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Surprising connection between Doctor Who viewership and death rates

[Dec. 21, 2023: JD Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

Research has unveiled an unexpected connection between the airing of new Doctor Who episodes during the festive period, especially on Christmas Day, and lower death rates in the subsequent year. (CREDIT: BBC / Dr. Who)

In a heartwarming twist of scientific discovery, a recent study published in The BMJ's Christmas issue has unveiled an unexpected connection between the airing of new Doctor Who episodes during the festive period, especially on Christmas Day, and lower death rates in the subsequent year across the United Kingdom.

This remarkable finding raises questions about the potential impact of doctors working during the holiday season and hints at the possibility of more regular broadcasts of Doctor Who episodes during festive periods. As the author of the study suggests, this intriguing revelation could usher in a new tradition for both the BBC and Disney+.


Doctor Who, a beloved British television series, first graced our screens six decades ago. Its captivating storyline revolves around the adventures of the Doctor, a mysterious time-traveling hero who journeys through space and time in the TARDIS, fighting villains and intervening to save lives. The show's enduring popularity has garnered millions of viewers worldwide, solidifying its status as a cultural phenomenon.

However, the impact of doctors working over the festive period on public health has remained uncertain. To address this intriguing question, Professor Richard Riley, a leading expert in Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, embarked on a unique investigation.


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He sought to explore the potential link between the airing of new Doctor Who episodes from December 24th to January 1st – effectively representing a single doctor working during that period – and the subsequent year's age-standardized death rates reported by the UK's Office for National Statistics.

It's important to note that the study only considered new televised episodes of Doctor Who aired since its inception in 1963. Spin-off series, books, comics, and audio stories were not included in the analysis. Over the span of six decades, the study identified 31 festive periods during which a new Doctor Who episode was broadcast, including an impressive 14 episodes that aired on Christmas Day. A striking trend emerged, with 13 of these 14 Christmas Day episodes consecutively broadcast from 2005 to 2017.


Through meticulous time-series analyses, Professor Riley unearthed a remarkable association between the airing of Doctor Who episodes during the festive period and subsequent reductions in annual death rates. Specifically, episodes shown on Christmas Day were linked to approximately six fewer deaths per 10,000 person-years in England and Wales and four fewer deaths per 10,000 person-years across the entire UK.

The TARDIS has even landed on a Christmas jumper. (CREDIT: BMJ)

The impact was even more pronounced during the consistent broadcasting of Doctor Who episodes over the festive period from 2005 to 2019, predominantly on Christmas Day. During these years, an average of seven fewer deaths per 10,000 person-years in England and Wales and six fewer deaths per 10,000 person-years in the entire UK were observed.


Professor Riley, however, is quick to emphasize that these findings do not imply causation and are specific to the unique character of the Doctor in Doctor Who. The analysis did take into account population differences over time, but the observed effects may not necessarily extend to all medical doctors in the real world.

Lead researcher (top left) and family members with actor Sylvester McCoy (holding umbrella) who played the seventh Doctor in Doctor Who, and actor Sophie Aldred (with baton) who played the Doctor’s companion, Ace. (CREDIT: BMJ)

Nevertheless, he posits that watching a compassionate and caring doctor like the one depicted in the show "could encourage health-seeking behavior" among viewers.

This study serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of accessible healthcare and the dedicated professionals who provide it. Professor Riley suggests that decision-makers at the BBC and Disney+, the international broadcaster of new Doctor Who episodes, should take note of the study's findings and consider the potential health benefits of continuing the tradition of airing Doctor Who during festive periods, not just in the UK but worldwide.


The idea that a fictional character like the Doctor could have a positive impact on real-life healthcare outcomes may seem improbable, but it underscores the profound effect of kindness, thoughtfulness, and timely care on individuals. Researchers involved in a linked editorial reflect on this discovery, acknowledging that while it may be a chance finding, it nonetheless highlights the significance of providing compassionate and timely healthcare to those in need.

Trend in annual age standardised mortality rates in England and Wales between 1964 and 2019 in relation to festive episodes of Doctor Who broadcast over the previous festive period (24 December to 1 January).  (CREDIT: BMJ)

In their editorial, these researchers celebrate the character of the Doctor, viewing them as a symbol of the best qualities found in healthcare professionals. They believe that the Doctor's adventures have likely inspired countless individuals to make better choices and live healthier lives, both on and off-screen.


As healthcare professionals continue their important work during this Christmas season, the legacy of Doctor Who serves as a poignant reminder. It reminds them that even in the face of challenges, each small act of kindness and care contributes to saving lives. With a smile, they can say, "We're saving lives," and with the backing of this remarkable study, they can confidently declare, "We've got a paper to cite to prove it."

For more science and technology stories check out our New Innovations section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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