The Whoni­verse is go­ing back to school – but will spin-off se­ries Class make the grade? Ian Berri­man goes on set

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it’s back to school for the lat­est Doc­tor Who spin-off.

We’ve got spoilt, you know. Last Oc­to­ber, when the Doc­tor Who Twit­ter ac­count teased “HUGE #Doc­tor Who news”, some were dis­ap­pointed it turned out to be not a movie or miss­ing episodes, but “just” an­other spin-off show. “Just” an­other eight episodes of telly. Well, if you are still in “Meh” mode about Class, it’s time to slough off your in­dif­fer­ence and start get­ting ex­cited. There’s some se­ri­ous tal­ent in­volved with this show. And you may be sur­prised how far into dark, “adult” ter­ri­tory this Young Adult drama is will­ing to tread.

Multi-mil­lion-sell­ing au­thor Pa­trick Ness is the man tasked with fol­low­ing up the spin-off suc­cesses of Torch­wood, The Sarah Jane

Ad­ven­tures and, er, K-9 And Com­pany. “[Ex­ec­u­tive Pro­ducer] Brian Minchin ap­proached me a cou­ple of years ago to see if I’d be in­ter­ested in writ­ing for Doc­tor Who,” Ness re­calls. “At that point in time I’d done some script adap­ta­tions, so I said, ‘It’s fan­tas­tic to be asked, but I’m at the mo­ment right now where I’d rather do some­thing of my own.’ And they said, ‘Well we have this other thought… we’re think­ing of a spin-off set in Coal Hill. And I thought, ‘Ooh, I know how I’d do that.’”

That’s Coal Hill School, Shored­itch, of course – a lo­ca­tion with huge sig­nif­i­cance in

Doc­tor Who. In the very first story, “An Un­earthly Child”, the Doc­tor’s grand­daugh­ter Su­san was at­tend­ing. The Sev­enth Doc­tor paid a visit in 1988’s “Re­mem­brance Of The Daleks”. And from “The Day Of The Doc­tor” on­wards it was a re­cur­ring set­ting after Clara be­came a teacher. Now Coal Hill’s be­come an Academy – and a cross­ing-over point for alien threats, via tears in space and time.

“It’s been the fo­cus of Doc­tor Who since 1963,” Ness ex­plains. “Things have hap­pened there, and that leaves a mark on a place. And so things come through...”

Chief among them: the Shadow Kin, crea­tures who ruth­lessly wipe out plan­e­tary pop­u­la­tions, down to the last sur­vivor. One Coal Hill pupil is just such a sur­vivor – as is a physics teacher. And their pres­ence makes the school a tar­get.

“Char­lie’s the last of a race called the Rho­dia,” Ness ex­plains. “On their planet, the Rho­dia were at war with the Quill. Miss Quill was their lead­ing free­dom fighter. The pun­ish­ment the Rho­di­ans have for their en­e­mies is they put a crea­ture in your head and link you to one par­tic­u­lar Rho­dia, so you’re forced to be their pro­tec­tor. Be­cause he was the prince and she was the leader of her peo­ple, it was de­cided that they’d be put to­gether. Al­most im­me­di­ately after that, their planet was slaugh­tered by the Shadow Kin. They were the last two, trapped in the vault, as the Shadow Kin are pound­ing down the door, and they get saved by some­body, and placed in Coal Hill Academy, still stuck to­gether. And the Shadow Kin come look­ing for them.”

That “some­body” has ques­tion­able so­cial skills, scary eye­brows and a nine-foot-high blue box. Yes, Peter Ca­paldi’s Doc­tor ap­pears in

Class, to in­tro­duce the set-up. It makes sense, in terms of draw­ing in an au­di­ence. But Ness stresses that there­after Class is very much its own show.

“I get tweeted at a lot,” says Ness. “‘Can you bring this per­son back? Can you bring this mon­ster back?’ But as a viewer, I want to see new things. To me, that’s a more hon­est chal­lenge. We are part of the Doc­tor Who uni­verse, and I love hav­ing a cor­ner of this uni­verse. But it’s a big uni­verse, and there’s room for the new. I feel like… make some­thing

new that’s great. The show re­ally needs to stand on its own.”

Ness’s fel­low exec Brian Minchin surely knows all there is to know about mak­ing Who spin-offs, hav­ing worked on both Torch­wood and

SJA. And he sings from the same hymn sheet. “I think it’s a mis­con­cep­tion that the way to keep Doc­tor Who fans happy is to put lots of ref­er­ences to Tom Baker episodes in,” Minchin says. “I think they’re clev­erer than that!”

That said, Class isn’t above the odd Easter Egg, as we dis­cover when we tour the set. A sign on the wall re­veals this is the Bar­bara Wright Build­ing – a nod to a First Doc­tor com­pan­ion who taught at Coal Hill. The spa­cious, im­mac­u­late lobby also fea­tures a large wooden Roll of Hon­our that in­cludes fa­mil­iar names like S Fore­man...

cool school

SFX wan­ders the locker-lined cor­ri­dors (which have an Amer­i­can high school vibe) scan­ning the walls for clues. Could a lobby card for 1958 movie The Brain Eaters have any sig­nif­i­cance? A Stonewall “Some peo­ple are gay – get over it!” leaflet re­minds us that Char­lie has a boyfriend – a fact Ness felt com­pelled to tweet after June’s mass shoot­ing in Or­lando. It’s a mea­sure of how far we’ve come in even the last decade that this barely war­rants men­tion.

It all looks a damn sight snazz­ier than our old com­pre­hen­sive – and more mod­ern than the Coal Hill pre­vi­ously seen on screen. That’s down to a di­rec­tive Ness – an Amer­i­can who’s lived here for 17 years – has been drilling into his crew.

“When the Bri­tish talk about their school days, the phrase they al­ways say is, ‘A bit shit’,” Ness notes. “So when we’d talk to the peo­ple we hired – the art di­rec­tor, the di­rec­tors – we’d say, ‘We’re not do­ing “a bit shit”. We’re do­ing some­thing else.’ This Coal Hill is a place you’ll want to go. We talked about how cam­era move­ments should work, that it can’t look cheap. You have to tell the viewer, with­out them even know­ing, that this is a classy pro­duc­tion.”

An­other thing that marks out Class as a bit dif­fer­ent is that it deals with con­se­quences. The Doc­tor’s way is to cease­lessly keep mov­ing – on to the next planet, the next ad­ven­ture. It’s not the Class way.

“We haven’t done a spin-off for so long be­cause we had to wait for an idea that had its own voice, its own rea­son for be­ing,” Minchin says. “That’s what Pa­trick’s done with Class. It does dif­fer­ent things in terms of sto­ry­telling. In

Doc­tor Who we set up and leave a world within 44 min­utes. Here we’ve got eight episodes to ex­plore these char­ac­ters, their fam­i­lies, their lives. What it’s like when the Doc­tor isn’t there.”

Eight episodes, too, to ex­plore the af­ter­math when tragedy strikes – as it does to one of the other pupils drawn into Char­lie and Miss Quill’s or­bit. Let’s just say that if Of­sted re­ports mea­sure body count, Coal Hill will be get­ting a “re­quires im­prove­ment” rat­ing…

“I wanted to have a show that fol­lows the con­se­quences of what hap­pens after what usu­ally hap­pens on a teen sci-fi show,” Ness says. “[A char­ac­ter] has seen this ter­ri­ble thing hap­pen, so how does that af­fect them? Usu­ally they just get over it and get on with the next episode. Here we fo­cus on the feel­ings of loss. How do you live after the world has ended? I think that’s a con­stant ques­tion of teen lit­er­a­ture. It’s not so much that the world feels like it’s end­ing, it’s that it has ended – so what hap­pens next?”

All this is in ac­cor­dance with Ness’s phi­los­o­phy on YA fic­tion, which he be­lieves is what gives it a broader ap­peal – and will en­sure that Class hooks older Who fans too.

“The best way has an un-stupid sin­cer­ity to it,” he ex­plains. “It takes emo­tional pain se­ri­ously. It’s not all teenagers buy­ing The

Hunger Games by the zil­lions. When I think of rea­sons for that, I think it’s the treat­ment of love and loss and grief and not fit­ting in. If you do that cor­rectly, it ap­peals to ev­ery­body, be­cause we can all look at it and say, ‘Oh I was there – I know what that was like.’ So I think there’s plenty there for an adult viewer.”

Class comes to BBC Three on­line on 22 Oc­to­ber.

You have to tell the viewer, with­out them even know­ing, that this is a classy pro­duc­tion

Miss Quill: a teacher you’d want to have?

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