Judging the first part of a two-parter is always a pain in the neck. (Remember when I thought Under the Lake had promise?) And there are other factors complicating this, like the nagging worry that Class isn’t ever going to transcend the fact that you can snarkily describe it as “The Sarah Jane Adventures with fucking.” Certainly we’re in familiar territory here, both in general and for Class, which is to say that we’re running through a fairly standard set of genre paces with a couple of unique spins. In this case, the basic mode is the mid-season finale, with the most obvious model being the “Surprise/Innocence” two-parter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Class is at least consistently good at throwing itself into whatever it’s doing with zeal, and so four episodes in its reliance on old standards has consistently been outshone by the flare with which they’re being done. All the same, my fondest and most adamant hope for the second part of this, or at least for something in the back half of the season, is that we get an episode that’s actually doing something new instead of adding a bit of spice to a cliche.
All of which said, once again the cliche is very tasty. Ness continues to be very good at striking a balance between the show’s instincts towards taking place in a TV school and its instincts towards emotional realism. The scene among Ram, April, and her mother is probably the highlight in this regard, with Ram being perfectly pitched both as a genuinely decent guy (“I didn’t want her to think bad of you.”) and as a mildly rebellious “bad” kid (“I had some condoms.”) It’s a smart balance, and more to the point one that’s ultimately derived from Doctor Who’s own longstanding balance of melodrama and actual drama. (And, of course, from Buffy.) And there are other bits of genuine intelligence around this. The “April feeds back into Corakinus” beat is entirely expected. Corakinus asking to cuddle after sex, on the other hand, is absolutely inspired. (Less successful - Tanya’s “I think they had sex” seeming to exist entirely to set up the moronic “Ram and the Shadow Kin?” joke.)
This last parenthetical also brings us to the things the episode is doing that at least offer real potential for going in a boldly original direction. The most interesting thing the show has going for it remains the Charlie/Ms. Quill relationship, which is clearly being pushed gradually to the forefront. It’s frustrating that this is often some of the clumsiest writing, with Tanya and Matteusz getting to flail uselessly against Charlie’s conviction of his moral rectitude, both on the slavery issue and on the owning weapons of mass destruction issue. This sets up the odd phenomenon of a plot that’s simultaneously the show’s best hope of turning in something that really makes you sit up and take notice and that’s flopping around on the table unsatisfyingly.
In a similar and more successful vein is the new head teacher, Dorothea, who tragically isn’t played by Sophie Aldred or Jackie Lane, but who is otherwise charming. Satisfyingly, she continues the show’s utter disinterest in building drama out of “but what if the grown-ups find out about the aliens” plot, instead having her show up and take a default pro-alien fighting position while also driving an intriguing wedge between Miss Quill and the rest of the cast. The basic structure of tempting Miss Quill to what’s not so much the dark side as another somewhat shiftier wing of the light side is smart. As is the plot she’s actually involved in, the evil flower petals, which are a pleasantly creepy quick jot of an idea, and not quite one we’ve seen before.
And this sets up what’s perhaps the most promising bit of the episode, which is its cliffhanger and the resultant possibilities for next week. These fireworks, for me at least, started with the scene where April’s threatening her father, a moment where, given the amount that the show has quietly turned tropes on their head, managed a small but genuine note of tension in which I wondered if they were actually going to just have April become a killer and explore the consequences of that. Ultimately I suspect they made the right choice, but it says something that the show has earned enough credibility that it seemed within the realm of plausibility. And more broadly, the two-parter structure means that Ness has enough space that most of the obvious configurations are now done and the story mostly only has interesting places to go in the second part.
Of course, that looked to be true about both The Rebel Flesh and Under the Lake. So we’ll see.