Class is in session at Coal Hill Academy

By Kelly Connolly and Nivea Serrao
April 15, 2017 at 11:20 PM EDT
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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 — starting with prom. Ready to dance?

Roll Call

April MacLean (Sophie Hopkins), quintessential “good girl,” is attempting — without any luck — to recruit her classmates to help decorate the school for Autumn Prom. (Is “Autumn Prom” a thing at any high school?) Not even Tanya (Vivian Oparah), a gifted student whose grade skipping has left her in need of friends, wants to volunteer, though that’s partly because of her mom’s “no boys” mandate. In secret, Tanya helps soccer (er, football) star Ram (Fady Elsayed) with his math homework over Skype, a service that she’s providing in return for gaming money.

But while Tanya and Ram study and April wonders what “prom” is short for (promise? promenade?), both girls are separately attacked by shadowy beings — one of which followed Tanya all the way home. Thinking quickly, she turns on every light at her disposal.

April is both more and less lucky, as her math teacher, Ms. Quill (Katherine Kelly) steps in to save the day by giving her an alien gun. Just as April pulls the trigger, school chum Charlie (Greg Austin) pushes her to the ground. Charlie knows what April doesn’t: The gun kills its target, but it also kills the person wielding it.

Charlie saved April from sure death, but she still got hit with a glancing blow as she shot the alien chasing her — Corakinus, king of the Shadow Kin. Now, Corakinus shares her heart, which is currently phasing in and out of time as it attempts to beat for both of them. Killing one would effectively kill the other. April just horcrux-ed herself. Ouch.

With April safe and Corakinus temporarily dispatched, Charlie reveals that he and Ms. Quill are aliens, which April readily believes given Charlie’s awkwardness and poor pop culture knowledge. He’s prince of the Rhodians, who were at war with the people who shared their planet: Ms. Quill’s people, the Quill. Depending on who you ask, Charlie was either a just prince or a heartless overlord; Quill was either a terrorist or a noble freedom fighter. When she was captured, an alien creature called an Arn was inserted into her brain, preventing from hurting anyone else or even wielding a weapon. The Arn also telepathically links her to Charlie, making her the perfect bodyguard, though Quill views her situation as slavery.

But the Rhodians and the Quill were so busy fighting they didn’t notice the arrival of the Shadow Kin, who can exist in shadows, becoming corporeal for only a moment to kill their prey. The whole planet was slaughtered. Charlie and Ms. Quill only got away because the Doctor showed up and whisked them away to Earth in the TARDIS.

April accepts this, and the next day at school, she warns Tanya to watch out for the shadows. Noticing the look she exchanges with Ram (who also witnessed something strange during practice), April tells Ram and Tanya everything. They aren’t sure they believe her, but they’ve got bigger problems — there’s a dance to get to! April is a bit sad because no one wanted to go with her. She asked Charlie to be her plus one, but he’s more interested in Matteusz (Jordan Renzo), whose religious parents are not happy their son is going to the dance with a boy. Ram, meanwhile, hops in an Uber with his girlfriend, Rachel, and Tanya talks her mom into letting her attend. She succeeds, but she does have to write a paper about it. Poor kid.

The night isn’t fun for too long. Thanks to their shared heart, April sees Corakinus rallying his troops Lord of the Rings style as they descend on the school — something Ram learns the hard way when Rachel is killed right in front of him. He attempts to fight against the Shadow Kin but loses his leg in the process.

April tries to evacuate the dance, but no one’s listening — so the Shadow Kin roll up and do the job for her. As students flee, Charlie, Ms. Quill, Tanya, and April are left alone in the gym to take on the hoard. Until…

The Doctor arrives! (Ms. Quill called him.) It doesn’t take him long to figure out that the king is after the Cabinet of Souls, which contains the souls of 3 billion dead Rhodians — making it a powerful weapon. Charlie has it, but he insists that it’s empty; the story that souls go there when they die was just a fairy tale. He only took the cabinet out of sentimentality.

Corakinus isn’t being too cooperative, so April threatens to kill herself in order to take him down. Tanya switches on the lights instead. With a boost from the Doctor’s sonic, the lights are enough to force the Shadow Kin to retreat, but when the kids chase after them in a bid to save April’s heart, the Shadow King nabs her. So Ram knocks him out with a chair… WHILE STANDING ON ONE LEG. He promptly passes out.

The Doctor does what he can to mend the rip in time and space that let the Shadow Kin in (and out) before actually playing Doctor and giving Ram a prosthetic alien leg. He then warns the kids that because of his various visits to Coal Hill, it’s become a beacon for all kinds of creatures. Think Sunnydale. Or Storybrooke. Or Mystic Falls. Or even Beacon Hills.

Ms. Quill is outraged that he’s leaving her and Charlie here — and that he’s leaving the fate of the world in these kids’ hands. But the Doctor believes in this gang, and he wants Quill to help them out as punishment for giving a student her gun to take down a Shadow Kin at the top of the hour, which killed the student, too. With that pep talk, the everybody’s favorite Time Lord is off. And we’re left with one big, Tanya-posed question: Does this make all of them friends?

Later, back at the home they share, Ms. Quill asks Charlie how he’s not angrier that they’re stuck here on Earth, and he pulls a Hulk and admits that he’s always angry. But that isn’t the biggest twist: When he examines the Cabinet of Souls, we see that Charlie lied to Corakinus. The small box is filled with lights, which indicate souls — and it’s clearly bigger on the inside.

Independent Study

KELLY: Here we are at Coal Hill! Let’s talk first impressions. I’ll start: One thing that struck me about this premiere was that it’s edgier than Doctor Who — the original series has never shied away from a high body count, but there’s a lot more blood here. And two people say “s—.” But I’m not sure it’ll be interpreted as the more mature series, at least here in the States, because it’s focused on teens. And as we all know, no one takes teenagers seriously.

The show is aware of that, of course, and in the tradition of all classic high school supernatural shows, it’s interested in taking down the myth that teens aren’t living full lives or capable of making complex choices. So it’s working perceptions to its advantage; I just hope people will tune in to see that. What did you think?

NIVEA: I agree that there’s definitely more edge and gore with this particular series, but in terms of the three Doctor Who spin-offs, I think this would rank between Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures in terms of maturity. It doesn’t shy away from darker themes (like Jack Harkness and the gang) but it’s also aimed at a younger audience (like Sarah Jane and her crew). Then again, our expectations might differ because it’s a more recent show. Who knows what we might have seen Buffy tackle had her series been set now?

One thing I did think was interesting about Class is how it gives us a sense of how other people see the Doctor — namely the people he’s helped or rescued. Doctor Who viewers are aware that he’s a mythic figure (he’s said it himself a few times), but it’s the first time I feel like we’ve seen how far his reputation stretches. The moment that sold this for me was when Quill was actually doing what seemed to be an impression of him as she announced, “I am war itself,” followed by, “Run!” It felt like she was invoking the Doctor’s reputation for destruction. Was it just me, or did you get that sense too?

KELLY: Agreed, on both counts. It’s definitely not Torchwood-level mature (hoo boy, no). And Quill, especially in that moment, seemed to be set up as this show’s Doctor figure, in the style of the pricklier, more alien Doctors, like Capaldi’s. The fact that you describe it as an “impression” gets me thinking, because I saw that resemblance as something the show was setting up for us, but Quill herself didn’t seem to have all that much interest in the Doctor (she basically rolled her eyes when Charlie called him a legend). But now I’m wondering if maybe part of her buys into that legend more than she’d want to admit. I could see her appreciating his sort of renegade heroism.

And I’m glad you brought up Quill, because I want to talk about her dynamic with Charlie. I enjoyed the complications there; it seems at first like Charlie is the innocent, but when Quill tells their story from her perspective, it’s easy to see him as the ignorant ruling elite and Quill as a member of an oppressed class (dual meaning to the title??) who feels like violence is the only language she has left. That’s pretty heady (and relevant) stuff. Do you feel like we’re meant to question Charlie as much as I was? I still like the kid, but he’s got learning to do.

NIVEA: First of all, LOL at the unexpected title pun. Second, I totally agree that I actually empathized with Quill when she talked about their rebellion. And I wonder if that’s because all the shows within the Who-verse prime us to root for the underdog. The Doctor even says he’s got a soft spot for anyone who’s the last of their species (raise a lighter for the Space Whale). That’s one of the things that makes me feel for Charlie — especially when he talks about the cabinet and it being (supposedly) empty.

I didn’t realize it until you brought it up, but he’s an oddly fascinating character. We know he’s a good person based on how he treats April and isn’t willing to let her die (which is why I’m not questioning him as much), but we also knows he feels a deep sense of princely obligation to the Rhodian people. What do you do when you’re literally responsible for the fate of three billion souls? Also, what’s the master plan? Is he going to try and find another planet he can use to bring them back? Given all these questions, I can see why Quill is so angry and frustrated. She doesn’t have half this knowledge. She thinks she’s stuck tethered to her worst enemy, with no way to leave. Worse yet, she has to teach high school math.

I do want to take a quick moment to commend Patrick Ness’ creation of the Shadow Kin, which fit with some of the scarier villains of the Who-verse in terms of making you scared of something that you take for granted. Like your own shadow, or the ability to blink, or even that feeling when you walk into a room and realize you’re forgetting something but you’re not sure what.

KELLY: The Shadow Kin are like a more proactive Vashta Nerada. I’ll admit that if we’re comparing the two, I’m more unsettled by the Vashta Nerada because they’re less active, but that might be a personal thing; I’ve always had a fear of the villain that seems to stand completely still and is still inescapable. But an enemy that silent wouldn’t have worked here — we had to get the characters’ attention — and the fact that the Shadow Kin felt like a new thing that nonetheless pulled from old elements of Doctor Who was fitting.

The line in this hour that got me the most came from Charlie, about the cabinet: “It’s just bedtime stories for children to make death less scary. As if death should be anything but terrifying.” That struck me as a kind of thesis statement, for this show in particular but also for the broader Who franchise: Death is supposed to matter.

Speaking of which: “Time never forgets.” We got a shout-out to Clara (and Danny) in this episode, which is only fitting. What do you think — is the Doctor remembering, or did he never fully forget in the first place?

NIVEA: That line from Charlie is also so Doctor Who. Moffat’s always liked playing with childhood fears (the scariest place in the universe is a child’s bedroom), and this felt like a good homage to that, while also playing on this larger theme of myths and legends that might actually be true. Like the Doctor himself.

As for death mattering, we see that in the Doctor’s pause when he sees Clara and Danny’s names. But I’m kind of torn about whether it jogged his memory or was a sad reminder. I’m leaning towards the latter because I can totally see him faking it so Clara would be fine leaving him, only to see her and Danny’s names up there and be reminded that once again he’s lost a companion. Though conversely, it would have been interesting to see him go through it after what happened with Donna.

In any case, I appreciate how much faith he had in our nascent team, even if Quill didn’t. I know they’re teens, but they do a pretty good job of saving the world — even if they might need a Time Lord’s help every now and then.

Top of the Class

Sure, it’s the obvious answer, but didn’t your teachers ever explain that sometimes an answer is obvious for a reason? The Doctor anchors this hour from the minute he swoops in (which plays like a surprise, since they already pulled a bait-and-switch earlier by showing the TARDIS but not Capaldi). But even though his alien insights, rousing calls to action, and low blows at IKEA help save the day, the best thing about the Doctor’s appearance in this episode is that he recognizes that the students in the room are capable of saving the day, too. When he builds them up for their bravery and spirit, he sets the tone for the rest of this series: Don’t underestimate these teens.

Parent-Teacher Conference

In addition to being this week’s pop culture whiz, April is the focus of the premiere’s best parent moment. Her mother, Jackie, was paralyzed in a car accident, which helps April put her problems in perspective (“all life is on a knife edge”). It also makes her tougher than anyone knows. Before the prom, she complains to that people mistake her niceness with fragility. Jackie objects: “You’re not nice. You’re kind. There’s a difference.” We like her already.

Comments

“And you just made us fail the Bechdel test.”

“Of course you would like it. It’s a bunch of white people being nice to each other.”

“Oh. Yeah. My deeply religious parents are very happy I’m going to dance with a boy. This has been an evening of love and warmth.”

“You know I never thought that was possible: dying well. Who wants to die well? Surely the aim should be not dying well.”

“You think you know what waits for you here. You think the same plan will work. But I am what waits for you, and I am war itself.”

“Leave us! We are decorating!”

“If you’re reading this, your night is a failure.”

“Did you hire a band?”

Episode Recaps

Class (BBC America)

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