Doctor Who's New Spin-Off Goes Places the Doctor Can't
Patrick Ness didn’t want to write for Doctor Who. The author was a fan of the iconic sci-fi show, sure, but when the BBC approached him about penning an episode, he declined. He felt like he'd been writing for other people for a while and was looking to do something "entirely my own." Lucky for Ness, the BBC needed that too. They wanted a Who spin-off; he gave them Class.
Instead of involving the Doctor directly, Ness’ strange new show, which debuts on BBC America on Saturday, is about a mess the Time Lord left behind. In the very first episode of Doctor Who, back in 1963, the granddaughter of the First Doctor (William Hartnell) attended Coal Hill School, and somehow during his later visits there, the Doctor caused a giant time-crack. In Class, the students of Coal Hill, and one of their weird teachers, have to deal with all the monsters and aliens that keep swarming out of that fissure. The concept of a spin-off set in the school was something the BBC had been pondering for a while, and as soon Ness heard about it, he knew who all of the characters were and what the story would be. Soon, he was inventing his own corner of the Who universe—one that can address issues Who doesn’t touch.
The idea, Ness says, was to ask, "What is it like when the Doctor leaves?" Usually, Doctor Who viewers follow the Doctor from adventure to adventure, and don't get to see what happens after he's gone. But Class provides its creator, who made his name with the young-adult novel The Knife of Never Letting Go and the illustrated book A Monster Calls, a chance to pull off a distinctly "YA" move: Putting a group of young people in a world where everything has changed and they don't know what the rules are any more. (Current Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi turns up in the first story, but doesn't stick around for long.)
Throughout *Doctor Who'*s many seasons, the Doctor's companions have invariably become the audience surrogate, and yet viewers also see them evolve, thanks to their adventures with the Time Lord. In the same way, teenage fiction aims to make you identify with its young characters—but then presents them with seemingly impossible circumstances. In Class, two of the five kids receive alien body parts in just the first episode, and all of the protagonists change over the course of the series. It's something teens can relate to: not quite recognizing yourself after a transformative life experience. It's not as friendly or comfy as its parent show, but Ness says if Class seems heavier than Doctor Who, that's because "being a teenager feels dark."
Of all of Class' teens, the darkest is Charlie (Greg Austin), who looks like the male lead of a CW show but has a disturbing secret. "I love a character who has something really uncomfortable about them," says Ness. "Charlie is handsome. He is our stereotypical hero. He has a lovely boyfriend." And yet, Charlie's relationship with the group's thorny teacher, Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly), is one of the most twisted things the Doctor Who universe has ever seen.
In the 10 years Ness has been publishing young-adult novels, he's seen the genre grow massively, and he says the best aspect of that is the increased diversity—something he tries to reflect in Class. "The most glorious thing that fiction can offer is recognition," he says. "All those people who groan and moan about things like diversity in fiction, and say you don't need a mirror, and you can identify with any character—those people have always had a mirror, invariably. So they don't know how important it is, when you never see yourself [in a story]."
And that goes beyond race, gender, and LGBTQ diversity. True to its name, the show also examines the socioeconomic divisions among its characters. "'Class' is such an uncomfortable word, especially in England, because it intersects society on so many levels," says Ness. So Class doesn’t just reference the learning its stars are doing at Coal Hill School, it also speaks to the larger issues these students—and all students—face. It's meant to signal, Ness says, that "there's going to be things that we're going to talk about, that might make you feel uncomfortable."
The result is one of the best teen dramas in ages, a show that lives up to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer influences it wears on its school blazer sleeve. Monster-of-the-week shows have their pitfalls, but watching the relationships between Class' characters develop and darken is so addictive it might just make you want to stay after school.