Updating the Doctors: 13 is not a lucky number for Jodie Whittaker

One of the first data-driven essays to appear on this website was a three-part assessment of every episode of Doctor Who following its revival in March 2005. You may find those three essays—as well as a, frankly, much better written July 2018 update—here; you will also find a much longer essay I wrote demonstrating the influence of classic film noir on the revised series. 

On December 25, 2017, Jodie Whittaker debuted as the 13th incarnation of the multi-thousand-year-old Doctor. Since then, Whittaker has portrayed the Gallifreyan Time Lord in 21 additional episodes, with the most recent airing on March 1, 2020.

With two seasons of Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor behind us, here is an updated assessment of the 165 total episodes of the revived Doctor Who.

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Just as I collected ratings data to rank every Charlie Chan film, every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and my own guilty pleasures, I collected ratings data to assess the relative popularity of the 165 episodes of the resurrected Doctor Who[1], from “Rose” (March 26, 2005) through “The Timeless Children” (March 1, 2020). Excluding John Hurt’s  irascible War Doctor, there have been five incarnations of The Doctor during this time period: 9 through 13. These 165 episodes comprise 12 Series of between 10 and 13 episodes plus 13 Christmas specials and four stand-alone specials, three featuring the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) as well as the November 2013 50th anniversary epic, in which Doctors 10 and 11 (Matt Smith) teamed with the War Doctor to save Gallifrey, The Doctor’s home planet.

For each episode, I collected four values:[2]

  1. Its BBC “Audience Appreciation Index” (AI) Score, an integer from 0-100 revealing how much the British audience enjoyed each episode when it first aired. Higher scores indicate greater enjoyment.
  2. Where the episode ranked that week in Great Britain (Chart), with a lower score indicating more viewers.
  3. Its weighted-average Internet Movie Database (IMDB) score on a 0-10 scale, with 10 being the most favorable, and…
  4. The number of IMDB “raters” whose scores were averaged. The higher the number of raters, in principle, the more “compelling” the episode—though higher ratings could also simply reflect a longer rating time frame or a trollish desire to “trash” an episode.

Analyzing these data will reveal:

  • How popular individual episodes are now,
  • How an episode’s current popularity compares to how popular each episode weas when it first aired,
  • The comparative popularity of individual Series, and
  • The comparative popularity of Doctors 9-13

I decided mostly to set aside “Chart” values as they are difficult to compare over time.

Table 1 provides details on each Series. It excludes the 13 Christmas specials from 2005 through 2017, two 2009 10th Doctor specials (“Planet of the Dead,” “The Waters of Mars”) and “The Day of the Doctor.” However, given its chronological and story-arc proximity to the prior 10 episodes, I chose to include the 2019 New Year’s Day special “Resolution” as the 11th and final episode of Series 11.

Table 1: Doctor Who Series (2005-20)

# Dates # Episodes Doctor Primary Companion(s)
1 March 26-June 18, 2005 13 9 Rose Tyler
2 April 15-July 8, 2006 13 10 Rose Tyler
3 March 31-June 30, 2007 13 10 Martha Jones
4 April 5-July 5, 2008 13 10 Donna Noble
5 April 10-June 26, 2010 13 11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
6 April 23-June 4, 2011;

August 27-October 1, 2011

7

6

11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
7a September 1-29, 2012 5 11 Amy Pond/Rory Williams
7b March 30-May 18, 2013 8 11 Clara Oswald
8 August 23-November 8, 2014 12 12 Clara Oswald
9 September 19-December 5, 2015 12 12 Clara Oswald
10 April 15-July 1, 2017 12 12 Bill Potts
11 October 7, 2018-January 1, 2019 11 13 Yasmin Khan/Graham O’Brien/Ryan Sinclair
12 January 1-March 1, 2020 10 13 Yasmin Khan/Graham O’Brien/Ryan Sinclair

Individual episodes. Overall, the resurrected series has been very well-received with a “global” IMDB rating of 8.6 (192,481 unique raters). Upon first airing, average AI score was a remarkable 84.3, with a small standard deviation (“sd”) of 2.9; all but 12 episodes have an AI Score between 80 and 89. Enthusiasm has only somewhat diminished over time: average IMDB rating is 7.78 (sd=1.1), with 113 episodes (68%) between 7.0 and 8.9. In the previous version of this post, average AI Score was a tick higher (84.9) while average IMDB rating was higher still (8.13). While the former, as we shall see, represents a diminution of the show’s popularity in recent years, the latter suggests more recent IMDB raters are not as enamored with these episodes as prior raters; only the 2009 special “The Waters of Mars” had a higher IMDB rating, increasing from 8.7 to 8.8.

Two extremely highly-regarded episodes—2007’s “Blink” (9.8) and “The Day of the Doctor” (9.4—each attracted more than 15,000 raters (median=5,050; 120 [73%] between 3,000 and 5,999), accounting for the discrepancy between the series’ global IMDB rating and the mean across all 165 individual episodes.

Table 2: Most- and least-admired Doctor Who episodes (2005-17) when first aired

Title Series-Episode Doctor AI Score
Journey’s End 4-13 10 91
The Stolen Earth 4-12 10 91
Forest of the Dead 4-9 10 89
Doomsday 2-13 10 89
Silence in the Library 4-8 10 89
Asylum of the Daleks 7a-1 11 89
The Parting of the Ways 1-13 9 89
The Big Bang 5-13 11 89
The End of Time: Part Two 10th Doctor Specials 10 89
14 Episodes 3  to 50th Anniversary 10 (8), 11 (6) 88
5 Episodes 1,9,11-12 9,12,13 80
Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror 12-4 13 79
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos 11-10 13 79
The Tsuranga Conundrum 11-5 13 79
Can You Hear Me? 12-7 13 78
Sleep No More 9-9 12 78
Praxeus 12-6 13 78
Orphan 55 12-3 13 77
Rose 1-1 9 76
Love & Monsters 2-10 10 76
The End of the World 1-2 9 76

      * The Unquiet Dead (1), Heaven Sent (9), Demons of the Punjab (11), Resolution (11-NYD), The Haunting of Villa Diodati (12)

The first thing we learn from Table 2 is that British viewers did not immediately warm to Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor upon Doctor Who’s resurrection: the first two new episodes (“Rose,” “The End of the World”)—are tied with the execrable Series 2 episode “Love & Monsters” for lowest AI Score. More recently, however, there are signs British audiences may be cooling to the show and, specifically, the ascension of Chris Chibnall as Doctor Who showrunner. Setting aside the even-more-execrable Series 9 episode “Sleep No More,” the other six episodes with the lowest AI Score date from his tenure, evenly divided between Series 11 and 12. Overall, 13 13th Doctor episodes (54%)—14, if you include “Twice Upon a Time”—rank in the bottom 24 in AI Score; no episode in which Jodie Whittaker portrays The Doctor tops 83.

Meanwhile, four of the five episodes with the highest AI scores came as the 10th Doctor’s song was ending: the spectacular two-part Series 4 finale (“The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End) and the equally-brilliant two-part “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.” The top nine is rounded out by four other “finale” episodes: “The Parting of the Ways” (9th Doctor’s regeneration), “Doomsday” (Rose Tyler [Billie Piper] gets trapped in a parallel universe), “The End of Time: Part Two” (10th Doctor’s regeneration) and “The Big Bang” (Series 5 finale), as well as the first episode of Series 7a, “Asylum of the Daleks.”

But while AI Scores are a fixed starting point, albeit solely with British audiences, the IMDB ratings (flaws and all) in Table 3 signal how attitudes toward Doctor Who episodes have evolved over time, after they have been watched and re-watched, shared with others, and discussed at length.

Table 3: Doctor Who episodes (2005-17) with highest/lowest IMDB ratings

Title Series-Episode Doctor IMDB Rating # User-Raters
Blink 3-10 10 9.8 17,343
Heaven Sent 9-11 12 9.6 8,935
Forest of the Dead 4-9 10 9.5 7,789
Silence in the Library 4-8 10 9.4 7,480
The Day of the Doctor 50th Anniv 10/11 9.4 16,566
Doomsday 2-13 10 9.3 7,291
Vincent and the Doctor 5-10 11 9.3 8,961
The Girl in the Fireplace 2-4 10 9.3 9,064
5 Episodes* 1,3,4,10 9 (1), 10 (2), 12 (1) 9.2 4,001-7,138
3 Episodes 2,8,11 10 (1), 12 (1), 13(1) 6.0 4,475-6,787
Can You Hear Me? 12-7 13 5.9 2,154
Sleep No More 9-9 12 5.8 4,185
Resolution 11-NYD 13 5.7 3,751
The Timeless Children 12-10 13 5.6 2,481
The Witchfinders 11-8 13 5.6 4,531
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos 11-10  

13

5.2 3,868
Praxeus 12-6 13 5.2 2,517
Arachnids in the UK 11-4 13 5.0 6,048
The Tsuranga Conundrum 11-5 13 4.9 5,582
Orphan 55 12-3 13 4.1 3,778

      * The Empty Child (1), The Family of Blood (3), Journey’s End (4), World Enough and Time (10)

        † Fear Her (1), In the Forest of the Night (8), The Ghost Monument (11)

Twenty-four resurrected Doctor Who episodes have an IMDB rating of 9.0 or higher, topped by “The Day of the Doctor,” “Silence/Forest,” the penultimate Series 9 episode “Heaven Sent” and, of course, “Blink.” The extremely high number of “Blink” raters supports the idea this is the episode most often used by Doctor Who fans to introduce the show to non-fans; if you are wondering, my wife Nell’s and my introduction was the remarkable “The Eleventh Hour” (88, 8.6), the first episode of Series 5. Somewhat less often used this way (ranked 3rd and 4th in raters) are the bittersweet episodes “The Girl in the Fireplace” (Series 2) and “Vincent and the Doctor” (Series 5). The heartbreaking “Doomsday” rounds out the top eight. My personal favorite episode, “A Good Man Goes to War” (Series 6), is in a 7-way-tie for 13th with a 9.1 IMDB rating.

Bringing up the rear, by contrast, are 13 episodes with IMDB ratings ≤6.0, all but three from Series 11 and 12. In the previous version of this post, “Sleep No More” ranked lowest at 6.0; even though its IMDB rating dropped to 5.8, fully eight episodes are now ranked below it, including the Series 11 episode “The Tsuranga Conundrum” (4.9) and the wretched Series 12 episode “Orphan 55” (4.1).

There is clear overlap across these three rankings: “Doomsday,” “Silence/Forest,” “Stolen/Journey’s,” “The End of Time: Part Two,” “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” “A Good Man” and “Day” remain among the most admired and oft-rated episodes, while “Sleep No More” and “Love and Monsters” are still best forgotten. It is likely too soon to know if attitudes toward the two most recent Series will evolve. On the other hand, an episode like “Heaven Sent,” which was relatively poorly received when it first aired in November 2015 (AI score=80), is now the 2nd-highest rated episode on IMDB!

A correlation coefficient (r) measures how well two measures “agree” in a linear way. R ranges between -1.00 and 1.00; if r is negative, then as one measure increases, the other decreases, and if r is positive, as one measure increases, the other measure increases. When r=0.00, the association is completely random.

The correlation between AI score and IMDB rating is a very solid 0.61, while that between IMDB rating and number of raters is a solid 0.46. These associations are seen more clearly in Figures 1 and 2 below. The correlation between AI score and number of user-raters was a more modest, though still positive, 0.28 (data not shown).

Figure 1: AI Score vs. IMDB Rating, Doctor Who episodes, 2005-20 (n=165)

DW Figure 1

Figure 2: IMDB Rating vs. # Raters, Doctor Who episodes, 2005-20 (n=165)

DW Figure 2

Attitude evolution. Comparing each episode’s AI scores and IMDB ratings reveals which episodes have increased in appeal over time, and vice versa. To do this, I converted each value to its z-score (number of SD above/below average) to account for differing scales; every z-score has average=0 and SD=1. For example, “A Good Man” has an IMDB rating of 9.1. Subtracting the average of 7.8 from 9.1, then dividing by the SD of 1.1 yields a z-score of 1.25, meaning this episode is 1.25 SD more highly regarded than average based upon its IMDB score.

Figure 3: AI Score vs. IMDB Rating (z-scores), Doctor Who episodes, 2005-20 (n=165)

DW Figure 3

Two-thirds (66%) of these episodes remain either better regarded than average (both z-scores>0, n=55) or less well regarded than average (both z-scores<0, n=54). Once again, “Blink” and “Stolen/Journey’s” were, and remain, highly regarded, while “Love and Monsters” and “Orphan 55” continue to be episodes best to avoid.

Twenty-seven episodes (16%) went from above average to below average in public esteem–as shown in the lower right quadrant of Figure—most notably the Series 3 episodes “Daleks in Manhattan” and “The Lazarus Experiment.” The latter declined 1.7 SD from a respectable AI score of 86 to a well-below-average IMDB rating of 6.6, while the former dropped 1.6 SD (87 to 7.0). The only other episodes to decline at least 1.5 SD while going from more- to less-well-regarded than average are “The Curse of the Black Spot,” “The Poison Sky” and “Planet of the Dead.” Other than “Curse,” these four episodes feature the 10th Doctor, though nothing else obviously links them.

Finally, 29 episodes (18%) went from below average to above average in regard (upper left quadrant of Figure 3), most notably “Heaven Sent,” which has increased an astonishing 3.2 SD (80 to 9.6) since its November 2015 debut; this episode—the Groundhog Day of Doctor Who—rewards repeat viewing. The next highest increase in SD is 1.85 for “Listen” (82 to 9.0), one of the 12th Doctor’s earliest and most personal adventures. In fact, four of five episodes to increase at least 1.5 SD to become more well-regarded than average, including “Hell Bent” and “The Doctor Falls,” feature the 12th Doctor. Perhaps his imminent departure from the series prompted this positive reevaluation; “The Girl in the Fireplace” rounds out the list.

Series. As seen in Table 1, there have actually been 13 resurrected Doctor Who Series, as Series 7 was split into two halves: one with companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), and one with companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). While Series 6 featured a nearly three-month gap between the first seven and the final six episodes, I consider it a single Series because it features the same companions and a unifying story arc.

Further complicating the demarcation of individual Series are the 13 Christmas episodes, three 10th Doctor specials and the 50th anniversary special (Table 4). It is not clear into which, if any, Series these episodes should be placed. Christmas episodes were equally admired at initial airing (average AI score=84.1 vs 84.4 for all other episodes) and are slightly better-regarded now (average IMDB rating=7.99 vs. 7.76 for all other episodes). The four stand-alone Specials, however, were—and, excepting “Planet,” are—much better-regarded.

Table 4: AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Christmas and Special Episodes (2005-17)

Title Year/Date Doctor AI Score IMDB Rating
Christmas Specials
The Christmas Invasion 2005 10 84 8.1
The Runaway Bride 2006 10 84 7.6
Voyage of the Damned 2007 10 85 7.6
The Next Doctor 2008 10 86 7.5
The End of Time: Part One 2009 10 87 8.2
A Christmas Carol 2010 11 83 8.6
The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe 2011 11 84 7.2
The Snowmen 2012 11 87 8.4
The Time of the Doctor 2013 11 83 8.4
Last Christmas 2014 12 82 8.3
The Husbands of River Song 2015 12 82 8.5
The Return of Doctor Mysterio 2016 12 82 7.4
Twice Upon a Time 2017 12 81 8.1
 

10th Doctor Specials (after Series 4, excluding Christmas)

Planet of the Dead April 11, 2009 10 88 7.5
The Waters of Mars November 15, 2009  

10

88 8.8
The End of Time: Part Two January 1, 2010  

 

10

89 8.9
 

50th Anniversary Special

The Day of the Doctor November 23, 2013 War, 10, 11 88 9.4

For simplicity, then, I assessed individual Series using only the 148 episodes listed in Table 1.

Figure 4: Average AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Series (2005-20)

DW Figure 4

Series 1 started slowly (Figure 4; AI Scores divided by 10 for apples-to-apples comparison), although four of the final five episodes rank among the most well-regarded now (“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” “Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways,” average IMDB score=9.0).

While Series 2 is now slightly less well-regarded than Series 1, and average IMDB rating for Series 3 drops to 7.94 without “Blink,” Series generally became better-regarded through Series 4. This latter Series is the best-regarded of the revived Doctor Who, both when first aired (average AI score=88.1) and now (average IMDB rating=8.42). It started slowly: while “Partners in Crime” through “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (n=7) have a solid AI score average of 87.3, their average IMDB rating is only 7.73. Starting with the brilliant two-part “Silence/Forest,” however, the six episodes through “Journey’s End” have an astonishingly-high average AI score (89.0) and IMDB rating (9.20)! Outside of the three-episode sequence “The Name…” (88, 9.2), “The Day…” (88, 9.4) and “The Time of the Doctor” (83, 8.5), this is the pinnacle of the resurrected Doctor Who, rivaled only by the conclusion to Series 9.

Following the 10th Doctor’s regeneration, however, Series 5 and 6 dropped back to the more-than-respectable levels of Series 1-3. Series 6 had two distinct parts: the seven-episode sequence of “The Impossible Astronaut” through “A Good Man” have solid average AI score (86.7) and IMDB rating (8.16), which drop to 85.7 and 7.95, respectively, for the final six episodes (“Let’s Kill Hitler” through “The Wedding of River Song”).

Starting in Series 7a, these measures diverge, with average AI score jumping to 87.2 and average IMDB rating dropping to 7.98; the Series started (“Asylum of the Daleks,” 89, 8.6) and ended (“The Angels Take Manhattan,” 88, 9.0) well, though it faltered in between (n=3, 86.3, 7.43). The advent of companion Clara Oswald in Series 7b appeared to spike a further decline in public esteem, which only deepened when she teamed with the 12th Doctor in Series 8 and 9, excepting the average IMDB rating of 8.90 for the three-part Series finale (“Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent”). Series 10, with the first openly lesbian companion (Bill Potts [Pearl Mackie]), then signaled a return to Series-8-level regard.

And then…the popularity of Doctor Who took a nosedive over cliffs as steep as those which dominate Broadchurch, which also starred Tennant and Whittaker.

To be fair, average AI Score did not decline nearly as much, perhaps because Britons wanted to give the first female Doctor a fair chance. Indeed, the first full Whittaker episode—“The Woman Who Fell to Earth”—was the top-rated program of the week, the first time that had happened since “Day” in November 2013. And that episode has an OK 6.9 IMDB rating to go with its respectable 83 AI Score. “Rosa,” featuring American civil rights icon Rosa Parks two episodes later, has similar scores of 83 and 7.0. Overall, the first seven episodes averaged 5th place in their respective weeks, rivaling only the 2009-10 Tennant Christmas and standalone specials. Moreover, those seven episodes have been rated by an average of 6,548 IMDB users, rivaling the average 6,740 IMDB raters for the last six episodes of Series 4, which aired a full decade earlier.

For all that attention, however, those seven episodes have a mean IMDB rating of 6.06, which does not materially differ from the Series 11 average of 5.93 and is lower than the Series 12 average of 6.26; the latter series featured the only three other 13th Doctor episodes with IMDB ratings of 7.0 or higher: “Ascension of the Cybermen” (7.0), “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” (7.3) and “Fugitive of the Judoon” (7.7). And every one of these episodes still ranks below the overall average of 7.78. Plus, the 14 episodes which followed “Kerblam!” ranked an average 23rd in their respective weeks, following the historic pattern of a sharp ratings decline over the course of each Series.

Nine of these 21 episodes (43%), meanwhile, have IMDB ratings between 4.1 and 5.9. For context, here are 38 movies in the same range (full disclosure—I have seen each one multiple times, and I genuinely like some of them):

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000)

Batman Forever (1995)

The Big Mouth (1967)

Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989)

Bright Lights, Big City (1987)

Casual Sex? (1988)

City Heat (1984)

Cookie (1989)

Delirious (1991)

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Doctor Detroit (1983)

Dog Park (1998)

Earth Girls are Easy (1989)

The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992)

Hexed (1993)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

Legal Eagles (1986)

Mannequin (1988)

The Marrying Man (1991)

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

The Meteor Man (1993)

Mixed Nuts (1994)

Mr. Saturday Night (1992)

Once Upon a Crime… (1992)

The Opposite Sex, and How to Live With Them (1993)

The Phantom (1996)

The Pick-Up Artist (1987)

Queens Logic (1991)

Random Hearts (1999)

The Spirit (2008)

Summer Lovers (1982)

Sunset (1988)

Tapeheads (1988)

Thank God, It’s Friday (1978)

Wholly Moses (1980)

Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989)

Wild Wild West (1999)

Young Doctors in Love (1982)

It is certainly possible that these 21 episodes, as was the case with the first Eccleston episodes, will be positively reevaluated in later years.

Figure 5: Average AI Scores and IMDB Ratings, Doctor Who Doctors (2005-17)

DW Figure 5

Doctors. Figure 5 displays average values for all 9th (n=13), 10th (n=47), 11th (n=44), 12th Doctor (n=40) and 13th Doctor (n=21) episodes; excluding Christmas episodes and Specials made no appreciable difference.

While websites like WatchMojo.com suggest David Tennant’s 10th Doctor is the best-regarded Doctor ever (rivaling Tom Baker’s 4th Doctor), this is not necessarily borne out by the data. The 10th and 11th Doctors have essentially identical average AI Scores—86.3 and 86.0, while the 12th and 9th Doctors are not that far behind at 82.7 and 82.2, respectively; even the 13th Doctor’s average AI Score of 80.7 is broadly respectable. Moreover, Tennant’s 8.12 average IMDB rating is not appreciably higher than Smith’s 8.04, Eccleston’s 8.01 and Capaldi’s 7.89—though all are considerably than the lowly 6.08 for Whittaker’s 21 episodes.

Conclusions. Overall, the resurrected Doctor Who has been enormously popular by all three primary metrics used above. Its 8.6 overall IMDB rating places it in the rarefied heights between Back to the Future and The Dark Knight. Still, the show did not find its footing until late in Series 1. The 10th and 11th Doctors are held in modestly higher regard than the 9th and 12th Doctors, even if the ends of Series 1 and 9 are very highly-regarded now. The pinnacle of the revived series is the latter half of Series 4, although the most highly-rated episode currently is “Blink” (Series 3), followed by “Heaven Sent” (Series 9) and the 50th-anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor. “Blink” and “Day” also have received the most IMDB user-ratings by far (>15,000 each). By contrast, it is best to avoid the Series 3 episode “Love and Monsters,” the Series 9 episode “Sleep No More” and many episodes in Series 11 and 12, though not “Fugitive of the Judoon” and “The Haunting of Villa Diodati.” While many 10th Doctor episodes have lost stature over time, a similar number of 12th Doctor episodes have done the opposite. Finally, there are extreme warning signs in the dramatic decline in ratings and public esteem following the ascension of Chibnall as show runner and the first female Doctor.

We shall see if this changes in Series 13 in 2021.

If you are interested, here is a PDF of the data compiled for these analyses.

Doctor Who Episode Data, 2005-20

Until next time…please stay safe, sane and healthy…

[1] The “classic” series aired from November 1963 to December 1989, with only one 1996 television movie—intended to be an American series pilot—before its triumphant return in 2005.

[2] As of March 28, 2020

Rituals and obsessions: a brief personal history

It started with “Taxman” by The Beatles.

Its distorted vocal opening had gotten stuck in my head despite my stated antipathy toward the band—really more pose than position, in retrospect.

Whenever I run a bath, I like to be in the tub while the faucet(s) run. Until quite recently,[1] when the tub was nearly full, I would turn off the cold water and turn on the hot water to its scalding limit, counting down “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four” in the same slow tempo as the opening of “Taxman.” Only then would I turn off the hot water and settle in for a steamy cleansing soak.

I realize the actual track opens with “one-two-three-four, one-two” before George Harrison sings “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”

But, hey, my ritual, my rules.

At some point, I stopped employing that ritual to start a bath—only to replace it with one for exiting a bath, even as most of the water had drained around me. During my senior year at Yale, two other seniors and I lived off-campus. Our second-floor walkup had a bathtub, which I used most nights. One night, for…reasons, before the water fully drained, I squatted down and scooped up some water, quickly shaking it out of my hands as though I had just washed my hands in a sink. I repeated that sequence twice, except on the third iteration, I stood up, shaking out my hands as I did so. Only then did I step onto the bath mat.

I have performed this ritual—or some slight variant of it—every single time I have exited a bathtub since the fall of 1987. It is not as though I expect something bad will happen if I do not do so—I am not warding off anxiety; when that particular coin is flipped, it lands on depression for me nearly every time. It is simply that having started doing it, I continued to do it, making it an essential part of my bathtub “routine.”

Funnily enough, I have yet to mention this routine to my psychotherapist.

**********

In a recent post, I detailed ways the Netflix series Stranger Things had resonated with me at a deeply personal level. As of the evening of December 26, my wife Nell and I had watched the entire series—25 episodes over three seasons—twice, the second time with our two pre-teen daughters. Nell’s pithy takeaway: “I would watch it again.” Our younger daughter may already have, quietly watching in her bedroom on her new iPad. She now very much wants her friends to watch the show so she can discuss it with them…or at least have them understand why she suddenly—and with great affection—calls folks, mainly me, “mouth breather” or “dingus.”

Meanwhile, over the course of winter break, a small army of Funko Pop! figures appeared in our home, which our younger daughter arranged in rough chronological order; the short video I took of the sequence is my first ever “pinned” tweet.

Stranger Things tower.JPG

Clearly, I am not the only member of this household now utterly obsessed with the admittedly-excellent series. And one peek inside our younger daughter’s room, decorated in true Hufflepuff fashion, will reveal I am not the only member of this household who easily becomes obsessed.

But I am one of only two members of this household legally old enough to purchase and/or consume alcohol, and I am the only one who refused to drink alcohol until well into my college years—even as my high school classmates would try to get me to join them in beer drinking as we stayed in hotels for Youth in Government or Model UN—because I was very wary of my obsessive nature. I was well aware how often I could not simply enjoy something—I had to fully absorb it into my life.

Indeed, once I did finally sample that first Molson Golden in the converted basement seminar room I shared with two other Elis sophomore year, I liked it far more than I would have anticipated from sampling my father’s watered-down beer at various sporting events. Age prevented me from drinking too much, though, until I turned 21 early in my senior year. On my birthday, those same off-campus roommates took me to a local eatery called Gentree. An utter novice at drinking anything other than beer, I had no clue what to order; the gin and tonic I settled upon did nothing for me. Shortly thereafter, after a brief flirtation with Martini and Rossi (I still do not know how that bottle appeared in our apartment), I tried my first Scotch whisky.

It was love at first sip.

Over the next few years, I never drank enough for anyone to become, you know, concerned, but I did feel like I needed to have a glass of J&B or Cutty Sark with soda water—usually lemon Polar Seltzer—every day. When a close friend came to visit me in the Boston suburb of Somerville in January 1992, he presented me with a bottle of Glenfiddich—one of the better single-malt Scotches—and it was like having a revelation within a revelation, as this photograph from that night depicts.

Glenfiddich Jan 1992.jpg

This photograph reminds me I spent the 1990s and a significant chunk of the following decade living in turtlenecks—of all colors—because I decided one day while getting my hair cut, I liked the way the white cloth band looked around my neck. You know, the one hair stylists use to keep freshly-cut hair from dropping inside your shirt.

Eventually, I settled on Johnnie Walker Black (light rocks, club soda on the side[2]) as my primary poison—though I also developed a taste for a port wine called Fonseca Bin 27. Between 1991 and 1993, I spent way too much time at the bar of an terrific restaurant called Christopher’s. In 2005, I used old credit card receipts, which I had stuffed into a desk drawer for years, to calculate I spent $1,939.23 there (roughly $3,500 in 2019) in just those three years—and that sum excludes cash payments. Apparently, a hallmark of being both obsessive and a math geek is the construction of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to calculate inconsequential values.

It would be another 10 years before I worked Scotch into my emerging Friday night bath ritual—the one with the curated music and the darkness and the single large pine-scented candle from L.L. Bean and the lavender milk bath stuff and the way I would turn off every light before walking into the candle-lit bathroom with my full tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black, or 10-year-old Laphroaig on special occasions. Ahh, that delectably peaty aroma…

More recently, Nell and I moved away from beer and whisky, respectively, toward red wine, going so far as to join Wine of the Month Club. Well, I also developed a taste for rye whisky, be it neat, mixed with ginger ale or in an Old Fashioned.

The point of this borderline-dipsomaniac history is that my high school instincts about my obsessive nature were remarkably close to the mark. Prior to being diagnosed with depression, I self-medicated with alcohol far more than I ever wanted to admit to myself. Perhaps not coincidentally, I recently cut my alcohol consumption down to almost nothing, though my stated reason is the toll it was taking on my sinuses, which have had more than enough trouble already.[3]

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Family lore holds I learned to read at the age of 2½, which my elementary school educator wife tells me is physiologically impossible. Whenever it was, by the time I was eight or so, I had already amassed a solid library of books.

And then I learned about the Dewey Decimal System.

With that, it no longer sufficed to organize my books alphabetically by subject or author or title, or even to use the Library of Congress classification system. No, I had to Dewey-Decimalize them, which meant going to Ludington Library, where I spent a great deal of my childhood and teenage years, to photocopy page after page of classification numbers. I still have a few books from those days, penciled numbers in my childish handwriting on the first page just inside the cover. I even briefly ran an actual lending library out of my ground-floor playroom—the one rebuilt after the fire of March 1973.

Meanwhile, my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living in the “penthouse” of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City, NJ; my father would make the 60-mile drive southeast from Havertown, PA most weekends. In those years, the roughly 2½ miles of Pacific Avenue between Albany and New Hampshire Avenues were dotted with cheap motels and past-their-time hotels. The Strand was one of the better motels, with a decent Italian restaurant just off the lobby, dimly lit with its semi-circular booths upholstered in blood-red leather; I drank many a Shirley Temple over plates of spaghetti there. In that lobby, as in every lobby of every motel and hotel along the strip, was a large wooden rack containing copies of a few dozen pamphlets advertising local attractions.

At first, I simply took a few pamphlets from the Strand lobby to peruse later. Then I wanted all of them. Then I began to prowl the lobbies—yes, at seven, eight years old I rode the jitney by myself during the day, at just 35¢ a ride—of every motel and hotel along Pacific Avenue, and a few along Atlantic Avenue one block northwest, collecting every pamphlet I could find. They were all tossed into a cardboard box; when the winter felt like it was lasting too long, I would dump the box out on my parents’ bed and reminisce.

In the year after that second summer, I became attuned to pop music, leaving Philadelphia’s premiere Top 40 radio station, WIFI 92.5 FM, on in my bedroom for hours at a time, while I did homework, read or worked diligently on…projects.

Back in 1973, my parents had bought me a World Book Encyclopedia set, complete with the largest dictionaries I had ever seen. The W-Z volume had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. Late in 1976, I received a copy of the 1977 World Almanac and Book of Facts, which also had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. And I soon noticed some events were on one timeline but not the other.

Thus, in February 1977, with WIFI 92 as my personal soundtrack, I began to write out a collated timeline, drawing from both sources. Thirty-six lined notebook pages hand-written in pencil later, I had only gotten as far as June 30, 1841—so I decided to slap a red construction paper cover on it and call it Volume I.

Important Events and Dates.JPG

I assigned it Dewey Decimal value 909.

You could say I came to my senses—or I bought a copy of the astounding Encyclopedia of World History—because I never did “publish” a Volume II. In April 1978,[4] however, I wrote a similarly non-knowledge-advancing booklet—no cool cover this time—called 474 PREFIXES, ROOTS AND SUFFIXES. This volume, assigned Dewey Decimal number 423, was only 10 pages long, despite being more comprehensive.

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Even before I immersed myself in hours of 1970s Top 40 radio, I had heard bits and pieces of New Year’s Eve countdowns of the year’s top songs. The first one I remember hearing was at the end of 1974, because I heard Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1974—though I could be mixing it up with John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” released as a single the previous year.

In January 1980, Solid Gold debuted with a two-hour special counting down the top 50 songs of 1979. I was particularly curious to know the ranking of my favorite song at the time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk;” if memory serves, it led off the show at #50. A few days earlier, my cousins and I had listened in the house we then shared to WIFI-92’s top 100 songs of 1979 countdown.

I was vaguely aware there were weekly magazines that tracked top songs and albums, but I did not buy a copy of Cashbox until late April 1980.[5] My Scotch whisky revelation nearly eight years later was a mere passing fancy compared to this slender combination of music and data. I pored over its charts for hours, even calling my best friend to all but read the singles and album charts to him; utterly disinterested, he was nonetheless very patient with my exuberance. That fall, I noticed that every Saturday, the Philadelphia Bulletin published that week’s Billboard top 10 singles, albums—and two other categories, possibly country and soul. Reading these charts—literally covering them with a napkin which I slid up to uncover each song/album from #10 to #1—became a staple ritual of my regular Saturday morning brunch with my father, from whom my mother had separated in March 1977. Not satisfied with reading them, I clipped each set of charts so I could create my own rankings along the lines of “top songs, September 1980 to March 1981.”

On December 31, 1980 and January 1, 1981, I heard two radio stations present their “Top 100 of 1980” countdowns. I listened to the first one with my cousins in my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Lancaster, PA; my mother and her sister were also there. The second one my mother and I heard in the car driving home, although we lost the signal halfway through the countdown; I still was able to hear one of my favorite songs then: “More Love” by Kim Carnes. The following weekend, I found a paper copy of yet another 1980 countdown while visiting the Neshaminy Mall with my mother and severely mentally-impaired sister, who lives near there. It was probably there I also found Billboard’s yearend edition, which I purchased—or my mother purchased for me.

After a delirious week perusing its contents, I obtained a copy of the first official weekly Billboard of 1981, for the week ending January 10—albeit released Tuesday, January 6. One week later, I bought the January 17 edition, then the January 24 edition, then the January 31 edition. In fact, I bought every single issue of Billboard for the next seven-plus years, ritualistically digesting its charts using the same uncovering method as the charts published in the Bulletin. I brought each issue to school with me, where my friends and I would pore over its contents during lunch period. Later, I happily scrutinized airplay charts from a selection of Top 40 radio stations across the country—I underlined particular favorites—while waiting to make deliveries for Boardwalk Pizza and Subs in the spring and summer of 1984.

On the few occasions I did not have the $4 purchase price, I sold an album or two to Plastic Fantastic, then located on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, PA, to make up the difference; this was after cajoling my mother to drive me to the excellent newspaper and magazine store which then stood a short walk down Lancaster Avenue from Plastic Fantastic. While new issues of Billboard were released every Tuesday, in 1981 and 1982, I would have heard the new week’s Top 40 singles counted down the previous Sunday night on the American Top 40 radio program, then hosted by Casey Kasem.

Sometime in 1981, I began to compile weekly lists of the Top 10 groups, male artists and female artists…so it is not all surprising that over winter break from my sophomore year of high school, I calculated my own “Top 100 of 1981” lists. In the days prior to Excel, this meant I gathered all 51 weekly issues (the final chart of the year freezes for a week) into what I would later call a “mountain of Billboards” on the floor of my bedroom—sometimes the mountain would migrate into the living room—and tally every single and album that had appeared in the top 10 on blank sheets of paper, using acronyms to save my hands from cramping. I used a combination of highest chart position, weeks at that position, total weeks on the chart, and weeks topping such charts as Adult Contemporary, Rock, Country and Soul to generate my rankings. There would always be fewer than 100 singles or albums entering the top 10 in any given year so I would then move into the top 20 for singles and top 30 for albums. I had ways—long since forgotten—of adding up an artist’s singles and albums “points,” allowing me to produce an overall top 100 artist countdown.

Digging into my record collection, and pestering friends for whatever tracks they had, on January 1, 1982, I sat in my bedroom with my cousin and DJ’d my first Top 100 countdown, using a snippet of “Lucifer” by Alan Parsons Project for “commercial breaks.”

That first year, I stuck to the primary charts, but ambition seized me over the next few years, and I began to contemplate creating sub-generic lists; I would usually run out of steam after a week or so, however.  Fueling this obsessive data compiling were large navy mugs filled with a mixture of black coffee and eggnog. Even after enrolling at Yale in September 1984,[6] I would look forward to arriving back in our Penn Valley, PA apartment so I could dive into Billboard mountain and immerse myself in that year’s charts. I would come up for air to visit with family and friends, of course, but then it was right back into the pile, MTV playing on my bedroom television set.

Over the years, I never threw any issues away, which meant schlepping them with me on the Amtrak train from New Haven, CT to Philadelphia; my poor mother had to move giant piles of them twice, in 1986 (~275 issues) and 1987 (~325). They were a bit lighter then because I had gotten into the habit of taping some of the beautiful full-page ads depicting covers of albums being promoted that week. It started with Icehouse by Icehouse, then Asia by Asia; when my mother moved from our Penn Valley apartment, I had taped up a line of pages running nearly halfway around the walls of my bedroom.

Then, one week in September 1988, I did not buy the new edition of Billboard. Most likely, my musical tastes were shifting after I discovered alternative-rock station WHFS. Another explanation is that election data had been slowly replacing music chart data over the past four years. Moreover, I had landed on a new obsession: baseball, specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. Whatever the reason, I have not bought a Billboard since then, though I still have two Joel-Whitburn-compiled books from the late 1980s.

Besides the Phillies and American politics, I have had a wide range of obsessions since then, most recently film noir, Doctor Who, David Lynch/Twin Peaks and, of course, Stranger Things. My obsession with Charlie Chan is old news. But none of these had quite the immersive allure those piles of Billboards had in the 1980s.

Alas, my mother finally threw out all of them in the 1990s. While I wish she had at least saved the eight yearend issues, perhaps it is all for the best. Did I mention a college girlfriend once broke up with me—on Valentine’s Day no less—because I alphabetized my collection of button-down Oxford shirts by color, solids to the left of stripes?

Until next time…

[1] Nell reminds me that at some point in the year before our October 2007 wedding, she came into the bathroom while I was counting down. She apparently interrupted me because I told her, “Now I have to start again!”

[2] For reasons long since forgotten, I switched to Jack Daniels—bourbon—for a few years around 2000. I must have talked a lot about that being my default adult beverage order, because on a first date in December 2000, my soon-to-be girlfriend (my last serious relationship before Nell, for those keeping score at home) waited expectantly for me to ask for “that thing you always order.”

[3] I have long joked that if my upper respiratory system were a building, it would have been condemned decades earlier. In October 2011, I finally had surgery to repair a deviated septum and remove nasal polyps. I may still snore, but it longer sounds like I am about to stop breathing.

[4] April 19, to be exact

[5] I remember “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s being listed, which narrows the editions to April 19 and April 26.

[6] I was so obsessed with Billboard, I actually suggested I analyze its charts for a data analysis course I took my sophomore year. Not surprisingly, that was a non-starter with the professor.