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.