CLASS Series 1, Episode 7 'The Metaphysical Engine, Or What Quill Did'

PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

Ostensibly the other side of last week’s coin, but effectively taking up themes that were previously explored in Nightvisiting four weeks ago, The Metaphysical Engine was an extraordinary piece of television that will undoubtedly divide viewers, but that more than lives up to the expectations placed upon it by its eye-grabbing title.

Episode 3 of Class posited a hypothetical heaven built from the memories of the living in order to deceive them into joining the dead. Episode 7 presents us with a machine, the eponymous Metaphysical Engine, which can take things which are only believed in – as opposed to places which actually exist – and recreate them as physical spaces which those who travel in the mechanism can journey to and interact with. And while Nightvisiting strongly suggested that a belief in an afterlife was fundamentally in error – the afterlife the episode presented being a creation solely based upon ameliorating death – The Metaphysical Engine took that one stage further and demonstrated how such a metaphor will work. Miss Quill, unbound from her charges for a week and on a mission to free herself of the alien intelligence living within her brain and shackling her to her mortal enemy Charlie, was led by two tempters almost literally down the rabbit-hole, and on a journey into the very meaning of life and our relationship with the universe around us.

Quill’s first tempter was Dorothea Ames, Pooky Quesnel’s agent of the Governors who built the entire undertaking around Quill’s need to have her Arn removed, in what was perhaps the weakest part of the episode; unless, that is, it turns out next week that the Governors have some task of their own for the liberated Quill, in which case their charitable actions will have some deeper significance. Ames was both less and more than she appeared; at first a rather ineffectual rookie guide into the beyond, and subsequently the very devil herself – setting Quill and her co-traveller Ballon an impossible deal. Ballon was, of course, the second tempter, initially simply a fellow soldier but ultimately much much more; the surgeon, the lover, and the father. Patrick Ness played the episode’s game by having Quill assisting Ballon’s escape from a certain death before both he would do the same for her, and then in the final reckoning a double if not triple reversal with only one – and we knew which one, it goes without saying – who could survive. And then two survived anyway, as we discovered in the very last image of the episode...

But the journey. This episode made it even more apparent than ever that an afterlife is just a fiction we create for ourselves, and Ness took us through four such fictional heavens – including an underworld and at the end, Charlie’s Cabinet of Souls – and Quill’s passage through them was as much a philosophical one as it was visceral (and boy was this episode visceral at times). Surrendering to both of her temptations, Quill followed something of Dante’s course back towards life, collecting tokens as she passed through the levels and ultimately divulging herself of the burden of her “sin” while sacrificing the angel who had helped divest her of it, before finally being born again out of the box of the dead into the land of the living in the most candidly allegorical visual of the entire episode.

If Patrick Ness’ objective was to help developing young adults understand and relate to the religious pressures being placed around them, this was a very strange but eventually enlightening way to go about it.

Katherine Kelly was fantastic, finally allowing us to learn something of the being within the battle-hardened shell we’ve grown accustomed to, and in the scenes within the Cabinet of Souls showing the human side of her armour, giving plausibility to the walls we’ve seen her build. But Chiké Okonkwo was her match as the seraphic Ballon, credible as both the warrior and the lover, and trapped both into a form and a decision that he would never be allowed to escape from. Those scenes in the Cabinet of Souls were as exhilarating as the immediately previous ones in the classroom were shocking.

For the most part, the BBC III production kept pace with Patrick Ness’ ideas and ambitions, creating four mostly convincing dreamlands and only coming a little unstuck on the Quill goddess, of necessity a man in a rubber suit with bosoms – albeit a striking enough design to just about get away with it. On a fraction of the budget of, for example, What Dreams May Come, Class presented us with something that wasn’t embarrassing or clumsy but that aspired to the same heights of imagination. A very creditable achievement.

We’ll be back to the Shadow Kin and April’s half-heart next week, and it remains to be seen whether Miss Ames and the Governors will be playing a role in the drama. But Patrick Ness will have a hard time topping Miss Quill’s solo outing, one of the most arresting things the BBC have ever given the green light to.


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