Acting as a counterpoint to the previous episode, this quite literally tells us what Quill did while the gang was detained last week. As such, it’s everyone else’s turn to be all but entirely absent, but with the focus on the show’s stand out character, they’re hardly missed if truth be told.
What we get is a highlight of the series; an episode that manages to simultaneously subvert the show’s premise while representing a satisfying climax to some of the plot strands that have been percolating away since the beginning. It also gives Katherine Kelly, as Quill, a great deal to work with beyond just her usual biting wit (although that’s still here in abundance too).
Quill’s relationship with the rest of the group has always been tense and complicated. She has a bio-engineered creature wedged in her brain, a fail safe which will kill her if she disobeys Charlie. The extent to which her acts of heroism saving the Earth on a weekly basis are down to that, or to actually wanting to help has always been confused even, it sometimes seems, to herself. She shares a bond with Charlie as the last two survivors of their planet, yet always aware that their two peoples were engaged in a bitter war before the Shadow Kin came. She aims her sarcastic, barbed wit at the kids repeatedly, but It feels like that’s probably how she is with her closest friends anyway. And every time she slips into seeing herself as part of a team, she’s left feeling pushed out and rejected by the others.
So it’s no surprise that when the sweetly sinister Headmistress (Pooky Quesnel in a performance that’s equal parts Mary Poppins, Lara Croft and Hannibal Lector) offers her a chance to be finally rid of the Arn creature in her brain, she jumps at the chance but shelves questions of whether to kill Charlie, or keep helping of her own free will, until later.
Quill’s quest takes her to places Class doesn’t usually go; more than that to places Doctor Who itself hardly ever goes. The Metaphysical Engine of the title is a kind of Anti-TARDIS, which travels not to distant times and places but to places that never existed at all – to mythical places created purely out of people’s belief in them. In a cute touch, the Engine is actually tiny on the inside but shrinks down its passengers to fit, though the ride is every bit as bumpy, and the Headmistress’ piloting every bit as haphazard, as the real thing.
And so the bulk of the episode is a scavenger hunt through legend and religion to collect objects that don’t actually exist but are vital for Quill’s cure. These sequences are beautifully realized, particularly the Arn’s own conception of paradise which takes the already quirky and strange location of Puzzlewood (previously seen in Doctor Who’s Flesh and Stone, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and makes it look like a weirdly coloured, alien, living painting. No less powerful is the journey into the creation myth of Quill’s own people, as she comes face to face with her own god and, in a blistering performance from Kelly, finally gets to truly vent her rage and frustration at how ultimately powerless they were in the face of the Shadow Kin and how there was no god to save them then.
Kelly also shines in the final scenes where one final, horrible twist awaits Quill. If a Doctor Who spin off for older viewers has a remit, it must surely be to beyond what the parent show could, or should do. And the traumatic, gory and generally pretty nasty extraction of the Arn is certainly that – more the sort of thing The Walking Dead might hold in reserve for when they wanted a particularly impressive moment. But What Quill Did fulfils that obligation in another way too. Doctor Who, as emphasized in The Day of the Doctor, is a show about a man frequently given impossible choices but can always think his way out of them. He never gives, he never gives up and he always finds a way – a moral, heroic way to save the day without compromising himself (well, without compromising himself much, anyway). But Class isn’t Doctor Who, and when betrayals and reversals push Quill into a terrible dilemma we can feel her anguish, her conflict and her regret but also the sinking certainty that she won’t be magically let off the hook. The result is that out the other side of her quest, we barrel towards the finale, we’re left with a Quill more damaged, more raw and more dangerous than ever before.
Despite being the most atypical of episodes, The Metaphysical Engine is practically a model of the entire season in miniature. The moral dilemmas reflect the wider debate on whether or not to exterminate in revenge of the Shadow Kin and the conflict between the natural desire to belong and one’s own desires and agenda. It’s also, crucially, the only episode to feel like the inventiveness and drama of the visuals match the ambitious intentions of Patrick Ness’ scripts.
[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