REVIEW: Class: Series One

cast_2The debut series of Class has now concluded its run on BBC One. The DVD and BluRay have also been available for a couple of weeks. It also still remains available on the BBC iPlayer for several more months. But is it any good?

Firstly I have to preface my comments with a note. I am not the demographic for this show. I am not the YA (Young Adult) section of the viewership who listens to Radio 1 and watches the new BBC3 regularly. However, I was attracted to this show because of an advertised appearance from Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in the opening episode. When The Doctor does arrive he takes the best lines regarding IKEA and Media Studies. But his inclusion in the first episode proved to be a double-edged sword.

For Tonight We Might Die

(C) BBC
(C) BBC

This show supposedly explores what happens on Earth when the Time Lord is not around. So for him to turn up and save the day right at the start weakened the programme because it set an expectation. At any point in the remainder of the series, when things get tough and at their most perilous, The Doctor could legitimately just turn up and solve it all because we’ve seen him do that already. This therefore waters down the drama. Peter Capaldi’s appearance is therefore, an attempt to obtain legitimacy and acceptance. What it actually does is expose the inadequacies of the group. His assertion that they are well prepared for what is going to be thrown at them is simply false and gets underlined throughout the series. However, the opening episode had bigger issues than Peter Capaldi’s cameo.

A British version of an American show?

(C) BBC
(C) BBC

The show centres around the “redeveloped” Coal Hill Academy. Whilst I initially considered this was a political comment on the Conservative Government’s interest in academics, it is actually an artistic direction to make the environment more American. Wide corridors with lockers on either side akin to a pop music video or any other show imported from the US. This strategy is made even more obvious with the action of the last act taking place at a Prom. Whilst the American invention of ‘the Prom’ has indeed made its way over the Atlantic Ocean, I didn’t expect for it to rear its head in a British TV show. Or at least not in the very first episode. But suddenly the reasoning became apparent.

Familiar themes

Towards the end of the episode, a list of comparisons is made, name checking ‘The Vampire Diaries’ for example. However it was the description of Coal Hill as the “Hellmouth” which triggered the epiphany. Class was trying to replicate the success of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. That particular American show was a cult classic for a generation growing up in the late 1900’s and early 2000’s. It also influenced the relaunched 2005 version of Doctor Who under Russell T Davies. So if you are going to aspire to match a show which has gone before then credit for aiming your sights at one of the best. Buffy aired from 1997-2003, nearly 20 years ago now. So whilst I have seen this sort of thing before there will be plenty of people who have not. Hopefully, this show will be the Buffy for a new audience, a new generation.

My expectations were of something new and fresh and exciting but I was left a little disappointed that there was a repackaging of ideas seen elsewhere. This also extended to some of the visuals. For example the “count the shadows” had similarities of the Vashta Nerada and the physical form of the Shadow Kin had more than an element of Pyroville from ‘The Fires of Pompeii’. As the opening of a brand new series, the episode was also heavily hampered by the need to explain the back story. An extended period was dedicated to explaining everything – where Miss Quill had come from, why they were in Shoreditch and why Quill couldn’t use her gun. There was no careful unravelling of the detail-heavy information it was just presented through an extended flashback. It is a difficult task to introduce all the characters and back story on a new show but it can be done and done well. For example in a previous Doctor Who spinoff.

The Torchwood spectre

The choice to release Class onto the iPlayer on the day that Torchwood celebrated its 10th Anniversary left a sour taste. It couldn’t possibly have been a coincidence. Torchwood’s debut episode carefully unravelled the truth behind the secret organisation without revealing everything all at once. There were glimpses into the personalities of the characters, which the viewer followed through Gwen Cooper, with flashbacks instead saved for Series 2. Class even borrows a concept from Torchwood; a rift in space and time. Where Torchwood succeeded was that the show felt new, fresh and different. The second episode for example, featured an alien gas which craved orgasmic energy. I’d certainly not seen anything like that before. With Class however, I feel like I’ve not only seen it before but seen it done better.

The Characters

(C) BBC
(C) BBC

The combination of characters is generic but ticked all the boxes. There’s the athletic jock who, unsurprisingly, has a heart of gold. The odd one that turns out to not be of this planet. The smart one to provide the brains. The emotional heart of the group. This selection of individuals, who in reality would never become friends, covers all bases and appeals to everyone. Each viewer in the intended audience can empathise and connect with at least one of the group. Further statements are made regarding diversity. Ethnicity, sexuality and disability are all covered. Whilst I’d like to think that there is no need to make those statements these days sadly there is because not all shows are as diverse. Having a gay lead is a positive in some respects but equally disappointing because there is still a need to make that statement. This is simply a sad reflection of our society and television in general. But it is also a missed opportunity. Perhaps it would’ve been a stronger statement had Ram’s character, the macho, popular guy, been gay instead, particularly given the lack of footballers publicly acknowledging their sexuality.

(C) BBC
(C) BBC

The most recognisable actor in the regular cast is Katherine Kelly who has plenty of moments for scenery chewing but her sarcastic character left a strong impression. A little over the top at times, Miss Quill does at least grab your attention even if her back story is a little bemusing. Her gun which also fires at the person holding it seemed rather confusing. It also raises another issue. Guns, even alien ones, have absolutely no place in schools and so should not be presented there. The first teaser image of Quill holding a gun in front of a blackboard is not the sort of thing that should be presented to an audience. Particularly in an Americanised environment where guns are a dangerous issue. Guns breed violence, something Class is not short of as it is.

The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo

(C) BBC
(C) BBC

Torchwood was intended to be an adult show but yet Class seemed more graphically violent. The leg slicing in the first episode was very well achieved but particularly gory. Despite this, an attempt was made to attract younger viewers by including Capaldi in a programme easily accessible to younger audiences with no transmission regulations. The blood splatter too was unnecessary but a way of demonstrating that this show is not for kids. This would be repeated in the second episode which took the gore to another level. Human beings getting skinned alive by a dragon. Blood everywhere. It isn’t horrific, hence the DVD being given a 15 rating, but it is there and it is pretty gross. I also can’t recall what the point of it was in narrative terms. Or why the dragon became trapped on the coach’s skin. Or how, despite that, it could leave his body to feed. It seemed to just be there as a deterrent for younger viewers. Although the second episode will more likely be remembered for blood trickling down drains and skinned bodies being dragged across the floor, it is actually Ram who takes centre stage. Ram had to come to terms with the memory of seeing his girlfriend killed in front of him and, unlike most teenagers, the effects of a new alien leg. This sets the tone for what the success of the series really is; it’s characters.

Characters Dictate Structure

(C) BBC
(C) BBC

Although the setting of Class is hampered by familiarity, it is the characters who are engaging and the real strength of the show. Nightvisiting continues the work of the previous episode with a focus this time on Tanya and her deceased father. Again there is a flawed premise with an alien tentacle able to open presumably locked windows from the outside. However it continues the decision to manoeuvre the characters so that they take the focus of the episodes. Although dark in tone, the dead visiting those left behind, themes of family and grief are not just explored through Tanya but also with the developing relationship between Charlie and Matteusz. Their intimacy is skilfully handled and cements the show in the modern world and hopefully encourages the rest of the media to frankly get on with it and catch up.

(C) BBC
(C) BBC

A further backstory is also shared from April who then gets her moment under the spotlight for episode 4. That particular episode is perhaps most memorable for a post-sex scene between two of the Shadow Kin which is bizarre to say the least. The rest of the episode is a prolonged meander towards the next episode ‘Brave-ish Heart’ which verges on utter nonsense. It consists of scene after scene of extensive info dumping, more and more dialogue about genocide, and anyone who buys into April’s triumph over the King of the Shadow Kin is clearly more absorbed into the narrative than I was. For the kind and sweet girl to defy those instincts and magically acquire the ability to wield a pair of swords much less defeat an alien warrior king is far-fetched to say the least.

(C) BBC
(C) BBC

The series is very precisely structured. Episode One, introduce everyone and everything. Two focuses on Ram. Three focuses on Tanya. Four focuses on April. Episode Five includes an examination of Charlie’s character, whilst there is plenty of other stuff going on at the same time. Charlie is perhaps the weakest of the group. Haunted by his position as Prince and keeper of souls, which also happens to be a dangerous weapon, leaves him largely spineless and unprepared. The formulaic strategy continued therefore with the main characters brought together in one classroom to analyse their relationships with each other. Of course being teenagers the truth hurts. Titled ‘Detained’, but frankly should’ve been called ‘Detention’, he really does step up with the final act of confession finally purging Charlie of his burden.

(C) BBC
(C) BBC

Logically the penultimate installment of the series centred on Miss Quill. In between the impressive spacehopping there are quieter moments which draw real empathy and warmth for Quill, a tough task given she is frequently labelled a terrorist, a term that should not be tossed around lightly in our modern climate. Katherine Kelly is stellar in this episode however. She does plenty of over the top stuff but she can be equally steely as well as comedic when required. However once again two alien creatures are brought down to the level of the animalistic instincts of human beings for reasons that are beyond me. Anyway this leads us into the series finale.

The Finale

(C) BBC
(C) BBC
(C) BBC
(C) BBC

Predictably the series’ only real villain the Shadow Kin returned for the finale. The continuing trend of explaining what is going on whilst Corakinus holds a sword over someone’s throat and Charlie points a weapon at him made me ponder how much screen time is actually dedicated to these scenes over the series. I might time it all one day. Also predictably, after an entire series of discussing it, the Cabinet of Souls is finally used by Charlie but not without further prolonged discussion about the ethics of the weapon. The fact that Series 1 only consisted of eight episodes clearly hampered the show. With little time for other stories to breathe the series effectively just told one story introduced in ‘For Tonight We Might Die’ and concluded in ‘The Lost’. The intervening episodes therefore became character pieces with no opportunity for unique stories to breathe within them. Compare the two images of Charlie holding the gun. The first is actually from the opening episode of the series whilst the second is from the finale. Over the course of eight episodes we have effectively returned to the same stand off where we started. The only exception is that The Doctor doesn’t turn up so Charlie has to use the Cabinet of Souls.

Whilst the journey makes for an enjoyable watch the elements introduced in ‘For Tonight We Might Die’, notably the Shadow Kin and the Cabinet of Souls, were obviously going to come together in ‘The Lost’. Despite the hampering of an Americanised environment and lack of a USP (Unique Selling Point), plus the unhelpful Capaldi cameo other elements such as the mysterious Governors did work exceptionally well and showed the programme’s potential. Similarly the show approached it’s intended young adult audience maturely with themes of acceptance, love and loss all sensitively and impressively well-handled. In those terms it should be seen as a shining example for other programmes to follow. Now all the introductory stuff is out of the way with Series 1, we know all the characters well enough now, the show has the potential to fly. To say that Series 1 ended on a cliffhanger is an understatement largely because it actually left viewers with two cliffhangers. But will there be any more?

Series 2?

logoWhilst Class was another positive production for BBC Wales’ drama studios in Cardiff it had an element of testing the water when it came to broadcast. It was the first major show to debut on the new BBC Three which was only available through the BBC iPlayer. Although receiving some promotion the programme was dependent on people at home seeking out the show at a time that suited them. As a result other more popular programmes dominated the iPlayer charts with the show failing to break into the Top 50 on demand shows meaning less than 185,000 people accessed the episodes. When the show did finally get a traditional broadcast slot on an actual channel it was buried by BBC One on a Monday night at 10.45pm. Worst still episodes were shown in pairs back to back. That meant that the second episode would finish in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Talk about not giving the show a fair chance at attracting to an audience! On BBC America Class will be screened after episodes of the next series of Doctor Who which although potentially odd to follow two series simultaneously does mean it will at least receive some prominence.

Unsurprisingly ratings on BBC One were poor. Worryingly the show actually posted viewing figures below the average for that timeslot. Of course it must be considered that the episodes had already been available for months prior on the iPlayer, stunting viewing figures further. Perhaps most telling is the fact that the most watched episode was the first but the show couldn’t retain or build on that audience. Consistently the second episode in the double bill lost half of the audience. Given that it began at 11.30pm this is probably not surprising. Much like the main show it seems that the BBC set it up for failure but at least it could be found at a consistent time every week. Perhaps it will be the broadcast of Class on BBC America which will seal the show’s future. Although flawed the series has undoubted potential and it’s true success or failure can only be measured within it’s intended YA audience.

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