‘People are dead. More will die. Here’s your chance not to be one of them.’Charlie ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie when he sums up the situation in Episode 8. Death is its overwhelming flavour – it begins with the death of a character we’ve grown to really like and respect, and continues more or less in the same vein, killing if not its darlings, then very much the real people who made the darlings interesting, or likeable, or in some cases bearable.
The Shadowkin are back.
Yes, again. For their fourth of just eight episodes in Series 1, to make everything about them one more time. That means there’s more hooha and palaver with the Cabinet of Convenience (ahem – sorry. Souls. The Cabinet of Souls), the weapon we’ve known about for some time now, which could actually wipe out the Shadowkin and stop people dying as a result of their universal sulk (Seriously, the Shadowkin are goths with scimitars). But writer Patrick Ness, to give him his credit, finds a third philosophically interesting thing to do with the villains that, bless him, however hard he tries, it’s difficult to take particularly seriously. Here, they work as an avatar of terrorism, that -
Sorry, did you think you were just watching a sci-fi show about schoolkids? Keep up – the Shadowkin have evolved their tactics, from being a stompy army of the kind that nation states have, to being guerrilla killers in this episode, slipping through the slightest gaps in your watchfulness, killing the people closest to you, and slipping off again to go and wreak havoc with somebody else’s life, leaving yours in tatters. What’s that if not an avatar of terrorism? And more important is the reaction of our Classmates to them. For all the notional weeping our teenagers may or may not have done about the deaths of all the Quill and all the Rhodians, they’ve just got on with their lives. The extinction of the Quill and the Rhodians has been the background dreadfulness of the universe. They’ve been the Ethiopians. Or the Chechens. Or the Iraqi Kurds. Or the Palestinians. Or the Syrians. They’ve been the people to whom horrible things happen on our TV screens – dreadful if we think of them, so important that we don’t, not for long, not while there are lives to be lived and happy things to focus on. But Episode 8 brings the reality of the Shadowkin screaming close to home, in a way that for Ram at least, they’ve been all through the first series. Killing people we love and care about, turning us into orphans, widows, grieving, screaming people ready to do anything to stop them, to get back at them, to stop it hurting so much.
The reactions are fascinating, seen close up. Ram wants to run away and never stop running. Tanya has the objectivity crushed out of her by grief, and wants to use the Cabinet, immediately. Quill, it seems, is coming close to the end of her life anyway, after her adventures in the Cabinet in Episode 7, and April – well, April finds peace and strength and bravery. What Charlie finds is the willingness to consciously give in to his own demons of grief, to go beyond the bounds of ‘reasonable’ behaviour and do what he feels needs to be done, despite the consequences in terms of the episode’s death toll.
There’s all this and more in this final episode of Series 1 (and given initial figures, just possibly this will be the only series there is) – there’s body swapping, a cunning plan, at least a couple of sacrifices, pregnant fighting, parental death, Quill getting her warrior on, the Headmistress facing the disappointment of the Governors and the forces they represent, the potential and the probable death of love. It’s pretty packed with Stuff, this final episode.
That’s actually what feels wrong with it.
It feels like writer Ness, going into the end of the series, had little confidence that there would be time enough in any second series to fully round out his storylines, and so constructed his finale of ‘everything that could have happened,’ including the handful of on-screen deaths we get and the genocide of the series’ main villain, as well as at least two shock cliff-hangers – one involving a surprise (but actually, if you stop and think about it, fairly lame) appearance by a New Who villain, and the other involving what happens to April, as if to force fans to demand the show gets a second series, just so those things can be resolved.
Is Episode 8 overwritten? Yes, monstrously. Does it feel like an episode written solely to ‘be’ the series finale? Yes, it does. Does it still actively shock and enthral and pull us along? Oh, absolutely – we’re taken seriously aback even before the credits roll, and we’re half expecting a dream sequence reveal which never comes. Greg Austin’s Charlie, on the high road to his personal damnation, gets better lines than he’s had for most of the series, and would, in all fairness, warrant a second series to see where both his character in itself and his relationship with Matteusz can go from here. Katherine Kelly as Quill of course has rarely put a foot wrong in the first series, and nor does she start to do so now. Vivian Oparah as Tanya impressed early in the run with the maturity of her performance, and it’s fascinating here to see Tanya’s reactions to the horrifying events this episode has in store for her. And we’ve enjoyed Pooky Quesnel’s Headmistress Ames, and would be interested to see what, if anything, a second series would have in store for her.
But the question of whether Class actually deserves a second series will be decided not by reviewers but by audience figures, and whether a) they picked up along the way from a disappointing start, and b) they do rather better when the series comes to a late night BBC 1 slot. From the standing start of being a vaguely Who-flavoured re-run of the ‘teens save the world from monsters of the week’ premise, both the writing and the performances had some serious highs and some notable lows. Ness put the work into making the Shadowkin interesting – they just never quite escaped the ‘people in make-up with a load of crap on their faces’ trap that hinted at self-parody. There were some better, darker ideas in Episodes… well, not to put too fine a point on it, every episode that didn’t involve the Shadowkin, and those more complex dilemmas helped bring impressive performances out of the cast. In terms of its place among the Doctor Who spin-offs, Class had a dull premise, some above average writing and performances, and rather too much of a fascination with a single villain that never quite worked. Whether it gets the chance to mature into a second season…time will tell.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk