CLASS Series 1, Episode 1: For Tonight We Might Die

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

The last two Doctor Who spin-offs took popular characters from the parent series and spun new universes around them, the kind of short-cut into world-building, and thus audience building, that Patrick Ness’ Class has avoided. Instead beginning with the concept only of the school within which several adventures of the last three years have taken place, notably The Caretaker (referenced here), Ness has allowed himself the luxury of creating something that can start more or less from scratch; both Captain Jack and Sarah Jane Smith were substitute Doctor proxies, fulfilling the same roles within their own series that the Doctor performs in his, and by having them those programmes were able to start from the middle and build an environment outwards. Class is the story of a group of classmates and their teacher faced with what is essentially a Hellgate in Coal Hill School (now Academy), and right from the off, it’s clear that Miss Quill isn’t going to be quite the not-quite-Doctor that both Jack and Sarah were. Ness’ objective with the opening instalment, then, is to introduce us to a principal cast of five characters with no short-cuts and no pre-indication of which or even why any one of them might be more important than the others.

For Tonight We Might Die spends a little too much time giving us an insight into why we should empathise with the principal characters to help us truly like them, and too much time again telling us why it’s so relevant that it ultimately feels self-important at the expense of being indispensible. Rather than letting us feel our way into the lives of the four students and their alien teacher, instead we’re given a list of Things We Need To Know. So Tanya has an overbearing single parent who is afraid of her daughter – fast-tracked two school years – growing up too soon, April’s mother should have but didn’t die in an accident and now April is her carer (a role she, of course, takes into the classroom with her), and Ram is far more interested in sport than he is academic prowess. There are the seeds of an interesting relationship between Ram and Tanya, but no more than that yet, and Ram certainly has the most believable home life of those we’ve seen. But the Young Adult fiction label we’ve heard touted about so much in connection with Class is perhaps a part of this episode’s undoing; the story itself is for the most part fine bar for a bit of an expositionary pacing issue in the middle, but so much of the episode itself feels like it’s there because it’s supposed to be there, rather than because it makes for a natural fit.

The curious thing is how this will sit with the demographic it’s aimed at. There are doubtless countless middle-aged Doctor Who fans comparing this to Hollyoaks, a programme most of them are unlikely to have seen enough of to truly grasp, a comparison they’ll unquestionably be making as if it’s an indication of a lack of quality (Ruby from the Channel 4 series even turns up in a small part in this opening episode). But Hollyoaks is actually exceptionally well-written and acted for the most part, a multi-cultural, multi-sexual melting pot of teen dramas and issues that deals with its subjects with a lightness of touch and vividness of tone that For Tonight We Might Die would have done well to replicate. Being an introduction that was so rigid in introducing itself was its problem, the self-awareness of the jokes mostly falling rather flat and the self-consciousness of the characters mostly making them hard to fall in love with. The references to the Doctor and his TARDIS earlier on actually felt intrusive, as if this universe was too brittle to withstand scrutiny without the monolithic parent series propping it up, and when Peter Capaldi arrived it only undermined what the other characters were doing. Ness left them so close to solving their own problems that the Doctor felt at once unnecessary and simultaneously too necessary, his decision to leave them to their own devices having acknowledged more trouble was on its way, tantamount to saying “Well you nearly saved yourselves, better luck next time!”

The inclusion of an alien prince and his slave (Katherine Kelly was perhaps just a little too caustic for believability, but better that than blandness) was another indication that Class is aimed rather younger than for example Torchwood, alien princes being generally the province of children’s fiction, but the blood and moderate swearing didn’t feel remotely contrived and overall the age balance felt appropriate. This is Doctor Who for the older teens, and it is only that it felt less like a part of the Doctor Who universe than something distinct which the Doctor Who universe was impinging upon, that left it shy of a fully-formed identity of its own.

There were neat ideas, though, beyond the rather too convenient alien prince storyline and the much too conveniently useless alien gun (as neat as it might be that the killer is also going to get killed). April sharing her heart with Shadow Kin supremo Corakinus will hopefully be very effective when the sub-Pyroviles inevitably return at the end of the run, and Ram losing his leg was – while dramatically obvious – at least likely to be the impetus for some decent drama in the coming weeks. Even if the explanation for how the Doctor fixed it left a little to be desired.

For Tonight We Might Die was a problematic and underwhelming first instalment, far too self-conscious to properly work in its own right. But it had enough promise and the issues with it were all ones that a second episode would be likely to overcome, which made the BBC’s decision to release the first two parts together feel very wise.

 


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