This is a spoiler-free review of Class Episode 1 and 2 – read on at the bottom for spoilers, or head this way for our reviews of each episode.
2016 has been a rubbish year for many reasons, not least because it’s the first full year without any new episodes of Doctor Who (excepting the forthcoming Christmas special) since 2004. For those of us who are missing the show, BBC Three’s new spin-off, written and created by acclaimed YA fiction author Patrick Ness, couldn’t arrive at a better time.
Coming some time after previous spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Class plants itself somewhere between the two, pitting school students against aliens in a much more grown-up setting than in its long-running parent show. It’s also much scarier and more mature than any of them. We’ve seen the first two episodes and without wishing to be corny about it, it’s just what the Doctor ordered.
The show takes place at Coal Hill School, which has been newly renovated as an academy, and focuses on the sixth form. Comparisons to Buffy The Vampire Slayer are inevitable and even invited – they have their very own Hellmouth, as alien threats come through a “bunghole of time” (as it is christened in the second episode) that has opened up in the school, because of all of the timey-wimey activity around the site since the Doctor first landed there in the 1960s.
The opener, For Tonight We May Die, effortlessly juggles alien mythology with everyday teenage concerns. We meet four high-achieving but alienated students – peculiar Charlie (Greg Austin), kind-hearted April (Sophie Hopkins), cool-headed Ram (Fady Elsayed), and buttoned-down Tanya (Vivian Oparah) – as they endure a class with their petty and cynical science teacher, Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly), and angst over the imminent autumn prom. However, some uninvited guests are coming through that pesky tear in time and space, moving in the darkness and hunting for someone.
From the very beginning, this feels like a fresh approach to the universe of Doctor Who and Ness immediately makes his own voice heard. His characters are likeable and immediately engaging, and even when The Doctor turns up, it never feels like he’s leaning on brand recognition. It’s the first time we’ve seen Peter Capaldi in action this year and while his welcome appearance is a little more than just the expected cameo, he’s not even the main attraction.
The young cast are more than capable of carrying it on their own, and Austin and Hopkins are particularly delightful, as April sweetly crushes on Charlie, while he decides he’d rather take a boy called Matteusz (Jordan Renzo) to prom.
Despite the original approach, it’s not above the occasional cliché – for instance, the brand spanking new Coal Hill Academy has blackboards rather than whiteboards, apparently only because Miss Quill couldn’t make such a cringe-inducing noise if she wrote out an equation in marker pen rather than chalk. But for every minor niggle, there are five more things we love – and Kelly’s performance is a standout.
The second episode, The Coach With The Dragon Tattoo, isn’t quite as strong, but it consolidates the work so far and continues the new characters’ baptism of fire. In particular, the pressure is on Ram, whose form on the football pitch has been suffering as a result of personal problems. He starts to think he’s losing it when he witnesses a creature skinning people alive. As you’d expect from the monster’s M.O., this episode is much gorier than Doctor Who and we can’t remember anything in the supposedly more adult Torchwood that got this visceral either. (What Class does have in common with Who is the tendency to explain the monster all in one go at the last minute, which feels a little rushed in this case.)
The Coach With The Dragon Tattoo succeeds in developing the show’s regulars and proving its concept. Even if the monster of the week isn’t the best, Elsayed is captivating as the cocksure footballer with a vulnerable side and, in a more comical sub-plot, Kelly is hilarious. Few episodes of Buffy’s first season are remembered as classics, but Class has already hit the ground running.
Released as a double-bill, the first two episodes ought to satiate Whovians who’ve been starved for new material since last Christmas and Ness has managed to grow the universe up a bit without forsaking its wit or warmth. BBC Three’s series immediately outclasses Torchwood as a more grounded and mature spin-off and sets up characters and shorelines that we can’t wait to see unfold over the next seven weeks.
Class: Season 1 is available on BBC iPlayer until 11th February 2019. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Class on pay-per-view VOD?
Extra-curricular activity (spoilers)
Going by the notes that came with our preview, the BBC held back the reveal that Charlie and Quill are both alien refugees, who were brought to Coal Hill by the Doctor, after their respective species were wiped out by the Shadow Kin. As in the ninth season of Doctor Who, it’s nice that they’re keeping back surprises like this until transmission, even though it comes relatively early in Episode 1.
We don’t quite buy Charlie’s rationale for Quill’s punishment. The debate between the two of them about the terms of her protection defines their dynamic in the first episode and should give us some more interesting clashes over the course of the series, but calling slavery “civilised” is a bit of a red flag. We expect that we really haven’t seen the last of the Shadow Kin this series, though, and it’ll be interesting to see what Charlie does with that Cabinet of Souls.
The impact of Peter Capaldi showing up when he does to ensure that nobody else will die shouldn’t be understated here. Rachel (Anna Shaffer) gets killed horribly by Corikinus (Paul Marc Davis), in a way that traumatises Ram more than the subsequent loss of his leg, and while it’s only right that there’s nothing so violent as that once the Doctor arrives, it does feel safer with him in the room. There’s a brief, inevitable reference to former Coal Hill teachers Clara Oswald and Danny Pink too.
It’s interesting that the Doctor’s nifty replacement of Ram’s leg- “I had some spares” – isn’t a way of giving him a superpower, instead adversely affecting him. Even if his circumstances have a more paranormal emphasis, Ness sensitively writes the character’s difficulties with the same experiences that amputees might go through in real life.
The death toll climbs higher in Episode 2 – just as in Buffy Season 1, the headmaster dies pretty early on, but it’s Nigel Betts, who has recurred in Doctor Who since 2014, who gets skinned by the dragon in front of April, Charlie and Tanya. Killing off characters from the parent show so early and in such a nasty fashion shows they’re not messing about, but the horror elements of these episodes are far more effective than the gratuitous swearing and shagging in early episodes of Torchwood.
Finally, while the youngers are all great, but Miss Quill is our favourite character so far, partly due to how well Kelly plays it. She gets the lion’s share of the best quotes from this opening pair (“Leave us, WE ARE DECORATING”), but we enjoyed the sub-plot with the inspector more than Episode 2’s main plot. Funny as it is, the final reveal of “The Governors” suggests that we haven’t seen the last of their robotic representatives, either.
What else is good on BBC Three? Click here for our fortnightly column reviewing all the new releases – or for more on what’s coming soon to the channel, click here.
Photo: BBC / Todd Antony