❉ Our end-of-term report on ‘Class’, the ‘Doctor Who’ spinoff that receives its first DVD and Blu-Ray release today.
Probably the most significant thing about ‘Class’, the ‘Doctor Who’ spinoff that receives its first DVD and Blu-Ray release today is that it’s a more authored run of TV than there’s been before in ‘Doctor Who’ or its related series. All eight episodes of the first season are written by Young Adult author Patrick Ness (responsible for the devastating ‘A Monster Calls’), which gives the narrative a coherence and consistency unparalleled even in the season arcs of 21st-century ‘Doctor Who’.
Ness’s imagination means that the series is constantly cleverer than it needs to be – from the unreliable flashback in the first episode which we see as imagined by the person it’s being narrated to, to the nature of what could have been a throwaway threat in a subplot of the central two-parter. His literary affiliations are visible in what one might call the rounded spikiness of the characters – mercurial, conflicted, unnecessarily at odds with one another and themselves, all of which ring very true of real-world teenagers – and in its often allusive treatment of ideas which more conventional TV drama would spell out thoroughly.
Even so, those ideas clearly identify it as a spinoff from the Peter Capaldi era of ‘Doctor Who’, and more specifically the 2014 series. Besides its common setting with many of that year’s stories, ‘Class’ shares with them a preoccupation with death, remembrance and the afterlife. Where its most obvious influence outside ‘Doctor Who’ was about a high school built above an entrance to Hell, ‘Class’ takes the more unusual step of putting a student, the refugee alien prince Charlie, in charge of a portal to Heaven. This theme of post-mortem survival – whether natural, technological or merely imagined is never altogether clear – dominates two of the season’s best episodes (Nightvisiting and The Metaphysical Engine, Or What Quill Did), and with the latter’s titular device its science-fiction justifications shade into the philosophical.
Despite such common interests, from its theme tune up ‘Class’ quickly establishes a strongly independent identity and character for itself. For instance, while the primary villains might superficially recall the Vashta Nerada from current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat’s 2008 story ‘Silence in the Library / The Forest of the Dead’, Ness’s treatment of aliens who inhabit shadows and can animate them to deadly effect is very different. His interest is in the idea that the Shadowkin are our shadows.
The first episode, For Tonight We Might Die, makes the horrifying suggestion that the only way to destroy a Shadowkin occupying your shadow is to kill it and yourself simultaneously. We later learn that the species believe themselves to be a part of itself the universe has repressed, and when the nurturing April becomes involuntarily connected to the Shadowkin king, it brings out aspects of her character she might not want to see the light. As Carl Jung, who invented the concept of “the Shadow” in the human psyche, might have told us, the effect is an unsettling but generally positive one.
(All this being the case, the Shadowkin should, of course, have looked as much like walking shadows as possible. The lesser of my two main issues with this season of ‘Class’ is that, although we see them manipulating and emerging from human shadows, the special effects make them look more like moving statues crafted from barely-solidified lava.)
Ten years after Invasion of the Bane, ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’s original target audience are probably ready for ‘Class’s starker, more pessimistic worldview.
Throughout ‘Class’, Ness portrays a universe where normality can be ruinously disrupted at any time by the irruption of the alien. In theory ‘Doctor Who’ has always presupposed this, but its episodic nature, and the feckless convenience of leaving consequences behind with a quick jaunt elsewhere in the TARDIS, have insulated the characters from its full effects. ‘Class’ is set in a world where parents and friends can die, arbitrarily and brutally and too quickly for touching farewell speeches, and where no convenient technobabble will restore them to recognisable life.
This makes it, I think, unique in the ‘Doctor Who’ universe. Despite its efforts to be dark and gritty, ‘Torchwood’ was inveterately absurd (not necessarily a problem, of course, depending on taste), and its characters never led anything remotely recognisable as normal lives. Being created for children, ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ very wisely established comforting boundaries insulating its characters from this kind of consequence – but ten years after Invasion of the Bane, its original target audience are probably ready for ‘Class’s starker, more pessimistic worldview.
This brings us to the bigger of my two issues with the season, which is structural – and, I think, a large part of the reason ‘Class’ has met with limited approval among ‘Doctor Who’ fans. For Tonight We Might Die does an excellent job of setting up this qualitatively different, unforgivingly dangerous world. Monsters destroy the characters’ classrooms and bedrooms, and eventually the school disco. People die, awfully – notably Ram’s girlfriend Rachel, cut down abruptly before his eyes. He and April, two of the primary cast, receive life-changing injuries – and it’s still only the first episode of this new Young Adult SF drama.
And then the Doctor shows up, and very nearly ruins everything.
While he doesn’t fix it all, he makes enough of a difference that the characters’ existences feel suddenly cheerier and less hostile. Peter Capaldi’s extended cameo is fine, especially as he muses on his own losses and his experience of being (like Charlie and Miss Quill) the last survivor of his species, but it’s a spectacular tonal gear-shift, and quite out of character with the subsequent episodes. (It also raises a significant plot issue for them: why, having called on the Doctor’s help once, Quill never does so again. Her own dubious motivations just about succeed in covering this, but at times it’s a stretch.)
The way the Doctor warps other narratives and genres around him is of course a major factor in the ‘Doctor Who’ format’s flexibility and longevity – but it’s a huge demand to make on a fledgling series that it should absorb such a disruption in its first episode.
This issue is compounded by the fact that the second episode, The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo – though it deals more profoundly than one would expect with Ram’s post-traumatic shock and the aftermath of his injury – is probably the weakest. Nightvisiting, the third, which foregrounds Tanya’s longer-standing experience of loss, is far stronger, but fosters the impression that ‘Class’ will made up of standalone episodes, with its characters battling monsters of the week rather than an ongoing threat.
This changes entirely in episode four, Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart – the first half of a two-part story which leads directly into a cleverly-structured final triptych, and thus marks the beginning of the season’s true narrative momentum. This is the point where things move into a higher gear, where the characters’ arc stories begin truly to mesh with one another, and where the implications of April’s link with the Shadowkin and of Charlie’s Cabinet of Souls become properly apparent. It’s the point where it becomes clear just how good ‘Class’ is.
‘Class’ is the best ‘Doctor Who’ spin-off to date. More grown-up than ‘Torchwood’, more consistent than ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’, it has an intelligence, a complexity and a humanity that makes it something quite special.
Unfortunately for the perception of the series, by this point a number of those who would have appreciated it most appear to have stopped watching. I’m hoping that the home media release, and the showing in April on BBC America, will reignite interest in the series, and that the resulting word of mouth will revive its public profile. I know that the friends I urged to persist beyond the first three episodes have been glad of it, and I hope that some of you will be too.
Because I honestly believe, on its showing so far, that ‘Class’ is the best ‘Doctor Who’ spinoff to date. More grown-up than ‘Torchwood’, more consistent than the only sometimes excellent ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’, it has an intelligence, a complexity and a real interest in humanity and in the problems of human nature that make it something quite special among SF TV series.
And the final minutes of the eighth episode, The Lost, reveal a hitherto-unexpected link with mainstream ‘Doctor Who’ continuity that could, in Patrick Ness’s hands, turn into something very interesting indeed. I await the second season really rather eagerly.
❉ Produced for BBC3 by BBC Wales, ‘Class’ is still available on iPlayer, and now on DVD and Blu-Ray for the technologically timid.
❉ Philip Purser-Hallard edits the ‘Black Archive’ series of critical monographs on individual ‘Doctor Who’ stories for Obverse books. He is the author of the ‘Devices’ trilogy of urban fantasy thrillers, and of sundry short stories. He is on Twitter as @purserhallard.