Sunday, 1 January 2017

Beyond The TARDIS Class: Detained by Tony J Fyler


Class, Series 1, Episode 6: Detained

Tony’s been detained.

Oooh – innnnteresting.

Detained is what might be called the ‘Quill-lite’ episode of the first series of Class – if you can’t do dragons and big evil plants and stompy Shadowkin, all you have are your main actors. In Detained, Patrick Ness sets out to prove that his characters have quite enough drama, damage and conflict inside them to get a solid hour of TV out of it.
The question is whether he’s right.

The set-up is basically The Breakfast Club meets Sapphire and Steel, our heroes taken out of time and trapped in one room, in no-time and no-space, with a single, simple doohickey – a rock of ultimate truth. You pick up the rock, you tell the truth, stripped of any niceties, stripped of any consideration. Your truth, to the best of your ability to know it. The truth of your darkest thoughts, your least optimistic thoughts, your meanest thoughts.
Multiply that by a complicated five and you’ve got yourself a ball game.

The question of course is how to get out of a room that isn’t a room, in a space that isn’t a space. A prison, effectively, entirely designed to prevent you from doing precisely that.
It quickly emerges that if you pick up the rock, you tell the unvarnished truth of your darkest thoughts – but also, if you keep hold of the rock for too long, it will burn out your brain. So – pretty much a one-shot-per-Classmember deal, then. The question is, can you learn enough from the rock which also tells you its truth, between confessing your guilts and fears and your brain turning to mush?

If the ‘box, taken out of time’ setting is the Sapphire and Steel element, the characterisations are what give this episode its Breakfast Club vibe – the jock, the nerd, the prom queen, the alien prince…well, OK, it’s not an exact fit, but the idea’s there: trap these people together, get them to tell their truths, lead to a better understanding that breaks down any walls of fear or distance or dislike between them.

Except that’s not how things go in this episode. Ness in fact turns The Breakfast Club on its head, the rock exerting a malign influence, a force of anger, bringing out truths that could well cause long term breaches in the group. It would be a spoiler for the majority of the episode to tell you what those truths are, but Ness doesn’t shy away from modern issues – race is up for grabs, immigration’s up for grabs, emotional attachment, the patronising of youth, the fact that there’s an alien among the group, it’s all up for attack in this taut hour of teen angst.

In fact, Ness taps in to the truth behind the Breakfast Club idea – everyone feels they’re isolated as a teenager. Everyone feels they’re the only one with their problems, the only one who could possibly understand the pain and difficulty of being them. Alien leg, alien prince, shared heart, Polish in Brexit Britain, youngest and cleverest. But he also acknowledges that no-one, in that moment, likes to think they can be understood, that there’s anyone who quite gets them. Using the prison cell of a classroom taken out of time, Ness gets to explore and exacerbate those feelings of isolation, so even though there’s a solution found to their predicament in this episode, by the end of it, Ram is heartbroken, with bruised pride to boot, Charlie is wondering whether he and Matteusz should call it quits, April’s in a thoroughly foul mood and Tanya feels she’s had her point about being the nerdy runt of the group proven. Whereas in The Breakfast Club, the gang left detention unified and stronger, Ness here shows us that nothing’s that simple or ‘written’ in real life. Sharing a grim experience doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll stick together through everything. Sharing the real fears and thoughts you have as a 21st century teenager can make you feel even more alone.
As episodes go, this one has divided fandom, with some thinking of it as ‘the one where nothing happened.’ But if you look at it structurally, there’s an in-universe sensible beginning, a setting of some rules, and then a continual escalation with every time someone takes hold of the rock. The voice from within it gets stronger every time, learning more, knowing more, and as it does, the anger in the room grows too, with our group losing it more than once, ready to take their fight outside, if only there were an outside to take it to. There’s both a boiled-down, Twelve Angry Men vibe to the episode, and at the same time, an exploration of teenage struggles – to be ‘normal,’ to fit in, to stand out, to know what’s in their heart, to know what to do with it. The lack of external threats like the Shadowkin leaves the whole strain of the episode’s drama on the shoulders of the young cast, and to their credit, when asked to deal with the kind of thing drama school will have prepared them for, they knock it out of the park. While each of the main cast have their moments to shine in this story, it’s good to see Greg Austin grab some tougher material and show us his mettle as Charlie, and Jordan Renzo as Matteusz, who’s been quietly, consistently good throughout the series so far, impresses again here. Perhaps it’s that we’re now familiar with the range of Fady Elsayed as Ram, Sophie Hopkins as April and Vivian Oparah as Tanya that these two particularly are notable here – they’ve been on the quiet side up till now, and it’s good to see them showing what they can do.

While this episode is by no means a high-octane monsterfest, it’s akin to some of the better ‘Doctor-lite’ episodes of Who, and gives a look under the bravado of the 21st century teen. For that, and for the performances it coaxes from the cast, it deserves to be up in the top half of the episode chart so far. 

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