The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo make for a less cohesive story than the premiere but it does deserve praise in a number of areas.
Regular parallels with early Buffy the Vampire Slayer seem inevitable with this show, but in this case Class does actually come out on top. Buffy famously begins by introducing Xander's best friend Jesse as if he will be a regular part of the group, only to kill him off ruthlessly in the opening two-parter. But, curiously, he's basically never mentioned again. Similarly, that first two-parter served as an origin story for what would become known as the 'Scooby Gang' yet from the very next episode you'd think they were all lifelong friends, despite only having been thrown together by circumstance and chance. In contrast, Coach sets out to deal with Ram's trauma from the gruesome death he witnessed in the premiere while exploring how this disparate group of jocks, nerds and aliens aren’t suddenly best friends just because the Doctor made an inspiring speech at them.
This is done elegantly and sympathetically, aided by a great performance by Fady Elsayed, who is already emerging as the stand out find of the casting on Class. A recurring theme throughout 21st century Who and its spin offs has been the troubling nature of discovering how small and unimportant human life is in the wider context of the universe, and that's rarely been better played out than here, where it's tied to the old standby of drama - the popular high schooler realizing high school is actually pretty unimportant. So here we have Mr. Popular, Ram, desperately trying to cling on to the status symbols of his old life to help cope with how his perspective on the universe has changed. The obvious message is that resisting irreversible change can only mean damaging yourself and acceptance of your new reality is the only way to move forward, but it's rarely as nicely put as here.
The problem with the episode is the Monster of the Week plot which is designed to mirror those ideas but is rather weak on its own merits. A 25 foot long dragon is stalking the halls of Coal Hill, unnoticed, skinning alive anyone who upsets the football coach. This is all done with surprising delicacy and then the dragon returns later to clean up after itself in classic 'but the body was right here' fashion. Possibly it's less engaging than it could have been because the coach's giant dragon tattoo is established as alive from almost the first scene. As countless episodes of Columbo have shown, if you're going to reveal the villain to the audience at the start then the "How He Caught 'Em" element of the detectives unwinding the clues has to be pretty special. But here, April, Charlie and the gang basically stumble around non-plussed for 35 minutes until the answer is dropped fully formed in their laps. And it's all in service of a rather strained metaphor that the dragon, like Ram, needs to "accept its new reality."
Another weakness is simply having Quill declare that she can't be bothered helping out this week, and porting her off to her own comedy subplot involving a government inspector investigating her unusual teaching practices (throwing staplers at people’s heads, complaining about the inherent stupidity of the human species, that sort of thing). It just doesn't quite work, mainly because it's just not funny enough. Katherine Kelly gives it her all, and the idea of her coming up against mundane earthly bureaucracy is a good one, but it's just too underdeveloped.
This was packaged as a double bill with For Tonight We Might Die and it’s easy to see why. While by no means a second part to that story, it's almost like an extended coda - a breathing space for the characters to deal with the previous events and, as such, doesn't really stand on its own. It feels like the next instalment will be the first 'normal' episode of Class with an established status quo to build from. Coach is a fine, if imperfectly balanced, episode and can certainly hold its head up against the average episode of Torchwood before it. So far, Class shines in terms of characterization and theme and the performances of its lead; it's just the Monsters of the Week that need to be a tad more interesting.
Four TARDISes out of Five
Class airs on BBC One in the UK on Monday nights at 10.45pm and is coming to BBC America in the Spring. It’s already available on Region 2 DVD and Blu-Ray and online at BBC Store.
By: Peter Nolan