You could be forgiven for thinking the end of last week’s episode, in which the Doctor declared the Coal Hill students and Miss Quill would defend the school against whatever monsters came through rift, was a bit, well… hokey. The scene smacks of a TV show declaring its high-concept premise when there’s no particular character logic why most of the characters would want to work together to fight aliens, at least not beyond the fact that that’s just what protagonists of shows in the Doctor Who universe get up to. Besides, the students bring almost no skills to the table as Coal Hill’s protectors. The heroes of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures had a former companion and a bunch of cool gadgets at their disposal, whereas those of Class have no real technological advantage and a pair of aliens who either don’t bring much to the table or don’t want to help.
If the show had ignored all those problems and just jumped ahead with the students working as a team to fight off monsters, it would undeniably be contrived, but the average viewer likely wouldn’t bat too much of an eye at the contrivance. After all, the average viewer is already a Doctor Who fan, and that show routinely asks audiences to believe an untrained, unprepared companion doesn’t immediately die a horrible death in their first trip into danger with the Doctor. Most shows confer a degree of narrative immortality to their protagonists, but the Doctor Who universe has always been especially fond of playing favorites with who dies and who lives against all odds. And yeah, that trait of a Doctor Who show is very much on display in “The Coach With The Dragon Tattoo,” as three side characters die horrible deaths in front of or in close proximity of our main characters—including head teacher Mr. Armitage, who first appeared in “Into The Dalek” and whose death severs the last ongoing link with the main show.
That aside, tonight’s episode is shockingly committed to play the aftermath of “For Tonight We Might Die” as straight as possible, with most of the focus resting on Ram Singh. His girlfriend Rachel died a particularly gory, gruesome death right in front of him at the hands of the Shadow Kin, making the loss of his leg almost inconsequential by comparison. Class is smart in not having all of its characters struggle like Ram—Charlie and Tanya have both seen worse in their own ways, while April’s plight is awful but too bizarre to get too hung up about—but the show is unsparing in its depiction of Ram’s post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s withdrawn, indiscriminately angry, uncertain of what to do, and generally wracked by despair. As he makes clear at the episode’s climax, he can’t keep seeing the horrors he has experienced and can’t imagine a way things will ever get better, making it almost beside the point whether he survives the encounter with the dragon from beyond the rift.
That’s a bold choice, as literally the only reason the dragon is stopped and the day is saved is that Ram was able to connect with its pain and anguish, and he was far gone enough to trade Coach Dawson’s life for everyone else’s. Afterward, Ram points out they are just as blind and stupid as they were before, and I’m not even sure you can really even use the word “they” here—there’s very little about the resolution to tonight’s episode that relies on teamwork or shared expertise. Charlie’s main contribution is drawing the dragon and thus getting Ram to connect the dots, while Tanya is a bit more important in that she offers Ram much-needed emotional support. April and Miss Quill are basically superfluous to the proceedings. The problem is almost entirely Ram’s to deal with, as underlined by the running gag that nobody else even knows who Coach Dawson is, or vice versa. As with “For Tonight We Might Die,” our heroes are a team to the extent they were all standing near one another when the plot was resolved, but there’s no strategy and no planning beyond Ram’s very personal, possibly suicidal gambit.
Whether tonight marks Ram taking a step closer to being part of the group, it definitely marks a step back for April. After all, Coach Dawson’s death is a fait accompli at this point, and to what extent he earned that end through his own complicity in the earlier deaths is only so much philosophical maneuvering—his death is on the dragon, on Ram for suggesting it to him, and on everyone else for not stopping any of it. That’s harsh, maybe, but it’s very understandable April, until a week ago a normal teen living a normal life, would see it that way. Here again Class is smart for not overplaying its hand. Just as Ram is the only one who really struggles with PTSD, it’s logical that not everyone would feel that same guilt. Miss Quill is too much a soldier and Charlie too much a prince to care about the death of one man if it serves the greater good. Ram is very explicitly dealing with his own problems, and Tanya is more concerned with her broken friend than the coach. April is the one with the most human, least distracted viewpoint, and so she’s the one to see their situation not as some genre show where deaths are as acceptable as they are inevitable, but rather the result of choices they are all making, and not one she wants any part of.
Class can’t escape its origins, no matter how far it strays from the family-friendly confines of Doctor Who. This is still a universe where monsters tromp around, killing ancillary characters whose deaths somehow don’t invite any particular attention. Indeed, tonight’s episode trots out the rationale of humanity’s willful forgetfulness that goes back at least as far as the 7th Doctor’s visit to Coal Hill in the great “Remembrance Of The Daleks” and has become a mainstay of the new series and its spinoffs. “The Coach With The Dragon Tattoo” isn’t quite artful enough to take that necessary contrivance and fold it into the main story of Ram’s despair, as the mounting, seemingly ignored death toll—in fairness, I suppose there technically isn’t a body count, given what happens to the victims—plays more like a dramatically mandated need to up the stakes than a vital part of the storytelling. Class is generally more committed than any of the other Doctor Who shows to exploring the fallout of living in such a heightened world, but it too is content to pick its spots.
The end result is an episode that already feels more confident and compelling than the solid enough opening hour—much as I love Peter Capaldi, the Doctor’s absence also helps “The Coach With The Dragon Tattoo” flesh out its own identity. Tonight’s episode is a monster-of-the-week story, but it also works well as a long-form examination of PTSD for its featured character. The result isn’t revelatory—any show that name-checks Buffy The Vampire Slayer as an inspiration in its opening episode will have to strain for such innovation—but tonight is a good indication of a show quickly finding its feet and demonstrating its ambition.
- If one is committed to seeing Class through a Who-centric lens—guilty as charged, honestly—then one could see Ram’s story as that of anyone who encounters the Doctor briefly and is then left behind to pick up the pieces. While “For Tonight We Might Die” sort of has the contours of that, I’ll admit it’s an intriguing premise to imagine a show that starts with a standard Doctor Who episode, but then the next episode follows not the Doctor and companion but rather the featured guest character and how they cope. It’s admittedly a much better idea for Class to not do something so insular, as Ram’s PTSD plays as something far more universal.
- A week after Class gave us the first utterance of the word “shit” in the Doctor Who universe, tonight’s episode has the titular dragon-tattooed coach give us one hell of a shot of man ass. Which, I’m not sure, is that a first for Doctor Who? I can’t believe Torchwood never had a similar shot, but I’m drawing a blank, and Google wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped.
- I appreciate the effort Class takes to give the cleaner a little sense of character and personality, even if she only gets a single line.
- “So, is no one going to ask about the robot?” Eh, we’ll get back to that once the season-spanning story—which I’ll go ahead and assume the Governors are all about—really kicks into gear. Miss Quill remains great, though.