Class 1.1 For Tonight We Might Die
Tony’s signing up for classes.
When Class was announced, the reaction from most of fandom ranged from a muted shrug of indifference to a modest curiosity, with a couple of wails of derision and one or two fist-punches from the absolute diehard New Whovians.
As a concept, it seems so very…done, already. Teenagers save the world – as in Buffy, and Twilight, and Percy Jackson, and Harry Potter, and so many others even listing them is unoriginal by this point. Doctor Who had such a broad range of branches from which spin-offs could spring – The Jo Jones Adventures, Ace and Friends, River’s Run, The UNIT Files, The Paternoster Chronicles, you name it, they could all spring from the screen. Instead of which, there was going to be…a Buffy re-run, with aliens instead of demons?
There was also the question of whether, even within Doctor Who Spin-Off World, Class could bring anything new – teenagers and aliens was done pretty comprehensively by The Sarah-Jane Adventures. Doctor Who with blood and swearing was done by Torchwood. What would be the angle that would give Class its reason for being?
Well…on the basis of episode 1, For Tonight We Might Die, it doesn’t have one as yet, outside of the quality of the writing. It’s more or less teenagers and aliens with blood and swearing. But – and here’s the crucial thing – it’s very well done teenagers and aliens with blood and swearing. There’s practically nothing new here: aliens in hiding, using a kind of shimmer; aliens hiding in the shadows (can we say Vashta Nerada much?); aliens that look, genuinely, like they’re cousins of the Pyroviles: child genius who’s socially awkward and badly in need of friends; ‘nice’ girl who looks after wheelchair-using mum and needs to get over her niceness to be seen and heard; jock who really needs to get over his own fabulous, and gets a way that will force him to do so; hot gay teen; teen with physical connection to the Big Bad, and ability to occasionally know what they’re thinking, a la Harry Potter’s scar; adult protector, a la Giles, Snape etc. None of it’s by any means original, but then very little in the creative world actually is. It’s how you put the pieces together and how you create the characters that really determines whether you’ve got something that’s more or less a tedious re-tread, or something with enough legs to make its own contribution to the pile of archetypes which will be listed the next time someone tries to launch a show like this.
Does Class have enough legs to do that?
After one episode, the jury’s still officially out, but they’re nodding to themselves, smiling rather more than they thought they would. While by no means a Torchwood, there’s a degree of realism in the first episode of Class that separates it from The Sarah-Jane Adventures, which while never playing it exactly safe, was very conscious of its CBBC, potentially young children audience. Class… well, Class pretty much takes a flamethrower to that caution, and gives us bloody on-screen deaths of quite a surprising brutality. Also, maiming, in a moment that’s fairly Saw Junior in its gruesomeness. What that does to the whole scenario is try and force the message home that whereas in Sarah-Jane’s world, we were pretty sure no-one among the main cast would actually die, here, we’re erring on the Torchwood side, where anyone’s vulnerable to anything, because we live in the real world.
The main storyline of the episode hangs together pretty well – there are good aliens, good aliens who hate being good (think Snape), and bad stealthy-yet-stompy aliens, alongside and among a Breakfast Club’s worth of Coal Hill misfits, and the misfits must work together (and get a whacking great helping hand from everyone’s favourite grumpy caretaker) to defeat the stealthy, stompy, cold-blooded murdering aliens for now. There’s a MacGuffin of Ultimate Importance, giving a vaguely hippie-dippy spiritual dimension to the good aliens (as for instance you can find in the Bajorans on Deep Space Nine), and most of the regular Class members are changed in some way by their struggle against the well-named evil aliens in this episode, suggesting fairly well-trodden roads for them to go down – or more pleasingly, subvert - as the series evolves. If there’s a weakness in the first episode, it’s that the mechanics of ‘setting up the scenario’ occasionally show – the archetypes are a little easy to see coming, and almost beg for some undercutting by the characters themselves down the line if the series is to maintain its appeal to modern teenagers, and the explanation for the rift that now exists in Coal Hill school is a little flimsy, to the extent that you could well say the reasoning applies to the whole of the Earth throughout time, but hey, that’d be a much more expensive and complicated series to set up.
Performancewise, it’s not too much of a stretch to say everyone’s believable here – even Greg Austin in the non-domestic role of Charlie Smith (Clearly, every series needs a Smith on board). Sophie Hopkins as April MacClean plays ‘nice’ on the side of reality that resents the nondescriptness of that label, saving her from being ‘That Nice Girl,’ and Vivian Oparah is perhaps the most impressive of the young cast as prodigy Tanya Adeola, refusing to ‘Willow it up’ with the cuteness, but still delivering a character that’s both complex and sympathetic.
But if you’re looking for standouts in this episode, the prize has to (rather perversely) go to one of the adult cast members – Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill. She’s pure Snape in a blonde bob, her withering lines and insults an absolute joy from Ness, and Kelly plays Quill with no attempt to disguise the character’s disgust for the miniature humans that infest her life. A reluctant guardian to one Class member when the episode begins, she ends the story having inherited a whole clutch of teenage world-savers, the designated driver to a gang of teenage Earthlings. Kelly’s performance drips with pure ‘Kill me now’ and makes you want to watch more for her alone.
Overall, while as yet there’s nothing inherent in the set-up to make Class stand out from a thousand other ‘teens-save-the-world-from-villains-of-the-week’ construct, there is an interesting set of characters, each with their own agenda, lessons and personalities to lift it above the rest of the pack.
Bring on episode 2…