Sunday, June 4, 2017

Who's Next: BBC's Class

Sophie Hopkins, Jordan Renzo, Fady Elsayed, Vivian Oparah, and Greg Austin in Class.

This review contains some general spoilers for the first season of Class.  

For the past eight weeks, Doctor Who's tenth season has had a new companion on Saturday evenings over at BBC America: Class, a teen-centred spin-off of the BBC's flagship science-fiction series that was broadcast on BBC3 in the UK in late 2016. Last night, alongside the gut-wrenching conclusion of Doctor Who's midseason three-parter, the eighth and final episode of Class's first season also aired – and so it seems a perfect time to reflect on the latest entry into the still-expanding Doctor Who universe.

Over the course of its five-decade history, Doctor Who has had its share of spin-offs – including CBBC's The Sarah Jane Adventures, the consistently smart and entertaining children's drama which ended with five seasons after star Elisabeth Sladen lost her battle with cancer in 2011. Sarah Jane was an imaginative series, with a great young cast and unapologetic sense of fun. The more famous Who spin-off ,however, remains the high-profile, if uneven, John Barrowman-helmed Torchwood series – the height of which was 2009's short but exquisitely painful and harrowing third season, Children of Earth. (Torchwood's experiment with international co-production, 2011's BBC/Starz Miracle Day, was overlong and melodramatic in comparison.)

Created and written by Patrick Ness, award-winning YA novelist (A Monster Calls, both the novel and the screenplay, and the Chaos Walking trilogy), Class brings us back to school, specifically Coal Hill Academy. Long-time Who fans would know it as the newly renovated incarnation of Coal Hill School – whose long history on Doctor Who begins with the very first episode in 1963, and which is the school where companion Clara Oswald taught English. There we meet our four teen heroes, who endure love, loss, and alien invasion over the course of Class's eight episodes. Class, despite its high school setting and young ensemble, is no Sarah Jane Adventures – and whatever the virtues of Sarah Jane and co., this is to its credit.

Ness, who penned every episode of the season, brings a steady hand to the series, taking both the Who universe and the teen storylines seriously. Admittedly, this is challenging to see in the show's first episode because the set-up is easy to dismiss as nothing new. The four teens thrown together by circumstance have a Breakfast Club-style diversity – the new kid/outsider Charlie (Greg Austin, Mr. Selfridge), popular jock Ram (Fady Elsayed), seemingly normal but profoundly broken April (Sophie Hopkins), and precocious brain Tanya (Vivian Oparah) – and the high-school setting is unapologetically influenced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As the Doctor describes it at the end of the first hour – in Peter Capaldi's one cameo appearance – a hole in space-time so happens to sit in the middle of Coal Hill, where "time itself has worn thin," guaranteeing weekly adventures and mayhem. The script awkwardly tries to hang a lampshade on these parallels, with the kids saying in turn, "It's like the Hellmouth, "Or that town in Once Upon A Time," "Or The Vampire Diaries!," and it takes a few episodes to finally shake the Whedonesque monkey off its back – but once it does, Class more than makes up for it.

Katherine Kelly and Greg Austin in Class.

The young cast (all 20-somethings playing teens) is a strong ensemble of relative newcomers and the plot is notably dark. Doctor Who Рespecially under Steven Moffat's direction, who co-produces Class alongside Ness Рcertainly has had its share of dark moments, but Class steps it up by not only regularly putting its characters through the wringer (especially poor Ram), but also holding to the painful emotional and psychological consequences. (To point to just one enormous example: it is almost a cliché for young heroes to lose their parents on the road to coming into their adulthood, but rarely does a story dare to make them ostensibly responsible for those deaths.) With only eight episodes, these four are decidedly not the same by the end of the season Рeach is pushed to their breaking point and back again, one by one.

The drama is also free of the kind of hormone-driven complications that dominate most American teen-centric shows. The relationships that develop are admirably mature – no empty melodrama, no unrequited crushes. They are teens, of course – full-hearted and head-strong, emotionally insecure,  struggling with parental and social expectations – but they are also self-aware, regularly brave, and as often clear-headed as they are short-sighted.

At the centre of this crew is the young exiled prince of the Rhodens, who now calls himself (in true Who fashion) Charlie Smith. Still adapting to human mores and culture (April's reaction to his extraterrestrial origins: "You’re weird and you don’t know anything about pop culture. You’re either alien or Amish.”) Charlie, as revealed in a manner unrelated to his being from another planet, is also gay. This matter-of-fact, Channel 4 approach to sexuality – frank and non-judgmental – extends beyond the relationship between Charlie and his Polish-born boyfriend Matteusz (Jordan Renzo), but also to the developing one between Ram and April. This might not be new to British audiences, but for a North American one fed on FOX and The CW, it is decidedly refreshing. (It also allows for one of the season's funniest, and most genuinely original, moments relating to the psychic link between April and the Shadow King, the season's Big Bad. I won't say more here for fear of ruining the scene.)

Though it takes the series as a whole a few episodes to fully get its bearings, one element that works out of the gate is the character of Miss Quill, played with teeth-gnashing charm by Happy Valley's Katherine Kelly. With her unconcealed, if tamped-down, rage and no-bullshit calling out of our characters' teen failings, Quill is our Scooby Gang's adult caretaker – think a distaff Giles mixed with a Season 6, chip-in-his-brain Spike. (This is one inevitable comparison with Buffy that doesn't work against Class.) The last surviving member of her alien race, bound to the service of the one remaining member of her enemy's royal family, Quill ("I am war itself!), is a vicious delight to behold – an involuntary babysitter with genocide on her mind.

The future of Class is still very much up in the air (BBC has held off any word until the end of its North American run), and with today's Twitter announcement by Patrick Ness that he would not be returning to the show even if it did get renewed, it is difficult to imagine we'll ever see a second season – or what it would look like if it did. Nonetheless, even as an one-off miniseries, Class is worth your time – whether you are a Doctor Who fan or not.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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