Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In a Doctor Who spin-off promising a darker take on the Whoniverse, a tear in space-time allows aliens to flood into the present day and only a ragtag band of social misfits stand between these monsters and the destruction of the human race. No, it’s not Torchwood, but Class, another ‘adult themed’ Doctor Who spin-off which, by some bizarre temporal anomaly, has arrived on BBC iPlayer today, exactly ten years after Torchwood first aired on our screens.
Like Russell T Davies’ Cardiff-set series, Class tries to signify its more mature intentions by splashing plenty of sex, death, swearing and bloody violence throughout each episode. But exactly how is the show different from Torchwood, you might ask? Well, it follows a group of sixth formers at Coal Hill School – which has inevitably been given a glossy makeover as an academy – as they investigate extraterrestrial incidents rather than a covert team who investigate extraterrestrial incidents. And that’s about it. For all Class’ stylish production values and committed performances, it lacks the distinctive voice it will need to standout in this era of high-quality on-demand telly.
The haphazard first episode, which is poetically titled For Tonight, We Might Die, races desperately to set-up its new take on a classic Who setting, introduce all its teen heroes and still cram in some gory monster peril before the credits roll. It’s a bewildering experience that turns the episode into a huge info dump as characters reel off their defining traits in breathless rants while the plot hinges on the all too familiar trope of teenagers getting ready for prom night.
Things improve markedly in the calmer second episode, which is awfully titled The Coach the the Dragon Tattoo, which smartly focuses solely on sporting prodigy Ram as he copes with a shock death and the loss of his leg whilst battling a murderous creature. Yet it remains a struggle to grasp exactly what the show wants to be. Class seemingly wears its influences proudly – the bonkers humour of Doctor Who, the high school setting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the teens-searching-for-purpose premise of The Fades – but rather than subverting the cliches it uses them as a crutch for its own lack of imagination.
It doesn’t help that the Doctor pops up in a flurry of daft gags and screwdriver waving at the end of episode one to conveniently save the day and set-up the students as guardians of the Coal Hill rift. It’s a cameo that, while superbly performed by a much missed Peter Capaldi, feels tonally awkward to what’s gone before.
Despite the frenetic pacing, each episode will struggle to hold your attention for the full 45 minutes. Partly, this is because the monsters – the Shadow Kin, who are apparently constructed from smouldering briquettes, and an unconvincing CGI dragon – have under-developed and outright baffling motivations (sharing a heart across time and space, anyone?), just like every other forgettable monster-of-the-week in Doctor Who’s bursting rogues gallery.
More troubling, though, is that the characters simply aren’t compelling enough to carry the series. They’re just the usual bunch of stock characters we’ve seen before in countless sci-fi dramas. There’s the odd newcomer (Greg Austin), the adorkable girl who’s inexplicably unpopular (Sophie Hopkins), the super cool jock with hidden depths (Fady Elsayed), and the precocious youngster who’s great with equations but less so with people.
The worst served is Katherine Kelly’s Miss Quinn, the students’ reluctant mentor whose icy attitude and snarky one-liners (“We are DECORATING”) quickly become one-note because showrunner Patrick Ness fails to explore her intriguing backstory as a freedom fighter who is enslaved to protect a prince. This is not to criticise the cast, who all give spirited performances; there’s plenty of potential in these characters if only Ness and his writers would take the time to let them develop.
With its great cast, glossy style and intriguing bunch of characters, there’s still every chance Class could yet become something truly special – just as soon as it decides exactly what it is it wants to be.
The first two episodes of Class are available now on BBC iPlayer