Wednesday 1 March 2017
Coal Hills To Who Castle
22nd October - 3rd December 2016
Class is the new Doctor Who spin off show which I was waiting to start up for some time, before I found out the BBC had elected to screen it on internet channel BBC3, instead of a proper channel. So even though I was actively looking out for some kind of promotion for this thing...I still managed to somehow miss the first episode but, that’s okay, if I was going to watch a streaming show in the first place then I certainly wasn’t going to bother to watch it live (thank goodness for BBC iPlayer, I guess). I can half understand the BBC’s thinking here. If Doctor Who gets good ratings then maybe the hordes of people watching the spin off will be able to bring a lot of new customers to an ‘internet channel’. As it happens... Class doesn’t seem to have done very well on the ratings front at all, from what I can make out... which maybe explains why they’re now going to start broadcasting the eight episode run again on BBC1 from January 9th 2017*. That being said, putting it on at 10.30pm, considering the young adult (aka teen) audience that famous writer Patrick Ness is presumably going for, could mean that the series does little better connecting with its target audience in a more traditional route either... although I’m not 100% certain the people behind the show are all that sure of who their target audience is supposed to be, to be honest.
Set in Coal Hill Academy (formerly Coal Hill School) which is the teaching establishment introduced in the very first episode of Doctor Who in 1963 and which has been having fairly regular ‘cameo’ appearances in the main show of late, the series is using almost exactly the same plot device to justify the kinds of stories the writer wants to tell as another Doctor Who spin off series... namely Torchwood. Torchwood dealt with a group of people protecting Cardiff because it had some kind of hot spot or rift which attracted alien creatures and this is also, it seems to me, the case here. So, once more, the people behind this show seem intent on making this thing into some kind of British answer to the phenomenally successful American TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where the students in the show were apparently situated near some kind of hot spot or portal from hell, if I’m understanding things correctly.
Now, for all of those who want to brave this show, which is actually a pretty strong product for the most part, you should know that you will have to sit through something very painful and irritating at the start of each episode and you will have to survive this thing without turning off the TV immediately, if you want to continue to watch this. It is worth plugging on with. I’m talking, of course, about the fact that the fairly lame and “blink and you’ll miss things” opening titles are accompanied by one of the most infuriatingly bad songs you’re ever likely to hear on a British TV show (or one from any other country, for that matter). It’s so bad that your hand will almost involuntarily reach for the off button before even a few seconds of this bland cacophony has hit your ears but, seriously, resist the urge and you’ll hopefully agree that it was worth weathering the noise for. I remember someone on twitter commenting, while watching the first episode, that this is why the BBC should never have got rid of the Radiophonic Workshop and I can only echo that sentiment here.
However, once the ‘outrage that is pretending to be a song’ is done, we get into some characters who are, mostly, okayish but with the real strength of having some truly good dialogue behind them. Within minutes, for example, you’ll get a nice throwaway line about failing the Bechdel Test and this self awareness carries on throughout the entire run of the show. Although the storylines and situations are not particularly great in themselves, the episodes are inhabited by characters who are anything but cardboard and show an uncanny, for British TV, ability to change, adapt and progress as the pressures of the storylines continue to shape them. It helps a lot that the ensemble don’t all get along with each other all the time, too, which is somewhat useful in adding a layer to the way in which the characters can explore their situations. The performances from all the main leads such as Greg Austin as Charlie Smith, Fady Elsayed as Ram Singh, Sophie Hopkins as April MacLean, Vivian Oparah as Tanya Adeola and Jordan Renzo as Matteusz Andrzejewski are all very good at breathing life into their characters... with a special mention for the outstanding Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill, who manages to be truly ruthless and a bit of a softie at the same time. They’re all really good here.
Now there are some big weaknesses in the show too. The main villains, for example, who are in at least half the episodes and who live in some kind of shadow realm are, frankly, a bit rubbish to look at and just don’t have the ability to make themselves feel like a threat, even when they are killing off regular or important characters. That being said, there are also some good things in the show such as a nice appearance by Peter Capaldi as the current incarnation of The Doctor in the opening episode and also, the revelation that there’s a slow building plot with a mysterious enemy that includes, as revealed in the final episode, the collaboration of a famous enemy from the main Doctor Who show (of recent years... no, it’s not the Daleks or the Cybermen and I’m saying no more on that front... just don't---).
One of the biggest problems I think the series has is in its somewhat mixed tone. I know a couple of people who didn’t watch past the first episode due to it being presented as something for young teenagers (or young adult or whatever the heck the ‘buzzword’ term is at the moment which ensures you eliminate the target audience without even trying because... you know... who would want to watch something targeted at their age group) and then being hit with something which you wouldn’t expect to associate with that term. Bearing in mind it’s mostly all about a load of 16 and 17 years olds (and one 14 year old) its refreshingly surprising that the show is filled to the brim with overt sexuality and gory violence, to a certain extent. In the first episode, for example, one of the regular characters has his face sprayed with the blood of his girlfriend who is run through with a sword and killed in front of him before he has his leg cut off. Which is fine and I’m all for this kind of stuff but... it seems tonally wrong for the kind of audience it’s meant to be attracting (at least in terms of what they are allowed to watch in this country... I’m not naive about what youngsters are up for watching as opposed to what our ‘nanny state’ censors allow them to watch). When you think about it, it seems strange to have a show which seems to be aimed at 14 - 17 year olds that asks you to click to confirm you are over 18 when you try and watch it on iPlayer. Bit of an issue that, I would have thought.
However, the tone which mixes the truly naive innocence of the central characters with a baptism of blood and fire, so to speak, in terms of what they are asked to face each week (again, an interesting idea, in some ways) does seem a bit contradictory, at best, in terms of where the show is landing and I can see how this seemingly deliberate inconsistency may put a lot of people off of regular viewing. All that being said, though, I thought the writing by Patrick Ness was hitting the mark a lot more consistently than a lot of the various seasons of Doctor Who since Russel T. Davies left the show and I did enjoy it at least as much, if not more, than a lot of the Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi episodes of the main series... at least in terms of the dialogue, for sure.
Now, the final episode leaves the series on something of a cliffhanger with many characters dead or... well let’s just say changed... and it really does need to carry on to be able to get to something more satisfactory in terms of conclusion or closure. Alas, with the ratings such as they appear to be (from what I’m reading on Doctor Who news sites) and my expectations that a necessarily late time slot on the early 2017 broadcast of the show will be as doomed as the BBC3 ‘broadcasts’ were, I am kind of not expecting any of the ‘long game’ set ups and character closure to be dealt with anytime soon. Or probably ever. Hopefully I’m wrong about this because I’d quite like to see a second series made but... yeah, I’m not holding my breath on this one.
*Okay, I’m rumbled. I actually wrote this review at the tail end of December but have only now got around to putting it up. The show has been broadcast now on regular television and, to tell the truth, the ratings didn’t look too good then either. Time will tell, I guess.