If your Doctor Who fan credentials are old enough, you’ll be able to realise how disquieting it might have been to learn that Class was premiering on BBC iPlayer.
Your paranoid, withered fanboy heart would have known that the BBC were betraying the Time Lord, and throwing the spin-off show onto a funeral pyre where it was certainly going to fail and die.
Things are different nowadays, however. Now, the online-only BBC Three is a relatively new venture and it needs some heavy hitters to ensure that the more cautious viewer will log on and tune in. There is some degree of validation to be had from the fact that Class is considered one of those heavy hitters: a Doctor Who spin off is the kind of show that BBC Three wants as one of its flagship programmes.
We’re now more than halfway through the only piece of Doctor Who-related drama that we’ll get this year (apart from next month’s Christmas special), and the show has been pretty firm in hiding its TARDIS fan club badges on the inside.
Indeed, Peter Capaldi’s cameo in the first episode was less about assuring Doctor Who fans that they were in for business as usual, and more about reminding them that everything is different. This is not Doctor Who, it’s not Torchwood, and it’s not The Sarah Jane Adventures. Hell, it’s not even remotely K9 And Company.
Most of the obvious fears that we may have had about Class have already been allayed: it hasn’t really been simply a sci-fi drama set within a school – in fact, despite the presence of the sinister sounding ‘Governors’, there’s been relatively little action on the school grounds at all.
Class has been more interested in the surrounding area: a not entirely convincing Shoreditch almost entirely unpopulated by supporting artists, and with an upsetting provenance for getting attacked by John Wyndham style angry plant life.
Class has hit the ground running with nary a pause to introduce the main characters, and pole-vaulting over many plot points that would normally take a few seasons to get through. Therefore, almost all the supporting cast already know about the existence of monsters and aliens, and are jumping into parallel dimensions to save their kids. It took a very long time for Joyce Summers to cope this well.
Indeed, the show has been remarkably confident in its first run, playing with the kind of themes that genre shows normally reserve for much later seasons. Entire storylines of episodes are focussed on ripping apart relationships between characters we’ve only just met, or joyfully attacking the moral codes of the main cast. Class has the gleeful ‘sod it, here goes!’ abandon of a show that thinks it has already been cancelled.
The third episode, for instance, owes a clear debt to a late Buffy episode, ‘Conversations With Dead People.’ In that episode, however, the audience had generally grown to know the backstories behind the talking corpses over the course of the previous six-and-a-bit seasons.
In ‘Night Visiting’, Patrick Ness demands that we make the same connection with characters that we’ve only just met, or indeed have not met at all. It’s a bravura move, to say the least, and indicates that in a post-Netflix era, we can expect a lot more of a YA audience: episodes can be introspective and gloomy, devoid of much action, even if we’re not up to double figures yet. And since we’re mentioning Buffy a lot, let’s come out and say it: Class is well aware that Joss Whedon’s creation is not merely a YA horror show, but a platform on which the next generation of genre television is built.
Loosely, each episode of Class pushes a single character to the foreground without cost to the rest of the cast – or the ongoing story arc. Rather than come up with contrived explanations as to why nobody questions the amount of alien activity going on in the school, Class simply hangs a lamp on it by invoking the spirit of the Hellmouth.
That said, the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who did heavily suggest that the rips in time would have a significant effect on the memories of those living in the local area. More significantly, it’s emblematic of how a lot of genre drama is written these days: as long as the story you’re writing right now works reasonably well, there’s no need to get too hung up on explaining the fallout.
MTV’s Scream is particularly cheeky at this, having the lone witnesses to brutal murders released without police questioning and tucked up in bed within hours. And of course, the Moffat era of Doctor Who has presented no problem so complicated and convoluted that it cannot be run away from and never mentioned again.
That’s not to say there are not a couple of moments in Class that give us pause.
April’s mum being cured of her paralysis is the major offender. It is of course a compelling argument that a character in a sci-fi show gifted with superpowers like April is would indeed cure a loved one if she could. But it’s a weak argument when you come to the inescapable conclusion that Jackie was written with a disability simply so that the condition could be reversed.
Narratively in a science fiction show, it makes complete sense, but with so little representation of disabled people on screen, it’s vaguely troubling. That said, there is nothing to say that April’s powers (and their results) will stay in place forever.
Interestingly, the existence of Class and its very own Scooby Gang does – intentionally or not – give a soft sense of closure to the Capaldi era: or at least the Clara Oswald section of it.
The show has been pretty square-jawed in its determination to make us realise that The Doctor will not be rocking up to save the day when the stakes get really high (the show has to earn its battle scars on its own merits, after all), which does rather mean that the game has to be played both ways: it’s fairly safe to assume that there will no future episodes of Doctor Who set within Coal Hill (not while Class is still being produced, anyway).
This has always been one of the major challenges of any Doctor Who spin-off: what happens while The Doctor is away? And more importantly, why doesn’t he turn up when the Earth is in real trouble?
To its credit, Class has displayed little or no interest in answering such questions, merely inhabiting the same universe as Doctor Who, while creating a world all of its own.
The first six episodes of Class are available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.
What do you think of Class so far? Let us know below…