The long gap between seasons nine and ten of Doctor Who has been filled with this latest spin-off from the 21st century parent show: after Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures comes Class, which débuted last weekend on BBC3 which is now an online-only streaming channel, the Corporation’s attempt to produce a Netflix-type service for a young audience while also cutting overall costs.
Fortunately the cost-cutting facet isn’t particularly evident in the first episode of Class which is handsomely mounted and stylish with some impressive special effects – although one sequence ostensibly set on an alien world is a notable example of how to creatively cut corners where possible without harming the whole. Otherwise it’s mainly set in the hallways and classrooms of Coal School Academy (formerly Coal Hill School, which has a long history in Doctor Who), but the supposedly everyday normal setting is emphatically upended by alien invaders even before the Who-influenced opening credits kick in.
The first episode, “For Tonight We Might Die”, suffers from pilotitus, an affliction I’ve written about before at Taking The Short View – a new show’s unfortunate need to vomit the entire series bible onto the screen in the first fifty minutes with little or no subtlety. The show is so desperate to establish the characters and format that it leads to multiple scenes of forced exposition where for some reason it feels that everything must be explained in great detail, and so much has to be packed in that the compression leads to other scenes being truncated amid abrupt cuts and changes in tone that risk unravelling the entire project. This kind of thing is inevitable in the US where showmakers have to throw in everything including the kitchen sink in order to win a series commission from the network, but it’s hard to understand why Class should suffer from the same malady when it already safely holds an eight-part first season commission from the BBC and doesn’t need to try anywhere near this hard to win over network executives. At least three or four plot points from the first episode could have been held back and developed more naturally and effectively over the course of the season rather than simply dumped into the viewer’s lap with all the finesse of a housecat proudly depositing its latest kill on the kitchen floor. The ‘monster of the week’, the Shadow Kin, are also rather disappointing since they’re rather too close in concept to a villain already encountered by the Tenth Doctor in a rather better story written by Steven Moffat in 2008.
Fortunately the show has enough going for it to get away with this clumsy opening: Patrick Ness is an accomplished writer, and director Ed Bazalgette has an aspirationally artistic visual style when he’s allowed a few minutes of screen time to breath. Best of all it’s built around a very promising young cast all of whom acquit themselves well and immediately establish their characters to good effect: there’s Greg Austin as the de facto leader of the group, Charlie Smith, who varies being in charge with an almost Data-esque naiveté, truly an unearthly child; Sophie Hopkins as the team’s caring heart, April MacClean; Vivian Oparah as its ‘brains’, Tanya Adeola; and Fady Elsayed as Ram Singh, the ‘muscle’ and likely action lead of the operation. The four are supported by Katherine Kelly as their teacher Miss Quill, although her actual identity quickly turns out to be somewhat more complex.
There’s also a guest appearance from Peter Capaldi as the Doctor who plays a pivotal role in setting up the series’ basic format. He certainly makes an impact but he’s not around for very long, and something about his appearance feels a little ‘off’ compared with how he is in the main Doctor Who series – but maybe that’s intentionally as we’re seeing him from a very different point of view, that of the Coal Hill Academy kids coming in at the very end of an adventure rather than as fully paid up companions who have been there from the beginning. Good though it is to see Capaldi again – and there’s a nice nod to Danny Pink and Clara Oswald, formerly of this parish – it all adds to the crush of the ‘pilot’ episode and it’s as well that he quickly moves on and leaves Class to its new generation of stars to get on with.
While it shares some of the style and sensibility of Doctor Who, this new show has quite a different sensibility to its parent. Actually it feels like a gene-splice of its spin-off forebears, having a school/young student line-up reminiscent of The Sarah Jane Adventures while also indulging in a strong horror theme that makes it Not For Kids and putting it closer to the ‘adult’ Torchwood. The show also explicitly acknowledges its debt to US television shows, especially Buffy, The Vampire Slayer with a reference to Coal Hill being a version of Sunnydale’s Hellmouth (Once Upon A Time and The Vampire Diaries are also name-checked.) It’s possible to see the abrasive Miss Quill as a female version of Spike the punk vampire, although I also detected elements of Doctor Who’s very own Strax as she’s unwillingly pressed into service as a bodyguard for the group of kids while remaining obsessed with violent ways of dealing with any situation.
With so many influences vying for supremacy amid the manic nature of the ‘pilot’ episode it’s hard to tell what the show’s true nature will eventually become – but that’s okay, there are seven episodes to take care of that (“The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo” is already available for download, with the rest of the series coming out weekly beginning with “Nightvisiting” on Saturday, October 29). Surprisingly the first episode didn’t have as much in the way of big humour as I would have expected: the Doctor gets the best single laugh out loud line with a reference to IKEA, while a question about the true appearance of a race of aliens produces a lovely sight gag. Otherwise though I yearned for the show to have a bit more breathing space to have some fun and just wished it would take things at a more measured pace; but maybe that’s just me getting old, and an encouraging sign that this is tailor made for its target YA audience.
Even for old fogeys like me, this was a strong and very promising beginning. I very much look forward to seeing where Class goes next and what it achieves once it settles down and finds its feet.
Episodes of Class are available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for viewers with a current television license. It will be shown on BBC One at some point in the future and released on DVD in 2017.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2