TV Good. So, so good. Satirically launched ten years on from the exact day of the second official television attempt at a Doctor Who spin-off, Class has a confidence Torchwood rarely managed, an expressive proficiency which in its first episode at least puts it in the same bracket as the very best of genre shows. Which doesn’t mean it’s especially original, we’re not in Orphan Black or Sense8 territory, but as an example of trying to do a sort of thing in a particular moment, in a particular idiom for a chosen audience demographic, Class excels. It’s funny, smart, has genuinely interesting characters played by likeable actors and actresses and most especially, I’ll be watching the next episode because I want to and not because you’ll be expecting me to post a review. Miracle Day. It's also available to watch on the iPlayer for the next eleven months, in case you didn't know.
Creator and writer Patrick Ness is pretty shameless about resurrecting Buffy: The Vampire Slayer in the Whoniverse, even opening the episode with similar beats to that series’s opening episode Welcome To The Hellmouth with expectation busting scary moment in the darkened corridors of the school during the teaser followed by the cast being largely introduced walking into the school the following morning. That was Buffy’s first day, but interestingly there’s no particular viewpoint character upfront, Ness taking advantage of the viewer’s inbuilt knowledge of what a school is and more important the archetypes which tend to fill such classrooms. He knows that we know that he knows that we know that he knows we’ve already watched enough of these kinds of programmes to get the gist so why repeat any of it?
It's The Sarah Jane Adventures for the Torchwood age bracket but without the pantomime. But whereas those shows recreated the look and feel of the parent series, albeit for different audiences, Class rejects the current Doctor Who’s idiom for the most part with rapid cutting, shorter scenes, intensified continuity and storylines running in parallel (though admittedly in order to introduce and service all these characters). There are also funny intercutting sight gags and a general sense of experimentation which has been purposefully lacking in quite this way of late in the Moffat era, which has been to an extent aping the classic era which much longer scenes and linear narratives. You can tell I liked this. I have my serious head on. Which is odd because the programme on the whole doesn’t.
Nevertheless it is unexpected that Ness would choose a “breaking of the status quo” introduction to the series, with all the characters in place waiting for the badness to happen, oscillating between omitting narrative information from the audience to create mystery and expositional diarrhoea. That’s something he’s learnt from Joss Whedon’s series, in which Buffy was the lead character and much of the show was from her point of view but Xander and Willow, like April, Ram and Tanya here, were still also a way for the viewer to relate the spooky-doo and others mania. But because they’re citizens of the Whoniverse and watched the same television we have, they’re not surprised by its existence, just by the nature of it. They were probably part of the 456’s human microphone.
Anyone else, just for a moment, wonder if Ms. Quill would be revealed to be another long lost Time Lord? She certainly has the temperament, Katherine Kelly sharp-tongued eccentricity making you wonder exactly how she’s able to keep her teaching job, although having said that, remembering some of my teachers … Either way, she’s utterly compelling with just the right level of moral ambiguity without becoming dislikeable. The less attention-grabbing approach would have been to make her a kindly mentor ala Sarah Jane (and even have brought in a previous companion for much the same role), but by making her mysterious, even dangerous, not a class protector through choice, instead of Giles we have the chip-neutered Spike from season four.
Her students might be archetypes but they’re also dimensional from the off. Ram is the athlete but he’s quickly given depth through tragedy (will Ness slip in a reference to refrigerators next episode?). April’s the prom princess but she’s also the loner, the warmest of the characters now without a heart. Tanya’s the brain but also exceedingly cool. Which leaves Charlie as the criminal except he’s more of a fugitive. Ok, a direct The Breakfast Club analogy doesn’t quite hold up, especially since British high school dramas haven’t traditionally portrayed the same kind of clique system, but in his writing Ness is working hard to write against expectation, to make these characters feel real, to plausibly connect with each other as human beings. “Does this mean we’re mates now?”
Ness also seems to have been left to chart his own mythological course. If the school had been renamed and the Doctor hadn’t appeared, there’s not much in here directly connecting it to the Whoniverse. But the best thing about the Whoniverse is that a writer can insert masses of imaginative new stuff and it absorbs it with less fuss than a Spontex. Almost the entirely population of a planet wiped out by mini-Balrogs who only live in shadows? If you like. An alien prince hiding on Earth with his mortal enemy as his indentured body-woman? Fine. Arguably one of the problems with Torchwood was its desperation to embrace the main series. I’d be quite happy if we never see the Doctor again and we have seven more episode of shiny new things to enjoy.
Inevitably I’m going ask, when is this set? Did anyone notice a date on anything? Obviously we’re back in shared universe territory so anything Earth bound and planet threatening will inevitably make us wonder how it’s affecting this new band of characters, just as I was always scared for the kids in the attic during Miracle Day. Clara’s been accepted as gone, dead or missing, but the Moffat era has a slightly hazier approach to contemporary stories. How many Zygons are there in the school? I’m betting on Mr. Armitage. But all of this is getting way ahead of everything. There are still seven episodes to go and anything could happen. For all we know, a Monoid could fall through time and wander into the school canteen during episode three.
If there was one slightly discordant note, it was the sudden emergence of the Tenth Doctor’s theme on the appearance of the TARDIS during the flashback. Clearly the intention was that Charlie and Quill were rescued by Twelve but it’s a measure of Murray Gold’s initial achievements that those notes have become so synonymous with that version of the Time Lord causing us to wonder briefly – did Tenth save them? Is that why he doesn’t emerge from the blue box because David Tennant wasn’t available? Other than that composer Blair Mowat acquitted himself well on his first drama series gig after a mix of films, shorts and documentaries including The Fan Show on YouTube. The sound mix is all over the place, some of the dialogue unintelligible. But that could be just the downmix on my headphones.
What of the Doctor in his only appearance on television this year barring the Christmas special? Well, he’s the Doctor. Capaldi having completed his transition from the menace who growled his way through season 8 back to the benevolent alien we know and love. He’s just magic now isn’t he? Following Russell’s lead when he wrote the Time Lord into his school based spin-off, Patrick is careful to make sure he doesn’t hog the spotlight, the kids the key to the solution. The Doctor’s holding back, testing them to some extent, but without the cruelty of Kill The Moon, stepping in when required. Will the next series be partly about him regaining his memories of Clara or have we properly moved on now? I appreciated the grace note, but how did he remember be the old caretaker without her?
Like Fleabag and Thirteen, Class is a demonstration that BBC Three, even with its new delivery method is capable of spearheading some excellent drama. Before you ask, no I haven’t seen episode two yet, that’s for tomorrow night. As I write these words its only half nine which is a welcome change from how Doctor Who was broadcast last year, with me still tapping away on this laptop past midnight as a result. It’s strange not having to sit through five minutes of Strictly first but it is entirely convenient to be able to see a new episode of something when I want to. Which isn’t to say I haven’t missed the collective post-broadcast atmosphere on social media afterwards. Though I have got any mention of it muted on Tweetdeck to avoid spoilers, so for all I know you’ve all be talking up a storm.
The second episode of Class, just like all shows will really emphasise the format. The “next week” trailer somewhat suggests it’ll be much as we expect, an alien of the week for the kids to fight or some time travel related business or both. We’ll (or more likely I’ll, since you’ve all seen it already) see whether everything will stand alone or the storytelling is going to be more cumulative and interrelated, the effects of one adventure bleeding into another. Perhaps, like Buffy, it’ll do both. Will we see the emotional toll on the characters as they have to deal with stuff week on week or embrace the great spirit of adventure? Will eight episodes be enough? The fact that I’m speculating about this shows that the job is done. I’m hooked.