Class recap: 'The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did'
That new hairstyle is just the beginning
Welcome, Class-mates! Take your seats for the latest Doctor Who spin-off, which trades all of time and space for the halls of Coal Hill Academy. It may have gotten a slight redesign, but it’s still the same Coal Hill School that’s brushed paths with the TARDIS so many times since 1963, and that makes it a magnet for timey-wimey trouble. Having a couple of aliens in its ranks doesn’t hurt, either. Every week, Nivea Serrao and Kelly Connolly will be issuing report-card recaps to break down the latest happenings at the Academy. This week, it’s the longest hour of Quill’s life.
While the kids are dealing with a problem of meteoric proportions, Quill and Ames begin the Arn extraction process — one that threatens to end with Quill dead. Not that the math teacher minds. It’s simply the cost of her freedom. But they can’t get started without new arrival Ballon, an alien shape-shifter masquerading as a Zygon who’s now stuck in human form. He’s also one of the Governor’s alien prisoners.
Quill isn’t quite on board with being atomically “fuzzed” (a.k.a. teleported) to a planet of pink flora and fauna, but Ames sure is enthused by the whole prospect. Once there, Ames orders Quill to start sharing some of her memories to attract a real live Arn. Turns out the little squawking creatures may be “grown,” but parts of them are still wild, and the Instagram-ready woods where the trio now stand is actually Arn heaven. As Ames explains it, the device she used to teleport them here is some kind of metaphysical engine that transports various beings into the belief systems of other species. (And how can a “heaven” exist, you ask? Per Ames: “Everything in the universe is conserved. Even belief. Get billions of creatures believing enough, strongly enough, and even space responds.”)
The next stop on their metaphysical journey is the hell of Ballon’s people; he needs to be able to unfreeze his hands from their current human form so he can dig into Quill’s brain for the extraction, and the only way to do that is with the blood of his people’s god. When faced with his god, Ballon freezes, but Quill (who can’t use knives or any weapon thanks to her Arn) gives him a pep talk about facing his “first” fear, the one he’ll always go back to. Together they go up against the alien devil… and succeed. And as Ames makes provisions to go their next location, Quill and Ballon discuss how much they’ve missed fighting alongside another soldier.
The third leg of the journey is the most dangerous one yet, especially since Quill is starting to believe this could actually work (which could cause the Arn to kill her if it catches on). They end up in the Quills’ heaven, awaiting a goddess’ emergence from the underworld so they can get her brain. But as Quill is fighting her (out of anger for all that the Quill have endured as a people), the goddess opens her mouth to speak — and is cut short when Ballon beheads her.
Quill is upset that she isn’t the first of her people to be spoken to by her goddess, but Ballon argues that she might have had to change everything she believed based on what her goddess said. Also, her goddess will always be born again; they’re simply in a metaphysical plane. With Ames passed out, the two have a real heart-to-heart. Ballon tells Quill he didn’t mean to kill the human family who discovered him on Earth, but he was new, and they were beating him. It was self-defense. Quill then shares how the man she loved was killed in the war and she was captured, her free will taken away.
Ames comes to just as the Arn kicks in. They are transported to the music room at the school, where Ballon begins the procedure (as Ames rushes off to inform the Governors), triggering my first fear as he puts his finger through Quill’s eye. The Arn comes out, and Ballon crushes it. However, this leaves Quill without her left eye before he uses the blood of his devil to fix it, restoring her eye (now with a scar). Happy with how things have gone, the pair locks lips and sleeps together (not before realizing neither of them is in their native alien form).
Upon waking up, Quill and Ballon realize they’re not really back at Coal Hill — as a hologram of Ames reveals, they’re in the Cabinet of Souls. But it’s about to get worse: Only one of them can return to Earth because that engine is slowly dying, and the Governors don’t think it’s stable enough to bring both of them. This leaves Quill and Ballon to fight to the death, but when Ballon goes to shoot Quill, the gun backfires and hits him instead, killing him. In her rage, Quill grabs one of the Rhodian souls, which appear after she buries Ballon. In the process, it ages her, making her hair grow longer.
Quill returns to Coal Hill, rescuing Charlie and declaring her freedom… before passing out from being pregnant!!!
(Recap continues on page 2)
KELLY: We’ve got a lot to unpack this week, but I can’t start anywhere other than Ballon’s death. I NEED TO MOURN. Do we think Quill knew what would happen when Ballon fired that weapon? She didn’t act like she thought she was about to die, but she was genuinely broken up when it killed him. And the gun doesn’t seem to behave exactly like the one used on the Shadow Kin earlier; that one grabs your wrists, which this one didn’t, and fires both ways, whereas this seems to only fire one direction at a time. But that direction can change; Quill used the gun on the meteor without any effect on her. Are the Quills’ weapons designed not to hurt them? What does it mean for a gun to be set for “open firing”? Also, how can we go back in time and fix this?
NIVEA: Listen, if I could call the Doctor, I’d be on the phone with him first thing — which makes me wonder if that’s something Charlie and Matteusz might try to do. They’re just two teens (albeit one is the prince of an entire people) and now they have a passed out, pregnant alien on their hands. And one who might die, at that?! But let’s circle back to Quill and Ballon and the whole “only one can live” of it all. I’m impressed the show was able to introduce us to a character, make us love him, kill him quickly, and have us mourn him this effectively. I personally don’t think Quill knew about the gun reacting that way. Because I think we’d see her fight tactics change somewhat. She can be a wily fighter, and I think it would have factored in. I suspect it’s more of something the Governors may have done on their end. After all, they’re the monsters who decided only one person can come back. Though… I am trying to figure out what it means to die in someone else’s afterlife. What did you think of the metaphysics of it all?
KELLY: METAPHYSICS AREN’T REAL, NIVEA!! But good question! Would restoring the Cabinet restore Ballon to life? If there’s even the hope that it would, that might affect Quill’s attitude toward the Cabinet’s greater purpose. She’s been so focused on avenging genocide with genocide. The idea that Quill could trade hope of death with hope of life (and love, because pardon me, but I ship it) is as interesting for her character growth as it is thematically. Creation and progress as antidotes to destruction: it doesn’t get more Doctor Who than that.
However the Cabinet works, this episode did — maybe — give us new context for how it came to be. Belief in a thing creates that thing, which means that every idea is made manifest somewhere. But there was also the meta sense that a thing created through belief in it is distinct from the thing itself: Quill wasn’t exactly with the Quill goddess as much as she was with the idea of her goddess. If I could go American Gods on you for a second, there’s Odin, and then there’s Mr. Wednesday, an extension of Odin born from his believers on American shores who then evolved separately from the Odin of his homeland. Is the Cabinet Wednesday or Odin? Does it exist because the legend is true or is it true because the legend exists? And is there a difference? I’m trying and failing not to fall entirely into questions here, but the open-endedness of this episode is kind of thrilling. As with all belief (and discussion of belief), this episode leaves a lot to viewers’ interpretations.
NIVEA: I think it’s interesting that we’re even tackling the idea of religion and belief, especially after Ram’s soliloquy about his dad’s faith a few episodes ago. I didn’t quite realize it until this moment, but belief is one of the major things driving our young protagonists right now. We saw that last week: Everyone believes in their truths. But it’s also one of the things troubling Charlie so much. The Cabinet of Souls is a belief held by his people. What if what he thinks is the story — it being a weapon or a chance at rebirth — isn’t the full story? Is he ready to change his entire way of thinking about the Rhodians and the Quill? Could the Cabinet be transformed into something else entirely, considering he’s the last Rhodian left and it relies on his beliefs?
To quote John Mayer (someone go tell teenage Nivea this is happening): “Belief is a beautiful armor, but it makes for the heaviest sword. Like punching underwater, you never hit what you’re trying for.” This last part is relevant because like Matteusz, I don’t think the Cabinet is a good weapon or should be used to wipe out the Shadow Kin. Instead, it will probably misfire and hit something else — probably April, seeing as how she’s technically a Shadow King.
KELLY: Poor April. Let her rest. I agree that it can’t possibly be used without consequence; no weapon in this show’s universe can be, hence the gun that kills the person who fires it. It doesn’t get more symbolic than that. Regardless of whether Quill knew what would happen to Ballon when he fired — and I tend to think that, at the very least, she suspected it, which may be why she was trying so hard to get the gun away from him in the first place — it seems like the Governors intended it as a (cruel) test designed to punish whoever was unwilling to show mercy. But mercy hasn’t been their M.O. so far, so I’m not sure what they’re playing at. The Governors are the one element of this season that hasn’t gelled for me yet, but they do complicate the running “free will” motif, which was especially relevant this week.
On that note: How free is free will? Quill earned hers by playing someone else’s game, which is ironic. And as much as the Governors try to control everything, they can’t control what the tears in spacetime do. Ames talks about the tears with a kind of religious reverence; at the end of the day, even these people who think they’re calling the shots are at the whims of an outside force. For all the talk of personal freedom here, there was just as much about belief and fate. We want to control our lives, but we can’t — and in some cases, we don’t actually even want to. That’s why the idea of believing in a bigger picture is appealing to so many. I was struck by Quill’s suggestion that the worst part of her enslavement was that they made her used to it; it was very Handmaid’s Tale. “Ordinary is just what you’re used to.” Now her “ordinary” has shifted again, but how much will her life really change?
NIVEA: I think a lot of this relates to what Quill was saying about being a “victim of circumstance.” In this case, I can see it because certain events were contrived by the Governors (whom I have more questions than feelings about). But I think you’re right. For everything they say they know and predict, the Governors are as in the dark as the kids are — though the kids know better than to go around trying to guess outcomes. In a way, most of our characters are victims of circumstance, but this week that was especially true for Ballon. Between his journey to Earth, the harrowing “welcome” he received, getting stuck in his human form, and then being kept prisoner by the Governors, the man has not had a single say in his fate. Except for saving Quill’s eye. And that final fight scene.
This brings me to what both of them believe, as we see them wrestle with it (and each other). It seemed like Ballon was resigned to his fate, per his religion: Hell is being stuck this way. But he has to try to get back to his family, because what is a soldier if not someone who fights to defend his family? It’s an interesting contrast with Quill, who doesn’t just see herself as a soldier, but as the very act of war itself. What would have happened if the Quill goddess had told her that theirs should be a peaceful society and that killing their mothers is wrong? That brings me to an American Gods realization of my own… Quill is the last of her kind (like Charlie). In a way, she gets to reframe or reimagine this myth as she sees fit. She could also just stop believing in it altogether. What happens to that Quill heaven then? Does it get snuffed out? Does it go on existing because a bunch of Quills believed for so long? Technically it should have disappeared because Quill says she doesn’t believe in any of that, but the very existence of it must mean she does believe in it a little. What do you think?
KELLY: I think she wanted to believe, even if she didn’t believe actively. One of the most loaded moments of this episode was when Ballon grabbed her and told her she didn’t actually want to believe because believing would mean reshaping who she is as a person. Belief is transformation — in addition to creating whole worlds, it also changes an individual. I loved this episode’s characterization of belief as something active; it’s almost a battle. To that end, it’s approached with a healthy amount of fear, which is why Ballon assumed he was doing Quill a favor when he saved her from it. Between the two of them, only Quill believes fear has a place in war. Ballon was taught to see it as cowardice. He wasn’t equipped to handle something as identity-shaking as what Quill would have experienced if she spoke to her goddess. But that doesn’t mean he got to decide for her that she couldn’t handle it, either.
You know what? I’m sorry he died, but I’m not sure I ship it anymore.
(Recap continues on page 3)
Top of the Class
Quill and Ballon made quite a pair this week; in their own way, each was “frozen” and fighting for mobility. But we’re giving the edge to Quill, andnot only because she’s the one who didn’t fire to kill. In her quest to recapture her sense of self, the abrasive teacher got some much-needed depth, opening up about the losses that have hardened her and proving that she can still be soft when she wants. Plus, she handled her badass new scar like a champ. Quill is done wasting time, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.
For the second week running, this episode was free of parents — and, dare we say, tighter for it. But it did touch on the love of parental figures when Ballon realized his niece could still be alive. He let his love drive him to make a choice he couldn’t come back from, but he fought for family, and there are worse reasons. In his mind, it was the only reason.
“A kitten’s dangerous.” “Only if you insult its worshipers online.”
“Metaphysics aren’t real.”
“Where are we, oh wise head teacher and mistress of nauseating space travel?”
“An unfree life isn’t a life.”
“What good is a soldier without a scar?”
“We’re in a cabinet?” “It’s way bigger on the inside.”
“You can’t even handle detention right.”
Class (BBC America)