Although only six episodes in, Class is already beginning to play with its own format. There is no grand alien invasion here, or predatory monster hunting the corridors for prey. Instead the evil here is mainly from within, born out of the rivalries, jealousies and secret fears of our heroes themselves.
There is a Sci-Fi twist, of course. Sentenced to detention by Miss Quill, the gang find themselves unexpectedly jettisoned out of time and space, the entire classroom suspended in a dark void they can’t leave. Their only hope of escape lying in a weirdly glowing meteorite fragment and a deadly game of Truth. It quickly transpires that holding the rock forces one to confess a hidden truth, but also grants them a secret about the prison they’ve found themselves in. But with the rock fatal to anyone who holds it too long, they must all take turns and hope that, even if they escape their detention, they can live with what’s been unveiled.
The 14 year old Tanya, by far the youngest in the team, betrays her understandable insecurities and paranoia that the others think of her as just a kid. April and Ram’s burgeoning romance is rocked by his admission that he loves her (more deeply and powerfully than he’s ever let on, but fears she doesn’t feel the same way), and her forced confession that he’s right – being with him is fun, but she’s just not that into him. But it’s Class’ other power-couple, Charlie and Mattseuz, that provide the high drama. The all too human Mattseuz admits that, for all his love of Charlie, the alien prince’s treatment of Quill, and the fact that the rights and wrongs of genocide is even a discussion point in his daily life, terrifies him.
Even for all this emotional venting and the horrible prospect of starving to death in a classroom floating in space, they’re all a little too on edge, a little too aggressive with each other. There’s plainly something in the room with them, and it’s none too friendly.
As a locked room psychological drama, free of rubber monster suits, and showcasing the brilliant young cast that the show’s assembled, Detained represents a high point for the series. Class is far from the only show to ever play with this sort of material, but it does it with a conviction and a credibility most other attempts have lacked. One of the show’s strengths has always been how prepared it is to accept that this cobbled together gang of teen wannabe heroes are not necessarily best mates simply because they wind up saving each other’s lives on a weekly basis. They can get on with each other, call on each other, and rely on each other when the chips are down, but Ram has always smarted at having his popularity impacted by hanging around with these losers, Charlie’s always been equal parts baffled and offended at the come down from Heir to the Throne of an entire planet to being seen as a ‘posh nerd’. Although prompted by the mysterious presence ramping up their aggressions and doubts, it all feels organically developed from what we already know of the characters.
Detained also presents us with a rarity in television science fiction, with an alien culture that has genuinely different values and morals. The Rhodians, it turns out, are extremely into their Emmanuel Kant and totally believe that there is no moral difference between wanting something to happen, and actually making it happen. So there’s no distinction in their world between murder and attempted murder – not even between patricide and simply wishing your parents were dead. So Charlie is shaken to the core by the confessions of his human friends, as hurt by a passing, unspoken, thought that he can be kind of annoying as by the worst bullying campaign.
It also adds to the power of his dark secret, as he’s forced to admit to feelings that might seem perfectly natural to the last survivor of a genocide but which in his mind makes him no better than those that wiped out his people.
We don’t get to explore the obvious questions this raises about what he’s said about Quill and her people – if thinking about terrorism is the exact same thing as actual terrorism to the Rhodians, how can we be sure what the Quills actually did to deserve their subjugation and enslavement? In fact, Katherine Kelly’s Miss Quill is almost entirely absent from the episode and it’s a testament to the young cast that this episode still holds up even without the show’s most compelling and fan-pleasing character, though her appearances that top and tail the episode suggest that next week we’ll find out all about her own adventures while she was missing in action.
A dark meditation on the power of guilt, and how teenage problems can feel just as toxic to the soul as vast, galactic dilemmas, Detained is essential viewing.
[Five 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