“Of course Coal Hill will continue to act like a beacon across all of space-time, to any being who might want to make mischief with it. So – you will have to be on your guard.”
It’s been a very Doctor Who-less year, hasn’t it? For me, this has meant a nice long break from blogging, which was fortunate as I was in the labyrinthine process of buying a house with my partner and some friends. However, after a very long wait, the Doctor was finally back on our screens last Saturday; well, briefly, anyway. Long enough to hand over the reins to his show’s newest spinoff, the school-set, unimaginatively titled Class.
The school in question is Coal Hill, which those with long memories may remember from An Unearthly Child, way back on November 23, 1963. More recently, though, it’s been popping up with some regularity as the workplace of the “late” Clara Oswald, with the explanation that the Doctor’s constant messing around in the area has somehow infused it with artron energy – almost like a… yes, like a Hellmouth.
The show’s debt to Buffy was evident from the very beginning, as we watched an unfortunate student vaporised by a mysterious thingy in the darkened school after hours. In case you didn’t get the resemblance, as soon as that happened we cut to a conversation at the school gate, in which one student slyly confided, “everybody knows students disappear around here, but nobody talks about it”. And in case you still didn’t get it, towards the end one of our heroes explained it to another as being “like a Hellmouth”.
Still, if you’re going to nick ideas for your teen fantasy drama, Buffy (nearly twenty years old now) is still the gold standard; and at least writer/creator Patrick Ness isn’t trying to hide it. Ness, a writer of some rather good Young Adult fantasy novels, apparently got this gig as a result of a pitch for an episode of the actual Doctor Who, which the Grand Moffat encouraged him to flesh out to an entire spinoff series, the show’s first since the untimely end of The Sarah Jane Adventures and the well-overdue end of Torchwood.
It’s also the first new drama to appear exclusively on BBC iPlayer, rather than its spiritual home, the much-missed BBC3. Consequently, the BBC blessed us by making the first two eps available in one go – a good chance to see what kind of tone the new show is taking.
First thoughts – the school setting, and naively innocent but cute young alien boy, immediately called to mind The Sarah Jane Adventures. However, in place of the brightly coloured goo that was required to drench comic relief Clyde at least once an episode, Class has lashings of graphic, Torchwood-style gore. In that sense, it seems aimed at an older audience than its parent show, but thankfully lacks the adolescent attempt at being “adult” that marred the first season of Torchwood.
No sign of Torchwood’s ridiculously gratuitous level of sex either – yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if we did get that at some point though, if only to justify the casting of some implausibly attractive young people in the main roles. Well, I say “young”, but don’t feel worried if you find them sexy – like all schoolkids in teen drama, they’re played by actors in their mid-20s.
Cutest of them (for me anyway) is Greg Austin of Mr Selfridge fame, as the mysterious Charlie. It took all of five minutes of the show to work out that the quiet, otherworldly Charlie, played almost exactly like an older, sexier version of Luke Smith from SJA, was an alien. More interestingly, it took even less time to work out that he was gay, a fact that refreshingly nobody made any kind of deal about. Apparently, had the sad death of Lis Sladen not meant the end of SJA, similar development had been planned for Luke; still, there was some consolation in seeing the now-older Tommy Knight copping off with another guy in Jack Thorne’s excellent Glue.
If you like them more sporty though, there’s Fady Elsayed as Ram, school football hero and all-round jock. Again thankfully, Ness’ writing ensured that Ram was a more rounded character than the usual jock stereotype, with a quietly pushy dad and an overactive ego. And while he may not have had Charlie’s floppy hair, he’s certainly far from unattractive.
For those who like the ladies, you had Sophie Hopkins as the improbably attractive but shy Alice, somehow unable to get a date for the prom despite looking like a knockout; and Vivien Oparah as Tanya, the only one who could conceivably pull off looking like she was 18. Unfortunately, her character is supposed to be 14 – skipped ahead a couple of years due to being improbably bright.
These four will be your Scooby gang for forthcoming weeks, accompanied by the scene-stealing Katherine Kelly as alien bodguard/rebel, the acid tongued Miss Quill. Equipped with all the best lines, Miss Quill is, I’m guessing, part of Ness’ original episode pitch. It’s an imaginative concept – Charlie is actually an alien prince, fleeing from the genocide of his people, and Quill is a ‘freedom fighter’ brainwashed into looking after him as punishment for her rebellion.
With all this character establishing going on, the actual plotline of the first ep still managed to have a fair bit of depth, as the gang were forced together by the attack of those very same genocidal aliens, the ‘Shadowkin’. Yes, Doctor Who has already done sentient shadows; for the first half of the ep I genuinely expected them to be the Vashta Nerada from Silence in the Library. But no, they actually turned out to be stony, glowing-eyed devils like… well, like ones from Buffy.
That’s not to say there weren’t some thrills to be had, in the perhaps inevitable climax of the ep as they attacked the school prom (I remember when these increasingly American events were referred to as “sixth form discos”). Future plotlines were duly set up as Alice found herself, by convoluted means, sharing a heart with the alien leader, while Charlie’s plainly not telling us everything about that mysterious box he brought with him from his home planet.
And one of the plotlines came home to roost as early as the next episode, as Ram lost a leg but gained a prosthetic, courtesy of a hitherto-unsuspected TARDIS health service. Having also seen his girlfriend bloodily vaporised by the aliens, he had the dual problems of PTSD and physiotherapy; and Ness’ writing dealt with it very sympathetically. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing other eps that focus primarily on just one of the cast as we go along.
Sadly, I doubt that will be the Doctor himself, who popped up to solve the trouble in the first ep and set our heroes off as Coal Hill’s watchdogs. Even in the same scene as Miss Quill, Peter Capaldi stole the lot; I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed him. Much brandishing of the new sonic screwdriver (in shops in time for Christmas, plastic tat fans!) was followed by his characteristic acid wit – “it’s not hard. No harder than all these exams you have to do these days. Well, except for Media Studies. It’s going to be harder than that”.
Puzzling though, that he remembered so much about recent events at Coal Hill, bearing in mind his memory was wiped of everything to do with Clara Oswald. Still, it was a nice touch to see him staring quizzically at the school’s memorial wall…
Overall, Class has little new to say; but what it does say is at least entertaining, thoughtfully written, and thus far, much more “adult” than Torchwood ever was. OK, there’s not much original here (yet), but these are some well-drawn characters with some fun dialogue (the Torchwood-style Time Rift is apparently now “the Bunghole of Time”). There were even some out and out, knowing comedy moments (“And, we just failed the Bechdel Test…”). I’ll keep watching, if only for moments like this: