High school is either the best of times or the worst of times, to roughly paraphrase Dickens, but the one thing on which can likely agree is that, coupled with the wholesale changes brought on by being a teenager, it comes with its unique set of challenges.
Overbearing parents, peer pressure, demanding teachers, where-to-next life decisions, hormonal changes, sexual awakening – it’s a potential witches brew of life demands, which can either be intoxicatingly wonderful or excoriatingly exhausting and depressing.
Either way, you have a lot of your life so why on the Doctor’s well-protected Earth would you also want aliens regularly stepping through a time/space portal in your school to cause all kinds of havoc and death?
The answer is you really wouldn’t but the students of Coal Hill Academy, a fictional learning institution that has been a key part of Doctor Who since the first episode in 1963, don’t really a choice in the matter with aliens of all stripes, sizes and temperaments coming through ready or not.
Class, created and written by Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls), is the story of these students, all of whom step up to the challenge of being the Doctor when the Doctor isn’t there – although the Eleventh Doctor played by Peter Capaldi does make an appearance in the premiere episode – with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success but understanding all too well that through fate or grand design, they are the ones tasked with keeping the Earth safe from yet more interplanetary creepy-crawly nasties.
Targeted at the Young Adult crowd, the first thing you notice is that that show does not pull any punches. Not a single freaking one.
From the get-go, the sheer brutality of the universe and life itself is on full display with a significant body count accompanying the in-over-their-heads students attempts to answer their unasked-for new calling.
This reality of life stuff comes in the form of the death of a number of the teachers – memo to self: if you decide to go into teaching, do not work at a school with exceptionally long corridors, the better for bloodthirsty aliens to creep up on you unannounced – and other characters who in their remarkably short time on screen come across with fully three-dimensional attributes, a testament to Ness’s usual care for crafting major and minor characters who actually matter to you.
Of course the main characters we all care deeply about, and impressively quickly too, are the four students at the heart of every story, the “Chosen Ones” if you like who have to grapple with little-to-no-warning and only the most cursory of lessons from the Doctor with what the hilariously-named “Bunghole of Time” spits out.
Charlie (Greg Austin) is easily the most mysterious of the three, a buttoned-man, boy-next-door gay geek who appears to have little to no affinity of earth anything but is astonishingly well adept at seeing off threats, with the aid, often reluctantly dispensed by one of the Academy’s teachers, and his housemate, Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly). His oddly-disconnected persona is explained fairly quickly in the pilot episode – he is the sole surviving member of his race, who along with his slave and one-time assassin (her punishment was to be joined to him in perpetuity, a role she amusingly abhors), escaped their home planet ahead of a wave of sinister shadow aliens who slaughtered every other last inhabitant.
Next up is April (Sophie Hopkins), a sensitive, violin-playing, high-achieving social outcast whose sole goal, at least initially is ensuring that her school transcript is sterling enough to get her into the university of her choice. Caring for her wheelchair-bound single mum, and organising events like school proms that everyone wants to go but doesn’t want to be responsible for, she ends up inextricably bound in a profoundly physical sense to her new calling.
Ram (Fady Elsayed) is a jock, the star player on the Academy’s football (soccer) team, a man used to adulation and acclaim but beneath it all much more sensitive than anyone besides his supportive dad and girlfriend is aware; he is however good friends with the final member of the troop Tanya (Vivian Oparah), who is only 14 – the others are in sixth form and older – and exceptionally bright, hence her presence in the classes of the other three students. (Her overbearingly protective mother means that she, alone of the four, must constantly sneak out at night unseen, something she remarks on ceaselessly.)
Together they have to navigate all the challenges of teenagerdom while simultaneously fighting to keep themselves, the school and Earth intact to fight another day.
One particularly pleasing part of the storytelling, especially in the light of the very recent controversy over the murder porn of The Walking Dead‘s season 7 opener, is that it please all the violence that occurs in an emotional context.
There are very real consequences to many of the deaths and there is no attempt made, at least between the first and second episodes to pretend that the traumatic events of the pilot had anything other than a massively disturbing effect on all four students, particularly Ram.
This is no scot-free endeavour, all swashbuckling action and adventure with no fallout; people die, dreams are crushed, lives severely disrupted and while there are quips and collegial repartee aplenty, there are also tears and the realisation that life doesn’t give without taking some too.
It’s this sensitivity to the realities of life, especially teenage life, that make Class such rewarding viewing; yes you get to save the planet in-between maths and English classes but it’s no romp in the park.
It is however, immensely intelligent, emotionally-astute, and carefully-crafted viewing that delivers up out-of-this-world shenanigans with the cold, hard realities of life, as instructive a life lesson as any you’re ever likely to see.