Outside the Government: Detained

(20 comments)

It’s November 19th, 2016. Clean Bandit has debuted at number one with “Rockabye,” while Rae Sremmurd, Bruno Mars, James Arthur, and the Weeknd also chart. In news, the British Medical Journal calls for the legalization of drugs while Donald Trump agrees to pay $25m in settlements over Trump University. 

On television, meanwhile, Class does its bottle episode. As with “Nightvisiting,” there is a sense of “really, already?” to this. The bottle episode is a classic contrivance. And while better shows than Class have gotten to them as soon as their third stories, they are generally a sign that something has gone oddly somewhere else in the season. In this case the culprit is fairly obvious: this is a Quill-free episode done on the cheap. Next week we have a Quill-only episode that’s blatantly where the money has gone. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s presumably because you’ve watched Doctor Who and remember Russell T Davies tossing David Tennant into a cheap bottle episode he wrote in basically two days so that he could have Catherine Tate and Billie Piper do a costly greatest hits tour of his era the week after. Indeed, the basic setup, with its incorporeal monster and ratcheting internal tensions, owes a pretty obvious debt to Midnight. And the other obvious source for an episode in which people are trapped somewhere and being made to confess is, of course, Heaven Sent, which lacks the budget motivations of a proper bottle episode but is still working in the same general mode.

A peculiarity of bottle episodes is that, despite generally being born of desperation, they’re also historically pretty good. This is easy enough to explain: countless artists across media have discovered the creatively liberating power of constraints. And so it is not a surprise that when Class both takes on this structure and starts pilfering the show it’s a spinoff of instead of deciding that its main peers are American shows that mostly air on the CW, things improve above the baseline. 

This has a satisfyingly propulsive structure over its forty-five minutes. A weird disaster traps everyone in a classroom with a glowing rock that both compels the revelation of unpleasant truths and advances the plot when it’s picked up. One by one the characters pick it up. Wacky hijinks ensue. This is strong enough that a variety of small contrivances like “making everybody angry is an arbitrary and slightly hackish escalator,” “the explanation of what’s happening here only narrowly makes sense,” and “there’s not actually a clear reason why nobody can pick up the rock more than once” don’t really interfere with proceedings to any meaningful extent. This works, and does so with a breezy confidence that borders on swagger; something that Class generally comes nowhere near mustering.

At the heart of its success, and something that has consistently been rescuing Patrick Ness from peril, is that he really is quite good at writing adolescence. Characters fuck up in fundamentally understandable ways here. Ram screws up his relationship with April because, when pushed into emotional vulnerability, he falls back on his toxic masculinity. Tanya alienates people when her insights about social justice collapse into lazy self-righteousness. April… remains kind of irritatingly perfect, but Sophie Hopkins is effortlessly charismatic in ways that cover for it. Even Charlie, who is consciously constructed to not be quite like a human teenager, is generally well-depicted, serving as one of the most psychologically nuanced takes on the concept of nobility in recent memory.

You can, of course, tell there’s a “but” coming. It’s worth comparing this to the other time Class straightforwardly works, “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo.” There the show attempted to sketch a new normal for itself and hit on someting that was tremendously compelling, even if it couldn’t live up to it. Here, however, we’re disrupting normality. The bottle episode is by definition an aberration—a story where the normal rules don’t apply. And at this point it’s structurally clear that the normal rules don’t apply. With three episodes remaining, we functionally have another two-parter here, with the next episode explicitly serving as a counterpart to this. There’s no more normal to be had in this show; normality turns out to have been a state maintained only over two of its eight episodes. 

To make another Doctor Who comparison, the problem is much like that of Series Three, where a pair of truly magnificent stories—Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Blink—fail to elevate a show that finds itself struggling mightily with the basics by dint of the fact that they are so obviously one-off exceptions that work by breaking the rules. As good as Blink is, it’s always been a bit of a damning indictment of the show in 2007: it works best when you just take the entire regular cast and the premise out of it and do something else. And that’s much like where we are with “Detained.” It’s quite good, but nothing about its quality implies anything for the future. Even its deft character work ends up being hollow given the knowledge that none of these characters will be in the next episode and the one after that is going to be so packed with event that there’s not going to be room to unpack much of this. And after that… what, Big Finish is going to do it? 

So where “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo” serves as a marker of the show’s squandered potential, “Detained” serves as the other terminus of its frustrated arc—the last sputtering of its fitful effort at mattering. This four week run, the middle of which is a series of three frustrating near-hits, constitutes the beating heart of Class—the aggressively delineated and constrained band of potential and quality within this fundamentally doomed experiment. So while we’ll have to somehow fill two more weeks of this before we get back to the good stuff, let’s opt to draw up our “what does it all mean” conclusions about Class here, while its good face is showing.

Last week in the comments a number of people confessed to having never bothered with Class and continuing to be uninspired to. This is, on the face of it, puzzling. Class is not in some league of mediocrity beyond the consistently disappointing and frequently Chibnall-penned Torchwood, nor is it in any way objectively better than the often sweet but rarely extraordinary (or indeed particularly interesting) Sarah Jane Adventures, a show that is best summed up with the ornate ambivalence of “it contains Gareth Roberts’s best work.” It is like all Doctor Who spinoffs and indeed the vast majority of spinoffs in the general case: insufficient but in its own way lovable. 

But what is the content of this? What is the frustrated promise of Class that constantly peeks out from behind its disappointing almostness. Well, if we’re going to pick this episode to make our stand on, the thing we have to look at is the explicit invocation of the Problem of Susan. This is, like much of Class, a weird half-formed thing: Matteusz brings it up as a tangent in the course of making an entirely different point about Susan, so it ends up feeling more like a writerly display of erudition than something substantive. Nevertheless, it’s an invocation by name of a problem that long vexed Doctor Who. Indeed, in some ways that continues to. For all that Clara’s story was the most extraordinary and mature companion arc the series has ever done, she’s still fundamentally confined by the antisexual underpinnings of her genre. A cracked mirror children’s heroine can do a lot, but not get her bisexuality made canon.

But here we are, in a literal sense of personal chronology, one genre further than children’s literature.  Class can show sexually active characters. (Indeed, ironically it can show sexually active characters who are less mature than Clara. Although, perversely, Sophie Hopkins is only actually four years younger than Jenna Coleman.) There’s  a range of human experience that can be captured here that is absent from elsewhere in Doctor Who’s orbit. I mean, obviously there’s Torchwood, but it used sex specifically because it was taboo and naughty. It was never a place where something as sweet and doomed as April and Ram could play out, with all its innocence and human frailty. But Class is adept at portraying characters who are at once innocent and fucked up.

It’s here that the show’s weird “The Sarah Jane Adventures for grownups” vibe proves itself. The Sarah Jane Adventures is, as I said, sweet and well-meaning, but with only a couple exceptions where it allows itself to go a bit dark (Mark of the Berserker most obviously), it is an at times unbearably wholesome show. But Class is not that. Class, while still clearly being aimed at a younger audience (indeed in many regards a younger one than Series 9 of Doctor Who targeted) is able to portray a fuller range of people and their lives than The Sarah Jane Adventures can. It’s a show that’s dark without morally complicating the bulk of its protagonists (and none of the human ones). There’s something to that worldview—one that is not quite optimistic (indeed if anything the show is a repudiation of the Doctor’s sunny “all of you should fight aliens together” decision in “For Tonight We Might Die”) but that is also miles from cynical. Class is neither going to do something like Children of Earth nor like Rosa. 

And really nowhere else in Doctor Who does that get a voice. I mean, there are moments of seriousness and horror throughout the show, yes, but the wholesome optimism of The Sarah Jane Adventures is pretty close to Doctor Who’s default ethics. Indeed, one of the hardest things about continuing to write about the show is that I’ve fallen a lot further away from those ethics myself. Class, for all its faults, sketches another way to be; another worldview a show can hold and another sort of character one can be about. The nature of the show means this only ever exists in a vestigial form. But it exists. It’s part of the tapestry of Doctor Who now. And if we’re lucky, some of these instincts and viewpoints will come back somewhere down the line. For now, and in spite of its weaknesses, we have this.

Comments

Dan L 5 months ago

"And after that… what, Big Finish is going to do it?"

To be fair, their Class stuff has so far been pretty damn good. They do their best work when handed something that didn't quite work on screen (see also their superlative Torchwood range).

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TomeDeaf 5 months ago

Yeah - or the Colin Baker years, or Mel, etc....

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TomeDeaf 5 months ago

As I said on discord --

I do rate Ness as a writer of adolescent experience, and still cherish that as I read his stuff *as* an adolescent. It's not terribly sophisticated, but adolescence rarely is.

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Przemek 5 months ago

I can't speak for anyone else here but for me "Class" is much less interesting than any other DW spinoff because I just don't find adolescence all that compelling. I'm mostly glad mine is over and I rarely want to watch others go through it. And even if I did, I'd much rather rewatch "Buffy".

There's also the fact that "Class" has much less connection to its parent show than any other DW spinoff I've watched. Where "SJA" is the lovable youngest child and "Torchwood" is the adult-and-jaded oldest sibling, "Class" is this troubled middle child in the midsts of their rebellious phase who's mostly focused on proving to everyone how unlike their parents they are. That doesn't really sound like someone I'd willingly hang out with.

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MattM 5 months ago

To me, Class just wasn't compelling as a Doctor Who spinoff as... well, it was nothing to do with Doctor Who. And I think a lot of fans just didn't want to watch a mediocre programme that has nothing to do with Who. At least when Torchwood was being mediocre it was still the adventures of Captain Jack. It's no less confusing that Who fans didn't want to watch Class as not wanting to watch the hundreds of other samey genre shows out there which aren't Who-related

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TomeDeaf 5 months ago

Replying to both you and Przemek above:--

What Class at its best was trying to be, I think, and what people like Scriptscribbles over at Downtime have argued for, is a story about the haunting wounds the absence of the Doctor causes in the world. A loaded image in 2016, one might say. Other programmes that might be similar have that one key string missing from their bow: that the Doctor *could* have got involved, but actually just swanned off leaving some unprepared Sixth Formers desperately trying to cope with how terrifying the world is and how there are dragons that want to eat them. Other shows can't do that, because the Doctor isn't part of their backdrop. But Class can. It should've been made clearer, I think, in more resentment and anger directed towards the Doctor in subsequent episodes of the series, and maybe the odd returning monster or character to make the show feel more connected. But it definitely feels part of the DNA of the show that it, in Patrick Ness' words, is telling the stories of the people who are left behind when the Doctor isn't here.

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Przemek 5 months ago

I like that idea a lot. But you're right, it definitely should've been stressed more. As it stands, "Class" seems to be saying that what you get in the absence of the Doctor is generic and mediocre television.

"Children of Earth" had pretty much the same premise but decided to go full blown cynicism. When there's no Doctor, there's no hope and we become monsters. I would've loved to see that new worldview Dr. Sandifer describes explored fully on "Class". A show about traumas and how we can deal with them without hurting each other even more... but also without waiting for the godlike figure of hope to make us all better. "Class" is not that.

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Annie 5 months ago

It’s interesting that you mention that you’ve fallen away from the optimism of Doctor Who and Sarah Jane, i’ve recently found myself re-watching the Sarah Jane adventures with a YouTube reactor, and it occurs to me that A lot of Sarah Janes non-violent beliefs really wouldn’t work if you’re a person of colour in this day and age.
I think partially that’s because the show started from the premise that all people should be treated equally, but there are genuinely people in the world who think that people with a darker skin color are less human than themselves and that those should be discriminated against. .

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Jesse 5 months ago

"As good as Blink is, it’s always been a bit of a damning indictment of the show in 2007: it works best when you just take the entire regular cast and the premise out of it and do something else."

That there is a good line.

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Xaldel 5 months ago

I think the reason I could never drum up any interest in Class was because even from the beginning, it felt rather manufactured in a way that the other spinoffs didn't.

Torchwood and SJA felt like they came in naturally, shows to host characters from DW who had become so beloved that they had truly earned the right to a spinoff. Meanwhile, Class doesn't feel like it had any reason to come about. From its first announcement, it felt like something the BBC pushed and mandated in order to be an experiment to something (and apparently, that something was their online streaming channel).

I think the biggest sign towards the show's feeling of being manufactured is the conceit of having the Doctor show up in the very first episode and basically force the show's premise onto its characters with very little motive or buildup. SJA didn't need to butter up appeal by wheeling out David Tennant to give his thumbs-up of approval to this new cast; hell, Torchwood literally vowed away from ever even having the Doctor appear in it.

And then the show came out, and reviews were perfectly mixed to the vein of "You might enjoy it if you sat down and watch it, but you're really not missing anything if you don't and this thing is probably not going to last another season anyway." So, I didn't. And it didn't.

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Rodolfo Piskorski 5 months ago

Only the shittiest of BBC Torchwood episodes were worse than the best Class episodes. I don't see how Class can be seen as better than Torchwood, no way.

Miracle Day is, of course, an exception. That is some of the worst TV I have ever seen, ever.

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Camestros Felapton 5 months ago

Class was far better at using its ensemble cast than the last season of Doctor Who

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Voord 99 5 months ago

I think the question that I would have is, is saying that Class is not really worse than Torchwood or The Sarah Jane Adventures an argument for watching Class or is it an argument in hindsight against watching the other two shows?

Class is the third spinoff from Doctor Who, and I think it’s possible that it was no more than the point at which it became clear that Doctor Who is not all that well suited as a concept to be a launchpad for spinoffs.

The spinoffs have produced exactly one thing (Children of Earth) that I think rose to a genuinely high level, and Children of Earth is only marginally a Torchwood story - the real engine of interest, at least for me, is Frobisher and the government’s decisions. I strongly suspect that you could have rewritten CoE as its own story with no connection to Torchwood and Doctor Who and it would not lose that much.

That’s sort of it, for me, maybe. A problem with “Aha, but in the spinoffs we see what happens with a Doctor-shaped gap in the story!” is that, well, isn’t that every other story that isn’t a Doctor Who story? Which is fine, obviously. There are lots of good things that aren’t Doctor Who. But if something is good at not being Doctor Who, it’s not clear that it would benefit all that much from being spun off from Doctor Who.

Especially since Doctor Who itself is perfectly capable of not being Doctor Who for the occasional story if that’s an interesting thing to explore.

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mx_mond 5 months ago

"A problem with “Aha, but in the spinoffs we see what happens with a Doctor-shaped gap in the story!” is that, well, isn’t that every other story that isn’t a Doctor Who story?"

No. There is a big difference between simply not featuring something and having a gap where something should be in that the latter still comments on the absent thing whereas the former doesn't.

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Voord 99 5 months ago

Yes, but, as noted, that can adequately - I would say better - be done within Doctor Who itself. The mileage is inherently limited: if a spinoff succeeds as a separate story, it’s quite likely to hit that point where there is no Doctor-shaped gap, because that gap only exists to the extent that you are choosing to view the spinoff as a Doctor Who story.

This is what I think CoE might show: that the only time that the spinoffs have really been successful is the one time that they might as well not have been spinoffs.

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mx_mond 5 months ago

I'm not sure I agree about CoE - it depends pretty heavily, for instance, on Jack as an imperfect copy of the Doctor in the confrontation with the 456, for instance; and it draws attention to the Doctor-shaped gap in Gwen's video. Sure, you can remove those elements, but then the story would become something else.

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Voord 99 5 months ago

I agree that it draws attention to the absence of the Doctor in Gwen’s video (absolutely: I mean, she says it!). But for me, that’s an entirely unnecessary note that I find intrusive and awkward.

As for whether it depends on Jack as an imperfect copy of the Doctor, I would say no more than the rest of Torchwood does. If one feels that’s what’s important about the story, that’s reasonable — but I think it should push one towards being equally positive about the rest of Torchwood.

If so, fair enough. For me, CoE is much, much better than the rest of Torchwood, and I locate at least part of that in the fact that, for me, it’s the story of Frobisher to a greater extent than it is the story of the Torchwood characters. You could detach it from Torchwood and Doctor Who entirely without changing it into something different in any important respect.

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Comment deleted 5 months ago

Daru 4 months, 4 weeks ago

I think for me this was like with 'Dragon Tattoo', one of my favourites. In the end though, I don't think I rewatched Class because it was bad, or worse than Torchwood or SJA, but something in the flow of the overall story of setting didn't completely work for me. I really did enjoy it though whilst watching, and I did watch most of them twice around airing - and if it had continued I think it is really possible that some of the structuring issues could have resolved - and I certainly would have carried on watching.

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