Look Who's back for Christmas: The 2016 Doctor Who special
In recent years, December 25th has marked the end of a new content countdown for Canadians. That is, if you're a Whovian i.e. a Doctor Who enthusiast. Much like children in mid-December, fans behind a popular series tend to cultivate gripping anticipation for its continuation. Perhaps now more than ever, thanks to the YouTube trailer era.
Thanks to same-day broadcasting via Space+ and BBC America, as well as accumulating streaming services audiences, fandom for the UK-based science fiction icon has flourished in North America, since the series revival in 2005. For fans, the annual Christmas special signals the precursor to the new season, as the legendary Time Lord battles carnivorous snow people, negotiates with Scroogian aliens, or saves the Titanic from crashing into Buckingham palace from space. In Canada, it's been Christmas Day's second highest rated program for four years running.
The theme of this year's episode, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, was something different: superheroes. Not a huge surprise, considering the successes of Marvel and DC adaptations, both on broadcast television (The Flash, Agents of Shield), and streaming services (Daredevil, Gotham). The episode pays homage to famous comic book crime-fighters, giving its super-powered guest character, Grant, Batman's raspy vocals, Superman's two-person love triangle (supported by a pair of glasses), and accidental powers from an alien artifact, instead of a radioactive spider. And audience reactions were indeed a mixed bag.
In Canada, about 1.2 million* people tuned in to the episode, making it the second lowest rated of the specials, since they began airing on Space + in 2011. Roughly the same number of viewers tuned in to last year's episode, The Husbands of River Song. However, of the six specials, it achieved the most viewers per minute, with an average audience of more than 850,000. An explanation may be that this episode ended the six-season romance between the Doctor, and his literal star-crossed lover, River Song. Likewise, the second highest average minute audience went to 2013's The Time of Doctor, which saw Matt Smith's incarnation of the titular character exit the series. The fans appear to be taking the time to tune in to say goodbye to their favorite characters.
In the UK, the past two episodes have had the lowest turnout, with 7.7 million watching in 2015, and 7.8 million watching in 2016. That's compared to the highest viewer turnout of 13.3 million in 2007 for Voyage of the Damned (spoiler alert, that's the one with the Titanic, guest starring Kylie Minogue). Meanwhile in the U.S., 1.7 million tuned into BBC America for 2016's episode, which broke the channel's all-time record. It seems that the superhero scenario resonated with audiences in the birth nation of DC and Marvel.
A few theories address the relatively high, low, or lukewarm ratings. Superheroes can be super fun, but as many sci-fi devotees may attest to, blending genres can be a big gamble with fans. The Return of Doctor Mysterio is also the first new episode since 2015's Christmas special, making it the first one that didn't follow a new season. It's credited as the last episode written by long-time showrunner, Stephen Moffat, leaving the anticipation for the new lead writer, cast, and overall direction of the show in the air until this May.
While reactions were mixed, they suggest that fifty years later, fans are still waiting to see what's next for the Doctor. As new developments in this franchise fly forward, we'll see where we land this Spring.
*Source: Numeris TV PPM Data
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