Outside The Government: For Tonight We Might Die
It’s October 22nd, 2016. Little Mix are at number one with “Shout Out to my Ex,” with James Arthur, the Weeknd, Sia, Ariana Grande, and Calvin Harris also charting. In news, most of 2016 has happened. The US Presidential election is in full swing, Theresa May is in 10 Downing street, Jeremy Corbyn has survived an attempt to replace him as head of the Labour Party, and UKIP is in its usual chaos.
While on television… well, actually, let’s start there. Class is on television in a sense that we’ve never really dealt with before. It’s a BBC Three show. But unlike Torchwood, which premiered ten years earlier to the day, BBC Three in 2016 is an online only channel following a round of budget cuts that resulted in the shuttering of BBC Three as a broadcast channel. This move contained a wealth of decisions about priorities and privilege. For instance, BBC Four, the more adult-oriented channel with a heavy focus on arts and entertainment programs, remained in place. Instead what was axed was the channel focused on the 16-34 age group and on experimenting with new programs and new talent.
As a hedge against the obvious (and true) perception that taking it off the air consisted of some sort of deemphasis of BBC Three the BBC looked for some high profile programs to commission for the new online service. Unsurprisingly given that their previous Doctor Who spinoff was among the network’s biggest hits, one of these, announced a month before the decision to pull the plug on BBC Three was actually formalized, was another spinoff: Class. Tragically not the result of hiring Jack Graham to write an openly Marxist Doctor Who spinoff, Class is instead a series by acclaimed young adult author Patrick Ness in which kids at Coal Hill School (now Coal Hill Academy) fight aliens.
In practice, this was a flop. The first episode pulled 660,000 people on iPlayer, with 1.1m tuning in in early 2017 for a BBC1 re-airing. By episode two, those numbers fell to 300,000 and 600,000 respectively. The BBC1 airing would eventually bottom out at 300,000, while the BBC Three version dropped to 195,000. Its AIs ranged from 70 to 82, with five of the episodes coming in below 80. This was in no way a good enough performance on the part of the new BBC Three’s flagship program, and so Class wrapped after a single season to minimal alarm and consternation.
None of this is unfair per se; Class was in practice a deeply flawed piece of television that, in lieu of finding its own voice, borrowed several others, mostly Joss Whedon’s. It routinely lacks the courage of its convictions, slouching towards genericism even as it flirts with more interesting alternatives. It is frequently hokey and way too proud of itself, such as its invocation of the Bechdel test in its ninth line and its super knowing “it’s like the Hellmouth” exchange at the end. As a substitute in a year with no Doctor Who, it felt like it came up badly short.
In this regard, I’m glad I waited a couple months between The Abominable Bride and this last chunk of Capaldi stuff, because the Chibnall era does Class a lot of favors. This is not purely in a “oh, here’s how bad it can get” way either, although there certainly is a “we didn’t know how good we had it” element to it. It’s also that what Class is aiming to be—a show that is at once self-consciously woke and very meat and potatoes in its genre trappings—is what the Chibnall era was going for, at least in its branding and promotion. And while Class falls short of working, it at least generally avoids outright failing as well. More to the point, given that the overt meat and potatoesness of the show by its nature puts a cap on its ambition, for all its flaws we might fairly describe Class as the Chibnall era done right.
One part of this—and a very important part—is that Class actually is pretty dang woke. In a five person lead cast it manages to have a black woman, a Sikh man, a gay guy, disabled rep, and a 60/40 split between men and women. There are literally no straight white guys in the entire cast. More to the point, these things matter to the show on a level beyond giving everyone a single Very Special Episode in amidst a lot of genericism. There’s a lot that Class does dubiously on, but it’s handling of diversity is not one of them. It’s consistently smart on this front, both doing all the obvious and basic stuff like hiring an actually disabled actress to play April’s mother to some properly subtle stuff like the Ram/Tanya relationship and details like Tanya’s desperately plaintive “Isn’t this great? The two of us, talking about something other than what the white people are doing. Indeed, Tanya is in general sharp—making the academically advanced character with a domineering mother the black woman is an intelligent choice that pointedly goes against stereotypes.
There’s also a carefully judged sense of tone here. The basic setup of “it’s prom but also the end of the world” is a cliche of this sort of show, but the giddy fatalism on display here is a delightful spin on it. April’s “Great. Die alone or die at a party” is a low key majestic statement of purpose, and there’s something very 2016 youth about making the setup about “party at the end of the world” and not “prom really is the most stressful thing imaginable.” (I think my favorite details are the “You Might Die Tonight, So Try Not to Die Stupid” and “If You’re Reading This, Your Night is a Failure” signs, which are an absolutely brilliant payoff to the running “nobody helps April decorate” gag.) And there are a ton of little details that speak to an awareness of audience here—Ram’s father confusing Rachel’s Uber for hiring a chauffer is smart.
Also immediately promising is the show’s sense of morality. The relationship between Miss Quill and Charlie is one of the most fucked up in all of Doctor Who, and I say this coming off the back of two seasons of the Doctor and Clara. There’s a really admirable willingness to portray something deeply troublesome like Quill being literally enslaved by Charlie in a matter of fact way largely free of moral judgment. Indeed, Charlie in general is interesting—a heroic prince who also serves as a pretty unflinching critique of aristocracy and aristocratic attitudes. In this regard the Doctor’s declining to intervene in her case, instead deciding that her slavery will serve as punishment for an entirely different crime to the one for which it’s a sentence, is an oddly dissonant note. But the show seems at least partially self-aware about this. The Doctor’s overall handling of the Coal Hill situation—throwing a couple of kids who happened to get wrapped up in the invasion and two semi-skilled aliens together and saying “you lot save the Earth”—is mostly terrible for everyone involved. And while we’ll have plenty of time to discuss the overall handling of Quill, for now at least she’s striking a genuinely interesting note of moral ambiguity and problematics.
Equally, the fact that there are problems is aggressively clear. The biggest is the Shadow Kin. It’s not 100% clear how much involvement Steven Moffat had with this show, but the fact that nobody pointed out that “the Vashta Nerada, only stompy” was an absolutely terrible concept for a Big Bad suggests that it was not a lot. And that’s before you get to the fact that Class blatantly doesn’t have the budget to do terrifying CGI shadow monsters well. The result is a monster with a lame concept that looks crap. And yet half the episodes of the show are rooted in these pathetic excuses for a monster. It immediately sandbags the show. These guys would vaguely work in the Sycorax/Atraxi/Rubbish Robots From the Dawn of Time/Stenza role of being slightly crap enemies that exist to let you focus your first episode on other things. But as a season arc, well, comparisons to the Chibnall era remain apt.
There are other problems too, though. The infrastructure and amount of slightly screwy concepts needed to get the April/Corakinus heart link working is way, way more than is deserved. It’s notable that the phrase “displacement gun” is never uttered again after Quill invokes it to explain what’s happened. To be clear, that’s not in this episode; that’s ever again in the entire show. It’s just a hamhanded and overly complex explanation to get to a plot point that can itself fairly be criticized as a bit much. April’s reaction to all of this can also fairly be described as being a bit too saintly—her all life is on a knife edge” speech is in particular a bit much. In a show with a lot of interesting characters with well-defined flaws, the presence of an author’s favorite voice of trauma-earned maturity is a fundamentally weak choice.
More broadly, what we have here is a show that seems tailored to what we might, not entirely derisively, call a Tumblr aesthetic. I don’t just mean this in terms of its wokeness, although that’s certainly pretty aggressively tailored to the Tumblr crowd, but also the aforementioned meat and potatoes vibe of things. This is a show that’s very consciously catering to fandom, and that feels like each episode is made with an eye towards what the popular gifsets will be. It’s written for a media-savvy audience who’s read lots of TV Tropes, but notably it’s written for them in the sense of catering to tropes instead of disrupting them. It highlights (or, as the trope crowd would have it, lampshades) the fact that it’s trope-heavy so as to create a sense of mutual in-the-knowness about it. But then, crucially, it still delivers the trope in an unreconstructed format. It’s not trying to be radical, it’s just trying to do the old standards with a commitment to diversity and social justice.
But while it never tips into the extraordinary, it stays firmly wedded to the competent. The basic rule of spinoffs—that their highs are never as high as the show they’re based on but the lows are never as low—applies. This never even pretends that it might be as good as Hell Bent, but it also never serves up anything quite so tediously pointless as Time Heist or Under the Lake/Before the Flood. But For Tonight We Might Die at least demonstrates clear potential. In some ways that’s the most maddening thing about the show: it comes out of the gate in such a way as to show that it could be a better show than it is. Ultimately, though, it decides to aim low and hit it instead of trying to be extraordinary. In the wake of Series 11, this decision looks considerably more sympathetic. But coming off of Series 9, and in light of the promise shown by Tonight We Might Die the eventual failure of Class to amount to anything is a sad waste. But there’s certainly no shortage of gems to find in the rubble of its failure.
January 21, 2019 @ 4:03 pm
“hiring an actually disabled actress to play April’s mother”
Yep. Though the subsequent playing out of “what if she were cured” is… erm… yeah. I gather (from a disabled friend who was with me at the Class premiere and spoke to both Ness and Sharon Murray (who plays April’s mother)) that this was a product of Patrick Ness wanting not only to hire a disabled actor to play a disabled character – as opposed to the usual practice of hiring an able-bodied actor – but also to then give her things to do that you might not normally expect to see a disabled actor doing (like getting up out of her chair), but this leans somewhat into the “cure” trope which is … difficult territory. I believe my friend said that Murray was not entirely happy with how the character was written but thought that it was a positive step and good representation overall, so she went along with it, but I might be misremembering things.
“making the academically advanced character with a domineering mother the black woman is an intelligent choice that pointedly goes against stereotypes”
Yes! I guess the Chibnall era gestures at this sort of stereotype-bucking, in that it doesn’t go with Yaz as ‘the medicine student with pushy parents’, but it certainly falls into the ‘absent black father’ thing, even if Ryan is made a relatively emotionally open character rather than a constantly angry one that perhaps plays against that trope (and even then, there’s the gunning things down stuff in ‘Ghost Monument’).
I agree that the prom / end-of-the-world conceit is delightful, particularly April’s signs. “For Tonight We Might Die” is a lovely title for how the process of shedding inhibitions during one’s teenage years feels, IMO.
January 21, 2019 @ 8:24 pm
Yep. Though the subsequent playing out of “what if she were cured” is… erm… yeah.
They could have done something interesting with it — there’s mileage to be made in the fact she’s cured because April thinks it’s a good idea without AFAICR asking her first.
Heck, they didn’t even do something dull with it. They cured her, then they uncured her, and they did nothing with it.
(Maybe I should have saved this rant for a few weeks…)
January 22, 2019 @ 12:16 pm
The only thing I remember being done with it was April’s mum saying she shouldn’t have done it.
January 21, 2019 @ 4:11 pm
I always felt like Class missed a trick by using Buffy as its primary source text rather than Skins. Skins is a bizarre and often nonsensical show, but it’s hyper-heightened emotionality, genuinely great soundtrack, irreverence, and willingness to do bizarre things to upset its own status quo are all things that I think would have improved Class dramatically. As it stands, it frequently feels flat and out-of-date. Still, on rewatch I enjoyed it a lot more than coming off of series 9.
January 21, 2019 @ 5:38 pm
I agree with most of what you say here El, but I was one of those people who watched the first episode and felt no desire to watch it. At first it was just lack of time to watch on an online show instead of a live one, but I never worked up much enthusiasm.
It was the blood that ended my interest in the thing. The blood was just so much, so aggressive, and so out of place (it felt like the first episode of the show was bloodier than most of Miracle Day) that it just killed my enthusiasm for what was a show with writing that otherwise felt aimed at 14-16 year olds.
The other thing was how American the show felt to me. The school felt like an American TV Soap School, instead of a British comprehensive/academy, which lost it an awful lot of the charm it otherwise might have had.
January 21, 2019 @ 6:32 pm
I vaguely remember the corridors were full of lockers – something that signifies U.S. high schools and definitely not British secondary schools. People have been saying something similar about that Netflix show that’s recently appeared. Perhaps schools have been adding lockers to their corridors, or perhaps it means that fewer and fewer of the people setting TV shows in British secondary schools actually attended one (as opposed to private schools) and are getting all their information from Buffy and The Breakfast Club.
January 21, 2019 @ 8:26 pm
I vaguely recall that my secondary school back in the late eighties had lockers. On the other hand, I don’t remember actually having a locker myself, so I dunno. Maybe I lost the key and didn’t like to say.
I’m darned sure we didn’t have a prom, though.
January 21, 2019 @ 8:43 pm
Thinking about it, on a more general note I was able to forgive it a lot once they said it had been reinvented as an academy.
Because I don’t expect one of David Cameron’s “converter academies” to be much like a proper comprehensive (that is, after all, the point), but I don’t have a clear picture of what they are like. Maybe some of them are like American high schools, who knows?
January 21, 2019 @ 10:01 pm
Having been at a school during its conversion to an academy, very little changes. Mainly the signs, the pay-check of the head, the presence of a bunch of shady businessmen (Which CLASS did get right actually) and some of the science labs.
My schools had some lockers, but not the way the set was built. They tended to be found in clumps at different points, instead of lining all the corridors.
If I remember correctly, it wasn’t even a prom, it was a homecoming, Spider-man style. Which, even though schools have proms nowadays, I’ve never known. They certainly had a full term straight-afterwards, based on the episodes, which is crazy.
That wasn’t my main issue. My main issue was the presence of a full-time coach. No school I know of takes sports seriously enough to hire a full-time member of staff who calls themselves coach. Most PE teachers have to teach Maths or History or something as well because no-one has the budget to have a full-time lot.
I think the most telling remark in your comment is “I don’t have a clear picture of what they are like.” The kids watching this would do, and when every detail feels just slightly off, it comes across as pandering in a very similar way to other shows, even if there’s a lot to theoretically admire.
January 22, 2019 @ 12:56 pm
Give it ten years in a post-Brexit Britain and watch Asda start marketing Thanksgiving to us.
And betcha it’s a success.
January 22, 2019 @ 5:37 pm
I want to argue with you, but I just can’t.
January 25, 2019 @ 9:11 am
Well American Halloween worked for them
January 22, 2019 @ 9:37 pm
Right, I’d forgotten about the coach. Even if they had a full time PE teacher, it seems unlikely he’d be called coach.
Thanks for the info.
January 31, 2019 @ 1:56 am
Well, I don’t know what academies are supposed to be like, but the real building is a Cardiff University medical research centre.
There aren’t any academies in Wales anyway.
January 22, 2019 @ 6:58 pm
I can back this up – we had lockers lining a corridor at my inner-city comprehensive back in the early nineties. Oddly, though, I also don’t recall them getting much use…
(Not That) Jack
January 21, 2019 @ 7:47 pm
A sign of how quickly Class fell out of my head was when I came here, only saw the photo, and, realizing that Series 9 was done on the Eruditorium, thought “man I don’t remember ‘The Pilot’ being that bloody.”
Which might also say a fair bit about series 10 too, mind…
January 21, 2019 @ 8:29 pm
As someone who had watched the whole series (and is part of the Tumblr audience ), I found it refreshing.
Not just in part of the how subversive it felt (not having the conventional paring of Charlie and April) but how it dealt with the Shadowkin and trying to tie him and April together.
Granted there’s loads of clunky dialogue, the fact that the Doctor basically left high schoolers to fend for themselves (when that Bunghole in time would have been a good setup in Doctor Who itself,maybe for an anniversary episode)
There are good parts to this series, April not forgiving her father for something later on in the series, how Quill has her own episode in a imagination TARDIS.
January 21, 2019 @ 9:23 pm
The Stenza and Tim Shaw are literally the Shadowkin and their king reskinned.
January 22, 2019 @ 8:44 am
I watched the first episode and found nothing that would make me watch the second one. It wasn’t bad, it just looked generic and clearly wasn’t aimed at me, so I decided not to bother. Even Capaldi’s scene was strangely uninteresting, even though the Doctor visiting the spin-off should feel like a Big Thing.
“It is frequently hokey and way too proud of itself, such as its invocation of the Bechdel test in its ninth line and its super knowing “it’s like the Hellmouth” exchange at the end.”
Yeah, naming your inspirations only works if you can transcend them. Same goes for tongue-in-cheek trope awareness. And anyway, how many 2016 teenagers even watched Buffy?
“(…) for all its flaws we might fairly describe Class as the Chibnall era done right.”
January 24, 2019 @ 4:18 pm
For all my sins, I’ve always been fond of ‘Class’. All of its references to other genre shows of its type is the show highlighting its own genericism. Once set up as something that’s hyper-aware of genre clichés, it then goes on to plow through as many them as possible in a way that’s aggressive. To me, the defining moment of Class is when it decides to do a “Monsters bring the dead back to life” episode (a bog-standard plot that shows like this usually do several seasons in as long-term fan service) as it’s third episode, way before you should be trying something like this. I’ve just always found the idea of a “full on teenage genre show that’s always a bit too much” (whether that’s in terms of gore/blood, how strange it can push it’s plots, or in how fast it plow through as many clichés possible) to be enjoyably maximalist; I always thought it was quite fun.
I do it think it under-estimated how out-there other teen shows could be while over-estimating how over the top it was being though. If you’ve watched ‘Riverdale’ and Season Six of ‘Buffy’, ‘Class’ ain’t that much. But God bless it, it was trying, and for all it’s faults, I’ve always been sad we didn’t get its proposed second season, if only to see what plots like “Weeping Angel Civil War” and “One of our main characters is a CGI rock person now” would’ve been like.
January 27, 2019 @ 9:19 am
Yeah it is a big shame that this opportunity was wasted in the end. I did generally enjoy the show, whilst seeing its flaws. It feels a shame that it often took the route of really obvious references that to me were seeming to go out of date. But I loved the cast and a lot of the tone and especially loved the interrogation of privilege through Charlie as the prince – and I did adore the performance of Quill. I notice that I haven’t rewatched it – but I would tho still be happy enough to do so (especially some of the other better eps).
January 31, 2019 @ 1:50 am
I thought this was first episode was interesting. It was smart, and funny, and weird. But then the show went downhill in a bizarrely systematic way. Each episode was an exact amount worse than the previous one. It was almost an mathematical, inexorable decline. The only exception was the bottle episode that was slightly better than the one preceding it, but overall just downhill.
January 31, 2019 @ 1:53 am
Basically I just watched it because I walked past the Coal Hill Academy everyday, and my husband worked there.