TV Second episodes of any new show are always trouble with a capital T. Now that all the characters have been introduced as well as the concept, the writers then have to find something to do and more specifically something which is as much like the opening episode to keep things familiar whilst simultaneously offering a road map for what the show is ultimately going to be. Many show runners often propose that programmes don’t really find their feet until the sixth episode. Doctor Who only really entered the public imagination when the Daleks arrived on screen six episodes into the first series. Buffy’s sixth episode was Angel (assuming you think of Welcome to the Hellmouth and The Harvest as a single unit).
Class doesn’t necessarily have that luxury. Who and Buffy enjoyed much longer seasons so it has to set out its stall pretty quickly and The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo is as successful as it can be under the accelerated circumstances. Plot wise it’s very early Buffy, drawing on elements of Teacher’s Pet, Reptile Boy and if you squint I, Robot … You Jane not to mention The X-Files’s Never Again. Oddly enough this is the first appearance of a living tattoo in Doctor Who’s mythology (judging by the TARDIS Datacore). But the execution is generally unlike those shows with a deep cut of reality spliced through it which indicates that although it’ll also be utilising the metaphoric supernatural, it’s with a more depthful sense of characterisation.
Unlike similar shows, especially Who’s own spin-offs, our heroes are not really heroes. For the most part in these kinds of series, once the protagonists receive their calling they suddenly become very efficient in their new vocation even if only a week or two has passed since their first interaction with whatever it is as a requirement of the format. By SJA’s second story, Clyde and Luke were already chasing Slitheen around their school. But in Class, the Doctor having haphazardly gifted them their mission, these kids have absolutely no idea what they’re supposed to do about it. They don’t have plans, they’re not strategic, they don’t think things through. They find themselves investigating but they don’t really know what that entails. All of which makes this feels fresh, makes it feel “real”.
They’re gripped by constant uncertainty and events are having a cumulative effect. Unlike the main series in which a companion has to affect a rather blasé attitude to death for the format to work, here it hurts. Ram’s PTSD cuts deep as this figure who’s spent his short life in control, on the football pitch and in his personal life finds himself having to fight to regain some semblance of the person he is. But he’s no warrior despite his actions in the opening episode. Another series might have had our heroes attacking the giant lizard thing or finding some method of combating it. Here they win because Ram suicidally risks what seems to him to be a pointless life ultimately turning his loss of control in on itself. That’s a huge choice in writing terms.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t moves to put some narrative furniture in place. Tanya’s attempting to hack into UNIT, a back door which could become this show’s “Huggy Bear” or Sunnydale High School Library or Mr. Smith unless writer Patrick Ness turns that on its head and it does nothing of the sort (and isn’t it interesting that she even knows what UNIT is?). Mrs. Quill’s mission is slowly dawning on her although it’s perfectly clear she’s no mentor, content instead to work in parallel to whatever else is going on. Alice is showing signs of becoming a kind of reluctant leader. As an aside, does she actually have no heart? What’s keeping her alive? Like Ram’s leg, how’s that going to work medically going forward? Such things are not easy to hide, even considering the cuts to the NHS.
But there’s no particular drive to rush into anything, building the friendship between this group of more interest than artificially introducing such genre tropes. As in reality, the characters change subtly depending on who they’re speaking to and the motive. I’ve already seen criticism of the “they don’t talk like normal teenagers” variety but even though supposedly most realistic of dramas, with tons of improvisation and gritty camera work, fictional characters never do. Plus it stereotypes teenagers, many of whom are just as witty, grounded and intellectually vital as this lot even if it’s on a slightly less heightened level than in Class. Not all them are, true, but neither are adults as recent election campaigns have demonstrated. I’d trust the Coal Hill Academy crew to vote more than most of the current electorate.
This second episode also offers even more grist for the mill in story terms as we’re introduced to the concept of The Governors. In The Day of the Doctor, the sign for Coal Hill Secondary School identifies the Chairman of the Governors as one I. Chesterton although this sure has to be some other group? Katherine Kelly really is marvellous as Mrs Quill with just the right amount of wacky energy. In close ups she’s utterly compelling; her piercing eyes constantly appraising the scenery, suspicious of everything. We still don’t really know her motives. To continue my comparison with Spike from yesterday, if Quill’s somehow “unchipped” would she stick around to continue the work or fuck off out of it? My guess is she’ll do just that, leaping into the bunghole of time at the earliest opportunity.
So yes, another success which is going to make it all the harder to write about. Miracle Day might have been a complete mess but it’s always easier to be an amusing dumpster arsonist when you hate something. I can well remember my disappointment when Torchwood’s television adventures kept missing the target, when every decent episode was followed by some shocking panto. Class doesn’t feel like it’s capable of that, in that I can’t imagine what a rubbish episode of Class would look like. But then Torchwood had a very good opening, pretty good follow up and then fell down the cracks in the pavement outside Ianto’s shrine, so episode three will be the clincher? Can the show maintain this momentum? Tune in next week to find out. Or whatever it’s called when you stream something on the iPlayer …