THE long-awaited return of Doctor Who pulled in more than 10 million viewers, figures revealed yesterday, bringing a much-needed boost to the BBC’s Saturday night television schedules.
Unofficial overnight figures showed a peak of 10.5 million at 7:30pm and an average of 9.9 million for the whole programme, giving new timelord Christopher Eccleston and his assistant Billie Piper an audience share of 43.2 per cent.
The figures overshadow those of weekday stalwart EastEnders, which earlier this month slipped to a record low of 6.2 million viewers. Rival soap Emmerdale averaged 8.8 million in a recent one-hour special.
The latest version of the cult programme, which returns after an absence of more than 15 years, also won acclaim from fans and former Doctor Who stars. Producers have added an array of new special effects to the traditional mix of eccentric science-fiction and battles with arch-enemies.
Saturday night’s episode won a head-to-head contest with ITV1’s Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, which drew an average of 7.2 million viewers and only a 31.4 per cent share despite a guest appearance by England footballer David Beckham.
A spokesman for the BBC said the figures proved many had "sat down as a family to watch the return of Doctor Who".
But an ITV spokeswoman said it was untroubled by the defeat, claiming any comparisons between an entertainment show and a big budget drama would be unfair. "The audience for Ant and Dec was up on the show last Easter Saturday, which got 7.1 million viewers, so we have no complaints," she said.
Yesterday’s unofficial numbers reveal Salford-born Eccleston may challenge Tom Baker’s record for the most watched debut episode of a new Doctor since the show began in 1963. In 1974, when Tom Baker first threw a scarf around his neck and became Doctor Who, 10.8 million people tuned in. Official figures, due to be published later this week, usually show a slight rise on unofficial numbers.
Saturday’s audience also dwarfed figures for the last full series of the show in 1989, when Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor won an average of 4.2 million viewers, prompting the programme to be axed.
In the first episode of the new series, aided by pop singer turned actress Piper, who took on the role of his new assistant, Rose, the Doctor battled with possessed plastic mannequins called Autons.
At its height in the 1970s, 10.2 million people watched Doctor Who, many retreating behind sofas in fear of the programme’s famous Daleks.
Douglas McNaughton, who organises publicity for the Edinburgh and Lothians Doctor Who Group, loved the start of the new series. He said: "It was terrific - very fast, very pacy and very 2005. They kept the same magic but managed to make it appeal to a new audience."
He added: "My niece, who is nine, loved it and couldn’t believe it when I told her there are 12 more episodes to come."
Estimates suggest Doctor Who could make the BBC as much as 75 million over the next five years. The new series cost 12 million to make and has already been sold to broadcasters in Canada, New Zealand and Italy.
Much of the cash is expected to come from the sale of merchandise - a radio-controlled Dalek is due to hit the shops in October, and a replica of The Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver is tipped to be the must-have toy next Christmas.
Die-hard fans and newly hooked children are expected to want their very own version of the Screwdriver, a tool that successive Doctors have used since 1968. The toy will have a blue flashing light that can be withdrawn into its handle by pressing a button.
Dunoon-born McCoy said the new version of the programme was "simply wonderful". He added: "The writing is terrific and the toys they play with are much more sophisticated than they were in my day.
"You can’t really compare different series’ of Doctor Who because they are very much of their time and very different animals. Having said that, I am very envious about not being in it."
It’s the same now as it was in 1963 - it looks fantastic
THE first episode of the new Doctor Who series was exhilarating. After a long gap since the last Doctor sped through time and space, I was on the edge of my seat while I watched.
I had fairly low expectations of it, partly because of the leak that appeared on the internet a few weeks ago, but also because people said it was going to be too comedic. However, I was wrong - this was brilliant.
Christopher Eccleston will take a bit of getting used to as The Doctor, but it was the same when Tom Baker stepped into the role for the first time. On Saturday The Doctor was all over the place but, like Baker, I think Eccleston has the potential to be a really good Doctor.
I really rate him as an actor: Our Friends in the North is one of my favourite TV dramas. I was surprised an actor of his stature would take on a role with such baggage, but having a big name like him will attract better guest stars to the series.
Billie Piper was also absolutely brilliant, really believable. It’s interesting what the producers have done with the role of the assistant - she can’t just be a cipher anymore to ask The Doctor questions and explain the plot to the viewers. Billie held her own well and could be as good as my favourite assistant, Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen back in 1970s.
The man behind the new series, Russell T Davies, is one of the best writers around. He has a good way with dialogue and character and will make the show engage with today’s television audience.
The new look for the TARDIS was interesting. They couldn’t go back to it being a one-room set, but the new interior does give a nod to the way it used to look. It looks really fantastic, as if it’s a working machine.
I was pleased with what I saw of the special effects in the first episode. Long-term fans like me have never liked the shaky sets of days gone by and I won’t miss them. It’s the same now as it was back in 1963 - the success of the show is down to the stories and the dialogue and the characters, not the sets.
I’m very excited about what’s coming next because the clips that were shown on Saturday night before the new episode looked fantastic.
Graeme Robertson, 40, a civil servant, has been a fan since seeing Patrick Troughton as The Doctor when he was a child in the 1960s. He is a member of the Edinburgh and Lothians Doctor Who Group.