One Year On: Class and BBC Three’s missed opportunity
Mark Harrison | On 28, Sep 2017
With Class officially cancelled by BBC Three, we bid a fond farewell to the series, and consider what would have happened in Season 2. Warning: This contains spoilers for Class Season 1.
In September 2016, Doctor Who fans were about two-thirds of the way through a year-long hiatus between Christmas specials. At that point, along cane BBC Three’s short-lived sixth form spin-off show, Class, which could have been just the thing for our TARDIS blues.
Set in and around the parent series’ original, oft-revisited home base of Coal Hill School in London, Patrick Ness’ show follows a group of young misfits who have been deputised by the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) to fight off any alien threats that emerge through a localised fracture in time and space. In the centre of the series, an alien prince, Charlie (Greg Austin), and his prisoner, Quill (Katherine Kelly), who pose as student and teacher to hide out on Earth from the genocidal Shadow Kin.
The show made its online debut last year on BBC Three to generally positive reviews (catch up with our reviews of each episode here), but its future was doubtful for a long time, on account of the series consistently failing to crack the top 40 most requested charts on iPlayer. Starting in January, BBC One aired the series late on Monday nights in double-bills, shedding viewers episode-by-episode, week-by-week. And, as the summer drew to a close, we got the official confirmation from the BBC that it will not be commissioning a second season of the show.
Channel controller Damian Kavanagh told the Radio Times: “I thought Patrick did a great job, he explored an amazing world. In honesty, it didn’t really land for us on BBC Three; some shows don’t and I have to make decisions about what we’re going to do from a drama point of view, and what we did after Class was Clique, which worked really well for us.”
The comparison to Clique is interesting, because there’s every chance that Class could have been the right show at the wrong time. Many of the factors that got it cancelled aren’t anything to do with its quality or its reception, but rather the way in which it was delivered. Still, the show’s eight episodes are available on BBC iPlayer for the next month or so, and together, they make a flawed if unceasingly earnest experiment.
Ness evidently cares for his characters, but at the same time, the show really moves apace and they sometimes get lost in the mix, even though the young cast are routinely excellent. Alongside Charlie and Quill are goodie-two-shoes April (Sophie Hopkins), cocky footballer Ram (Fady Elsayed), shy, nerdy Tanya (Vivian Oparah), and, most interestingly, Charlie’s love interest, Matteusz (Jordan Renzo). Like Buffy’s Scooby Gang, each of them gets their own moment in the spotlight, but become wildly inconsistent outside of the episodes that focus on them personally.
This really shows in Episode 3, Nightvisiting, which probably stands as the best example of what Ness was aiming for with the show. In a longer season, this would come much further along in the episode order, but an eight-part run leaves little time to waste on monster-of-the-week runarounds. Instead, it confidently launches right into an emotional, Triffid-inflected drama about Tanya, right off the blocks.
But for the rest of the series, she’s a bit of a cipher whenever she’s not the main focus, and that applies to the other characters too. Quill’s episode comes later than anyone else’s, in a part seven called The Metaphysical Engine (Or What Quill Did), and it really shows how Kelly’s superb character (in the Buffy analogy, she’s Spike and Giles all in one) has been sidelined up to that point.
And don’t get us started on the Shadow Kin. Veering from violent, frightening warlords in Episode 1, to Power Rangers baddies with their own mighty morphin’ quarry planet base in the middle two-parter, and a combination of both in the breathless finale, they’re the through-line that sinks much of the season. April’s character suffers especially for her convoluted connection to King Corakinus (Paul Marc Davies). Again and again, the season stumbles over its own major arc.
But these criticisms aside, it’s certainly better than Torchwood, BBC Three’s last run at a Doctor Who spin-off, was in its first season. That show had time to grow out of its more muddled early impulses and, while Class was grislier and sillier, there’s a more solid foundation in Ness’ vision and in his ability to make his voice heard in the course of each individual episode, if not over the whole season.
However, fans must have known the writing was on the wall for the show when Ness announced in July that he wouldn’t be returning to write a second run, even if it was recommissioned.
He tweeted: “I decided a while back that, with unbelievable regret, I won’t be writing any more Class, even if a season 2 moves ahead. It has been the MOST amazing experience. I loved it, and I am so proud of the show and what we made.
“But we should be filming right now. With the new cycles of Who, we’d pretty much need to be to be on the air before even 2019. But we’re not. And that’s just TV and how it goes!”
With regard to that new cycle, it’s clear that Class probably isn’t as well equipped to make that transition – from Steven Moffat’s era to Chris Chibnall’s – as previous spin-offs were out of Russell T. Davies’ departure in 2010. Even though the crossover only went as far as Capaldi’s cameo in Episode 1 and a returning headmaster (Nigel Betts), Class Season 2 would be starting opposite an entirely different Whoniverse than it started on, with Jodie Whittaker taking control of the TARDIS.
But that needn’t be the end of it. We wouldn’t be surprised if Class doesn’t continue at some point in the multimedia of the Whoniverse. Ness has spoken about how Season 2 would have picked up from the finale’s cliffhanger, including Miss Quill’s alien pregnancy, April’s monstrous new form and a Weeping Angel civil war.
We might well see those plans come to fruition, either in novel form, or with the full cast in audio form, via official Doctor Who licensees Big Finish. And, objectively, the aforementioned metaphysical engine, which enables travellers to explore the intangible worlds of myth and legend, is a good enough idea that the parent show should use it at some point.
In the end, Class was dismissed because it didn’t reach its audience. Flawed as it may be, we’ve seen shows start worse and invariably get better. Even in a TV landscape where bingeable shows come along every week, it’s a shame that Class didn’t get the chance to develop into a more rounded show, because its breakneck pace and earnestness (not to mention that enviable ensemble) still feels distinct one year on.
Class: Season 1 is available on BBC iPlayer until 11th February 2019. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.