THE TRUTH SNAKE: A Song for “The Lost”

“If you thought this teenage sci-fi show was secretly hiding a Marxist tract in its name, you’re actually not too far from the truth,” jokingly proclaimed the Radio Times, referring to Patrick Ness’ comments on the choice of title for the show. Once called “The Class,” the “The” was removed, a nightmare for social media tagging but otherwise a decision rich with meaning, in tune with the show as a whole. Because Class is all about social tensions, between marginalization and privilege, played out through the central debate of the Shadowkin and the Cabinet of Souls. It is a politically charged exploration of the failings of the Doctor’s own ideological standings through how marginalized people handle the trauma in his wake, and The Lost is the accumulation of every character and thematic thread into the final world-changing decision. It is a vital story to tell, and one with even more weight in the current political climate.

This thread is prominent throughout the entirety of Class, defining the structural approach of the opening episode, For Tonight We Might Die. Promotional material featured on the presence of the Doctor, of course, when in fact he only is present for about ten minutes. But those ten minutes are essential in establishing the real conflict of the show. Up until the Doctor arrives, the entire main cast would have been casualties. Even the cute nod to Danny and Clara is a reminder of the death the Doctor leaves in the wake, every sign points to how doomed the kids are in the Doctor’s absence. However, when he shows up, he quips his way through an easy victory, solved by a wave of his sonic screwdriver. Even Tanya, who works out the solution, isn’t fully equipped to solve the problem and erase the shadows with lights, but waving the sonic alone is enough to sort it out. The much-derided easy problem solving the Doctor with the sonic offers, a focus of criticism on episodes like The Power of Three, becomes the point on which the entire plot of Class hinges. Tanya, Ram, Charlie, Matteusz, April, and Miss Quill are fundamentally not equipped to handle this sort of problem. However, the Doctor, ever moving on, dumps this issue on them, along with the moral stipulation of avoiding the obvious solution, the Cabinet, in accordance to his ideology. And so the points of conflict are set: 1, how to handle these overwhelming deadly threats, and 2, how to uphold the Doctor’s inspiring but impossible ideals.

A good example of this is in the tie-in novel, What She Does Next Will Astound You, by James Goss. On this site, we’ve made it clear a few times how much we all love James Goss, but to repeat it again, the guy knows his stuff. And this book really gets down to the core of what Class is, recreating April’s moral complications and making huge movements in the Charlie/Quill slavery plot in the safe side place of the tie-in novel. But relevant to this particular point is the plot. It’s a bog standard one, aliens recruiting humans to fight other aliens for them. It’s been done dozens of times, like in The Sarah Jane Adventures’ Warriors of Kudlak or the Ninth Doctor novel Winner Takes All. This is crossed with the basic twist of classic serial The Mutants, that the ugly looking evil alien menaces are in fact beautiful and totally benign. We are, in short, in immensely derivative plotting territory here. But that’s the point, because the lens of Class is put onto this deeply rote plot to showcase what makes Class unike. And that goes beyond just the delightful presentation of the story within the ordinary world of ice bucket challenges and clickbait articles. Because the Class kids embarrass themselves horribly in the face of the universe. For a long time, they become complicit in this systematic murder. Ram even becomes particularly adept and enjoys it before the final revelations come. It’s disturbing and horrifying, but showcases just how out of place in this world of alien menaces the Class kids are, making a mistake in a basic plot usually dealt with with ease in other corners of the Doctor Who universe and as a result finding themselves in a morally unjustifiable and reprehensible position.

Ram and Tanya sat on the remains of a bench, watching the Skandis flutter around, moving in beautiful, graceful loops as they dismantled the walls, stripping out vast chunks of technology. Tanya blinked and turned away, in case she cried again.

‘I can’t believe it,’ she kept saying.

Ram nodded. His head kept going round and round and round. How many had he killed? How many were adults? As if that made it any better. It did not make it any better. None of it made it any better. ‘I’ve lost count,’ he said, empty. ‘I keep trying to count. Oh god. I can’t remember.’

‘I know how many I killed,’ said Tanya, very sadly. She wouldn’t say.

‘And, all that bants while I was doing it. Like I was a hero.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I was laughing. Sometimes I couldn’t stop laughing because I thought I was doing good.’

‘We were,’ he said, disgusted with himself. ‘We really thought we were. And we all dared each other on.’

‘It was …’ Tanya’s face twisted up with shame. ‘So much fun.’

‘Yeah,’ Ram turned away from her. ‘And I finally found something I was good at.’

They sat in silence after that. 

–‘‘What She Does Next Will Astound You,’’ by James Goss

By the time the story resolves itself, the Class cast have lost any right to claiming moral high ground and have failed their ideals. And that, in essence, is the core concept of the show: when the Doctor’s morals and reach a failing point, and what an oppressive force or cosmic situation drives these kids to do. The Doctor should never have shouldered the Class gang with this responsibility. But he did, and the show follows the consequences, framed around one core threat and moral debate.

Crucial to the function of the show is that it’s not the Doctor fighting these battles, but some ill-equipped marginalized kids and an old revolutionary fighter. Much has been made of how there is literally no straight white man in the main cast, and for good reason. The closest things to that are Mr. Armitage, killed in a Buffy homage, April’s Dad, an abusive wreck pointedly denied redemption, and Corakinus, a heterosexual (as a gratuitous sex scene takes care to inform us) alien villain played by white guy. This show is phenomenally aware of issues of representation and makes huge steps with it. But what’s more, the intersectional positions of the characters define the plot. In The Lost, lines are drawn in the debate over using the Cabinet, based on their social positions as a result of intersectional forces. Tanya, Quill, and Ram are the advocates. April, Charlie, and Matteusz are the opposition. Each of those positionings are based both in character work and in their basic social positions, vital to the heart of what Class is doing.

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Tanya, Ram, and Quill are united as the most marginalized, revolutionary fighters of the series, with many parallels connecting them. Tanya and Ram are established as a unique relationship outside the group, without the “white people” getting in the way, as early as The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo. They are also bonded by the controversial writing choice of killing their parents, driving them further to advocate the use of the Cabinet against the Shadow Kin. This also carries deep connections to Quill, who the series has repeatedly established rich and complicated relationships to people she loved who were taken from her by that oppressive force. Her grief over her lover forms a major character point in The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did, and her complicated dynamic with her sister fills her b-plot in Nightvisiting. Tanya and Ram are also, of course, the two people of color in the main cast, thus defined in a unique position of oppression by our society. This position is mirrored by Quill’s own treatment by the Rhodians, a rare case of the common sci-fi alien racial oppression metaphor actually engaging with real human racial oppression.

On an individual basis, all have uniquely interesting features fitting into this arc. Tanya, for her part, engages with the “angry black woman” stereotype. This racist image of the sassy, bitter black woman dominates many portrayals of black women in culture and media, with even the likes of Michelle Obama having to contend with it. Tanya represents a compelling response to the trope. She’s the cleverest of the lot, reasoned and wise and generally responsible for working things out. As mentioned before, she nearly solved the problem in the very first episode, and from there on provides the most intellectual approach. But her arc is not about her logic and intelligence, but about the power of her anger. That’s the power that saves the day in Nightvisiting, after so much of a buildup focusing on her intellectual side of things. And in The Lost, her arc embraces that in her, asking the revolutionary figure of Quill to teach her to harness it and becoming empowered in the final climactic battle. Tanya and Quill become united as a moral core of Class, empowered by revolutionary anger.

Quill also embodies this thematic arc of Class in her evolution across the series. For Tonight We Might Die devotes much of its first act to her as a dangerous and untrustworthy figure, with the slow-burning structural trick playing out the question of whether she murdered a student. The Doctor even punishes her at the end of the episode despite her being a slave, for the death of that student, while Charlie, even as the slaveholder, continues to uphold the Doctor’s ideology. Their debate in the opening of Detained, of what the Doctor would do, is particularly telling, given as that precedes the great reversal of those two episodes. Detained marks the point where Charlie admits that he does wish to use the Cabinet, and the facade of the Doctor’s liberalism falls away, revealing him in the hugely flawed position he is in, trying to cling to inappropriate ideology in a situation that demands a different tactic. The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did, meanwhile, completes the transition of Quill to hero, wisely devoting an hour to exploring and validating her struggle. Instead of a quasi-antagonist, she becomes one of the real heroes, and turns out to have been right about basically everything. Perhaps nothing encapsulates this subversion of expectations as well as the dual cliffhanger to those two episodes. Detained suggests a Quill taking her just revenge on Charlie. But The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did teases something very different. Quill’s pregnancy stems from her love and loyalty to her brothers in arms, a core theme of the episode. The show teases Quill as a destructive force many times, but she is, in the end, an embodiment of the show’s messages. Everything about The Lost vindicates her, she gets her gun in an act of solidarity with Charlie and the Shadow Kin are destroyed. That is, in essence, the thematic arc of Class: a gradual shift from the upholding of the ideology of the Doctor to the vindication of Quill.

Ram, meanwhile, has a slightly more complicated but nonetheless vital relationship with these social issues within the plot of the show. He is, of course, introduced as the stereotypical jock, a bit of a bully, but through trauma as a result of the oppressive force of the Shadow Kin, he becomes a hero. (In fact, some very good interpretations position him as the hero, a reading I will not go into here but is very worth looking into.) Like with Tanya, his arc is bookeneded by this personal tragedy that calls him to fight, the deaths of Rachel and Varun. But unlike Tanya, there’s also a hint of fascination of him with the Shadow Kin. His core relationship is, of course, with April, intrinsically connected to Corakinus, but there’s even teasing suggestions of an attraction between him and the Shadow Kin. He shows a preoccupation with the weirdness of shagging an alien in Detained in his challenge to Matteusz. His sex scene with April is, of course, crosscut with Corakinus’, blurring the lines to the point where we get the delightful “Ram and the Shadow Kin?” line from Charlie. And, of course, at the end of The Lost, his girlfriend is now a Shadow Kin. (If we go with the Ram as the hero argument, that means he made her one, too.) Ram, the bully and the jock with the privilege of a man and an athlete, hits a valuable intersectional spot. He’s still hit by the deaths and the horrors harder than any other, and even loses a leg, none of which must be devalued as crucial to everything in his character arc. And yet, still, there’s a fascination suggested between him and the Shadow Kin, and that means something.

It becomes necessary, before going into the remaining main cast, to here establish what the Shadow Kin themselves are. They are a defined as an exotic “other” to humanity, with weird cultural norms and even slight orientalist imagery in the use of scimitars, iconic as blades used in the so-called “eastern” world. There’s a long history of orientalist caricature alien species in science fiction, from Nute Gunray in Star Wars to even the Draconians from old Doctor Who. In a different show with a different cast, the Shadow Kin could lend themselves to a very unpleasant reading, perhaps as a middle eastern caricature or something of the like. But this show isn’t most shows. The cast has no white straight white men in it, the characters all firmly defined against it. And so, if the Shadow Kin are defined as an other to the main cast, they are defined not as an exotic other to white “western” patriarchal society, but instead as the other to a cast which was already consciously defined as excluding straight white men characters. In other words, the Shadow Kin are an absurd parody of toxic masculinity. As a friend of mine put it once, they’re “the fuckboys of the universe.”

In this light, it’s only natural that the Shadow Kin are both utterly deadly and absurdly pitiful, as embodied by Corakinus, or, as the cast affectionately refer to him, Corky. He is responsible for so much atrocity, particularly the deaths of Rachel, Varun, and Tanya’s mum. And, you know, the conquest of a bunch of other worlds. Yet, for all that, he is very difficult to take seriously, and is shown doing things like asking for a cuddle after a weird sex scene. He is beaten by a teenage girl in a sword fight! He’s chased off in the first episode by lights! He is a truly pitiful big bad, and that’s the point. That he can cause all this damage and hurt and yet still just be an entitled tryhard in the end. It’s not the first time such a thing has been Doctor Who, with shades of the Mire from The Girl Who Died, a similarly comedic oppressive warrior race obsessed with masculinity. But it’s a particularly sustained and in-depth exploration of such a thing, and it’s crucial to the game Class plays. The Shadow Kin, for all their posturing as an oppressed group loathed by the universe, are an embodiment of toxic masculine ideals, solving problems with violence and with the patriarch casually using woman underlings for sex before killing them. They’re screwed up and yet comically pitiful, just as the oppressors of the real world are, and they’re crucial to everything Class does.

And so fit Charlie and April into this debate, the most privileged of the Class cast. It’s worth stressing that the lives of both become tied to the Shadow Kin as of The Lost, a shadow being cast on both their hearts that would mean their deaths in the event of the Cabinet’s use, cementing its connection with their own struggles with privilege and the revolutionary bent of the show. April is, of the lead cast, the only white non-immigrant, and Charlie is white and an alien prince, in a place of once holding immense social privilege. Neither is the embodiment of privilege, exactly, but both exist in a complex intersectional place of having to work out how to get over their privilege. For them, it means a sacrifice of their privileged position and way of life in this metaphorical reading, and, of course, in literal storytelling terms, a preparedness to sacrifice their lives to use the Cabinet, and the journey of the first series of Class, and The Lost in particular, is how to get them to see the pain the likes of Tanya, Miss Quill, and Ram are suffering and agree that their way is the right way.

It’s also worth stressing what the Cabinet is. It is a patriarchal tool of a sort, a weaponizing of a Rhodian-written history and legacy of its monarchy into an instrument of genocide. It’s a box of privilege for Charlie over Miss Quill, with even the ability to declare other lives don’t matter and commit genocide to bring back every last one of his losses. It is a terribly ugly thing, but a thing that offers much personal comfort and power, offering Charlie the hope of an afterlife even while it serves to oppress others. Just as privileged institutions in our world can be connected to institutions of faith, particularly with such arguments as divine right to rule connected to monarchies, the Cabinet’s religious position within Rhodian society is also quite weighted. It is not merely an instrument of faith and comfort, but a complex and toxic entangling of it with oppression and atrocity. It serves as Charlie’s skeleton in his closet, the baggage that must be emptied before he can really join the revolutionary side. And it also is the tool of the revolution, overturning it overturning the oppressive force of the Shadow Kin. Overall, the Cabinet is a box of patriarchal baggage and social injustice that needs to be emptied for the sake of all. The struggle is just getting to the point where the consequences and personal stakes can be accepted.

For Charlie, it’s naivety that is the main threat. On Rhodia, he had a surplus of expectations and a deficit of friends, which lead to a very skewed world view. He believes that things like enslaving Miss Quill are just because that’s what his society told him, and spends the whole series having to learn better, as uncomfortable as it is, and wake up to his privilege, with friends like Tanya calling him out. Though his character arc and all the others hinge on his decision to use the Cabinet, that’s not the only major moment in The Lost asserting his growth. He starts making moral choices for himself, even ones that make Matteusz uncomfortable, such as threatening Dorothea. Most crucial of all is the decision to give Quill her gun. Class toys a lot with the idea that, given her gun, Quill might very well turn on her oppressor and shoot him dead. And in many ways, that would be just. But instead, something far more interesting happens: it becomes a moment of trust and solidarity. Instead of her killing him when given the leash, she fights alongside him. It’s sort of a personal equivalent of moral dilemmas in Doctor Who like that in The Beast Below with the Star Whale. The oppressed don’t want to kill their oppressors just for the petty sake of killing them. They want to be free, violence is merely a symptom. And in the end, waking up to privilege, sacrificing it, and working alongside the oppressed is the Doctor Who way. And that’s the lesson Charlie learns. He grows beyond just parroting what the Doctor said, like he did back in Detained. That is his path to becoming a worthy hero.

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April’s complicity, meanwhile, is painted less in the realm of corrupt monarchy and blind naivety and more in the world of well-meaning but ineffectual moderate liberalism. That’s the central metaphor of her character, really, the “bleeding heart” liberal literally sharing her heart with an oppressive monster. The plot and direction relish this monstering of her good intentions, such as in the gif above, where her smile is paralleled with that of Corakinus as he kills Ram’s father, not to mention her final fate in literally becoming a Shadow Kin. She upholds the sort of ideology we tend to see the Doctor espouse and uphold on his best days, with platitudes like, “And if we kill them, are we any better?” Murder should never be advocated, but the simple fact is, preventing more death at the hands of an oppressor is not the same thing as being the oppressor. It’s like the “reverse racism” argument; deriding an oppressor is not the same thing as an institutional force holding down marginalized  people, as Ram immediately argues when she makes this claim. Just as the Doctor has bad days in which there are only bad choices and he still must choose, a core concern of the Capaldi era, April needs to learn when to let the blanket, without nuance platitudes go. She’s used to a too happy vein of idealistic storytelling, the “typical white person happy ending,” as Tanya would say, even forcing the ability to walk again on her disabled mother to try to fit the narrative and ideological logic she holds to. She is a moderate liberal, but Class exists in a far more volatile and marxist world, and so, in the climax, she comes to weaponize her position against this corrupt system of the Shadow Kin. She chooses to throw aside her privilege, her life, and her narrative victories like with her mother. Her good intentions till then are blinded by privilege, and make her the most monstrous protagonist of all. It’s thus her story that’s most vital to end in sacrifice, and also hers most ripe with potential for any story to continue forward.

Within all this, Matteusz is the odd one out. He opposes use of the Cabinet, but not due to any innate privilege, but rather due to his own marginalization. He serves as the vital counterpoint to give this entire issue any nuance at all, and his points are all entirely just. He upholds the true moral ideal of the Doctor because he understands it, learning from the plight of his ethnicity in World War II why such horrors can never be condoned. But that also puts him at odds with the revolutionary use of the Cabinet against the oppressive Shadow Kin, the biggest character loose end outside of April once the Cabinet has been used. Thus, it is difficult to make a statement about the thematic role of Matteusz in the place of this massive Cabinet revolution debate that dominates The Lost, because it has yet to happen. That’s the sort of thing we must desperately hope for a series 2 for.

So much vital ground has been covered by Class in these eight episodes. In them, it has sketched out an ideological debate of privilege and revolution through the Cabinet and the character arcs, all vitally occurring in the shadow of the Twelfth Doctor. But perhaps the best thing about The Lost is in how much ground it leaves still to cover. How will Ram tell his mum about his dad’s fate, and what will that do to him? What will Tanya do without any parents, how will she hold together her academic and personal worlds with some semblance of sanity? How will April deal with the repercussions of becoming the monster her privilege abetted, and now that she has made her choice, can her life ever be the same again? What can Quill be now that she is free at last, and with an uncertain baby ahead of her? And what will become of Charlie and Matteusz’s relationship now that Charlie, in making what was probably the right choice, also becoming the monster he never wanted to be? There are so many directions to go, and all uncertain and exciting. I live in hope that we will see them explored.

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And, of course, we get a little hint of what would be to come. EverUpwardReach Ltd, the corporation that instated the Governors, works for the Weeping Angels. The potential in this is rich in so many ways. Not only are the Weeping Angels a draw in of themselves, particularly given the raised questions of the role of religion within the world of Class and their status as killer religious iconography, but the social commentary potential is rife. Privatized schooling is, of course, a topical issue. Corporate interference in schooling is a real thing with serious consequences, even when they don’t involve murderous alien statues. And for all Class has engaged with oppression and revolution, it has yet really to focus on the exploitation of capitalism, something that the introduction of the EverUpwardReach company offers in spades. It offers a natural, relevant, and very very rich future for the show, with many remarkable directions to go in theme and character. So I say, bring on the new storyline. Bring on more moral complexity. Bring on the new character arcs. Bring on the aftermath of the deaths and the use of the Cabinet. Bring on the marxism. Bring on Charlie, April, Ram, Tanya, Matteusz, and Quill. Bring on more Class.

Bravo, Patrick Ness. Bring on the next round.

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5 thoughts on “THE TRUTH SNAKE: A Song for “The Lost”

  1. This is undoubtedly the definitive article on the themes of class in Class and in the light of Patrick Ness’ announcement (that he will not return as a writer regardless of whether a second series is commissioned) it is all the more poignant. I think, in truth, it is not the characters or even the story (as much as I love both of these things) that made Class what it was; it was the intricate web of themes and social commentary weaved by Ness in what was, perhaps more than anything else in the DW universe, the product of one individual’s vision. If this series were to return with other writers (though at this stage it seems doubtful) it could be brilliant, and perhaps better received than this first series, but it would not be quite the same show.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ~ We are, in short, in immensely derivative plotting territory here. ~
    IMO, Class is at its best when it’s derivative. It has (had? what a bizarre time the wee hours of the morning were for the fandom with P. Ness’ late night twitter rantish) this unique quality where it can rely on pat plots or basic stereotypes, then subvert them and/or use the easy shorthand to lead into incredible scenes that explore emotional complications.

    ~ That he can cause all this damage and hurt and yet still just be an entitled tryhard in the end. ~
    See, for another, more painful, real life example, Elliot Rodgers.

    ~ And it also is the tool of the revolution, overturning it overturning the oppressive force of the Shadow Kin. ~
    Wow, what a great reading. It’s so obvious, I can’t believe I missed it. I’ve never thought of it that way, and it both brings up further questions and reveals further details in the way Class conceives of social revolution. It places it firmly on the side of those who believe the master’s house *can* be dismantled with the master’s tools, to use a common metaphor. Quite literally, as the patriarchal, totalitarian figures of the Shadowkin use genocide to conquer and destroy foes, so do the classmates (heh) in the end, marking Class as being part of a, and god I can’t believe I can say this about a young adult Doctor Who spinoff, tradition of violent revolution.

    ~April’s complicity, meanwhile, is painted less in the realm of corrupt monarchy and blind naivety and more in the world of well-meaning but ineffectual moderate liberalism.~
    Less, perhaps, but not completely. I think you might be forgetting that April was the king of the Shadowkin for a while. Arguably, her inability to enact any real political changes led to Corakinus regaining his kingship. One ‘good leader’ who still maintains the status quo is not enough to achieve true revolution, something Charlie has to understand as well (to Quill: “I never took anyone’s life. I would have tried to be a fair leader.”). (And why does this make me think of the cheerful neo-liberal failure of Obama? God, I’m in a revolutionary mood today. Never talk Class while Marxist, kids. Or always do that. I forget which).

    ~Within all this, Matteusz is the odd one out.~
    You’re right that he’s a much harder nut to crack. I’d posit that he perhaps represents the soul of Doctor Who, a distilled combination of both Doctor and companion, with the Doctor’s liberal ideals and cleverness mixed with the traditional emotional intelligence and compassion of a nu!Who companion. That makes him a very limited character in the world of Class, though, and serves as a Watsonian explanation for his frequent narrative marginalization, and perhaps a hint as to the future of his and Charlie’s relationship (popularly, and much to fandom’s general distaste, Greg doesn’t think the pair will be an item in series 2….which very well might be a moot point).

    ~Bravo, Patrick Ness. Bring on the next round.~
    My, how this comment stings in hindsight.

    Bravo, scribbles. Excellent analysis as always, but I daresay I’d love to hear you concentrate more on what Tanya, Quill, and (sort of) Ram’s narrative savviness means, like we were talking about in messenger. Ah, can’t have it all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s the tragedy! With an essay even this long, there’s still so much more to say! One day I’d love to do an episode by episode approach. There could be a book in it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Black Archive, get on it, ASAP.
        (they are actually lauching a spin-off range applying the BA treatment to shows that aren’t DW, so, you know, maybe Class will fall in there eventually)
        (they don’t accept submissions for it yet, though)
        (but when there’s life there’s hope)

        Like

  3. Pingback: ASSESSING STRESS #10: “The Eaters of Light” | DoWntime

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