“It’s a bit dodgy, this process. You never know what you’re going to end up with.” The Doctor was talking of the regeneration process, but he could as easily have been describing the history of Doctor Who spinoffs, K-9 and Company, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures and now Class, created by Carnegie Award winning novelist Patrick Ness.
Unlike the other shows which were all created by the current producer on the parent show – John Nathan-Turner then Russell T Davies – Class is the first involvement of Ness with the broadcast Whoniverse, though he had a short story published in 2013, though as an established writer of popular young adult fiction his ability to connect with an audience is undoubted, and the principle location, the upgraded Coal Hill Academy, has been a recurring fixture since An Unearthly Child in 1963.
Opening with a scene of running down corridors pursued by alien threat, it is apparent that under the inescapable influence of Newton the apple does not fall far from the tree, yet immediately after that all expectations are thrown into disarray from the opening titles and brash theme which may be down with the kids but to older viewers is just noise, and a sequence of scattershot scenes which introduce the key characters so briefly as to serve more to confuse than illuminate.
Unlike a typical pilot which wants to ease a viewer into the new world, Class actually seems to want to leave viewers as off kilter as new kid Charlie (Mr Selfridge’s Greg Austin) who tries to pass himself off as being from Sheffield but nobody is buying it as evidenced by his taking his classmates when they question the fate of the latest missing pupil, suggesting that he may have been eaten.
Only marginally less out of place is Tanya (newcomer Vivian Oparah), at only fourteen three years younger than those whom she has been advanced to sit among yet possessed of a sharp intelligence and maturity which justifies her presence, though her overbearing mother has forbidden she join her friends at the prom which forms the centrepiece of pilot episode For Tonight We Might Die, written by Ness and directed by Ed Bazalgette, currently at work on this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio.
Organising decorations is nice girl April (Brackenmore‘s Sophie Hopkins), hoping that Charlie might be her date, though he is clearly more enamoured with Matteusz (Jordan Renzo), while star of the football field Ram (Brotherhood‘s Fady Elsayed) sees nobody but himself, “the boy who hears silent applause every time he walks in a room,” in the words of their acerbic and unconventional teacher Ms Quill (The Night Manager‘s Katherine Kelly).
Inevitably, all is not what it seems: the prom is attacked by the Shadow Kin who are seeking the last survivors of the planet Rhodia and the weapon he escaped with, the Cabinet of Souls. Ms Quill, a former alien terrorist charged with protecting the Prince of Rhodia is forbidden from using weapons other than sarcasm, leaving the children defenceless, but she is not without connections, “a figure from legend, out of space and time itself.”
With the relatively young ensemble cast – Austin and Elsayed are both in their mid-twenties yet playing somewhat well-developed teenagers – combined with a high school setting, hip dialogue (“You’re weird and don’t know anything about pop culture. You’re either alien or Amish!”), bloodshed at the prom, an opening scene of after-hours death and a headmaster who gets eaten, the influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is undeniable, stronger here even than when Russell T Davies used Miss Summers as a touchstone for the conception of Rose Tyler.
Tying the show to one location is going to strain credulity quickly, though as was pointed out, with Coal Hill acting as a beacon across time and space for all manner of nasties it’s a bit like having their own Hellmouth, and while not a great pilot it has enthusiasm; the cast are all likeable and good in their parts and the viewer wants them to survive, but so far it feels somewhat disposable, entertaining rather than essential.
Appealing to a wider audience is key to any spinoff, and while it is traditional for Doctor Who to be frightening, to have moments sending the younger viewers scurrying behind the sofa, it was always a family show where adults would be available to reassure afterwards, yet Class opens with a content warning and contains moment of surprisingly graphic violence which are radically at odds with the teen oriented narrative and school setting, raising the question of who that intended audience might actually be?
Torchwood attempted to be more adult than its parent show and failed, landing squarely in juvenile shenanigans and more often than not poorly written and acted, and anybody who purports that it was an accomplished show either has low standards or an extremely selective memory.
On the evidence of the two broadcast episodes, Class has more in common with the undeniably superior if younger aimed Sarah Jane Adventures, albeit with extra blood, smoking, blokes kissing, dismemberments and nudity, the latter courtesy of the shower scene in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo, another first for a Doctor Who spinoff and also written by Ness and directed by Bazalgette.
Both Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures were launched with an established audience favourite character as lead while the best known names of Class are Ness and Kelly, so the appearance of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor would be little surprise even had it not been announced in advance; the biggest deus ex machina of all space and time, it’s wisely emphasised that for now it’s a one-off, but for all that he is, as ever, a welcome presence.
With the cast both multicultural and diverse without feeling forced there is already a strong bond between them and the secret friendship between Ram and Tanya is one of the best things about it, the football hero who shouldn’t be hanging with the fourteen year old brainbox, but while the role models are undoubtedly positive they would serve more purpose if aimed at a younger audience, and it is highly questionable that the adult Ms Quill is prohibited from using weapons while her young charge can.
Where Class falls down heavily is in the quality of the effects, with the dragon in particular a terrible, unconvincing rendering which stands alongside the Myrka in its ability to jettison the audience out of the already flimsy illusion, though here at least it was added post-production so at least it wasn’t an embarrassing distraction on set.
Seeds of interest are being laid for ongoing storylines concerning the school governors and their inspector, the Cabinet of Souls and the chess set which features in the opening titles, but with only eight episodes in this season Class will have little time to establish itself and grow an audience who are prepared to give it full marks, and too violent for children and too youth oriented for adults the danger is it will slip into the cosmic rift of obscurity.