Class, for those still not aware, is the new Doctor Who spin-off set in the halls of Coal Hill School, already airing in the UK and coming to BBC America in the Spring. Coal Hill has a long association with the good Doctor, having been the setting of the very first episode in 1963 and also featured in return appearances in 1989 and in recent years as the workplace of a certain English teacher, Clara Oswald. She herself was following in the tradition of the Doctor’s first companions we ever see recruited by the Doctor, Science teacher Ian and History teacher Barbara.
Although mostly standalone, this history is alluded to throughout the first episode. Most obviously there’s the appearance by Peter Capaldi’s Doctor himself but there’s a lot of more subtle touches too. The shiny new complex of the rebuilt school is the “Barbara Wright Building” and the rather lengthy Memorial wall includes not just Danny and Clara, but the ill fated headmaster who was taken over by Daleks during the Seventh Doctor’s visit to the school and even the teachers and students who died during the various novels and comics set at Coal Hill over the years. As the kids themselves note – everybody knows Coal Hill has a reputation for death and destruction, but nobody ever talks about it.
This idea of a school with an abnormal body count that the authorities and student body both mysteriously refuse to acknowledge, is just part of the very obvious debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not only is the Hellmouth referenced by name, but the opening scene is a clear homage to the very first scene in Buffy too. It doesn't quite capture lightning in a bottle as Buffy did, where all the cast instantly captured their characters from the first moment, and there's a definite sense here of the cast still feeling their way into their roles (except perhaps Fady Elsayed as Ram Singh and Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill). But, on the other hand, Class hasn't had a dry run or got to remake its first episode to iron out the bumps like Buffy did.
Its main strength is the confidence and aggression in its storytelling and the wry and playful wit it exhibits. It's surprisingly intense, in fact, in how it’s prepared to put Ram, in particular, through the ringer and there's a couple of "I can't believe they just did that" moments. There's a surprising bravery to the nature of Miss Quill and in the moral ambiguity to her relationship with Charlie. She was a former terrorist on their home world, or is it freedom fighter, the script is determined to not give us enough information to pick sides. She’s now conditioned as a slave to the prince she sought to overthrow, and forced to obey and protect him, but delights in being no more help than the organic bomb in her head will allow her to get away with. You can tell Ness writes with a clear vision of character in his mind and how things should play out on screen. The humour is on point and witty while still being realistic to what people might actually come up with on the spur of the moment ("We! Are! Decorating!") and, unusually, a middle aged man has written teenage girls you can believe in (though I say that AS a middle aged man). The unreliable narration aspect to the flashbacks - Quill and Charlie expositioning their backstory while we see what April *imagines* things looked like - is a wonderful touch.
It's not perfect. It's main problem is a sometimes pedestrian direction that doesn't match the verve of the script (it's easy to imagine a Paul McGuinan or a Rachel Talalay making much more of the reveal of Ms Quill in Charlie's flat, or the flashbacks to Charlie and Quill's doomed homeworld). Another issue is, surprisingly, the Doctor himself who seems vaguely ported in from another reality altogether when he shows up. Again this may be due to a collision between a direction determined to be grounded in reality and a much more heightened script and performance, than a problem with the performance, concept or writing per se. And Capaldi's expression as teens start crosstalking about the fanciability of the casts of Once Upon a Time and Vampire Diaries is really kind of wonderful. The design of head bad guy the Shadow Kin King looks just a tad cheap, if we're really nitpicking, and a plot point about a 'single heart shared across time and space' feels like a remarkably fluffy idea.
All that said, if future episodes commit a bit more to looking like the show I suspect the scripts intended ('a bit more Sherlock' is the phrase that comes to mind) rather than a regular teen drama that simply happens to have cyborg legs and homicidal shadow monsters in it and the moral ambiguities of the situation are further explored (like the Quill/Charlie situation) I think this could quickly elevate from 'very good' to 'fantastic'. I'll certainly be sticking around to find out. Even if every episode is 'only' as good as For Tonight We Might Die, that will be more than good enough to justify the show's existence. Even if, right now, it feels like I've watched the Class equivalent of the unaired Sherlock pilot, rather than the A Study in Pink version of this that perhaps exists in some universe parallel to ours.
However, all things considered, for an opening episode this has to be:
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