Class’ first two parter, this pair of episodes prove a slightly frustrating experience. Largely that’s because this really is a game of two halves – with Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart reaching new heights and offering some of the best scenes from the Coal Hill gang yet, before Brave(ish) Heart falls down deep pits to form a new low for the series. In fact, it’s the first episode of the show to – whisper it now – just not be very good at all.
Perhaps in part this contradiction is due to this story marking the return of the Shadow Kin, last seen in the premiere being given a ticking off and getting sent home without their ball back by the Doctor. They’re not the most compelling or believable villains, and the moral dilemma they present seems like one of those artificial ones that would be quite easy to resolve in real life. Their worst point, easily, is that they suffer from the affliction of many alien races in science fiction – ancient and powerful traditions and rules which don’t really seem very sensible, but are very convenient for our heroes. So here the Shadow Kin are genocidal xenophobic maniacs on a scale that would make a Dalek blush, determined to wipe out all living things in the universe, moving from one planet to the next in an endless cycle of slaughter – but they’re perfectly open to letting a human become their new ruler if they can best the old one in combat.
This is also at the centre of that slightly improbable moral quandary. The Shadow Kin have wiped out countless worlds, trillions and trillions of lives, and are never, ever going to stop. Yet, with our heroes presented with a figurative Big Red Button with which they can wipe out the Shadow Kin forever, we’re treated to long, philosophical conversations between characters about whether using it, and thus potentially saving the entire universe, “would make us as bad as them.” As a viewer it’s hard not to yell “No, it wouldn’t! Next stupid question?”
Meanwhile, the first half manages to avoid these pitfalls by concentrating on the characters themselves, and the consequences of the growing strength of the empathic link between April and the Shadow Kin King. The reasons for it may be utterly daft (for reasons too complicated and silly to go into here, April’s heart beats once in her chest then teleports halfway across the universe to beat once in the King’s chest before teleporting back again in time for her next heartbeat) but the effect of her having occasional burst of intense rage is well drawn. Just when April has lava hot anger juice running through her veins and is manifesting the power to create flaming swords out of thin air is also the exact wrong time for her estranged father, fresh from prison, to turn up at her doorstep.
The family’s history is both dark and poignant and not something I can remember seeing handled on TV before – with them having survived a bungled attempt at murder/suicide by the mentally troubled father. There are no platitudes or easily won reconciliations here, no dodging the enormity of what happened or the weakness of apologies in the face of it.
The Shadow Kin King, it turns out, isn’t any happier about the situation than April and his attempts to be rid of the connection give us the show’s best use of the Shadow Kin so far. Their slightly rubbish design and Kids TV level villainy actually plays as a strength in the first half, with the King conspiring with his lackey in megalomaniacal terms that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Power Rangers before a surge of April’s teenage girl hormones overtakes him and he and his hench-monster get down and dirty, rubbery lava monster suits and all, in a scene you certainly wouldn’t get on the Disney Channel. Complete with the King’s shy, tentative, post coital line “Would there be any chance of some… cuddling?”
The other characters get great stuff to work with in the first part too, with Charlie’s troubling dynamic with Quill coming to the fore, as he moves past simply using his status as her ‘master’ to command her to help fight alien invasions, to deliberately assigning her tasks he’ll know she’ll find demeaning and humiliating. Tanya and Matteusz also pull him up on his treatment of her, and it’s nice to see they’ve noticed and have been secretly conflicted about Quill’s slavery for some time.
But ultimately, this all adds to the disappointment of the second part, when it all collapses into sword fights, shouting matches about the morality of competitive genocide, and easy, pat solutions to get out of having to answer those moral questions, or face the consequences of choices made.
The best of Class, and also the worst of Class, overall I suppose it has to average out as:
[Three 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