So for some reason, the folks over at the BBC thought it would be a good idea to launch a new Doctor Who spin-off on BBC Three, barely linked to Doctor Who itself, and written virtually unsupervised by a man who has never written for television before.
In many ways, this isn’t surprising, at least from Steven Moffat. Moffat has, without doubt, written the greatest number of Doctor Who classics to date, but one of the only major flaws of his run has been the crap he’s let slip through the net: since 2010 we’ve somehow ended up with stories like The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, Nightmare in Silver, and Before the Flood. Here we have a similar problem – a part of the Doctor Who universe which simply lacks supervision. I’m almost reminded of Miracle Day, and its utter failure to reconcile itself with the Doctor Who universe, a failure which I would attribute equally to Davies and Moffat for failing to communicate over something which they really should have.
Class was particularly puzzling, in that it’s really not all that accessible. The link to the Doctor Who universe is weirdly downplayed, for a show which is already going to struggle for viewership. There’s also the fact that BBC Three is now a digital streaming service. You don’t change channel for Class now – you have to actively seek it out. And so it sits there in the corner of BBC iPlayer, that little show you’ve missed and might catch up on if you find the time, and if you ever get round to finishing The Missing.
This puts it at an odd remove from Doctor Who, which at its best is event television, a thing experienced by people across the world more or less simultaneously, or at least relatively where time-zones are concerned. Class doesn’t have an airtime. Officially, it’s meant to be available from 10am on Saturday mornings. Personally, I’ve been able to access it as early as 8:30. Class isn’t an event. Or at least, if it is, it’s an event which everyone missed.
That’s my experience of Class. Sitting in front of the television with a bowl of cereal, early morning sun peaking in, and… well, awkwardly, I have to watch the whole thing in one go. Toilet breaks and kettle runs are strictly forbidden. If you press the pause button on iPlayer, the program buffers and then restarts, and fast-forwarding is nearly as difficult.
If you hadn’t guessed already, this is a short piece about the failings of Class. Yet it’s astonishing how many of the failures go beyond anything within the control of Patrick Ness, or even Moffat. As I’ve been told frequently (almost every time I’ve tried to criticise the series, in fact), Ness is a lovely man who grew up suffering from panic attacks and should be lauded on his efforts. Well… no. I mean, you can’t decide which writers are beyond criticism just based on how nice they are. But equally, I’ve got to say, the poor guy was doomed to fail here, and I really feel for him. He was left unsupervised writing his first ever television series, and the act of watching that series was jarring and unpleasant, for me at least. I wouldn’t even choose to watch Doctor Who if it was sold like this.
Still, even on its own, it was bad.
I’ll start with the most obvious flaw of Class. This has very little to do with ethics, or intertextuality, or sociological context. It’s simply an obvious problem with the storytelling: the whole thing is so damn contrived.
“I can’t wait for people to meet the heroes of Class,” Ness explained in the run-up to the series, “to remember that the horrors of the darkest corners of existence are just about on par with having to pass your exams.” Well, perhaps Class did capture the darkest corners of existence, but I didn’t see any exams.
There’s barely any sign throughout the series that these people are ordinary teenagers, or at least, teenagers who are about to sit their A Levels. Yes, Ness sketches out backstories and quirks for each character. We learn about the loss of Tanya’s father, and her pushy-and-totally-not-a-racial-stereotype mother; we see April playing the violin, and Ram playing football; and we see Charlie and Matteusz… er… having lots of sex. We learn about what matters to these teenagers, and that’s very sweet, but Ness fails to address the most significant aspect of being a teenager – the bad things.
It seems both insane and pointless to attempt a teen drama without picking up on the fact that the teenage generation of 2016 is being methodically stamped on and rebuilt into drones by an education system which promises to be the end of human pleasure itself. School, in Class, is incidental. In marginalising it, Ness underestimates its damage. It’s not a big problem, because tears in the fabric of time are bigger problems. It’s the very opposite of relatable, substituting real problems with some actual resonance with issues which no one watching the show will ever face.
‘Waterloo Road with aliens’ is, if not a stroke of genius, enough of an idea to provide some perfectly entertaining and at times heartfelt television. Except that’s not what Ness writes – he replaces the real twenty-first century tensions from Waterloo Road with aliens, removing the show from the “real world” which he claims to set it in. He fails to recognise the story which needs to be told. Ram’s father didn’t have to be brutally murdered in front of him. He could have just failed his A-Levels instead.
And whilst Ness is keen to focus in on each individual character one at a time, he forgets to explore what they’re like as a group, which – say what you like about them – was always one of the strengths of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. What the series lacks isn’t the extraordinary, it’s the mundane. The break-times, the shopping trips, the holidays, the early mornings. The very things that turn us from ideas into people. ‘Realism’, of course, is both a ridiculous and dangerous approach to fiction, but it has its merits. Characters need to be real – they need to have lives.
It’s telling how the one episode which does focus on the team dynamic, Detained, paints them as hostile and uncooperative. Why wouldn’t it? They’re a group of disparate individuals who have been forced together for some weirdly contrived purpose, with nothing in common except the show they star in. But other than inadvertently highlighting the show’s lack of cohesion, Detained generally just exists as a reminder of Ness’s failure to write real people, as their “confessions” are simply literal confirmations of fundamental character traits we’re already aware of – that Matteusz is “the cautious one”, that Tanya is “the outcast”, that April is “the insecure one”, that Ram is “the passionate one”, and that Charlie is “the troubled one”.
Whenever Ram and April speak to each other, Ness captures naturalistic human conversation so well that it ends up becoming a parody of itself: it feels like watching two ordinary people pretending to be television characters, with the result of only awkwardness and more awkwardness. When Tanya complains about “white people”, she feels less like a real person of colour rightfully complaining about inequality, and more like a rough projection of what a middle-aged man images a person of colour might be like, probably cobbled together from a few tumblr posts.
We might think we know these characters after such a superficial insight into their minds. But ask yourself more questions… what sort of music do they like? What A-Levels are they taking (are they all doing physics? That part was really unclear)? What are they planning to study at university? Are they planning on going to university?
The stories themselves only exist to further the sense that everything happening in this universe is completely and utterly contrived. For a show obsessed with exposition, on most counts it fails to explain itself. The Beside Table of Destiny is, um, the vessel of dead Rhodians, but it’s also a weapon of mass destruction, but it would destroy Earth at the same time, and sometimes you can occupy the souls of the creatures you commit genocide on, and it gets rid of the souls in the cabinet, and, um…
Does no one ever stop to ask just why the hell this is the case? Class is the ultimate What If?, a hypothetical ethical dilemma which should never have left the lecture theatre, where every piece of exposition serves the purpose of creating new contrived tensions or opportunities for characters’ hearts to bleed a little longer about problems which weren’t relevant to the viewer in the first place.
The second most obviously jarring thing about Class is how it simultaneously underplays and overstates its connection to Doctor Who. The show exists in a permanent state of tension, where it can’t ever quite decide whether it wants to be part of this universe or not.
The result is a show which has clearly borrowed from Doctor Who, but which often refuses to address it, feeling more like a rip-off than a spin-off. It’s true, Ness tries to make the show his own thing – he kills the headmaster (the one character, excluding the Doctor, to feature in both shows) in the second episode, and refuses to use any Doctor Who monsters until the very end of The Lost – but the alterative he offers is so derivative of Doctor Who that he may as well have directly borrowed from the show. The Shadow Kin are the incongruous lovechildren of the Pyrovillians and the Vashta Nerada; the creature in the second episode would work in either Hide or Time Heist as long as you got rid of the blood; the Lankin is Syriath from The House of the Dead (though in fairness, that’s potentially the most obscure piece of Doctor Who-related media ever, and Ness has almost certainly never seen it); the Petals are the Cubes; the lump of rock in Detained serves the same narrative purpose as the Confession Dial; even Charlie himself is just a nauseating parallel of the Doctor, sharing a tendency towards genocide, last-of-species angst, an aristocratic background, and the surname ‘Smith’.
All of this has the effect of making Class not quite feel like a spin-off – it’s hard to imagine the Shadow Kin invading the same world which contains Trap Street, or for that matter, even being part of the same universe as the Vashta Nerada. To an extent, this is a subjective criticism, all about the individual’s Doctor Who schema and which material is and isn’t to be rejected. But even so, Class sets itself at odds with Doctor Who, afraid to directly engage with the show but still throwing in off-beat references to how the Doctor would have done something different.
Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, at the very least, had lenses. Torchwood was Doctor Who “through the lens” of adults; The Sarah Jane Adventures was Doctor Who “through the lens of children”. For all that those shows suffered weaknesses, they were held together by a general sense of self-awareness – they knew what they were from the off, what they could and couldn’t do, and how they were connected to their parent show. Suzie even made this literal in Everything Changes, explaining ever so eloquently how Torchwood are left to deal with the “bollocks and shit” that ends up on Earth, reaffirming the show’s premise; that these are the Doctor Who stories too dark to be told on Doctor Who. Yes, that approach proved to be problematic, but at least it could meaningfully be called an approach.
It seems logical to position Class squarely between the two shows, as Doctor Who “through the lens” of teenagers. But what does this mean? Ness never outlines the premise of his own show. Teenage years are often understood as an awakening to the adult world – a point at which you realise that the universe is big and cruel and that you’re a very small part of it. And it would be easy, tempting even, to say that this is what Ness is aiming for, with a set of characters faced with cosmic threats they can’t handle and, crucially, can’t quite understand either. But that approach flat-out doesn’t work when the best you can muster up is a choice between a bog-standard monster-of-the-week or the fucking Shadow Kin.
So the teenage years are transitional – they’re a point of change and development, of wandering through the Forest and engaging with the subconscious, and sitting a few A-Levels while you’re in there. But with everything else going on in Class, that transition is buried in the mix, and we end up with a spin-off which is for neither children nor adults – where the hammy monsters of the children’s show cold-bloodedly murder your mother and father. It’s just not quite right.
Dark, Sexy, Edgy
Most baffling of all is the sheer level of trauma in Class. Spoilers ahoy, the finale sees the frankly brutal murders of two characters’ parents, the monstrous rebirth of April, a few other deaths for good measure, the protagonist committing genocide, another character falling pregnant with a child which will probably eat her, and a healed disabled woman losing her ability to walk again.
Trauma is worth exploring, but the perpetual cycle of it in Class takes the exploration of trauma from the sublime to the ridiculous. Credit where credit is due, the show starts off well – the second episode concentrates on the trauma of a single character following the events of the opener (albeit at the cost of a nasty and honestly unnecessary case of fridging). But after that, Ness stops walking calmly through tragedies and hops on the treadmill instead – tragedy after tragedy becomes never-ending, to the point where it loses meaning altogether.
The worst example of this is April’s mother. Take a look at her development across the series:
1) Is introduced as a disabled character
2) Is forced to speak to the man who made her that way in the first place
3) Is miraculously healed, and given one very, very brief scene explaining why that’s not perfect
4) Is absent for two episodes
5) Is burdened with disability again
This is a particularly unique case – the problem here isn’t just that the trauma isn’t followed up on, but that the cycle is such that one traumatic event is swiftly replaced by another with no room to explore it whatsoever. Ness claims that he made April’s mother able-bodied to allow a disabled actress the chance to play an able-bodied woman, but… uh… when does this actually happen, since she spends her able-bodied few weeks away from the camera?
It was the point at which I truly lost any connection I’d ever had to Class. April’s storyline was the only one in the show which might have reached out to me on a personal level (in my own mother’s case, it was a degenerative illness rather than an accident, but the end result was the same), and I was initially thrilled to see the representation. But no – April’s mother lacks any voice whatsoever, and April’s too busy having her heart stolen by low-budget monsters for the show to spend any time, you know, actually touching on what it’s like to be a young carer while you’re sitting your A-Levels.
Less frustrating for me, though in many ways more bizarre, is the treatment of Ram, whom Ness literally seems to despise. I’m not even going to list all the things that happen to him, but it’s ludicrous. It’s also terribly revealing, because Ram is, let’s face it, the “jerk” character. He’s the one who’s introduced as casually bullying the gay character. It’s not hard to imagine Ness genuinely enjoying Ram’s suffering, which means that it’s never very sad to watch. As James Blanchard pointed out to me when he was binge-watching the series, it feels like a running gag – “Ha, look at Ram, splattered in blood again”.
At this stage, the show cannot go on, or rather cannot go on successfully or with a modicum of self-respect. The amount of trauma left to deal with in the second series would require an entire series of purely character-based drama, with no room for any new arcs of any kind. Even if they somehow manage to address all the awful things that happened in the finale, there’s no hope for young carers or A-Levels or insecurities, because at this stage they’re so insignificant amidst the epic catastrophes which surround them.
And so the show’s mantra of being “dark, sexy and edgy” was its undoing. It was so edgy, it just couldn’t stop.
The Evil Prince, or What Quill Endured
But none of the structural flaws or poor management ideas quite compare the rotten heart of the show, and the fact that Patrick Ness, a supposedly left-wing advocate of the oppressed, enables fucking slavery.
The show’s defenders would tell you that slavery is critiqued, and they wouldn’t be wrong. No, Ness obviously doesn’t preach about how slavery is great, or allow the slave masters to go unpunished. But the critique itself is flawed, and ends up supporting the very thing it’s critiquing.
One reason for this is the basically inane decision to have the gay teen protagonist be the slave master. Now, on the surface, this is a really compelling idea – there aren’t many flawed gay characters on television (or many gay characters at all, for that matter), and to have the main character believe himself to be a hero when he’s actually a villain is an approach ripe with potential. Except Ness just can’t commit to this, because of his own experience. He doesn’t know what it’s like to be an enslaved freedom fighter – but he does know what it’s like to be a young gay man. And so he can never muster a critique of Charlie beyond “well, he was wrong to let his culture influence from him, but at least learnt from it to become a hero”. The story of Class is not Quill’s, a fact made clear by her being allocated the penultimate slot to get the tale of her freedom conveniently out of the way in time for the finale. It’s Charlie’s. It’s the Hero’s Journey, and Quill is an object in that journey – she’s just as much Ness’s slave as she is Charlie’s.
And it’s the objectification which Ness misses. For all that Class condemns slavery for the sake of slavery, it seems to honestly view it as a legitimate form of punishment. The Doctor himself – I mean, this is my favourite Doctor, for goodness sake, it makes me feel sick – leaves Quill as Charlie’s slave without intervening. True, he makes it explicit that he’s punishing her for her crimes in the first episode rather than her “crimes” as a freedom fighter, but this does nothing to counteract the pro-slavery message. He doesn’t have a chat with her about it, or take her to court, or hell, even throw her in a prison. He leaves her as a slave because it’s a form of punishment and she deserves to be punished.
But slavery is wrong precisely because it doesn’t treat the criminal as a person, but as an object. By being enslaved, Quill is objectified. She is Charlie’s, his responsibility, his to valiantly protect because he’s really a bit fond of her. It’s his job, as implied by the Doctor’s instructions, to keep her out of trouble – because, you know, she’s as much a danger to herself as she is anyone else.
This skirts dangerously close to the kind of alt-right thinking that suggests that maybe some slaves actually benefited from slavery, and that it was only right to curb their violent tendencies until they were able to learn better. One last hurrah for colonialism.
The worst part is, there are moments when you wonder whether he’s got a point in this series – Quill is so angry and so violent that maybe she really should be stopped from causing harm. It treats the ethical dilemma as an individual case – let’s judge Quill’s character and see whether or not she deserves to be freed. But it misses the point that no one deserves slavery.
Ness might claim to sympathise with the left, but this is at heart the kind of paranoid right-wing crap you see rampant in Britain these days. The real monsters (the Shadow Kin) are evil aliens who want to kill us, and the aristocracy (Charlie) is necessary because someone has to make the tough decisions and kill them. And Ness genuinely seems to think that Charlie is some kind of hero for doing this, or that the aristocracy is in some way misunderstood. Just think back to all of Charlie’s little speeches about how everyone thinks he’s a pampered prince but he’s actually worked really hard for the good of his people. The show just can’t help but love Charlie, and because it loves Charlie, it loves slavery a bit too.
The Problem of the Shadow Kin
The Problem of the Shadow Kin is a bit of a knock-on effect of the problem of slavery. For Ness’s liberal fairy-tale to work, see, there needs to be an Absolute Evil. This is in the form of the Shadow Kin. And so, in The Lost, Quill must turn her gun away from Charlie and stand side-by-side with him in facing the Absolute Evil.
The Absolute Evil acts to bring these two conflicting characters together – to “resolve their differences in the name of the greater cause”. In the process, Charlie comes to care for Quill, and Quill comes to understand Charlie. But this is just the next step in legitimising the aristocracy. No, the slave-drivers are not the Absolute Evil, that’s reserved for the indiscriminate, murderous shadows. In this story, we don’t take on the bourgeois at all. We team up with David Cameron to fight ISIS.
Above all else, the Shadow Kin are a lazy creation. They’re a way for Ness to skew the moral dilemma in Charlie’s favour, to provide a shallow contrast which shows that he’s really not all that bad. Far from exploring them, they’re a way to escape the consequences of slavery, a Bigger and More Important Issue which needs to be dealt with imminently. The real finale of Class – the one which brought to an end a series which was invested in the revolutionary and her concerns – would have had Charlie in the Shadow Kin’s place, because if there’s one Absolute Evil, it’s the aristocrat who keeps his own pet slave.
(But he cares for her! He formed an attachment! Well, that’s sweet. If only she’d actually consented to being part of that process. And it’s all well and good that he ends up regretting it – which I’m not even sure he does – but that doesn’t undo what Quill has suffered.)
By acting as yet another contrivance, the Shadow Kin have no real identity. They are simply the Other – that so unlike us that it cannot be compromised with, cannot be trusted, must be killed. The truly alien. And that status shifts depending on what Ness wants to do with the show. He can never decide whether they’re a rule-governed culture of honour-bound warriors – like they have to be so that April and Ram can have a quick heart-to-heart without being butchered, or so that that April can become King through some sort of symbolic act – or whether they’re chaos itself, undignified, the creatures who kill by crawling out of the shadows and stabbing you in the back.
And so the Shadow Kin act as a microcosm for a problematic series. This is not the Problem of the Shadow Kin, but the Problem of Class. They belong neither in the children’s show, nor the adult’s one. They are not a meaningful part of the Doctor Who universe, but there’s nowhere else for them either. They’re a contrivance. They corrupt any semblance the show ever had of a decent ethical position. They perpetually generate trauma until it floods the narrative. In many ways, the Shadow Kin were such good monsters that they tore the show apart from its foundations.