Dr. Who fans haven’t had great luck with spin-off efforts, even if they end up becoming treasured moments in the overall world. It probably isn’t that surprising if you consider that we’re talking about a show that’s been around since the medium was still trying to figure out what to do with itself.
Dr. Who is an odd show by design, and there’s something rather goofy about it. That gives you a lot of room to maneuver, but as soon as you move into a spin-off effort, the general kookiness of what’s happening finds itself in the spotlight.
Class hopes to distance itself from the inherent difficulties of the Whovian universe by crafting a complex web of school-age personalities and struggles as a background to the sci-fi whirlwind of aliens and otherworldly dangers. The focus is on a Breakfast Club-esque mix with representatives from the various facets of school society, but there are a couple of aliens in the crew as well. It’s a construction that is rather unapologetically casting for more audience members who don’t remember watching Tom Baker in the hopes that they’ll bridge back, as opposed to simply imagining another outlet for the audience the universe already has. That’s not something you can say about previous efforts, like Torchwood, and it’s both a smart and dangerous idea.
Coming full circle, we find ourselves at the Coal Hill School, the setting of the first episode of Dr. Who. The Doctor has connected himself to the school yet again by delivering two aliens to hide among the local population. Miss Andrea Quill (Katherine Kelly) is the physics teacher at the school, and Charlie Smith (Greg Austin) is a student, but they are actually both aliens and the last of their race. When another race, the Shadow Kin, slaughter everyone on their home planet, the Doctor rescues them. Things go pretty well for the fugitives, except for the fact that Miss Quill isn’t happy with her lot in life under any circumstances because she is actually forced, through a complicated kind of mental slavery, to protect Charlie at all costs, though he used to be her enemy.
Of course, something has to go wrong, and the Shadow Kin, strange (and frankly, sort of tired and goofy) aliens who can literally become shadows, have found Charlie and Andrea. The team comes together as certain students get too close to events. Ram (Fady Elsayed) is a talented footballer and broods from underneath a life of pressure that frequently has one wondering if someone has perhaps told him that his “intensity is for shit.” Tanya (Vivian Oparah) is a child prodigy who moved up several years in school, adding a double shot to the diverse nature of our characters. April (Sophie Hawkins) is unremarkable as a student, except that she’s the gorgeous one, but she gets far too close to the leader of the Shadow Kin, becoming an integral piece of the battle for survival.
Once past the initial trial of the series, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) explains to our band of misfits that the school is now basically attached to a timey wimey beacon that is calling out to the universe, and lots of weird things are bound to happen (else, how do we have a show). It’s up to this group of students, thrown together against their will, to deal with whatever might show up.
The show reminds greatly of several American efforts that created their own sub-genre and perhaps began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s just High School, but we have to whack a monster every so often. The more we settle into the show, the more we have to think about things like tests and prom (or whatever), because life just goes on whether you kicked some aliens off the planet yesterday or not.
Luckily, the show has an interesting cast, and they have a kind of Whovian charm. You could imagine any of them as The Doctor’s companion. Kelly, who spent six or seven years on Coronation Street and worked with Austin on one of the most underappreciated shows of the decade, Mr. Selfridge, takes over the show as the caustic, embittered member who has several layers of wanting out, but probably wouldn’t actually do that much differently if she had a choice… maybe.
Class delivers a somewhat darker world than Who fans might be used to, mostly because it takes advantage of the setup to work things into the creepiest offering that fits the story of the week. It also mines the High School setting to connect its aliens (and, I suppose, solutions to alien “problems”) to the trails and tribulations of growing up. For example, the second episode finds Ram under the microscope and he’s having an especially difficult time adjusting to the new world order. You can’t blame him, because he really had his life put through a sausage grinder. Mainly, he has a lot of loss to deal with, and that becomes his connection to alien menace du jour.
Still, it’s a goofy, talking fish alien, and the “menace” of the episode involved some cornball excuse to have another alien living on a person’s skin as a tattoo. That leaves you with a show that only allows you to sell the themes and sub-text. That is, if you’re trying to sell it to people who aren’t already Dr. Who fans. Dr. Who fans, on the other hand, are going to love it.