Outside the Government: The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did
It’s November 26th, 2016. Clean Bandit are at number one with “Rockabye,” with James Arthur, Bruno Mars, and Neiked also charting. Indeed, the overall top ten are the same as last week in a very slightly different order. In news, the government of Colombia reaches a peace agreement to end the fifty-year long fight against FARC revolutionaries. 300 people are injured when police attack a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock reservation. And Philip Hammond makes his Autumn Statement to Parliament.
On television, meanwhile, Class tries something different. “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” focuses almost entirely on Quill, telling the story of her efforts to get the MacGuffin removed from her head so she is no longer enslaved to Charlie. This is already unusual, in that it gives us a YA show that has temporarily dropped all of its YA characters to focus on… well, exactly who and what Quill is as a character will come up later, so let’s save it and move on. Adding to the strangeness is the eponymous concept—a device that allows people to travel into the afterlifes and higher planes of any species that has imagined one. This means that the episode takes an unusual picaresque structure that is unlike anything else in Class.
What’s going on with the Metaphysical Engine itself should be obvious, especially if you look to any of the shots of its interior in which it the camera stares down at its hexagonal metal floor. It’s the TARDIS. Which means “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” can basically be summarized as “Class does Doctor Who.” So immediately there’s a lot to unpack.
There’s a line of thought regarding Class—one pushed most notably over at the excellent blog Downtime—that reads it as a critique of Doctor Who. Actually, I suppose it’s pushed most notably by Patrick Ness, who has explicitly said that the show is about ordinary people when the Doctor isn’t there. In this reading, the show is about the bad consequences of the Doctor’s decision in “For Tonight We Might Die”—a critique of his tendency to swan off into the next adventure instead of staying and grappling with the consequences of his actions. This is of course a common critique of the character, typically within the show itself. But as a central thesis of Class there’s something less satisfying. Part of it is that, contrary to Ness’s protestations, Class is not about ordinary people but rather about television characters. As a result, the show never quite manages to be about what happens to ordinary people in the Doctor’s absence, instead ending up just being about what happens to characters from another TV show.
More complexly, Class’s protestations on this front end up sounding uncomfortably like that Edgar Allen Poe quote dragging bad mystery writers as trying to look clever for figuring out solutions to problems they invented. The show endeavors to construct a Doctor-shaped hole at the heart of its narrative and then to present this hole as a substantive subject of critique as opposed to as something that’s been deliberately excavated.
This becomes a particularly large problem for “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” because by setting up a story with the basic structure of Doctor Who, the show really opens itself up to the Doctor-shaped hole being less a subject for analysis and more a tangible lack in the basic function of the show. Indeed, one of the things “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” serves to demonstrate is the degree to which Doctor Who’s format is not simply based around a magical box that can leap between settings freely. This is in some ways unsurprising, as shows with similar degrees of narrative flexibility (albeit rarely quite as much) have existed and have never come close to working as well as Doctor Who. No, it turns out that the main character is actually an integral part of the format. In this regard it helps that Doctor Who’s sense of “main character” is ultimately as fluid as everything else in the show. Defining who the Doctor is, despite a memorably alliterative account by Terrance Dicks, tricky given that there’s fourteen of them and counting, each of them defined in part by the ways in which they are different from their predecessors and, indeed, successors. There’s a high degree of conceptual flexibility in the character. But there’s also a clear core to them. An essay on a story they’re not in isn’t the right place to unpick that (Twice Upon a Time maybe), but suffice it to say that making the “anywhere in time and space” format work requires the right character (or at least sort of character) at the heart of it.
No, what we need to talk about here is Quill, who is left to be the main character it the absence of the one the format actually requires. This does not do her any favors. I mean, neither does making Katherine Kelly swan about shouting that she’s war itself, but honestly the format is the bigger problem here. Nowhere in seven episodes have we gotten a sense of motivation for her that is not wrapped up in Charlie. The Quill’s war of independence is so sketchily defined and so rooted in characters who are dead before the first episode begins that it’s tough to build anything out of that. So we have a character who’s entirely negatively defined, understandable only in terms of what she doesn’t want to be. That’s fine, and the basic arc she’s given of breaking free of that is the right arc for her, but it’s in no way something you can build an episode around.
As a result, there’s a frustrating void at the heart of basically all of this episode. Katherine Kelly is excellent with too little good material, but she’s still left playing an entirely reactive character who doesn’t so much drive the plot as she’s chauffeured around in it. Indeed, the one-off character of Ballon is in many ways more vividly defined than the regulars. That he’s quickly and definitively sketched is unsurprising given that the episode’s resolution hinges on him. That he’s better sketched than Quill or Dorothea, who have both already appeared in multiple episodes is a problem.
Also hampering the episode is the fact that the show can in no way afford this shit. Even with a bottle episode to balance the books, this episode’s ambition is ludicrously outside of its reach in ways that are simply misjudged. Twice the episode hypes something as a god only to wheel out a profoundly disappointing effect. I mean, I suppose its nice that we have both major species of deity represented, chintzy CGI and dodgy rubber suits, but there’s a jarring lack of basic production sense here. It just feels like the show bit off more than it could chew.
In a sense this is an epitaph for Class, a show that freely mixes ambition and laziness in ways that often produce striking contrasts. And this pair of episodes embodies that more than any other. Last week it produced one of its most striking displays by doing an absolutely bog standard prompt. Here it tries something ambitious, drops in a proper, mind-blowing, extraordinary concept and comes up with something lumpy and average. And in a weird way I don’t actually know which one I prefer. It’s not that “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” is particularly enjoyable to watch. This chunk of seven entries has been a slog both on the watching end and on the writing end. But there’s something endearing about it. There’s an aspect of this episode that feels like The Web Planet in a way very little since has—a kind of delightful failure to be embarrassed by some startlingly inept production. Indeed, The Web Planet is an oddly good touchstone here in general, in that it similarly wedded misjudged ambition and half-assedness in ways that are difficult to understand why anyone tried to do.
The Web Planet, of course, is a story I’ll defend to the death. And so the comparison ends up making conspicuous the fact that I will not defend “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” with anything like that ferocity. And I wonder, to be honest, whether I’m wrong not to. A running theme of these Class posts has been the tacit comparison of the show to the Chibnall era. And I think that this aspect of it may be where that’s most revealing. As a thing we got instead of Moffat’s increasingly slickly produced competence and intelligence there is something intensely underwhelming about Class, which is probably about as ambitious as the late Moffat era but lacks both its panache and its tendency towards self-congratulation that highlights its ambition. But if you aired Class in 2019, with Jodie Whittaker subbing in for Peter Capaldi in the opening, it would immediately look a lot better—like a show that’s willing to pick at scabs the parent show is too timid to touch. Even the undercooked Quill would work better, with her bellowing aggression and Kelly’s physical similarities to Whittaker making for a substantive contrast. (Indeed, running “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” in contrast to Series 11 would make Quill work fairly well as a sort of “is this really what you want” riposte to complaints about Whittaker’s passivity.)
And that, perhaps, is the real tragedy of Class. It’s not even that it was a bad spinoff. It was a perfectly reasonable spinoff, with all the nobly frustrated ambitions and intriguingly compromised visions that a spinoff should have. It’s just that it was a quite good Chibnall-era spinoff that had the misfortune of airing after Moffat’s best season.
February 25, 2019 @ 4:26 pm
In other news, I suspect Olivia Colman is not really regretting turning down the chance to play Chibnall’s Doctor right now.
February 25, 2019 @ 7:19 pm
As the woebegotten ship of state, pistons hammering and lifeboats jettisoned, steers resolutely for the iceberg, it’s some small comfort to know that for a precious fleeting patter of heartbeats we can unite without strife or rancour in a harmonious communal moment of Being Pleased For Olivia Colman.
March 2, 2019 @ 9:07 am
Fab that she has been celebrated – great to see! And lovely bit of poetry from you!
February 26, 2019 @ 9:27 am
“Indeed, running “The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did” in contrast to Series 11 would make Quill work fairly well as a sort of “is this really what you want” riposte to complaints about Whittaker’s passivity.”
Honestly at this point my answer would be: yes, yes it is. I’ll take anything over the current Doctor’s passivity and moral emptiness.
As for these episodes “Class”, I’m kinda intrigued now. “Class does Doctor Who and fails miserably” sounds like it might be at least somewhat interesting.
February 26, 2019 @ 9:41 am
“It’s just that it was a quite good Chibnall-era spinoff that had the misfortune of airing after Moffat’s best season.”
Trying to imagine this airing during the Chibnall era just makes me believe that it would probably be even more cynically produced. Chibnall probably wouldn’t have the same insight as Moffat to attach someone like Patrick Ness to the project.
Heck, maybe he would’ve even jumped at the reins and decided to do it himself. Then at least, we could say 2019 being a dry Who year yielded a reason. Still not necessarily a good one, but it would be one.
February 26, 2019 @ 6:26 pm
From what I remember, it was Brian Minchin who got Ness in, not Moffat. Your point still stands though.
February 26, 2019 @ 1:04 pm
This far into Eruditorum, you’re still coming up with major insights into Doctor Who, even in the posts on crappy spin-offs. The observation that not just any character can be the star of a show that can go anywhere thanks to a magic box isn’t one I’ve seen made before, but it’s vital. Well done, El.
February 26, 2019 @ 6:27 pm
Great post as ever. I particularly like the choice of image you’ve gone for there, which is such a well-composed shot that it makes me sad we don’t talk more about Wayne Yip and how good he is. It only adds to the Class/Chibnall era comparisons that he’s the best director on both.
March 2, 2019 @ 9:10 am
Great piece again El and fascinating idea of imagining Jodie in place of Capaldi – yes! It would be so much more of a statement, especially towards Chibnall’s run!