar proportional increases in bums-on-seats.

(The original showing of “The Stones of Blood” Parts Two and Three earlier in the year provides the ideal counterexample of what would happen in non-strike conditions. Part Two got 6.6m viewers and Part Three 9.3. That’s not as big a jump as between the repeated “Tara” episodes, but it’s comparable. Part Two charted at 75 and Part Three at 38. A movement upwards of 37 chart places, rather than six.)

Let’s go back to Shoestring and “The Creature from the Pit”. Did Radio West’s “Private Ear” suffer the same step down in audience numbers as ITV returned? Well, yes and no. But mainly no.

“Listen To Me” (28th October), the first Shoestring after ITV went back on air, saw the series drop to 15.8m. That’s a comparable drop to the Doctor Who to Mind Your Language defectors. Unlike Doctor Who, however, Shoestring almost immediately recovered with 22.2m tuning in for “The Link-Up” (directed by Douglas Camfield) on 11th November and 23.2m for “Find The Lady” on the 18th. (The Doctor Who episodes shown in these weeks could muster audiences of 10.2m and 9.6m respectively, a recovery so far less pronounced it’s not entirely clear that it is one.)

By 22nd December and “The Horns of Nimon” Part One, Doctor Who had fallen to 6m viewers, making it the least watched Tom Baker-led episode of Doctor Who up to that point. It is also the joint sixth least watched Doctor Who episode of the whole of the nineteen-seventies, and was the series’ lowest rating for a first-run episode since “The Time Monster” Episode Five, shown on 17th June 1972, over seven years earlier (“The Time Monster” came 67th in that week’s chart; unimpressive, but a better showing than “The Horns of Nimon” at 100th. It was the first first-run episode of Doctor Who since “An Unearthly Child” to have a chart position in triple figures). Part Two of “Nimon” improved on this to 8.8m (56th), Part Three got to 9.8m (40th) and Part Four was up to 10.4m (26th).

“The Horns of Nimon” Part One was perhaps derailed by ITV’s screening of the family movie Digby, the Biggest Dog In The World (written by Jon Pertwee’s brother Michael, incidentally), which started ten minutes before Doctor Who. (The Shoestring the Sunday before had managed 15.2m, so it had not lost well over half of its audience since ITV came back.) It is also possible that the screening of The Beatles’ film Help! on BBC Two, due to start as Doctor Who finished, had an impact, with many viewers tuned to BBC Two waiting for Richard Lester’s film to start.

Interestingly, the better rated episodes of “Nimon” lacked networked opposition of any kind. They were on against a scattering of imports (including Mork and Mindy and CHiPs) and local programmes, with a variety of start times, across the ITV regions. Programmes facing inconsistent opposition generally rated better at this point, making this a more favourable environment than that faced by Part One, albeit not as favourable as ITV being wholly off-air. (Parts Two to Four also faced Mr Smith’s Indoor Garden, a series on caring for pot plants, on BBC Two, which is hardly comparable to John, Paul, George and Ringo).

Doctor Who’s frankly monumental ratings failure in autumn 1980, when every episode from “The Leisure Hive” Part One to “State of Decay” Part Four underperformed even “The Horns of Nimon” Part One, is usually explained with reference to opposition from Buck Rogers on ITV. (It cannot have been an adverse reaction to producer John Nathan-Turner’s new style for the programme, as some still protest: the audience didn’t watch some or all of “The Leisure Hive” Part One and then switch off, they simply didn’t switch on in the first place.)

It is the strong opposition to “Nimon” Part One, rather than anything about the episode itself, that is responsible for its poor showing in both numerical and relative terms. This is equally true of the stories shown in Autumn 1980. Can we see the failure of “Nimon” Part One, and of almost all of the 1980/81 series, as expressions of something deeper? The mirror image of how the absolute absence of opposition gifted numerical, if not relative, supremacy to “Destiny” and “City”?

Is it simply the case that in the late 1970s the known quantity of Doctor Who did well against no, or incoherent opposition, but when there was a new, shiny alternative it would instantly suffer?

There is a precedent for this: three years earlier, in the autumn of 1977, Doctor Who had also faced opposition from a networked and/or largely networked glossy American import, Man from Atlantis. This began on 24th September 1977, the same day as “Horror of Fang Rock” Part Four went out. LWT, the weekend franchise for London, scheduled Man from Atlantis at 19:35, after Doctor Who finished. ATV, however, ran it at 18:00. This was before Doctor Who’s start time of 18:15 and meant that Man from Atlantis not only began before Doctor Who but finished after it. (Man from Atlantis had started life as a series of TV movies before being picked up as a weekly series, and the ITV companies ran these four 90 minute episodes before diving straight into the hour long show.)

The Times of 10th October 1977, published the week between Parts Two and Three of “The Invisible Enemy”, noted that Man from Atlantis was winning the ratings battle against Doctor Who in the ITV regions in which the former was scheduled directly against the latter. As this was the pre-Murdoch Times, and thus still a newspaper rather than a lengthy advertorial for other Murdoch company products with an explicitly and ferociously anti-public service agenda, we can put a reasonable amount of trust in this claim.

Man from Atlantis did not take a noticeable bite out of Doctor Who’s ratings or chart position when looked at week by week, “Horror of Fang Rock” started with 6.8m (52nd) and finished with 9.9m (23rd). The picture for “The Invisible Enemy”, “Image of the Fendahl” and “The Sun Makers” is of a series bouncing between 6.7m (70th ) for “Image” Part One, an episode with Man from Atlantis against it in almost all regions and 9.5m (36th) for “Sun Makers” Part Two, an episode where Man from Atlantis began after it in most of the country.

Nevertheless, there is no consistent pattern of Man from Atlantis having an impact on Doctor Who. Or is there? In these weeks, essentially the months of October, November and December, Doctor Who always had Man from Atlantis against it somewhere in the UK and could never manage above 9.5m viewers. In the same weeks a year earlier, in 1976, Doctor Who had never fallen below 10.2m viewers, and had managed three episodes between 11m and 12m, two between 12m and 13m and one over 13m. (Two over 13m if you include the compilation of “Pyramids of Mars” shown in Doctor Who’s usual Saturday slot on 27th of November due to the back fourteen episodes of the then current production block being postponed until January 1977.)

Was Doctor Who underperforming compared to a year earlier thanks to Man from Atlantis? Is there a way to know?


“Underworld” Part Four saw Doctor Who’s audience leap up to 11.7m viewers. It was shown on 28 January 1978. This was (as well as being two days before your correspondent’s birth) the weekend where several ITV regions gave up on Man from Atlantis and Doctor Who’s opposition splintered. Atlantis was abandoned, not because of low viewing figures for ITV (the UK transmissions were actually ahead, in episode terms, of the USA at this point), but because it had been cancelled in the US, and there would be no more episodes forthcoming.

The hunt was thus on for the next big thing and possible Doctor-slayer. (LWT plumped for Logan’s Run, a terrible series based on a film from the year before that, due to differences in how the UK and USA govern cinema admissions, few British children could have seen.) Having paid for them, the ITV regions burned off the remaining episodes of Man from Atlantis in isolated dead end slots as and when. (ATV would finally show the last episode of the series as afternoon filler at 13:00 on the day before Doctor Who’s “Nightmare of Eden” Part Two almost two years later.)

Following Man from Atlantis’ disappearance, Doctor Who’s ratings stayed above 11m for the first two episodes of “The Invasion of Time” and did not drop below 9.5m for the rest of the series. “The Invasion of Time” is consistently, and easily, the most watched story of its production block by any measure.

(It is also possible that the release of Star Wars in the UK in January 1978 after six months of anticipation aided Doctor Who. Both “Underworld” and “The Invasion of Time” consciously emulate that film, something that, while denied by their producer ex post facto, is evident from their camera scripts; and besides, Doctor Who was more capable of adapting to a new zeitgeist in which space opera was the current fad than almost any other already-running TV series on either side of the Atlantic.)

While it had seen off Space: 1999 in September 1975, Doctor Who didn’t play any part in Man from Atlantis’ defeat; the Patrick Duffy vehicle was sunk by a different enemy entirely. It is worth pondering what might have become of Doctor Who in 1978/9 had the weekly Man from Atlantis series not been cancelled in the USA after thirteen episodes.

What all this together demonstrates is that Doctor Who was assured an audience when it was the only game in town, but was vulnerable to networked or nearly networked opposition on ITV when that opposition, whatever its actual content or quality, replicated Doctor Who’s broad family appeal.

Familiarity had perhaps bred contempt in Doctor Who’s audience, and it is more than possible that the massive overexposure of Doctor Who during the ITV strike contributed to that. Doctor Who was known. When an alternative presented itself, and didn’t conveniently run out of episodes, the audience was quite prepared to abandon the Doctor and seek its family teatime thrills elsewhere.

Thanks to the ever brilliant Ian Beard for ITV transmission dates research help and at ridiculously short notice, and Stuart Douglas for sounding board services.

Shoestring numbers are BBC internal figures.

James Cooray Smith's book The Black Archive #2: The Massacre is available from March 2016 from Obverse Books


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