22 October 2016

TV Review: Class - "For Tonight We Might Die" and "The Coach with a Dragon Tattoo"

What sort of show is Class?

It’s a spinoff from a tiny show called Doctor Who, though I expect the makers of the show are trying to cross over into a brand new audience, or maybe the old audience who have grown up a bit – certainly trying to generate a lot of hype online. So we have a full blooded TV show of a different kind: teens in a school fighting monsters, fantasy, set in 2016, with its own characters, mythology and monsters-of-the-week. The production team behind it is experienced - in Patrick Ness we trust (and Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin, Derek Ritchie, et al). And yet there’s some cake both being have, and eaten, with a guest appearance by Peter Capaldi. But we’ll come to that in a moment.

It’s both stylish and with a solid grounding, pure YA – built on characters who bounce off each other, in a world where you don’t need to question why they don’t run away from danger... and they look pretty, too. They also speak very fast. This is the British TV in the mould of Sherlock, or even Doctor Who now, where witty lines are thrown casually, and the pace carries you over the leaps in plot. An example, perhaps very important in making it work, is a skipped scene in the first episode where the characters come together and explain what is going on to each other. We’ve already seen this for ourselves, thrillingly, and we’ve already brought the gang together in our heads. Quite why these four characters are drawn together is a mystery, but they just fit together.

The young actors – all newcomers – are the biggest part of the series. The leading four are distinctive, balanced; a particularly heartless type of person might accuse it of box-ticking when it comes to the diversity question, the question is: “well, why not?” When you’re creating a series from scratch, especially one that’s meant to capture life and teenagers today, it would be far more noticeable not to be representative. It’s a delight that the casting is spot on too.

Equally delightful is Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill, the best character for me. What appears to be a teacher with attitude turns out to be a snarky alien stranded on Earth without many scruples. In other hands it could be overplayed, or detract from what the other characters are doing. But she is played – and written – with just the right level of madness.

The first two episodes, then, are very slick. This is a show that knows its genre (and makes some rather meta comments, which all the cool kids are doing nowadays), which is firmly in the YA fantasy mould of depicting young people growing up and fighting monsters. No show is truly original, of course – you wait a few years for a new teen fantasy show on TV, and Crazyhead launched just a few days ago on E4 – and inevitably they all owe a debt to Buffy (though here they call their Hellmouth the ‘bumhole of time’). This show, however, has an extra trick up its sleeve: that Doctor Who connection.

Personally, I’m still undecided, and I’ve watched it. Any TV show would kill to have Peter Capaldi in it, but isn’t it odd seeing him pop up in something that isn’t Doctor Who? (What next – Poldark? Question Time? Answers on a postcard.) It’s a double edged sword – on the one hand, it brings publicity and elevates the show, on the other, it blurs the sort of audience they’re aiming for and doesn’t let the series breathe on its own. And so it does indeed have its cake and eat it, with the very-extended cameo of the Doctor coming in to explain the set-up, ground this new mythos into the Doctor Who world, but not stop the monsters on his own. It mostly works, just about, with his appearance in the first episode launching all of the crazy alien stuff to come.

The show works, as even by BBC Wales’s standards the production values are astronomically high. I was impressed by the direction even from the opening scenes – dark corridors and monster chasing, followed by a great introduction to the characters at the school gates with some swooping cameras.  Class just looks polished, Hollywood polished. Even better the special effects, especially the CGI (not to mention the design) of the monsters, are some of the best in a fantasy show I’ve seen in years. And the music, which sets the tone of TV so much, really makes the series feel modern and alive – and includes some great musical nods to past themes when the Doctor shows up. In short it’s that maxim of if TV is aimed at a younger audience, you have to give it your all as they will notice these things.

Even so, I think the show isn’t quite giving its all just yet, it feels like there’s much more to come. In these two episodes, the first of eight, happily, it’s still turning its characters, still working out the dynamic. The second episode has more character than plot, but it’s a relief as you can’t keep going at that pace, and very welcome as it has far more space to grow. I’m very intrigued by what happens next.

The final word has to go to the shadow monster hanging over this, if you like. The show isn’t meant to be aimed at younger kids, though where the line is drawn these days I don’t know. What is unusually missing so far in levels of language or sex or drugs (like in Misfits or Glue), it makes up in fantasy violence and, well, blood. What appeared as a one-off moment in the first episode continued into the second, with some rather high levels of gore. It’s like Doctor Who after hours, when nobody is there to tone it down, which could be the most glowing recommendation there is.


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