It’s been a while since we had a new Doctor Who spin off and just as it seemed as if that period was gone, along comes Class. At least for those aware of it. Debuting on the BBC’s peculiar channel / portal hybrid BBC3, it starts off at a disadvantage because even the Radio Times barely acknowledges 3’s existence. The show has a potential draw in the form of Peter Capaldi guesting in the opening episode…but nobody really wants to say too much about that because the series is unsuitable for younger people. On the other hand this is a series for…erm younger people. One way or another it will be a miracle if people find this show let alone decide to watch it. Who is it really designed for?
The answer, pleasingly, is everyone who likes this sort of stuff. It’s so called adult content consists of one mild swear word, a brief kiss between two boys and more blood than usual. In other words nothing more than you might spot if you watched Eastenders. Its concept is delightfully Whovian, its style well produced, narrative slightly over wordy and self- consciously speckled with (out of date) pop culture references and a line about Instagram. Oh and if you look very carefully you’ll spot the name Foreman S on a board of former pupils who have died. The director wants to show you the names of Clara and Danny of course but us veteran fans are scouring that board for familiar names. In other words it’s a bit more extreme than Doctor Who- but not as clever and less sensationalistic than Torchwood but cleverer. Which is a nice place to be.
What is missing- and don’t misunderstand my enjoyment of this episode- is something extraordinary to really wow us. The monsters almost do it- the way they appear in clouds of black smoke and glide in unison along the corridors is thrilling and the momentum of the second half terrifically developed. It’s just that…we have seen this kind of stuff before. Some time ago. One character even mentions how the school is “like the Hellmouth”. What year is this? Had Class checked in a decade ago we’d be marking it ten out of ten. Now it’s a solid se-ven as Len Goodman might say. Really well made, well acted and visually striking but rather familiar.
There’s trouble at Coal Hill Academy (not sure how Ian and Babs would greet the idea of by passing the council and taking money direct from the government) where kids are disappearing and an alien Prince and his beholden slave and former leader of opposing forces from their home planet are hiding out Jon Cryer style posing as student and teacher. The Prince is Mr Selfridge’s son while Miss Quill is Lady Mae Loxley. That’s not part of the plot of course!
It’s a premise which might have benefited from being revealed over a few episodes rather than the exposition heavy scenes here. A number of other kids are drawn into this malarkey including one girl called April who ends up sharing a heart with the Shadow Kin leader. Played by Sophie Hopkins she is excellent in managing to convince us that April is dealing with this issue in a level headed way.
The Shadow Kin themselves are like up market Krargs, the monsters from `Shada` given a Samurai twist and quite the best monsters we’ve seen in the Whoniverse for years. The trouble though with having the Doctor in the episode is that having built up the kids and their fight as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS wearing Jon Pertwee’s hair, all eyes are on him and we forget the kids. It really needed longer before he showed up.
If some of the dialogue is a tad clunky and there’s too much stuff about the alien planet (a place where they seem to wear UK school uniforms for some reason) there is also a strong urgency to the danger and director Ed Bazalgette marshals the different elements very well. The main cast seem promising especially Greg Austin’s downplaying in the face of Katherine Kelly’s amusingly angry Miss Quill.
The best thing is that you can watch episode 2 right away and you really should because it seems to show more of what will be true shape of the series. Without all the explanations or indeed the Doctor, `The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo` riffs effectively from horror movies and is far gorier visually and grittier narratively than the opener. Patrick Ness’s script deals with the after effects of tragedy and shock focussing on Ram’s reaction to the events of the week before. As you might expect he isn’t dealing with things especially well unlike actor Fady Elsayed who delivers a pitch perfect performance in the role. The character is trying to maintain his outward cool, struggling to play football again and also witnessing more traumatic events. The other strand includes some amusing Ofsted gags complete with a wordless schools inspector who turns out to be a robot! Katherine Kelly is very funny as she confronts the inspector first with Western style drawn out stares then in the middle of a lesson. Mind you her teaching methods are so unorthodox its wonder she can hold down the job.
The episode is thus finely balanced and can be witty one minute and horrific the next. The dragon like monster gives the series a two out of two so far for aliens but is used creatively at the climax. Again this is Elsayed’s scene but you do feel the gang will need a Thing of some sort with which to act against all these monsters. The school meanwhile is going to have an increasing number of vacancies the way things are going. The idea suggested that the Governors are up to something –and quite possibly aliens as well- will resonate with any teacher watching.
The episode shows most of all that Class has the potential to be entertaining in its own right regardless of its origins and is definitely the way I hope the rest of the series will go.