Doctor Who is no stranger to spin-offs. First there was Torchwood, the adult-oriented sci-fi series that launched in 2006. And next came The Sarah Jane Adventures, a more lighthearted genre series geared toward kids. With Doctor Who as the all-ages flagship, that left just one segment of the market untapped: teens. And the new school-set series Class is finally here to pick up the slack. Set at Coal Hill Academy, a staple Doctor Who locale that featured heavily in the revival’s eighth season, Class follows a group of sixth-form (i.e., senior) students charged with protecting their school from galactic threats when the Doctor isn’t around to save the day. And though it doesn’t break the mold when it comes to teen genre series, Class is nevertheless a worthy companion to the Who universe. And there’s nothing Doctor Who loves more than a good companion.
There are plenty of familiar building blocks in Class, starting with the fact that the show just happens to center on a brain, an athlete, a basket case (well, more of a type-A loner), a prince, and a criminal. Only befitting its sci-fi roots, “the prince” is a literal alien monarch hiding out as a sixth form student, and “the criminal” is the former alien freedom fighter now posing as his teacher because she’s got a mind-controlling creature implanted in her brain that forces her to protect him. By the end of the premiere, the unusual fivesome have found themselves thrown together as ragtag defenders against whatever might emerge from the space/time rift located in their school. It’s Buffy by way of Skins, but Class wears those references proudly on its sleeve. Its pop-culture savvy characters refer to their school as a Hellmouth before the audience can draw the comparison for them. And then they throw in nods to Once Upon A Time and The Vampire Diaries for good measure.
Though Class’ high-school-is-hell (or rather, sixth-form-is-hell) metaphor has been done better elsewhere, most notably in Buffy, there are two things that set the series apart: its winning cast of incredibly talented young British actors and its casual diversity, which many contemporary teen shows strive for, but which few pull off so effortlessly. That the show’s ostensible leading man Charlie Smith (Greg Austin, playing the aforementioned alien prince) is gay is presented with a refreshing matter-of-factness, not a self-congratulatory pat on the back. And rather than being marginalized or idealized, his budding romance with his Polish classmate Matteusz Andrzejewski (Jordan Renzo) plays out with the same complex emotional, sexual, and confrontational dynamics as the show’s straight relationships, which, again, is the sort of thing many shows strive for and few succeed with. In addition to Charlie and Matteusz, there’s also Ram Singh (Fady Elsayed), a soccer superstar who at one point proudly discusses his relationship to his Sikh faith; Tanya Adeola (Vivian Oparah), the brilliant daughter of Nigerian parents who is self-conscious about skipping several grades; and April MacLean (Sophie Hopkins), whose complicated family history comes with its own set of challenges for her. Rounding out the cast is scene-stealer Katherine Kelly as Miss Andrea Quill, the enslaved former freedom fighter whose seething rage at just about everything is barely contained behind her long blond bob and six-inch heels.
There’s not a weak link among the uniformly excellent ensemble and the show serves its teenage characters particularly well by allowing them to have an emotional intelligence that’s not always granted to young protagonists. They’re neither overly naïve nor one-note archetypes, two traps fictional teens frequently fall into. And while many teen shows rely heavily on secrecy, the students of Coal Hill are refreshingly quick to push for transparency, both with one another and—surprisingly—with the adults in their lives. The most successful parts of the series explore the ways the students support one another through all the weighty challenges they’re faced with, both of the real-world and sci-fi variety. And it weaves in just enough comedy to keep things from becoming too maudlin or too bleak. “Would you believe me if I said I was from another planet?” Charlie asks April early in the premiere. “God yeah,” she replies, “You’re weird and don’t know anything about pop culture. You’re either alien or Amish.”
What lets the show down, however, are its genre elements, which have an inelegance that’s surprising given the series’ connection to Doctor Who. Creator Patrick Ness (the man behind the A Monster Calls novel and screenplay) penned all eight episodes and clearly has a passion for complicated sci-fi world-building. But the extensive exposition needed to introduce the show’s ever-growing mythology starts to sound like someone perpetually reading out the rules for an increasingly complicated adventure board game. As quickly as one element is introduced, more complications are thrown on top of it, leaving the series with little room to breathe. Where Doctor Who has a knack for streamlining big sci-fi concepts into episodic adventures, Class winds up muddling its world-building with over-complications. That’s particularly the case with its season-long threat—a volcanic race known as the Shadow Kin—who aren’t nearly as interesting as the show thinks they are.
The other problem is that Class can’t decide if it wants to be an episodic threat-of-the-week series like Doctor Who or if it wants to tell a more serialized season-long story. In the end it winds up splitting the difference in a way that feels jarring rather than compelling. And it doesn’t help that Class crams what feels like two-and-a-half seasons worth of storytelling into these first eight episodes. After a strong premiere, the show skips over the “getting to know you” portion of its ensemble building and instead throws its characters into high-stakes, high-octane relationships with remarkable swiftness. The cast is so talented and the characters are so likable that the series almost gets away with it. But Class could have benefited from a slower approach to its world building.
Despite those weaknesses, however, Class is a highly engaging, highly watchable addition to the Doctor Who universe. And a cameo or two aside, it mostly stands apart from Doctor Who itself, meaning it can be enjoyed by both Whovians and non-Whovians alike. But it’s worth noting that despite its school setting, this is decidedly not a series for kids. It relies on surprisingly grisly gore to drill home the high-stakes threats its teenage protagonists are dealing with. In addition to a sci-fi adventure show and a teen drama, Class at times feels like a straight-up horror series, one far too unsettling for young Who fans.
Though Doctor Who has never shied away from heavy topics like guilt, loss, vengeance, and genocide, Class tackles those themes through less of a gauzy adventure lens. Its teenage protagonists may be far younger than the 2,000-year-old mad man in a box who leads that other series, but Class succeeds by letting them act like grown-ups.
Reviews by Alasdair Wilkins will run weekly.