Class’s first episode opens with a sequence so desperately Who-vian that you’d be forgiven for being a little surprised when the opening titles blast in with some pop rock and not the Doctor’s iconic theme song. But if the show can move past its barrage of tonal irregularities, it may end up being Doctor Who’s best spinoff yet.
The first two episodes of Class—a spinoff that follows a group of teenagers and their mysterious teacher facing alien threats at Coal Hill School, former place of employment of Clara Oswald and other past Doctor Who companions—were released in the UK over the weekend, and in a year with very little actual Doctor Who on TV, it’s easy to see why Class proudly touts its connection to its parent right from the get-go.
As the show is so far away from its U.S. premiere, I’ll try and keep my thoughts below as spoiler-free as possible—but if you want to go in totally blind, turn away now.
The first two episodes of Class, “For Tonight We Might Die” and “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo” almost feel like they come from two different shows. “Tonight We Might Die” suffers from both the fact that it has to clue the viewer in on its premise (which is actually much more complex than “school kids and aliens” might let on) and introduce its core characters, and remind you that it’s set in the same universe as Doctor Who.
The first issue is simply a problem of time—even when it’s moving at a blistering pace, “For Tonight We Might Die” throws too many things at you too quickly for them to really sink in or earn the sense of dramatic weight they want. Plot points and character beats frequently fly by so quickly you’ll forget why they’re important when they actually matter later in the story.
The second, however, is a much more jarring issue, because while Class is part of the Doctor Who universe, its tone and audience is not the same. It’s dark, it’s gory—surprisingly so. Its characters are a little more morally gray than the wholly evil/wholly good Doctor Who tends to trade in, which is to be expected when your main cast is composed of sullen teenagers. Doctor Who is a show about being heroic in the face of overwhelming darkness; Class wants to be about normal people having to live and deal with that darkness when there isn’t a hero to protect them. If Doctor Who is about running down corridors from monsters, Class is about the stuff that haunts its characters after they’re done running down the corridor (if the monster hasn’t gruesomely dispatched them, that is).
It’s when Peter Capaldi is actually on screen that Class’s first episode tonally backfires in the biggest way, because the incompatible contrast between the shows becomes literal. One minute one of our teen heroes witnesses a horrifyingly gruesome murder by the big villain, an attack that leaves them missing a limb and caked in blood and viscera, silently screaming in shock and agony; the very next Peter Capaldi is running around twirling his sonic screwdriver and making big speeches about how he’s going to save the day.
Don’t get me wrong, Capaldi’s brief turn is delightful—especially as he clearly relishes getting to do Doctor Who material after being off our screens for so long—but it’s also so awkward to flick between tones you almost get whiplash. Class spends so much of its first episode building a world that doesn’t really fit with the Doctor, and his presence for the grand finale of it feels like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.
Thankfully, the Doctor’s presence in Class is short-lived—he can’t be everywhere at once, he cheerily tells our heroes once the day is saved—but his departure kicks off the actual dramatic meat Class really wants to tackle, and something its second episode handles much better: the fact that the Doctor is kind of a massive asshole who leaves people behind after a huge trauma and promptly forgets about it. Here, the Doctor comes in, thrusts the kids of Class into a horrifying new reality—facing constant danger from the rifts in space and time that have cropped up all over Coal Hill—and then buggers off without ensuring they’re entirely capable of dealing with it.
“The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo,” free of the necessary worldbuilding its overstuffed predecessor was lumped with, takes the time to deal with the psychological damage the Doctor’s “adventures” leave behind. Its protagonists—the quartet of young whiz Tanya (Vivian Oparah), eager overachiever April (Sophie Hopkins), reserved geek Charlie (Greg Austin), and cocky jock Ram (Fady Elsayed), shepherded by sneery, camp-as-hell but thoroughly enjoyable teacher Ms. Quill (Katherine Kelly)—are all irrevocably changed by The Doctor’s fleeting presence in their lives... and some more literally than others.
The fact that they’re left to deal with all of this without the Time Lord is a fascinating well of drama Class relishes in dealing with, and it does so magnificently.
Past Who spinoffs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures also dealt with the times the Doctor wasn’t there to save the day, but more on the macro stage of “who fights all the aliens on Earth he can’t?” Class is much more comfortable and confident in itself dealing with the micro level of how the Doctor and his dangerous world affect ordinary people—ordinary teenagers who already have enough problems of their own to face without also having to deal with flesh-ripping aliens or ancient evils.
If Class can continue to focus on this drama, and explore its teen heroes as they try to deal with the really messed-up world they’ve discovered they now live in, Doctor Who fans are in for a special take on the Who-niverse. But if it’s as unsure of itself as its adolescent heroes are in themselves, and drifts back into its parent’s shadow, it’ll be wasting a lot of wonderful potential.
Class airs online in the UK, and on Space in Canada. It won’t air in the U.S. until Doctor Who begins on BBC America in Spring 2017.