This week the BBC issued a perfunctory response to complaints about a female Doctor Who. This is a program has always embraced diversity, without always highlighting it. A female producer in the male dominated BBC of 1963, was followed over time by a host of strong female characters. It made a hero of the bisexual Captain Jack in 2005 and followed that with a non-white companion. A female Doctor may seem a progressive, if unnecessary step, but risks alienating fans at a time when they are needed to prop up falling ratings.
Series 10 had the lowest viewing figures since the show’s return in 2005 and the fifth lowest in its history. The other four immediately preceded its cancellation in 1989. One of the reasons for the recent decline is the loss, over time, of the target audience. Doctor Who was originally aimed at families who no longer watch television together. They were supplemented by casual viewers, in the days of fewer channels. Multi episode storylines, inconsistent scheduling, an increased willingness to tackle adult issues, and an over-reliance on the program’s history have all combined to deter the surviving channel hoppers. The fans remain but anything which caters only for existing supporters is doomed to fail. The trick is to retain their enthusiasm and find ways of increasing their numbers. Doctor Who did this with its rebirth in 2005. Now it is trying a different regeneration.
It is a decade since Doctor Who provided something new to transcend the program and engage a general audience. The Daleks, The Cybermen, K9, Captain Jack, and the Weeping Angels are amongst its creations that excited children and entered popular culture. A female doctor may be the next iconic figure, but the BBC must first ensure that there are enough fans left to see it happen.