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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Class takes Doctor Who back to school

Illustration for article titled Class takes Doctor Who back to school
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What’s it like to be an ordinary high schooler in the Doctor Who universe? That’s an intriguing premise for a show, but it’s not quite an accurate description of Class. This is instead about what it’s like to be an ordinary high schooler when the Doctor Who universe suddenly explodes into one’s previously ordinary life. After all, the show doesn’t really appear to take place a world where, say, every dead person on Earth briefly came back as a Cyberman, as theoretically happened a couple years ago. Admittedly, new Doctor Who and its spinoffs have always played fast and loose on just how much those world-girdling invasions should affect well, the world, but apart from April’s blasé reaction to Charlie and Miss Quill being aliens, this show mostly opts for tabula rasa when it comes to alien invasions. Leaving aside any (admittedly minor) continuity issues, this is the smart move, as Class generally goes for something more realistic than the typical Doctor Who episode, at least when the aliens aren’t onscreen.

For better or worse, Class feels hip in a way that no other corner of the Doctor Who universe ever really has. Part of the appeal of the flagship show is that the Doctor is the most delightfully uncool person in the universe. He started in 1963 appearing as a stern, wizened Victorian adventurer, and even in his David Tennant- and Matt Smith-looking phases he maxed out at “seemingly cool, strangely attractive, but mostly still dorky teacher.” And that’s the point: Class is very much not about the teachers (well, with one exception), but rather the students. Those students and their parents represent a cross section of modern Britain’s diversity, including immigrant families from three continents, a gay couple, and a mother in a wheelchair. None of this feels especially programmatic beyond the fact that there are still so many monolithically cast movies and shows that the opposite feels like the conscious choice, the break from the default. Whatever. Class’ diversity is one of its great strengths, with each character’s distinct background helping shape how they respond both to regular life and the impossible threats they encounter.

There are times when Class gets too cute for its own good: Abed Nadir would approve of mentioning the Bechdel test within the first five minutes, to say nothing of the closing acknowledgment that the show’s premise is similar to that of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Once Upon A Time, and the attractiveness cavalcade that is The Vampire Diaries. But mostly “For Tonight We Might Die” is content to stay out of its own way, sketching out its characters and the aliens’ backstories for more detailed exploration later. Every character gets the start of something intriguing. April is probably the flattest character, but her intertwined fate with the king of the Shadow Kin means any big story arcs figure to run through her. As the brilliant but reluctantly sheltered daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Tanya has the most compelling story that has nothing to do with aliens. And the show could have something very special in Ram, who shows incredible bravery in the face of incomprehensible trauma. That he doesn’t shrug off the horror of watching his girlfriend be brutally murdered in front of him—to say nothing of losing his leg—suggests Class intends to engage with the deeper implications of being an ordinary person in an extraordinary world, especially when the Doctor isn’t around to guide a person through it.

That just leaves Charlie and Miss Quill. Centering the show in part on a woman who is terrorist to her foes and freedom fighter to her own people is always going to get me to think about Kira Nerys in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—a good comparison, considering she might be my favorite character in all science fiction, maybe even all television. Miss Quill admittedly doesn’t show off nearly the same complexity as the Bajoran major, but Class at least presents a relatively nuanced scenario for its two central aliens. Charlie appears the more naturally benevolent person, yet it’s disquieting how convinced he is that Miss Quill’s punishment is civilized. That we see—or at least cut away right before we’re about to see—Miss Quill allow, possibly engineer the death of a student makes it clear she isn’t an innocent in all this. It’s a smart choice to have the Doctor continue her punishment not for any of the possible crimes we haven’t seen, but rather for that one that we have and for which there aren’t really any valid mitigating factors. And, while Miss Quill is the more obviously formidable and dangerous of the two, Charlie’s dealings with the Cabinet of Souls suggest he may well prove the scarier of the pair.

Class is the third try the new series of Doctor Who has had at launching a spin-off series, and the first such effort since Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures both aired their last episodes back in the fall of 2011. Those earlier shows always presented as complementary efforts. The more kid-geared Sarah Jane Adventures and the strictly adults-only Torchwood—it was generally accepted the Doctor couldn’t ever appear on the latter because of its content—each offered a different maturity level from the family-friendly flagship. In practice, the roles tended to be a bit reversed, with the non-Children Of Earth seasons of Torchwood too often displaying a 1990s superhero comic’s understanding of what it means to be “adult,” which mostly entailed lots of sex, violence, and general performative edginess.

This show, by contrast, feels like its own complementary piece: Class’ high school setting and focus on teenagers theoretically mean we’re dealing with another junior version of the Doctor’s adventures, but there’s also an engagement with the mundane difficulties of daily life that Doctor Who has generally elided, even under Russell T. Davies’ more character-driven stewardship. Sex and relationships are an unremarkable fact of life on Class, and such things are serious in a fundamentally different way than, say, staring down a Dalek armada. Put it like this: I don’t know for a fact “For Tonight We Might Die” is the first time the Doctor appears in an episode where someone says “shit,” but I’m about 99 percent sure. (This hugely helpful transcript site agrees, for what it’s worth.)


Let’s talk about the Doctor’s appearance tonight, as his presence is necessary here in a way it wasn’t for the debuts of the earlier spin-offs. Those two were built around established Doctor Who characters in former companions Sarah Jane Smith and Captain Jack Harkness, so viewers could situate the shows in the Doctor Who universe without straining to reestablish a link to the main shows. Class’ setting at Coal Hill Academy—nee Coal Hill School—does directly link the show all the way back to 1963’s “An Unearthly Child,” not to mention where Clara Oswald spent two seasons teaching. But that’s a tenuous connection, especially when renovations are mentioned to cover the shift in filming location from Clara’s tenure. As such, the main characters on Class are in a position where, to put it in Simpsons terminology, their best friend the Doctor might just stop by to wish them luck.

Peter Capaldi’s presence creates an odd tension for anyone coming at Class primarily as a Doctor Who fan, which surely represents a hefty chunk of those watching. From the moment Capaldi’s name pops up in the opening credits, the wait is on for his Doctor to appear. After all, this is a bonus 12th Doctor story—for non-American viewers, the only such story to air in the whole year between the 2015 and 2016 Christmas specials. It’s understandable then for fans to spend much of the episode wondering which particular threat the Doctor will show up to save Class’ ensemble from, which can rather distract from the crucial work of establishing these characters as heroes in their own right. His eventual arrival doesn’t totally shatter the seriousness of the threat—it’s not like the Shadow Kin are a joke to him—but the Doctor’s simultaneous flippancy and air of authority can’t help but defuse some of the drama. When David Tennant and Matt Smith made one-off appearances on The Sarah Jane Adventures, they faced serious threats, but there was also the sense that this was the show kicking back and having a blast with the special guest star. That’s not something Class can afford to do in its first episode. Capaldi’s presence—and before that, the anticipation of his presence—can’t help but overshadow the proceedings.


Still, this only matters so much: This is the Doctor’s one and only appearance, and if that means next week is going to feel a bit like a second pilot and a cleaner opportunity to establish the characters, so be it. Class has already staked out a claim as a unique corner of the Doctor Who universe, and it’s intriguing to see where things go from here now that it’s entirely free to do its own thing.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to weekly coverage of Class, which makes official my effort to take over TV Club’s Saturday night programming for the foreseeable future. I’ll have more strictly episode-specific thoughts next week, but I wanted to start with some discussion of how this fits in the wider Doctor Who context, as that’s pretty much all I ever think about anyway.
  • All of Class originally aired pretty much everywhere outside the United States back in 2016, so this show won’t be new for a lot of viewers. I won’t be watching ahead as I review, and I’d suggest people try to stay episode-specific and mark spoilers as appropriate if they fell compelled to talk about what’s ahead.
  • For another take on Class, do check out Caroline Siede’s reliably excellent pre-air review. She’s got a slightly different take on how Class compares with Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, but then us disagreeing about Doctor Who-related things kind of used to be our whole schtick.
  • I appreciated the moment where the Doctor sees Danny Pink and Clara Oswald’s names on the wall. Wouldn’t have minded seeing Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright’s names further to the left, but hey, I’m going to keep stumping for a William Russell cameo for as long as I can, so I guess that’s only to be expected.
  • Fun, stupid bits of trivia: Assuming you count the classic and new series as all one long show, Peter Capaldi’s appearance here means he joins William Hartnell as the only person to play the Doctor in a show’s series debut. This is also the third Doctor Who-related show Capaldi has appeared on, but the only one where his first appearance is as the Doctor, thanks to his turns as Caecilius on “The Fires Of Pompeii” and Mr. Frobisher in Torchwood.