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Doctor Who spinoff Class tries — and fails — to add cheeky teen drama to classic sci-fi

It attempts to mix fun teen drama with planetary genocide, but it’s not very interested in teens.

School is in session in the Whoniverse.
Simon Ridgeway / BBC America
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

As his parting line in the first episode of the Doctor Who spinoff Class, the Twelfth Doctor delivers the time-traveling equivalent of a dad joke. He warns the students he’s leaving behind at the notorious Coal Hill Academy, the site of many a minor plot point throughout the Whoniverse, that the dangers they’re about to face will be roughly on par with their ridiculously difficult final exams — but much harder than “media studies.”

It’s one of many awkward meta moments throughout the series, whose attempts to wink at its status as a geeky teen drama/fantasy never quite land.

Created and written by acclaimed young adult fantasy writer Patrick Ness, who is also the showrunner, Class seems like a fantastic idea in theory: a Doctor Who tale centered on a school, rife with opportunities to subvert expectations around both sci-fi and teen TV.

It’s true that Class has the diverse, beautiful look of a modern series, and tries to walk that effortlessly self-aware path that much of the best modern genre television does so well. But unfortunately for Doctor Who fans, it rarely comes close.

Instead, like teenage existence itself, Class inevitably winds up feeling like a bland, predetermined cliché, trapped within its own narrative tropes like a juvenile stuck in detention.

Class is a course in blandness and inaction

Over the course of Class’s eight episodes, viewers are invited to spend a lot of time thinking about genocide — but in a mostly fun way.

This is mainly thanks to our hero, an actual alien prince and interplanetary refugee named Charlie (Greg Austin), and “Miss Quill” (Katherine Kelly), a home planet resistance fighter who has been enslaved to serve and protect Charlie despite their mutual distrust. Charlie and Quill are the last survivors of their home planet, which fell victim to mass genocide at the hands of a villainous race known as the Shadow Kin. Rescued by the Doctor and ensconced at Coal Hill, where Quill poses as a teacher, Charlie quickly befriends the routine array of teen misfits, including nerdy loner April (Sophie Hopkins), sensitive jock Ram (Fady Elsayed), and overachieving Tamara (Vivian Oparah).

Of course, it’s not long before the Shadow Kin find their way to Earth — specifically to Coal Hill, which is also home to a rip in the space-time continuum that allows all sorts of monsters to break through, à la Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Hellmouth. Charlie is in possession of a secret weapon — the remnants of the souls of his people — which could wipe out the Shadow Kin once and for all. But after a freak injury leaves April sharing a heart with the leader of the Shadow Kin, questions about whether to wipe out the entire Shadow Kin race, and how, suddenly become a lot more charged.

If this basic conflict — will they wipe out the Shadow Kin or won’t they? — seems a little thin, not to worry: Our heroes also have plenty of other things to deal with, from the typical gamut of emotional teenage woes to the less typical (voracious flesh-eating flower petals, anyone?).

But therein lies Class’s basic failure. Ness is clearly far more interested in adding cool and interesting new monsters to the Whoniverse than he is in adding cool and interesting new characters to the list of the Doctor’s allies. For all the rich detail his YA novels are known for, the teens of Class are paint-by-numbers bland, barely distinctive enough to feel clichéd. Even though we spend nearly all of our time with them, our cadre of heroes receive hardly any significant characterization, much less significant character development.

Ness instead defines his characters through their trauma: Each of them has lost someone close to them, and each of them is grieving. But these losses, too, feel like trope checkmarks rather than real depth. Despite the ensemble’s basic functionality — they’re beautiful people who can all pass for 16 and cry on command — they fail to give Class the sense of vibrancy and community necessary to make it a show worth returning to.

Class doesn’t seem to have much interest in its teen characters

Because we’re stuck with these bland nonentities as our main characters for the whole season, Class quickly starts to feel repetitive and formulaic.

Ness, who wrote each episode, doesn’t help here: Again and again, he takes great but tropey ideas — Buffy-esque family drama, hokey Star Trek-ian puzzle episodes — and fills them with vapid, generic writing that does little but mark time, without any major plot or characterization development. Whole scenes often pass without significant action, only for one character to suddenly get hit with an exposition lightning bolt that allows them to explain what needs to happen next.

After a few episodes filled with this kind of wheel spinning, the entire show starts to feel claustrophobic and empty. And the occasional geek references only reinforce the idea that something has gone awry: Class clearly owes more to Buffy than Doctor Who, but Buffy, which just turned 20, somehow feels newer and fresher than Class.

Ness’s attempts to inject typical teen romance into his plot just increase this sense of ennui, mainly because they only serve to highlight how little we know any of these characters. Apropos of nothing and without any explanation whatsoever, Charlie promptly falls head over heels in love with a taciturn Polish immigrant named Matteusz (Jordan Renzo), who proceeds to moon over Charlie for the rest of the season. This is a win for fans of happy, pretty gay couples but a loss for anyone who likes those relationships to be meaningful and specific.

Charlie and Matteusz’s relationship isn’t the show’s only out-of-the-blue, unexplained romantic development either. Ness might want us to just accept these abrupt hookups as the nature of teenagehood, but they continually feel forced and superimposed — not only because they happen out of nowhere, but also because the actors’ performances leave a great deal to be desired.

The one thematic element Ness seems truly interested in is one that, tellingly, has little to do with teen angst. Miss Quill’s enslavement and her fight to regain her free will from Charlie is made more dynamic by Katherine Kelly’s invigorated performance. But the more attention and actual character development the show gives Quill, the more apparent its lack of interest in doing the same for its enclave of teens becomes.

This is all unfortunate, because Class seems to have all the same budgetary and creative resources that have made Doctor Who a clever delight at its best. Class is primed to deliver subversive takes on hoary monster tropes, and it’s definitely gesturing toward a cheery kind of upheaval, especially near the end. There’s hope, at least, that Ness might be using the landscape of the first season primarily as place setting for things to come — which hopefully include actual character development.

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