TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Fall of the House of Ness: notes on “Class” (2/3)

[This is the second part of a collection of short pieces looking at Class through the very subjective point of view of someone both fascinated and left unsatisfied by the show – it goes without saying that reading the first, focusing on the initial three episodes, is advised! This week, I tackle (mostly) the central two-parter.]

[Also, it contains a slightly NSFW GIF of a lesbian sex scene – be warned]

[You can now read the entire restrospective here]

 

 

6 – What kind of spin-off is Class?

So, this is the point where we need to talk about Class’ status as a spin-off.

Because “Co-Owner of a Lonely Hear” and “Brave-ish Heart”, after all, come at the halfway mark of this season; and together, they make up story that most extensively tackles the Class-specific mythology.

And also because it’s a neverending magnet for criticism. Honestly, it’s not a subject I’m especially interested in. I’d much rather enjoy (or not) what the show has to offer, without questioning its legitimacy as a show in the first place. Class remains an oddity, an anomaly that seems oddly distant from Who and absolutely did throw people of – but I don’t think it can be condemned on those grounds. On the contrary, I rather appreciate how that show constitutes a completely different take on the Who spin-off.

When you look at the Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood, it’s easy to notice that, despite a lot of surface differences, they ape a lot of Doctor Who’s key elements in their narrative structure. Oh, sure enough, they don’t have a full and complete access to the vast, wild, blossoming mythology of the mothership, and they don’t have this amazing ability to shed their own skin and identity each week, constantly destroying and rebuilding all preconceived notions, tropes, or habits. But, if you simply choose to distill Who to its most basic storytelling bricks and tropes, you can see how it infects its sister shows: they are taking characters from the main show, to turn them in new, alternate versions of the Doctor. Sarah Jane Smith, Jack Harkness and the Doctor are all time travelers with extraordinary abilities and a strong, complex moral code, two of them are virtually immortal (and Sarah is, in a way – her story goes on, forever, as “The Man who Never Was” will make you know), they all carry insignias of their power and status – a screwdriver and a blue box; a lipstick and an alien computer; a coat and a severed hand –, and they’re ambivalent, dangerous figures, that bring enlightenment and truth, but also the promise of mortal danger. That core identity is extracted from the original character and given to a different one, placed in an entirely different environment, and from that graft, storytelling starts to bloom and develop. Sarah Jane is the Who ethos applied to family and parenthood; Jack is that same imperative, corrupted and twisted in the service of an all-seeing, all-powerful establishment (a recurring motive throughout the Whoniverse, that – the audio “Project: Lazarus“, by Cavan Scott & Mark Wright, is one of its best illustrations; trust me, we’ll come back to that one).

Another important point of the shared Torchwood-Sarah Jane Adventures identity resides in, for lack of the better term, the hierarchical relation they have with the mothership show – they are programs that are subservient to Doctor Who, have been created to complement it, and where the shadow of the Doctor looms constantly: he shows up several times in SJA, and is present in Torchwood, through his hand and the immortality his actions indirectly granted to Jack. And this, for better or worse: the ethos of Torchwood never totally made sense in the world of Who, and the sort of contractual obligation to be “the fun one” SJA had might have prevented it to embrace a more drama-driven version that was showing under the surface of series 2, and that seemed ripe for unparalleled promises.

But Class is different. Class doesn’t present itself as a prolongation of the main show’s formula into a different universe – Class presents itself as an alternative. Some would say an alternative to Doctor Who: that it’s a show that’s trying to be Who, to take its place without being exactly a spin-off – it’s a line of criticism I can understand, but I don’t agree with it a single second. For me, it is an alternative version of Doctor Who, which is trying to engage with the main show from a position of equality, that tries to argue with it and debate it.

Class is, in a way, what happens when you take the Doctor out of Doctor Who. There is no substitute, here, no superior form of guidance. And this is a huge, colossal writing gambit – because then, Doctor Who becomes something entirely different. Just think about it – the universe is still this vast, incredible dimension teeming with life, possibilities, beyond comprehension, beyond quantification, beyond imagination. But there isn’t any guidance. There isn’t anyone to point you to the safe roads that cut through the jungle: the only way to move forwards in your life is to cut through deep, dark woods where some hungry, incomprehensible things lurk. Really, without a Time Lord, the Whoniverse reads like a cosmic horror story: impossible forces from beyond the stars might attack and strike you down at any moment – an aesthetic channeled time and again in Torchwood. The ghost of Lovecraft would be proud, if he wasn’t too busy celebrating Trump’s victory in the elections. I mean, that’s all the point of the Doctor’s cameo in the premiere: he comes, he saves the day when no one else could (indeed, even when Tanya figures the answer to defeating the Shadow Kin, she still needs the Doctor’s help, his magical powers, his sonic wand) but then he leaves – and doesn’t come back. He leaves behind scarred, confused, frightened people in desperate need of guidance and healing. It’s not him being cruel or cowardly: it’s his nature – he never stops, and he never says, as Martha his apostle would say. And indeed, the man who runs away leaves devastation in its wake, and from his footsteps sometimes rise important characters – Lady Me is by far the best example. But she was, whether you’re speaking in intra- or extra-diegetic terms, important to the story. Class is what happens after “The Woman who Lived”: what happens to the Doctor Who extras? The red shirts? The little young fellows in the background? Do they get to live happily ever after?

This is an important question – the Doctor loves big proclamations about every single life being important, but, because of the very size and scope of Doctor Who, this is an idea that can often be tricky to convey properly. The Doctor can make a stand, he can lay down his life as an almost ritual sacrifice against the forces of blind, obscurantist corruption – without hope, without witness, without reward; but he can’t be there for everyone. A Doctor can be someone that brutally rips a disease off someone’s body, but also someone who remains, who performs a whole routine of care in order to help the patient reach a full healing. But he’s not going to do that – because he is adventure and wonder, and fire and ice and rage. He’s a fundamentally chaotic element – he upsets the order, but leaves the rebuilding to others. It’s a viewing necessity: you can’t ever show a perfect Doctor that takes full responsabilities for all his actions, because that would simply not be fun to watch. Admittedly, it’s not a fatality, and you can see how series 10 focused around the Twelfth Doctor willing to settle and get down to this dirty, challenging work that is truly helping, and rehabilitating people, both by offering a safe space to Bill and by becoming, for all intended purposes, Missy’s therapist. But we’re in 2016, we haven’t reached that point yet: we’re at a time where the show is challenged, haunted by fictional and real shadows – Danny and Ashildr on one side, Donald Trump on the other. So the show asks – what does this reconstruction process truly entails? And what if it fails? Not surprising that Class became this Young Adult show either, now that you think about it.

Being abandoned by the figures of authority? Not understanding what the hell is going on with the world? Living in that constant “feeling of dread” that Charlie evokes at the very end of the first episode?

Well, it’s call adolescence.

 

7 – What the hell is up with Patrick Ness’ writing here? Or – the part where we talk about the Shadowkink scene

Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “Brave-ish Heart” are weird-ass scripts.

It’s not that they are bad. Well, they kind of are. The best way to describe them – and maybe the show at large – is that their qualities are nested deep within their flaws, and their flaws deep withing their qualities.

Patrick Ness is a very talented writer, there’s no denying this. And you can’t just dismiss him as a writer of prose that was ill-equipped to tackle television – not when the movie adaptation of “A Monster Calls” exists. This is a rich story. A lot of thought and efforts that went, not just into the themes and story (we’ll get to those later), put into the form of the episode, and the way the episode presents his ideas. There is some really clever construction tricks at work here – the most obvious being the way both episodes end on the same kind of moral dilemma: April hesitating between killing or sparing an overbearing figure of male dominance. The first time, she threatens her father under Corakinus’ influence; the second time, she spares Corakinus’ under her father’s influence. The very first scene after the opening credits in “Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart” is April and her mum talking about their predicament; and so is the very last scene of “Brave-ish Heart”. Corakinus begins and ends the story alone in a room. April gravitates between her mum and dad, but also between two “disabled” characters, her mother and the now half-human King of the Shadows. The first two things we see in the first part are the Shadow Kin and a flower in the wind, as to indicate that the two threats will eventually cancel each other. The opening scene is a wonder – tying April’s music, the source of her self-expression, and in a way of her identity (folk music is the legacy of her father and a link to her cultural origins) with the carnivorous feminity of the flowers, and most of all with the cruel fascism of the Shadow Kin – the violin becoming a sword, art and sweetness being soured and corrupted, becoming the conduit for corrupted ideologies. It’s well-written television.

There’s a gulf, though, between being “well-written” and being “good”. It’s one thing to elaborate an extremly complex web of intertwined meanings and symbols, but if you cannot make people engage with it and want to explore it, you’ve failed. You can’t write for television without accepting the audience is a fundamental part of the show’s essence, and that at the end of the day, the ideology surrounding your writing can’t be yours; they will have to construct a meaning from the elements they are given, elements that are much less clearer than the simple, self-evident truths of words on a blank page. And if these elements are not enough, it’s the writer who is to blame. Class is, if that makes any sense, an overwritten piece of media. Steven Moffat can fall into the same pitfalls, but, at the same time, even in his most confusing, less viewer-friendly moments, among which series 6 thrones supreme, he does have a strong aesthetic sense, he understands that sometimes a bit of fluff, of “cool” elements can bring extra texture and weight to the episode. There is an energy, a vitality to his writing – there’s a reason why, while I will acknowledge series 6 is on the weaker side, I also love it unconditionally. But Class? Often, because of the sheer efforts he makes to build up his ideas and justify his project, Ness sort of forgets to make the show fun.

It’s not so much the way the characters talk and express themselves – for media-savvy, middle-to-upper class teenagers, the dialogue always felt pretty natural to me, bar the odd flight of poetry that is generally justified by the dramatic circumstances (are teenagers known for their ability to find the right words at the right time?) – but rather because the whole thing has a sort of mechanic allure, gives this impression of being tidied and controlled almost to a fault. It is a good things to build strong thematic beats and to have an overall strong sense of structure, don’t get me wrong, but television is a visual medium – an actor portraying a character is not the same thing than having your words and thoughts directly creating that character ex nihilo.

And then we reach the textbook exemple. Halfway through the episode, we get April and Ram’s first sexual encounter being intercut with Corakinus screwing one of his underlings. Now, that makes sense on a writing perspective: it shows how one influences the other, and also gives this creepy, uncomfortable sense of the two co-owners of the heart drifting together in the uncanny valley. And, in book form, that could definitely work – but Ness is too focused on building bridges between scenes and clever parallels, here, to realize that, well, it just looks silly. No, not silly – really stupid, in fact. Corakinus asking his mate for cuddles is a brilliant moment of off-beat, weird-ass comedy, but the actors play it way too straight, and even if they weren’t, you’d be too busy asking yourself questions about what you’ve just seen to notice. How do the Shadow Kin make love? Do they have shadow penises and shadow vaginas? Do they produce shadow babies that they feed on Shadow Tits?

Questions for the philosophers.

Of course, Ness didn’t “have” to make the show fun, or accessible to most. Niche television, catering to people with very specific tastes and sensibilities, is a worthy endeavour. But here we go back, once again, to the original sin of Class – the lack of oversight, of PR, of cohesion behind its writer. Did the BBC want an author to offer an original and challeging vision? Did they want a YA show with a mainstream appeal that could become the British Buffy, as the press releases seem to hint at (1)? Or did they just handed a vague brief to Patrick Ness and went “handle that, please”?

I don’t want to pre-judge. But I’m pretty sure this is the last one. Another thing about television and film – they’re collective media. When talking about how meaning in constructed on a film set, David Fincher said this – “directing means painting a picture with a walkie-talkie and a crew of 80 people holding the brush“. An author’s vision, as satisfying as it is to dissect and analyse, cannot be the be all and end all.Then again, it’s not like Ness had any choice – he’s not to be blamed.

At the end of the day, all that remains is a vision without form. We have to decide what we do with it.

 

8 – Class and visual storytelling

The lack of oversight Class suffered from is all the more frustrating when you consider its singular willingness to engage with visual storytelling. It’s not just that it’s good on the “three-dimension screenwriting” front, to use again this pretentious term I made up to talk about Steven Moffat – the ability to convey meaning through every aspect of the production pipeline, and not just the story. It has a true, and very strong visual identity that’s prevalent all throughout the eight episodes. Class is about the collapse of our ordinary, real world – the skin of the universe is torn apart, the rifts like wounds in its flesh. And without the filter of our boring pre-conceptions, we are exposed to the full extent of the Maelstrom.

The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without filter, man is just Chaos Walking.”

– The Knife of Never Letting Go

The standard filmmaking grammar you’d expect to find in a show like that is, like the world around Coal Hill School, metamorphosed and turned around at each episode. Every episode brings new technical tricks accompanying a new threat from Beyond. It’s more than being pretty – it’s a key part of the show’s meaning. It’s interesting to note that the two most experimental episodes, coming from the oh so talented hands of Wayne Che Yip, are placed at the end of the show, just before a final that purposefully goes back to quieter, more stagey filmmaking. The five first stories feature incursions into our world; the sixth and seventh have the characters step below the boundaries of said world, entering realms of visual, and thematical, abstraction. “Brave-Ish Heart” can be perceived as the key episode there – it not only pushes forwards the narrative of one of the main characters becoming alien, it also shows us an alien world for the first time.

Of course, and here we run into a problem, this whole two-parter suffers from a surprisingly mediocre and matter-of-fact direction, ignoring the absolutely admirable fact we get an all-female directorial team here, with Philippa Langdale in the director’s chair and Maja Zamojda as cinematographer. The Shadow Kin get especially screwed over by this – while they’re still verging a bit too much into the “generic warrior race” territory, these episodes do provide us with a bit more information about them and their culture, making them feel more developed and textured. There’s a delightful irony in creature of abstract, living shadow comforming to the crudest of gender signifiers – the females have breasts, for god’s sake! How the hell do shadow breasts even work?! – and refusing to even develop a word for “queen”. They’re basically, for all intended purposes, Men’s Rights Activists from Space – and there’s certainly something interesting about the fact the creatures that made Charlie into a pariah consider themselves like a nation of exiles – a self-imposed exile that make them look like a tantruming child. But that’s all the good things I can say about them – the visuals of their planet feel like more than a bit of a Mordor rip-off frankly, and referencing The Lord of the Rings directly is not going to help shake that feeling (plus, that might just be me in denial, but I am not, at all, at all, buying that a boy of Ram’s age would think that the Jackson movies are “old”). And, really, they’re just filmed in the most boring, vanilla way possible – standing there in big dark rooms, muttering things you don’t understand most of the time because the sound designers were way too trigger-happy with their distortion effects. Think about the sex scene, once again – it should feel weird, alien, and downright unhealthy, like some of the stuff Vincenzo Natali did for Hannibal (if there was an episode where you needed to ape that show, it was that one, Nessie!).

Lesbian Kaleidoscope.gif

Instead, it just ends up looking like two teenagers that just had a quick shag behind a bush (with any luck, they escaped the attention of Annabel Arden …). And of course, you get these moments where they just stand around and let April talk without doing anything, which looks awkward as all hell.

I’m not just nitpicking for the sake of it, there’s a point. See – the Shadow Kin are a joke. They are a bad, cruel, vulgar joke, but they are one. That’s why genocide against them, is, at the end of the day, even possible (and note that possible doesn’t mean right). They are deeply incompetent, and kind of ridiculous – you can’t ask the audience to take seriously a monster that gets referred to IKEA in their very first appearance. And to his credit, I don’t believe for a single second Ness intended the viewer to do that. But the directing doesn’t pick up on it. The directing does’t show us the irony at the core of the writing, and because it fails there – because the show relies so much on abstract storytelling and lets a lot to be told through performances, visuals and editing – it effictively locks away entire parts of its meaning for large sections of the audience. The casting of Paul Marc Davies as Corakinus speaks volume – he played another iconic Who villain, the Trickster, in a deadly serious, if very hammy performance; the comedic aspects of the show seem to go completly over the heads of the production crew.

Because Class is always written with a firmly tongue-in-cheek attitude – almost like Ness had a TVTropes page opened just next to him. The Shadow Kin are a bit of a joke. April, the problematic straight white cis liberal that almost seems to want to be the moral compass of the show, also is. Charlie’s emo brooding is too, to a certain extent – “teenage angst is a negative term”. But apparently, not everyone got the memo, and Class gets stuck into a weird abyss – it’s a meta narrative that appears not to fully own its metatextual aspects.

 

9 –  “Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart / Brave-ish Heart”: a double test of character

And of course the two-parter ends up with April and Charlie, the King and the Prince, having to face a choice of their own. If Ram and Tanya are the heart of the show, these two are its gall – the problematic children, the heroes that should not be heroes, questionned and challenged and failing. The alien that lets go of his alien privileges; and the human that becomes an alien. Parallels and mirrors are everywhere, when these two are concerned.

In both cases, the main character stands between two paths, embodied by two different persons.

April, having to decide what to do about the whole Shadow Kin deal, stands between Corakinus, or rather the piece of Corakinus that dwells in her, and her father, two manly men who committed terrible deeds that left her deeply hurt and wronged.

Charlie, between two women, whose behavior and clothing are themselves polar opposites  – Dorothea is a small, icily calm brunette in a red dress; Quill a tall, fiery blonde in a black coat; but both of them embody a form of violence, one open and loud, the other more sneaky. It’s made pretty obvious by the fact they’re the only two characters who own a gun. One advocating for genocide, and the other for the sacrifice of his people in order to achieve a greater goal.

And both Charlie and April are supported by a love interest, Ram or Matteusz. That’s probably where the episode is best – Dorothea and Quill both make compelling arguments, but they ring hollow, and empty, mostly because, like the Rhodian culture, they reek of a strong moral absolutism. It’s a very teenage thing, when you think about it – this idea that there is necessarily a good side and a bad side, that your morals will allow you to find a perfect solution to the situation. But, when Charlie has to make his choice, he simply doesn’t know how to act, if he should follow the doctrines of his forbearers, or the arguments of the women next to him – because, as April learns from her father and Ram, when you are faced with a truly dire dilemma, you cannot allow yourself to be influenced by pre-determined ideas of right and wrong: you, and only you have the answer. “Be yourself” – that’s what April hears from her father.

There’s an obvious link to the few last series of Doctor Who, where the question of the Doctor’s identity and of what it meant was a major concern of the writer: the “be yourself” is never anything more than a more general version of “be a Doctor”, after all, to quote our overlord Clara Oswald. And indeed, if you go digging for parallels, the Cabinet scenes do recall “Day of the Doctor”, down to the design of the doomsday weapon, which is not that different from the Moment, while the confrontation with Corakinus can evoke both “Death in Heaven” or “The Magician’s Apprentice”, episodes where the Doctor has to decide whether he wants to spare or kill an ancient nemesis.

Thus, while April’s philosophy of fighting a war against the world made sense when she first exposed it in “Nightvisiting”, it is here presented as something she has to draw from to overcome the obstacles that stand in her way, but ultimately something she has to grow out of – by making her father, or Corakinus the “bad guy” in that war, she would justify their death. But she doesn’t, and refuses to let what is, deep down, quite a self-centered philosophy (I am One, and all the Others are out to get me), detract from her best qualities. Indeed, Quill makes most of the same arguments: she believes that everything wants to hurt her, and that the embrace of death, of victory in war, is the only way out – in a way, she is nothing but an extension of the ideas April manifests, at a much, much earlier stage. The ideal ruler is, for her, the one that would burn on his people’s funeral pyre.

In the end, Charlie’s refusal to act is his strongest, most sympathetic and humanizing character moment so far. His beliefs are challenged, he is entrusted with a responsibility greater than anything he ever would have wanted, and he simply doesn’t know what to do. As he says to Matteusz, he is lost. Confused. Wandering a labyrinth of bad ideas, bad solutions, bad futures he has to avoid. One might make the case for this all scenario being nothing more than an extension to a macrocosmic level of your simple, ordinary teenage angst.

But of course, you might notice that no answers actually arise from all these confrontations. Bad ideas are discarded. But ultimately, the question is left unresolved. And it will never be – it sets up “The Lost”, where the activation of the Cabinet is not the product of any kind of ideology, does not justify anything, but is merely a pure act of desperate survival. The least worst option – because sometimes, that’s the only one you have.

Matteusz, by positionning himself as Charlie’s way out, as the one who will find him if he ever gets lost (oh, the sweet set-up), allows the story to fall back on the themes of communication that were at the core of “Coach with the Dragon Tattoo“. Not really surprising from Ness, who wrote an entire trilogy of books about just that.

One has to be oneself, but your sense of identity and your values don’t just magically appear – you get a sense of how communities and groups form and influence their members. There are all the interactions between the kids and their parents, the group of friend that has started to form, Charlie and Matteusz’ bargain they struck last episode, April and Ram’s blossoming relationship … But also the Shadow Kin, who function as one, big, collective mind (maybe there’s a link to their hyper-masculinity? Maybe they’re just an evolved form of Twitter trolls?), or the flowers, who share “a single soul”. And, of course, in an absolute wonder of a scene, Ram evokes his experiences living in the Sikh community. You know, themes and all out of the way, how cool is that? Especially at a time where, uh, said Sikh community faces some problems (come and see), to have a scene that’s just explaining very well and poetically another culture, to the benefits of viewers. I’d have said young viewers, but to be fair, I’m not sure that your average ordinary bloke is very knowledgeable on the subject. It’s by far the episode most powerful moment – and I’d say trying and achieve peace of mind, and maybe transcendence, through good deeds, through what you, as a pure, self-determined individual free of all the shackles of ideologies and prejudices, are, is probably the final lesson Class wants to teach. But of course, like any lesson Class teaches, it’s not completly satisfying. Ness is smart by giving Sikhism a strong focus and a lot of respect; but Ram himself doesn’t quite live his religion fully, specifically because that would put him at risk in a prejudiced world – and really, that what’s “The Lost” ultimately gets at, that you can’t hold on to dogmas in a world that’s out to get you, that ruthless pragmatism might be the only way out. Not to forget that religion is also seen as deeply problematic throughout the show, the Cabinet being the center of the Rhodian religion¸ or Matteusz’ parents being devout, “slightly” bigoted Catholics.

It’s also a very feminist piece, in a way – the Shadow Kin, and their King, are presented as this sort of brutal, brutish, hypermasculine society (you’ll note that they all look the same but still have what you’d call in human terms heterosexual sex: a nice contrast with our group of ethnically and sexually diverse heroes), directed by ideals of revenge, honor and conquest to an absurd level: of course the King has to fight one-on-one, and of course the one to best him gets the crown even if it’s a female human – they probably had never even considered the possibility. Plus, their leader carries around two huge swords, which, uh, I don’t need to refer you to uncle Sigmund on that one, do I?

On the other hand, the flowers almost seem to embody a predatory, over-the-top femaleness: we are literally talking about pink girly flowers of doom, here – and there’s a sexual element as well, considering many cultures and artists use a flower as a way to represent female genitalia and sexuality. It’s a nice, interesting touch to see both those exaggerated, monstrous representations cancel each other out, as to signify there is a way to define your relationship to sexual and gender identity outside of the overblown tropes, clichés and stereotypes. Plus, it’s just a very empowering episode for April, at all levels – she’s passing several thresholds, completing several rites of passage, from her taking control of her sexuality by having an encounter with Ram, to claiming a crown, a title, and powers that seem to be directly derived from her sense of self-accomplishment. Good stuff – that does impact the episode at several levels, too, most notably in the portrayal of Jackie, a badass (“Don’t let the chair fool you – if you hurt my daughter, I will kill you”) single, disabled mother, and of Dorothea, who replaces a man and gets a few lines clearly hinting at those themes (“There are still men who won’t listen to a woman that’s smarter than they are”).

Of course, it’s a very white, incredibly flawed sort of feminism, that ultimately fails to make any sort of difference. If you consider Class as Who’s answer to 2016, then April is Hillary Clinton. Behind all the affirming catchphrases, there’s a failure there. April wins an easy wins, fixes everything magically, but instead of making sure that the Shadow Kin can’t hurt anyone, that Corakinus is gone for good, and that her mother is okay with walking again, she just ties everything together in a neat way. It doesn’t hold – it cannot hold. And the events of “The Lost” happen as a direct consequence of it – when the situation has been allowed to fester too long, when prejudice and hatred explode in blades being drawn and blood being spilled, the words of old narratives cannot save you. Only blood and tears can – and the new language that will be born of those. Because there might be kindeness in bloodshed, and cruelty in a comforting embrance. Because, to quote TS Eliot –

“April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land”

 

10 – The Rhodians are the bad guys

The Rhodians are one of the best things in Class.

They’re a perfect subversion of fairytale tropes. A kingdom of light-skinned perfect human specimens bathing in the sun of a perfect kingdom that very much feels like, by what we hear about it, like a trade federation controlled by cold, emotionless merchant princes. See how Quill describes the Rhodians as those who deprived her people of resources, making sure they would stay dependent of them? Or even the way Charlie evokes their vision of love and family in “Nightvisiting“?

“I was a valuable piece of property to be used for the good of the country.”

It’s all perfect in theory, with these elaborate systems of checks and balance that assure that all harm is met with equal harm (take your enemies and turn them into your protectors, have a gun that shoots both ways, have a way to destroy anyone and anything at the cost of your very people’s soul). But, in fact, it’s always bathed in that inhuman superiority that looks down on the Quill, and really on all those puny earthlings that can’t understand the richness and subtlety of your culture. Not all harms are equal, and blindly quoted the text of the book is always the refuge of the oppressor, the one that only thinks he’s following orders, or the cultural trends of the day, or whatever alternative excuse.

It all comes to a climax in “Detained“, where, in a strange reversal, Charlie is presented as the most sympathetic character among the group. A surprising move considering how hard some of the previous stories have come down on him. And I suppose it could still be considered a deal-breaker, for some people, to be asked to have empathize with a royal and a slave-driver, I personally don’t mind it: while Ness can, and often does get very political, Charlie’s kingly status always struck me as more of a metaphor than anything else – a way both to subvert your ordinary fairytale conventions, and to convey the weight of responsibility some persons have to face at a very young age. Rhodia is both this past family, this past culture one has to preserve, and that defines Charlie to his adulthood, and an ambiguous, toxic weight that he has to break away from. It’s a duality that’s embodied in a paradoxical identity – a part of cruel, exploitative system that’s also isolated by his experience as a queer man.

And this is the episode where all his arrogance and pretense vanish, leaving behind a frightened, broken boy underneath: there is something very child-like about Charlie – which is not necessarily a good thing, because child can be petulant bastards, but at the same time, there is a sort of innocence, of genuineness there. Which is precisely why he gets to save the day: everyone is too concerned with their prejudices and their little problems, but he approaches the situation with fresh eyes, having never really had any kind of previous human experiences, and can see a way out. The central conceit of the episode, this room in the middle of nowhere, where time is suspended, is designed to force the “truths” out of people, to have them express themselves on pre-determined conditions. So, of course the only reasonable thing to do is to take control of your own destiny, of your own narrative, and confessing the truth right now, on your own terms: one should note that there are some strong, inescapable LGBT parallels at work here; Matteusz, under the influence of the stone, tells us about coming out to his grandmother, and Charlie, well, is pretty much coming out of the Cabinet here. He opens up about wanting to continue the culture of his forbearers, while knowing very well it is dangerous and morally wrong – the Doctor might have given him some moral lessons back in the premiere, and those are reminded at the beginning of the episode, but they really are not of any help when you’re alone and faced with such a terrible decision –, and there’s also something like a death drive at work here: being prepared to risk everything, loss of identity, loss of life, just to upset a status quo that has become unbearable. Ram might pretend that he is ashamed of nothing, but he still doesn’t open up until he is forced to – even if he is not an idiot, he still thinks in terms of sports, of games, making of the situation a power play where you can best, outperform and outsmart your opponent –; Charlie accepts his mistakes, and his vulnerabilities. Which is precisely why what perhaps was the strongest link to his culture is broken at the end of the episode: Quill is free of him, the bond they shared is broken.

And that’s all because, at the end of the day, the Rhodians are the real bad guys of the show. They and the Shadow Kin are just alike. Rich men and women exploiting others breed the ugly revolution led by the ever-shifting shadows of neoreaction. One is dark, the other is light – but, when you go beyond these aesthetics differences, they’re not two extremes being just as bad as the other, they’re the same corruption wearing two different masks. See the end of “The Metaphysical Engine“, on the beach, where Quill ages months after touching one of the captive souls – it’s light that kills. The finale is about finding true enlightnement – “we need to find the Light again“. And to do that, you need to have Shadow and Light destroying each other.

You can almost deny the fact that the ending is genocide – because it’s a species committing what amounts to suicide to destroy another. It’s a deeply ritualistic endeavour that aims not to suppress a specific civilization, but rather to get back to a cosmic balance, break the walls of the labyrinth the characters of Class lose themselves in. It’s an ugly, painful thing that ought to have been avoided, and that causes damage and trauma to a colossal scale, destroying, in a way, the very narrative of the show.

But think about it. Giving the universe a new chance … Or, if you interpret the metaphor that way, giving yourself a new chance, breaking away from depression and prejudice, from a world that wants to control you, to abuse you, to demean you. To refuse to play the game and throw the chessboard on the ground – which echoes one of Twelve’s lines in “Smile” …

You got to admit. It’s tempting.


(1) “London is unprotected. With all the action, heart and adrenalin of the best YA fiction (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Hunger Games), this is Coal Hill School and Doctor Who like you’ve never seen them before.” – http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/doctorwho/entries/953c5b1f-3cc8-4db9-8184-f1b6567260f1

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