It feels churlish to call this Class’ best episode. After all, to do so would imply that Class is at its best when it wanders furthest from its chosen genre of teen drama. The adults are in charge tonight, with the Coal Hill students busy dealing with the events of “Detained.” This is also the first episode in which the rift doesn’t drive any aspect of the plot, instead turning things over entirely to the governors, their representative Dorothea Ames, and her mysterious metaphysical engine. You can’t even really make a good case that Quill’s time as a teacher on Earth is a significant driver of her actions here—while the episode does acknowledge her character development over the course of the season, she’s still primarily Quill the alien soldier here. But it does Class a disservice to think of it purely as a show about high schoolers or one that necessarily has to filter stories through a teenaged perspective. “The Metaphysical Engine, Or What Quill Did” is the best example yet of the show’s wild inventiveness, presenting corners of the Doctor Who universe that would likely flummox even the Doctor himself.
Tonight’s episode tackles two areas its parent show has never been terribly well-equipped to explore: faith and the soldier’s mindset. Warriors are everywhere on Doctor Who—the Time Lord himself even had a crack at it once—but they exist in fundamental conflict with what the show is about. Soldiers are at best a necessary evil in the Doctor’s world, so it’s fascinating to see an earnest attempt by a related show to take seriously both Quill and Ballon’s perspectives and experiences. Their shared philosophy is one of action and reaction, rather than of deep thought. Hurt to one is hurt to the other, and fear is something to be shared and thus reduced. As Ballon puts it, the sorrow he shares with Quill is reason enough for them to fight back together. They forge a loyalty to each other, the loyalty of a soldier, but both recognize the fundamental issue when Ames tells them that only one can leave the Cabinet of Souls: A soldier’s entire raison d’être is to fight for one’s own people. That could mean one’s own race or nation, but more fundamentally it means one’s family. And so it is with heartbreaking logic that Ballon turns on Quill in the climax, despite their oath to one another not to do so.
Everything about Quill and Ballon’s relationship is adult in a way we don’t generally see on Class. That isn’t to say the other character are immature or juvenile just because they are teenagers. If one were to argue what makes Quill and Ballon more adult is that they have suffered horrific losses—well, just take a look at what the kids at Coal Hill have endured. There’s plenty of trauma, death, and even planetary genocide to deal with there. But what Quill and Bannon both have, and this is a credit to Katherine Kelly and Chiké Okonkwo’s performances, is that sense of greater loss that can only come from having lived with tragedy for years. It doesn’t diminish the heartbreak the teens have suffered to say it primarily exists in the present, because it’s difficult to feel a true sense of separation from the past at that age. But Quill’s loss of the man she loved in the war with the Rhodians is a pain that exists entirely separately from her people’s death at the hands of the Shadow Kin. She has lived long enough to stack tragedy atop tragedy, with each new wound placing those before at a greater remove.
Ballon puts its best when explaining to Quill why he killed her people’s goddess before it could speak: “Your self has already formed.” The past six episodes of Class have all focused on people who are still cooking, who are still discovering themselves and their place in the world. Quill, for better or worse, is fixed as she is, and any change—even one that ought to make her happier or give her life more meaning—risks ripping her identity asunder. Ballon makes that argument in the context of explaining the responsibility of true faith, and the danger it poses to a nonbeliever. Quill cannot simply hear what her goddess has to say the way she might, say, ask the spirit of one of her people’s great leaders or warriors for advice. For the goddess’ words to have any meaning, Quill would have to accept that divinity, which isn’t really a comprehensible task for someone who was just proudly declaring her people abandoned religion a millennium ago. Yet Quill also lashes out at the goddess out of a sense of absolute, cosmic abandonment. She wants her people’s old belief systems to be real, but only for that moment, if it means she has something truly deserving of her nigh infinite rage and blame.
Up to this point, Class has been a lot of fun, with a few legitimately great stories to tell. But it’s with the metaphysical engine that the show comes up with a concept as good as anything Doctor Who has given us, yet is also so perfectly suited to this show’s particular patch of the larger universe. Quill is every bit the skeptic the Doctor is—just imagine him contending with whole worlds created just out of millions of people believing them to be so—but her disbelief is born of a cynicism that makes her begrudgingly open to these ideas in a way the Doctor wouldn’t be. Besides, there’s the aching pettiness of how Ms. Ames wants to put the device to use. With access to the physical representations of all cultures’ most hallowed beliefs open to her, she just uses it to go on a scavenger hunt. Even allowing for her claim she undertook this whole mission over the objections of her superiors to keep her word to Quill, she still let the whole mission end in a fight to the death between the two soldiers she recruited.
And that speaks to what makes “The Metaphysical Engine” such a brilliant episode: It’s built around a dizzyingly inventive idea, one that transports its characters to places even those watching this universe for the full 54 year haven’t been to before. But the focus remains resolutely on those characters, who offer perspectives hard to come by elsewhere on Class or on the parent show. Taking out Quill’s arn fundamentally alters the whole balance of power on the show, and this episode respects just how big a journey such a removal should be. As Ames notes, the arn only starts acting up when Quill really begins to believe this could work, which doesn’t come until late in the episode. It’s another strand of the episode’s larger exploration of belief and its many permutations—whether it’s believing in a long-rejected goddess or believing one can be free of a deadly mind controller, putting too much belief in the wrong thing can be incalculably dangerous. But existing at all tends to require someone eventually believe in something. The only question left is what a free, untethered Quill has left to believe in. Perhaps it really is just vengeance.
- It’s a nice bit of inter-show continuity to have Quill mention there’s already a race of shapeshifters on Earth, one with full rights and everything. Weirdly, this episode showed more acknowledgment of the Zygon political situation than tonight’s Doctor Who, which was co-written by the two who brought that whole issue to the fore in the first place.
- I thought they couldn’t come up with a more wonderfully ludicrous outfit for Ames than that all-red number from her first appearance, but, nope, the safari gear totally did it.
- This episode’s mystical, traumatized approach to exploring the universe gave me such a Farscape vibe. I highly approve.