This review contains spoilers.
1.1 For Tonight We May Die & 1.2 The Coach With The Dragon Tattoo
“Where are all the teachers?” screams a girl running into a packed school prom to warn her classmates of their impending death. Thus Class obeys the first rule of any young adult adventure: adults should be absent, useless or evil; the kids are the ones who save the world.
With one exception in this case. As a Doctor Who spin-off, a certain Gallifreyan has licence to pop in and wave his Sonic Screwdriver about from time to time, as he does in For Tonight We May Die. Peter Capaldi’s cameo is a necessary encroachment in episode one, connecting Class to its parent show and establishing the rules of the game. The Doctor is there to, essentially, read aloud the instructions on the back of the box then leave the new characters to start playing.
Those instructions are pretty typical for new Who. Humans are brilliant and brave and together they can cope with all the alien stuff about to leak into Coal Hill, now a hub of weirdness thanks to decades of Artron energy having worn time there as thin as a bald spot on an old carpet. The school acts as “a beacon across all of space-time for any being who might want to make mischief with it”.
“Like a Hell Mouth” offers one kid, “or that town in Once Upon A Time”, “or The Vampire Diaries”. This self-aware exchange comically owns up to how many times fantasy TV has retrod this particular ground, a cheeky moment that, like the Bechdel test line in episode one, pre-empts criticism and announces itself as clued-in. I get it, says Class. I’m derivative. Can we move on?
Class is derivative. Spin-offs obviously are by their nature, but this one channels something other than its source show. Two things in fact. The first is creator Patrick Ness’ terrific YA novel The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, the “Not everyone has to be The Chosen One” tagline of which references the second: Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Well if you’re going to borrow, you may as well borrow from the best.
The Rest Of Us Just Live Here swung the spotlight from the usual YA leads—the Bella-Harry-Katniss-Tris types—and into the crowd of extras. Alongside an empathetic and honest depiction of the difficulties and solaces of growing up ran a witty lampoon of YA literary and screen trends. (A character reminisces about that time the chosen ones–two of whom are named ‘Satchel’–all started “dying beautifully of cancer”.) It would make a great TV show in itself, but in the absence of that, Class will do nicely.
The Buffy influence is even stronger. That’s hardly surprising given that it appears to have been Ness’ brief on the show. When the first cast photo was published this April, it arrived with the following quote from Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, “I’ve always wondered if there could be a British Buffy – it’s taken the brilliant Patrick Ness to figure out how to make it happen.”
That figuring-out process seems to have involved the odd bit of theft. Take Katherine Kelly’s Miss Quill, a sarcastic bottle-blonde warrior with a special doodad in her brain that stymies her violent impulses and forces her to be a reluctant ally to her sworn enemy. She’s Spike in stiletto heels, and roughly as fabulous as that sounds.
There are more character similarities. Sophie Hopkins plays April, the girl who lost her heart to a starship trooper in episode one. As a goody-goody pushover who clearly has a core of steel, April is the Willow/Fred of the group. Vivian Oparah’s super-smart fourteen-year-old Tanya can be added somewhere to that Venn diagram. Greg Austin plays an alien prince posing as an ordinary high school student with all the concomitant Anya/Angel fish-out-of-water comedic potential there. There’s even a kindly headmaster who gets eaten in his office Principal Flutie-style…
None of which matters if the characters, whomever they remind us of, work. And this lot really do.
Leaving the kids to get on with things isn’t the first sign that Class knows its way around a story. That much is also clear from our smooth introductions to April, Tanya, Charlie, Ram and Miss Quill, names and faces I found easy to recall after a single viewing, which isn’t always the case with the shiningly beautiful blur of Tylers, Clarkes, Chloes and Damons in other youth-skewed fantasy TV.
There’s beauty here too of course, and romance, and a few gratuitous six-pack and bum shots, as well as hectic editing and frenzied guitar riffs when anything exciting happens. It wouldn’t be much of a BBC Three show if there weren’t. There’s also a good amount of blood and gore, signalling that no, this isn’t the main show or The Sarah-Jane Adventures. It’s its own thing.
It’s a pity then, that main antagonists the Shadow Kin lack menace. After Doctor Who’s Vashta Nerada, their concept feels done. It’s also hard to imagine the intergalactic skin-eating dragon from episode two ending up as a favourite among any demographic.
What it lacks in monsters though, Class makes up for in good intentions. That’s not intended as damning with faint praise. Representation matters and Class is doing a proper job of reflecting 2016 in a way that far too many shows still don’t (even Buffy didn’t get that right). Hooray for girls with brains and boys with emotions, hooray for Charlie and Matteusz getting a no-big-deal snog in episode one, and quadruple hooray for Miss Quill, my new favourite TV character.
Now leave us! We are decorating!
Episodes one and two of Class are available to watch online at BBC Three now.