Class Review: For Tonight We Might Die

It’s Hallowe’en night, and the midnight hour is close at hand…

And, more-or-less relevantly, we have Class, BBC Three’s brand-new Doctor Who spinoff, written by highly-regarded YA author Patrick Ness. Class is set at Coal Hill School (now Academy), an establishment which has, of course, a long and lettered Whovian history, and focuses on the lives and loves of six teenagers and an alien teacher. The first episode is dedicated mainly to setting up the show’s premise: with the very fabric of space-time stretched thin at Coal Hill because of all the timey-wimey magic energy about, various aliens keep coming through to prey on the defenceless school population. In possibly connected information, the Doctor has installed two aliens (the last of their respective kinds, no less) at the school, disguised as an extraordinarily strict human teacher (Miss Quill, played by the fabulous Katherine Kelly) and an improbably posh student (Charlie). During the course of the episode, it turns out that Charlie was a prince of his race, Miss Quill a freedom fighter against his rule; as punishment for her insurrection, Miss Quill was bound to Charlie as his protector, unable to let him die or wield weapon on pain of nasty alien death.

Joining these two as guardians of the school are four random teenagers: Ram, April, Tanya and Matteusz. It’s worth noting, by the way, that not one of these characters is a straight white man, which, given that straight white men still make up roughly 70% of all decently-characterised screen roles, is pretty much a miracle.

OK. Since it is Hallowe’en (and I just jumped out of my skin listening to Parlour Trick’s A Blessed Unrest), let’s talk monsters.

This first episode features some fairly typical Moffat-monsters: the Shadow Kin, who destroyed the races to which Charlie and Miss Quill belonged, who appear in people’s shadows and who flee the light. The concept isn’t as well-developed as it could be, actually; but this is a nice index of the show’s overall focus, which is much more on its teenage characters as people with real emotional lives than on the symbolic and imaginary possibilities of its dreamt-up monsters. Unsurprisingly given its authorship, Class is in part an entry in that genre of YA and NA which focuses the intensity of youth’s troubles by registering them as literally world-shaking. So its shadow-entities are really dark foils to its ensemble cast: playing, variously, on these teenagers’ fears and strengths and capabilities to cast them, as whole, entire people, not just one-dimensional representations, into greater light.

Class is really, properly interesting speculative fiction, sharp and sarcastic as well as evidently willing to wander into some dark corners, and actually my least favourite thing about this first episode was the appearance of the Doctor in the second half, to give Our Heroes their mission. Capaldi’s Doctor feels obvious, info-dumpy and thoroughly misplaced as an authority figure in Class, not least because his arrival reminds us that the teenagers he’s effectively pressing into service are teenagers: seventeen-year-olds (fourteen, in Tanya’s case) going into horrible danger. The Doctor belongs to a much simpler universe than Our Heroes do; and in the end he’s the one who ends up seeming irrelevant.

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