[You can now read the entire restrospective here]
And so it came to pass, that in 2016, a new Doctor Who spin-off was launched.
It was a YA show, written by acclaimed author Patrick Ness, and Class was its name. And, as we all know by now, it was a failure. A PR failure, that is (assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the storytelling, that’s for later) – a project that was unclear for most of the non-hardcore fans, surrounded by silence until two trailers dropped essentially in the same week only less than a month before it aired, that’s not exactly bound for success. By the time this piece is written, it’s relatively safe to assume that the dying show, losing blood in some obscure English back alley, hasn’t been rescued by an American tourist and is now well and truly dead (although, I hope not, and if you know the address of a good necromancer, that could come in handy) – which means, of course, it’s time for a post-mortem. What was Class, what did it do, where did it succeed, where did it failed and what was it trying to say. Those are the action items.
Of course, an introduction might be in order, just so that my position as far as the show’s concerned is clear. I, personally, was eagerly waiting for the eight episodes to drop – the set-up sounded unconventional and intriguing, and, grabbing some books by the author, I very quickly found out I really, really loved Ness’ writing (seriously, Chaos Walking is the shit). Really, my take was that more Who, under any form, unless said content is seriously offensive, is always a good thing – more material, more experimentation, and if we want to be all crude and capitalist, more brand presence. But then the show actually happened, and I was confused, and grew all the more confused with the weeks that passed – and at the end, I was left intrigued and challenged, but not really satisfied. It’s not that Class is a bad show – it’s a very interesting piece of writing that, at its best, showcases some extremly ambitious storytelling. It has a vision. But at the same time, it’s also an extremly flawed piece of fiction – and it’s not the simple case where you can clearly draw a line between the “good” and the “bad” elements, no; with Class, the good and the bad are often one and the same. It’s a wild whirlwind of a show – one that demands, maybe more than any slice of Who before, to be analyzed and discussed. So let’s try to do just that, and to make sense of all the strange strange elements that make the world of Class.
Having a look at the show as a whole is not really possible, though, because Scribbles has already done it, and while he’s a lot more positive on “The Lost” than me, I don’t think I have much to add to his analysis. Go read it, it’s great. No, instead, this series is going to be an ensemble of micro-essays looking at different aspects of the show – different characters, different issues, different themes and motives. This post covers the three first episodes, and will be followed by a second tackling the Heart two-parter, and by a third focused on “Detained“, “The Metaphyiscal Engine” and “The Lost“.
1 – Charlie, Matt and gay stuff
Charlie is the Hero. That’s how the pilot builds him up, at any rate. Even when other characters are at the center of the frame, he’s not too far – April and Tanya briefly discuss him; April asks him out to the prom; Ram makes his books fall. He is a prey for the Shadow Kin, and thus forced into a passive position of sorts, but is still at the center of the action, compared to the other characters: the attacks on the prom, Rachel being killed, Ram losing his leg, the Doctor arriving – all of that can be traced back to him. He gets the tragic backstory, he’s the one fallen from the stars.
Also, he’s a dick.
This cannot be emphasized enough. Charlie is one toxic person. He’s cute and traumatized and good-looking, but he believes slavery is a-okay and has, let’s say some problems relating to other people’s suffering and issues. He’s from a culture that is, as the episodes that follow will show in clear ways, rotten to its core with imperialistic privileges.
Also, he’s gay.
Which is interesting – among the five leads, Matteusz set aside, he’s the only LGBT person (you can admittedly read Ram, Quill and Dorothea as such, but that’s never specified in the text). Making the gay character the center of the show’s idelogical critiques is a very interesting and compelling move – it explores, albeit in a low-key way, some pretty captivating social justice problems. The racial divide within the LGBT community is very real, and with the ever-increasing focus put on issues of intersectionnality, problematic behaviours among the most privileged part of said community – white, cisgender gay men or women – have been identified and are being discussed. The recent, and honestly pretty bewildering support far-right movements have gotten from certain parts of the community is a good exemple of that – one can quote Milo Yannopoulos and the “gays for Trump”, or a similar phenomenon that was reported on during the 2017 French elections (1). Charlie is a victim of prejudice, yes, but the manifestations of said prejudice are abstract and unclear – the ghosts of his parents appearing in the night, staring at him after he just had sex; references to a lonely childhood where his only friend was the man writing his speeches -. It’s very different from Matteusz being kicked out by his religious parents, or from Corakinus slaughtering the parents of the POC leads; it’s far less visceral. It’s almost to the point where the indignities he had to bear almost become a shield used to escape criticism and confrontation – “well, it’s part of my culture, which was exterminated away, give me a rest”. The same goes for his status as what’s essentially a war refugee – yes, he has been cast out of his homeland, but he ends up in a comfortable little house, with a personal slave and an education. Really, Charlie might be the archetype of Ness’ writing in Class – start treading on the most obvious path and then stop and twist and turn. Representation often entails the creation of role models, of likeable characters that are easy to relate to – but Class is about rejecting narratives; so it’s not surprising that it picks that direction. And of course, it contributes to creating a strong overall arc to the character, that needs to reject its prejudices and the legacy of its culture by allowing it to self-destruct, by (obvious metaphor incoming), letting it out the closet/cabinet.
Plus, it’s totally in line with Torchwood, its predecessor in the “let’s offern an adult vrsion of Who” category. Jack and Charlie are very much alike, in a certain way – both LGBT, both incredibly problematic characters that end up embodying a toxic worldview and a corrupt world order. And both of them are close to the Doctor, trying to live up to his legacy, but failing – Charlie because he’s unable to see the true moral core behind the words of the Doctor and uses them only as a way to further the status quo; and Jack because his immortality ends up by having him trapped, becoming an agent of a dangerous, toxic organization. The Doctor, in all his wonderful, often campy energy, remains a force impossible to really grasp and understand – and neither the spin-offs nor their character can replicate what makes him unique.
It’s an interesting thing to note that Jack, Charlie, and of course Luke Smith in “The Sarah Jane Adventures” (who is the absolute best, and so damn cute, and I won’t hear a word against him), the three most important male LGBT characters in the New Who universe, are all aliens. Well, technically, one out-worlder human, one alien and one boy geniuuuuuuus cloned from human DNA, but you get me. In a way, it’s a problematic trope – portraying gayness as something inhuman, coming from another world, is not exactly a good idea; of course you still get Ianto and Matteusz, but they are considerably less important characters, and express their sexuality in large part in reaction towards the leads. Ianto is not into men, “just [Jack]”, to quote “Day One“. And while Matteusz does get one scene that explores him coming out to his grandma in “Detained“, most of his scenes explore his relationship with the lead, with Charlie. The main characters are still gay aliens. In the case of Luke Smith, it’s explored in a pretty intelligent way, with his initial problems to integrate the human society as potential very clear metaphors of the struggles of a gay person feeling ill-at-ease in their environment. It’s less clear when Charlie and Jack are concerned. It would take someone a lot more clever than me to really unpack it, but I think it has a lot to do with the aesthetics of Who, really – the Doctor as this fantastical adventurer exploring the stars out there and jumping from one ridiculous adventure to another … There’s an innate form of camp in that; and access to an infinity of spaces and times mean you literally can go everywhere, be anyone you want to be, get a sense of pure, unadulterated freedom. It’s not a coincidence if the two queer companions of the new series, Clara (admittedly only coded bisexual), and Bill, end up, so to speak, alien-ized, their very being changed on a biological level. So really, you can get the aesthetics, but there is still something frustrating about it.
Because that’s a complaint one can level at Class – it sets up an incredibly rich, diverse cast, but doesn’t always seem to be that interested in exploring their background and experiences. The closest we get is Ram’s monologue on Sikhism in “Brave-ish Heart“, which is admittedly terrific; and Quill’s whole arc in “The Metaphysical Engine“. But we see precious little of Tanya’s home life, for instance, outside of the trauma of her father’s death. And Matteusz’ gayness and the struggles he faces are left almost entierly silent. His relationship with Charlie is an evidence, it just comes up without discussion – first scene, they exchange loving looks, second scene, they’re going to prom and kissing. Which is fine – portraying a happy couple of gay characters that just happen to love each other simply and without conflict is a perfectly good thing to do. Plus, they’re really cute – that scene where Matteusz helps Charlie through a panic attack is one I’ve seen several LGBT people relate a lot with, and find a lot of comfort in. But yeah – LGBT representation needs to be varied, to offer both positive and negative characters, simple and complicated ones; “flat” characters and three-dimensional ones (I will refer you to this excellent video on the topic). The issue here is more one of coherency. Class is not a simple show. Class wants to tackle every subject under the sun, it wants to struggle with incredibly messy and complicated political matters, with religion and faith, with layered metatextual matters. And sometimes, you feel like the themes and the big important questions matter more than the characters – if you want to tell such a deep, complex tale, wouldn’t you need, before anything else, really strong characters with a background that’s rich, complex, and explored in details? Shouldn’t narrative complexity, in a perfect world, be a gradual and slow process that builds towards its final point?
2 – The Doctor’s introduction
Unpopular opinion: the Twelfth Doctor scenes in “For Tonight We Might Die” are the best part of Class. And no, this is not a dig at Ness and his characters – all the opposite, in fact. It’s rather that Capaldi pretty much reveals what the show is truly about. It’s not anything his character says, mind you. First, there’s the way he’s presented: he’s in full “mythical-figure” mode, in a way we haven’t seen in a long time and that echoes “Rose” more than a bit (hell, even the Ninth Doctor’s theme returns!) – a mysterious stranger that comes into your life uninvited and changes it in mysterious and unpredictable ways, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, and most of the time for both.
Clive: The Doctor is a legend woven throughout history. When disaster comes he’s there. He brings a storm in his wake and he has only one constant companion.
Rose: Who’s that?
And he goes on, and cracks jokes and has fun and defeats the bad guys with absurd easiness. Why wouldn’t he, after all? He’s defeated the Daleks and legions of gods, and has walked out of the Time War, he has endured four hundred billion years of agony; a bunch of angry people with swords is no match for him. But the episode doesn’t stop after his whimsical showdown and his grand, epic proclamations. In those last few minutes, we get a glimpse at the soul of Class. We follow some teenagers walking home in the dark and falling on their beds, marked for life by what they have saw, traumatized, wounded. It’s an incredibly potent scene, where nothing really matter outside of a handful of young people lost in a world that’s wider, crazier and more frightening that everything they could imagine. Not only is this coming of age in a nutshell, but that really looks like the ethos of Class: the Doctor is the one who flies, and flees, the one who “never stops, never stays, and never asks to be thanked“. That’s part of his beauty, but it’s a blessing and a curse. He can travel anywhere and never face the hardships of the “slow path”, but what happens to those left behind, the ordinary little humans? It’s exactly what Ness aimed at, considering what he told to Empire Magazine:
“We’re not telling stories of the ‘chosen ones’,” Ness says. “It’s happenstance that puts these people [at the centre of things]. What if your timing is just weird and things happen to you? How do you deal with it? I’m interested in real consequences. The Doctor is always exciting, but he never stays. He goes off on the next adventure. What happens to real people?”
And that’s also where Class finds its most meaningful and more powerful connections to its mothership show. Because that last scene, and the whole show, really, feels like a place where Doctor Who has been trying to get for quite a long time: the fundamental, dramatic, intense tension between the immortal traveler and the “mayflies” not only fueled the extremely-well executed arc of Danny Pink in series 8 (which was also the one to re-introduce Coal Hill on a regular basis), but was thoroughly discussed through series 9, especially in “The Woman who Lived”, which, by many respects, is almost a thematic prequel to that show. And here, in Class, the problem of the Doctor’s interference is not just asked through the prism of individual, if tragic, incidents – like the fates of Helen and Liv’s families in “Absent Friends“, or the consequences of Charley’s disappearence in “Chimes of Midnight” and “The Fall of the House of Pollard“, to quote some Big Finish audios -. It creates patterns, and interrogates those. It challenges the system.
3 – The Great Blue Dragon and the Football Player Coated in Blood
Is there something that can better represent the teenage years? Adolescence is the time where one discovers his or her or their body, discovers sex, gets into fights, does sport. Adolescence is the time of teenage angst, that feeling of being “mal dans sa peau”, as the French say, “ill-at-ease in your own skin”. Better avoid the topic of skin problems. Hell, the best-known teenage TV drama of the decade is called “Skins”.
So Class is definitely treading on rich metaphorical grounds this week; it doesn’t just play with the symbols of the skin like Hellraiser or Pedro Almodovar’s La Piel que Habito might have done it the best, it integrates it in a larger symbolical universe. After all, what is a dragon but a big lizard, a big snake? And snakes regularly change their skin, slough: just as teenagers, at a certain point, they must get out of their childish skin to enter the big frightening adult world as naked and afraid as they can be.
Of course, there’s another obvious influence – a man that thinks of himself as weak and unworthy gets a dragon tattoo and soon is overcome by murderous urges linked to that tattoo …
Rings a bell?
The “Red Dragon” references are kind of on the nose. Really, not just the plot: if you pay attention at the way the episode is shot and directed, the similarities to Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of said book, the TV show Hannibal, become painfully obvious. The merciless amount of very esthetized gore, the naked bodies, the insert shots on various objects, the editing making several scenes run parallel, the focus on water, the creepy, ominous, kind of high-concept soundtrack, the slow tracking shots that sell the horror of the situations …
Maybe Ness just intended to pay hommage to Fuller and Harris’ work – and after all, Hannibal is one of the best shows out there, so that’s a good reason in and on itself. But there’s more to it – the Red Dragon, as they depicted him, was a man so resentful of his own perceived weaknesses that he chose to ascend to a new form, to become a supernatural creature, through ritualized murder. The Coach, with his overbearing masculinity hiding the fact he owes his own strength to the dragon that he keeps trapped in his own skin, and Ram, haunted by his new disability, almost translate exactly the Francis Dolarhyde/Red Dragon dichotomy. And of course, at the end, the Dragon, the primal, agressive force, wins and takes over the human that wanted to control him.
The very theme of flesh as a prison, of flesh as a weapon, is fascinating, though. A rebellion against one’s own body is typically associated with teenage years – be it because of the beauty standards of society, or because of gender dysphoria … But what Class gets at, and it’s a pattern throughout its run, is that the youth is a weapon just as much as it is a liability. Skin is your weakness, skin is pain, but skin is also power. There is an agressivity, an ugly instinct to all teenagers, really, that’s manifest here after the death of the Coach – they all shrugged it off, bar April: there were good guys and bad guys, the baddies got what they deserved, it’s all simple, really. Ugly moral absolutism – and it’s fair to say it’s maybe the only time in the whole show where April is allowed to be entierly right. Her points are often weak, and abstract, and removed from reality, but here, she’s not just etheral, she is here – so to speak – in the flesh.
Hannibal is a show where psychology and reality are not only deeply tied, to the point where the first has influence over the second, but to the point where they’re virtually the same – Hannibal Lecter’s powers over people’s mind allow him to do almost everything, turn him into God, an angel or the Devil, depending on the mood of Madds Mikkelsen. That Class allows itself to quote it so liberally in its second episode is very revealing, as far as its intentions as a show go – this is not a teen drama. This is not about school. This is not even that much about the clash of normal life and Doctor Who. This is about ideas, about concepts. Characters and plots are metaphors – and the whole show, an ideological clash with Doctor Who. It is fascinating to watch, no denying, but at the same time, it might be what doomed the show. Hannibal was a glorious show, but – it’s easy to forget – also a financial failure, cancelled after its third season: it was too agressively weird, too violent, dark and sexual to last. By selecting such an abstract battlefield, Class was going to face an uphill battle – and by combining that with a marketing campaign that advertised the show as YA, it may have shot itself in the foot. Because, really, that’s the question – did Class have to be this abstract? Hannibal had to be, because its very point – to convery the disintegration and transformations of one mind – required an abstract, strange form, but did Class? Maybe it would have “worked” better (note that I didn’t say “been”) as a more straightforward show that would have communicated its ideas in a more subversive way, instead of making them the central focus of the narrative? Ness promised, in some of the press releases, a show where the students would grapple with “aliens and A-levels” (2). To quote Janine Rivers, we saw a lot of the first, and none of the second (3). “The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo”, really, is both the first and last iteration of a more grounded, more realistic Class; the show leaves that kind of grounds definitively afterwards.
4 – Expectations
Class, circa “Coach with the Dragon Tattoo“, seems to be a show about the expectations teenagers have to meet: all of the four leads have an ideal, an image of perfection they want to reach, and all of them suffer for not being able to reach it. Tanya has to be strong, and dignified, in front of the death of her father. Ram has to be the jock, the classroom hero. Charlie has to carry the legacy of an entire world and be, as a contrast to Ram, the sci-fi hero. April has to be the nice, discrete girl, she has to be – pun I suppose very much intended by Ness – the “heart” of the tam. Really, the very fact that they’re supposed to be a team in the first place is a cliché and an undue expectation.
Ram gets most of the focus here, a smart move after a premiere that tended to sideline him, having to cope with his artificial leg and the death of his girlfriend. We do run into a bit of a problem, here, because said girlfriend gets fridged, big time. She barely had any screentime before getting unceremoniously impaled: what was her family like? Where did she come from? What did Ram like about her, and her about him? The show doesn’t even try to answer these questions, and basically just treats her as an angst prop. Which is a shame, because Class’ exploration of angst and trauma are extremly compelling and interesting … That’s part of the problem with Class, really – it’s sometimes just a bit hard to do a show “about” YA clichés without doing a show “full” of YA clichés. And that’s one case where they slip up.
But Ram’s struggles, now, that is some proper, rock-solid writing, for a hundred different reasons. One of the most obvious is the way it subverts a classic YA trope: a ragtag bunch a teenagers instantly forming a team and all getting along after having to escape a mortal danger and being bestowed responsibilities by some kind of mythical figure (is that Power Rangers I’m describing? It feels like I’m describing Power Rangers …). Well, that doesn’t happen here, as the emotional supports offered by Charlie, Tanya and April is just another form of pressure Ram has to endure: that opening scene, an absolutely wonderful bit of writing and cinematography, shows their voices echoing in his head and invading the frame as Sherlock-style text. The progressive breakdown of a character that could at first have appeared like a mountain of dumb muscles is wonderfully conveyed by Fady Elsayed, especially in the scenes where he gets to interact with his father.
Beyond that, though, the episode reads as a vicious takedown of the jock mentality so widespread in high school and college: the constant need to prove yourself as the better, stronger person is another form of unfair expectation, and indeed, one that will push you to attack the others, to punish them in order to make you feel better and more fit. What the episode argues is, I think, that between a bully making some boy drop his book and someone skinning human bodies to feed on their blood and strength, there is only a difference of degree, not of nature. The coach cannot envision a world that is not purely driven by performance, a world that is not divided into “Team A”, and “Team B”, and that worldview pushes him to believe that everything that can improve his performance is good, in the moral sense of the world. But that train of thought can only lead to a high body count, and to the loss of his humanity (as already pointed out, the dragon or the serpent is also a symbol of transformation, of becoming, of cyclical renewal) – look at the way he’s framed, and shot: the camera lingers and focuses on his body, as to signify us he is all body, that he has become a purely physical object, without soul. A machine, in a way, and the episode often draws direct parallels there, by lingering on shots of mechanical devices: the pistons in Ram’s legs, the fans that get covered in blood when the cleaning lady is skinned. There’s also something to be said about the way the episode compares and contrasts the world of professional and amateur sport: the scenes on Coal Hill’s football court are extremely awkward to watch, almost horrific, as Ram is subjected to ever-increasing humiliations; whereas his backyard, where he ends up practicing with his father, at the very end of the episode, is the place where betterment of self, peace of mind, and emotional support can be found.
And the way to get out of the pre-conceived narratives? Speech. Communication, honest, genuine communication that goes beyond the pre-established school personas, the stereotypes and the prejudices pictured as the only way to achieve true, long-lasting emotional healing. The first one of those is the final confession Ram makes to his father, showing him his artificial leg and explaining the whole situation to him: there’s nothing much to be said here, it’s just simply lovely, and showing a kind, open-minded father figure that don’t fall into any negative stereotype is to be commended. And the second is, of course, the long dialog between Tanya and Ram over skype, a truly wonderful little scene, whose emotional impact is considerably enhanced by the great musical score Blair Mowat has gifted us with. It underlines that Ram, despite his genuine grief at the whole situation, has a tendency to make things revolve entirely around himself, locking himself in that role of singular, unique hero that just can’t cope anymore with the perils he faces, whereas the key to get escape the anguish and trauma, is, at the very opposite, to focus on the little things, the happy memories, the memorabilia left by the departed. Ram pictures grief as a neverending fall into darkness; Tanya argues that it has to be a progressive, painful, cyclical process that will allow you to move on eventually. To shed your own skin and fly, like a dragon.
Of course, the problem with Class – or is it actually its genius? – is that communication fails. Not here, of course, but in the end. You can’t reason with the Shadow Kin. You end up pushing the genocide button. You fail to live to your ideals. The narrative “Coach” builds up ends up collapsing at the end of the series. Class is a show that stages its own death, in a way. It gleefully commits suicide to prove a point. One needs to admire the courage, even if it proved alienating to a lot of viewers. Interesting to mention “Brave-ish Heart”, too – because in a way, the expectations set by “Coach”, this episode about expecations, are not met there. The dialogues that happen here are between Ram and Tanya, Ram and his father, Ram and the dragon – all, in a way, minorities (the Dragon is being exploited by an embodiment of toxic white masculinity, after all). When April is in charge, though? Things go very differently. April doesn’t pick a hard, messy solution – like the dialogue and communication in “Coach” -, she gets a fairytale ending where all is clean, and simple, and easy, and makes sense. And that is the moment where Class falls into an abyss of compelling, but self-destructive, thematic darkness.
5 – “Nightvisiting”: music & war
“I’m here and I’m outside your window,
The rain is soaking to the skin,
Prison walls I’m scalin’,
Chains that bind me down,
The clay cannot contain me,
And keep me from your arms.
So hold out your hand, to the joy, to the kiss from me now
for I must return, to the dark, to the dead, before light.
And so I sing unto the morning,
Oh sun don’t rise before it’s day,
And birds hold your tune a bit longer,
For dawn comes to steal my sweet boy away.”
Those lyrics come from Jim Moray’s “Nightvisiting”, which was, as Patrick Ness himself confessed, the inspiration for that story – the artist even recorded a special version of the song for the episode which is played at the beginning and end.
It sums up those forty-five minutes of television in a really nice way, too: slow, poetic, abstract. Like a folk tune. There’s a whole motif with folk music throughout the episode: I don’t really feel the need to explain it, it’s all pretty self-explanatory. I do love the way they end up tying it back to the main plot and to the Lankin in the end: the plant becomes a ghost, a banshee, a harbinger carrying sinister omens – “Ghost Riders in the Sky” in the London suburbs.
A folk tune that would happen to feature soul-eating plant monsters, too. One needs to give some kudos to Ness for his insane premises. After the crazy lovechild of Eliot the Dragon and Leatherface wandering through the sets of Glee (an analogy I blatantly stole from the fine folks of the Pepperpot Team, my apologies to them), we are now confronted to a strange mix of Up (for the opening montage), The Day of the Triffids, Pet Sematary and a teenage rom-com. You might even throw Don Juan into the mix: another story where taking the hand of a nightly, strange visitor sends you to hell. Who syncretism is still blooming, and that’s a true pleasure, especially when all those influences combine to form a cohesive, strong idea: here, that idea is the Lankin, the previously mentioned plant that feeds off your soul. Now, that’s a good antagonist – for a few reasons. First, because, on the vast scale of sci-fi weirdness, it falls precisely on the right point: alien and improbable, but still, in a way, frighteningly possible. Carnivorous plants that entice, ensnare and eat their preys are a real thing, and transposing that actual modus operandi to the context of the show makes the episode feel a lot more real, and the menace more threatening. And of course, it uses the images of your dead loved ones against you: that touches a deep, deep chord, in a way no skin-peeling dragon can.
“Nightvisiting” follows the Class cast (the Classt?) getting lost in that night, and facing echoes of their past, to generally great character-building effect. But getting into a more detailed analysis is tricky: if there’s one lesson the episode teaches, it’s that nothing is ever simple, that the truth about death and the dead is virtually unreachable; it’s an extension of “Coach”‘s elements of narrative subversion, except instead of tackling YA tropes, it targets spirituality and religious narratives. It riffs on the ideas developed in “The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo” Ram / Tanya scene: death and pain don’t have anything heroic, they’re not part of an organized, easily decipherable narrative. They’re violent, brutish, and strike at random: April’s dad drunk driving, Ram’s girlfriend getting butchered by the Shadow Kin or the stroke that killed Jasper Adeola had no purpose, were part of no plan. The episode condemns wide, direct rationalizations (they are the way the Lankin kills you) but, as “Coach” did, it praises the confrontation with grief, as part of a slow, painful process of healing: grieving here is not just facing the dead person’s image, it’s not just talking to it; it’s a true power play – one where, if you don’t play your cards carefully enough, or if you allow yourself to sink into an abyss of despair (a slightly egoistical thing to do, I think Class argues), the departed will drag you along with them. It’s a war, a war of life against death. The question of death, and of life after death, has been at the center of Class since the premiere: what the Lankin offers to Tanya, and to other characters throughout the episode, is exactly what the Cabinet of Souls achieve – a life after the life, among all those you ever knew and loved. Or hated. There’s a nasty ambiguity hidden in the context of a pocket universe for the undead, really; after all, even if that sentence has become the most cliché of clichés, hell is other people – and the Sartre reference is not here for fun, I think it’s very deliberate, especially when “Detained”, which is a giant riff on Sartre, aired three weeks later. You can offer convenient narratives, as a consolation or as a snare, but at the end of the day, the questions remain, as does “the feeling of dread” Charlie spoke of in “For Tonight we Might Die” – existential dread. Quill comments on it directly in the episode – separating Heaven from Hell is not always easy. Once again, there are huge connections to the mothership show on display here – Capaldi’s era has always been one of the most spiritual eras of Who. The idea of using the dead as an energy source was briefly touched upon in “The Woman who Lived”; the impossibility to clearly distinguish Heaven and Hell echoes back to a line of dialog in “Heaven Sent”; and of course, weaponizing the dead to use them against the living was the entire plot of the two-parter “Dark Water / Death in Heaven”. That latter story is especially relevant here: the theme it developed, of characters having to shape and reshape their own identities and narratives, is very clearly on display here. And of course, the episode is, in a way, an inversion of the “descent into hell” motive so prevalent throughout series 8 and 9, the katabasis: the dead are coming to us – maybe they’ve taken the good principles of George Romero a bit too literally …
That war metaphor April develops at the bus stop is at the core of the episode, and is probably one of the best bits of “Class”: it’s incredibly close to a teenager’s state of mind, this constant struggle to define yourself against everything and everyone – and note that this everyone includes the dead. This is the main theme of the episode, and all the scenes revolve around it: at the most superficial of levels, there’s Charlie and Matteusz, rejected by their respective parents for their sexuality (it appears quite clear that the Rhodia royals would have preferred an heir that can further the line: hell, they even appear before the couple’s bed, just short of a #JudgingYou hashtag), seize control of the narrative and re-create a family unit around each other. Of course, Quill ties into that theme. She brings an interesting twist to the theme of war – with her inclusion, Class becomes a show about two wars, on a microscopic and macroscopic scale: the inner combats of the teenagers, and the struggle against the Shadow Kin – both of them intertwined, through the marks Corakinus left on April, Ram and Charlie. A warrior without weapons, a rebel without a cause (pun intended), a woman that’s in a way just as lost as the teenagers she’s watching over, but refusing all contact, all open hands, closing herself in her own, bitter world full of regrets.
Tanya, well, Tanya has already made her peace and let go of her father, in a way: she definitely defines herself as the kind of person that considers that the brain is the best weapon there is, to quote the Doctor, and she moves the conversation to intellectual grounds rather than staying on the simple level of emotions – she refuses to accept the Visitor, refuses to let someone else dictate how she should grieve, how she should feel, how she should cope. The real strength of her scenes is, of course, that she’s fundamentally human, and hesitates, and wants to believe this strange spectre – there’s a level of nuance, and of emotional complexity here that truly elevates the episode beyond a simple collection of thematic beats. But, in the end, she refuses, and poisons him using all of her anger and rage. She fights him, wages the war on her own terms, and wins, empowering herself.
April, on the other hand, is a more problematic case: her kindness is presented, once again, as a weapon of war, and a pretty damn efficient one, but the Lankin doesn’t come for her. She’s ready for war, but what is that war she’s fighting in? The next Shadow Kin episodes build on that, of course, revealing how uncannily similar they can be. But still, there’s something under the surface even here – April is the folk singer (and in a way, this almost feel like a joke, a cliché – she after all Class’ peak white moderate liberal, so why not make her the kid that’s eager to please the teachers, decorates the prom and plays folk music!), but the soothing song that opens and closes the episode is not hers, but Tanya. The two occasions where we get to see April perform actual music- at the beginning of Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart and of “The Lost”, those scenes are tied with the Shadow Kin, with the destructive quality of her heart. Her ideas might be good, but there’s a toxicity to her, and it’s only when the music is not tied to her that it can be a source of healing and reconciliation.
I’ll put my ship in order,
And I will sail back to the sea, and I’ll,
Listen at the window,
To see if my love’s mind’s on me.
And when I come into the harbour,
The burning Thames I have to cross,
And I’ll whisper at a window,
“Oh my true love,
Are you alone?”
(1) National Review, “Marine Le Pen and gay support: a surprising number of Frenchmen are with her” – http://www.nationalreview.com/article/447355/marine-le-pen-gay-support
(2) “I can’t wait for people to meet the heroes of Class, to meet the all-new villains and aliens, to remember that the horrors of the darkest corners of existence are just about on par with having to pass your A-Levels” – Patrick Ness, quoted in BBC Media Centre Class press release, 1/10/15, http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2015/class
(3) Janine Rivers, “Class Tensions”, on “The Diary of Janine Rivers”, 17/01/17 https://janinerivers.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/reposted-class-tensions/