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