Class, Series 1, Episode 7:
The Metaphysical Engine, Or What Quill Did
Tony faces his first fear.
‘I mean, this is like a geek vomited!’
Episode 7 of the first series of Class is the antithesis – not to mention the alternative viewpoint – of Episode 6. As its sub-title suggests, it’s ‘What Quill Did’ while our teenage heroes were busy getting angry and telling the truth to one another in the previous episode.
In some ways, it’s the most grown-up episode of Class so far, because free of the emotional, hormonal battles of teenagers, Quill can be herself more fully, and Katherine Kelly, who if you haven’t worked this out by now, is an actress of staggering emotional capacity, gives this episode what it needs – Quill, yes, but Quill on a journey through several parts of her life that she doesn’t get to experience on an everyday basis in Coal Hill, or as the slave of Prince Charlie. It’s an essay in war and service, faith and power, love and life and tenderness and fury, and we end up liking Quill and Kelly on a whole new level at the end of it. We’ve enjoyed her so far on the Snape level of an adult begrudgingly looking after children, and hating every minute of it. She’s impressed up with her occasional emotional snipes about her destroyed race, her slavery, the unfairness of a warrior in chains. This episode is essentially the scene in the seventh Harry Potter movie where we get to understand Snape’s love of Lily, his campaign to protect her son, even while he hates the boy for the James Potter in him, and hates himself for all that conflict of love and hate and wretchedness. This is Quill, uncovered.
While Kelly blows the doors off this episode, matched emotional beat for beat by Chike Okonkwo as Ballon, the ‘surgeon’ who can remove the Arn from her head, there’s more than a little justification here for Quill describing her experiences in this episode as being ‘like a geek vomited.’ This is an epic fantasy quest, a divine comedy in a way, that makes its path through a version of Heaven, a version of Hell, and the beginnings of a long-dead Quill religion. The Divine Comedy parallels are actually quite pronounced once the quest begins, but it’s also full of fantasy hokum – a metaphysical engine, that can take you to anywhere anyone has ever sufficiently believed existed, and allow you to take physical artefacts from such realms…but which conveniently runs out of power at just the moment the script needs it to in order to force a final battle between love and war. That kind of storytelling convenience has been a hallmark of several episodes of Class so far, so finding it here comes as no real surprise. A disappointment, yes, but no real surprise.
But for the most part, The Metaphysical Engine as an episode makes us forgive many of its moments of scripting flimsiness, because it takes us through some of Quill’s as yet unseen character elements. She’s often spoken of herself as a warrior, but here, she’s free of her teenage charges and able to act like the warrior she’s used to being, helping Ballon to conquer his ‘first fear,’ the primal terror at the heart of his strength, raging at a goddess that wasn’t there when she was needed, that offered no comfort to the Quill of Andra’ath’s time, no hope since her people had realised that the only thing that could save them in the universe as it existed was themselves.
‘I should rip your head off for even daring to exist!’
In fact, with the metaphysicality of the whole experience, the episode occasionally borders on a sermon, but again, Quill has little time for such speciousness.
‘Do I need to do to you two what I did to those very nice people who no longer come to my front door?’
With Headmistress Ames (still played with an enigmatic streak by Pooky Quesnel, despite the freedom to open up rather more and give us more details about the Governors in this episode than in the previous two) running the show for about three-quarters of the time, only to desert Quill and Ballon for the last quarter, the episode overall has a tendency to vacillate between the two halves of what it’s trying to achieve. On the one, rather grating hand, it’s an epic fantasy quest that seems to exist mostly for its own sake. On the other, it shows us Andra’ath as supportive warrior, as brave Quill, as independent atheist, and as if not woman, then at least as tender person, capable of the feelings to which she’s previously alluded, and which Ballon brings out in her. The sense of denial of all that, both by the Rhodians who took everything from her people and from her particularly, and now by Ames, powers Quill on to a new level of rage as she makes her escape from the Headmistress’ final conundrum on the journey, and as we rejoin her where we left her at the end of Episode 6, we have a whole new understanding of the ‘eternity’ she feels it’s been while the teenagers have been locked away in no-space. Things, she promises, are about to change around here. After the journey we’ve seen her go through, we have very little doubt that she’s right.