By accident and history Doctor Who is a poor match for the world of segmented, market-research driven, demographic targeted television. Born out of the BBC’s 1950s parochialism but infused with odd-ball 1960s notions and un-BBCish sensibilities, it ended up occupying a commanding Saturday tea-time slot, which required people to actively avoid it if they didn’t want to see it. Consequently a mash-up of sci-fi/fantasy/horror aimed at children and adults backed-up by the BBC’s historical costume department helped define British television.
A changing landscape of television with more emphasis on commercialism, and more clearly defined categories/genres of TV show, plus higher standards of special effects in commercial science-fiction films (making the show look even more amateurish) would eventually kill Doctor Who.
And TV moved on.
And then Doctor Who came back and was a big success.
Building on that success has been a puzzle. Doctor Who is what it is. Creating a show like it is effectively impossible. Any spin-off needs to fit the modern commercial demands, which means a clear target demographic, and tailored to a time slot.
Since the return of Doctor Who, the BBC has made two attempts at spin-offs. Firstly Torchwood, which with more sex & violence and more cynical protagonists pitched itself at a more adult market. Secondly, The Sarah Jane Adventures aimed more squarely at children’s television – a field more forgiving of the kind of genre-shifting, doesn’t-really-make-sense elements of what makes Doctor Who fun.
The latest attempt is Class. Unlike the previous two spin-offs, the peak popularity of nu-Who has passed. Indeed, the show seems overtly pitched not at replicating the success of nu-Who but looking back to a TV period a few years before Christopher Eccleston donned the leather jacket and stepped out of a blue box.
Class knows that it is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer clone and it knows that you know that it is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer clone. Coal Hill Academy is a school that sits at the site of damage caused to the space-time continuum by the Doctor’s meddling, a plot device that so neatly matches the hell-mouth of Buffy’s Sunnyvale that characters have to comment on it. And why not? Buffy was fun, so why not have a Buffy spin-off but set it in Britain and have a “bung-hole of the universe” instead of a Hell Mouth?
To this end (do a Buffy revival because the late 90’s/early 2000’s are due for a revival) the show just really needs permission to be strange and for viewers to suspend disbelief. Hence the Doctor Who connection – it is British and it is weird and hence it needs a blessing from the Pontiff of British weirdness.
Episode 1 takes this approach. We meet the new Scooby-Gang of mismatched misfits, freaky stuff happens to the point where only a Deus Ex-Machina can resolve the story at which point Peter Capaldi pops up and deals with the issue. The Doctor then affirms the purpose of the show and disappears.
I don’t want to be too dismissive of Episode 1 (entitled Tonight We Might Die) but it is primarily a mechanical piece that has to do all the initial work of setting up the show, the cast, their roles and the pretext for why Coal Hill Academy is the Sunnyvale High of East London. Consequently, the characters come over to pre-defined and genre savvy (e.g. an early joke about the Bechdel test) and their variety can look like box-ticking rather than fully-realised people. That is unfair though, any show of this kind is going to take time for the characters to grow into more rounded people.
Of the set, Ms Quill, is the early standout. An alien disguised as a teacher who is an ex-revolutionary forced to be the bodyguard of an alien prince from a rival nation from a planet whose whole population has been murdered, she gets to be a simultaneous Giles/Spike analogue – as in the designated adult of the Coal-Hill Scooby-Gang but also a snarky, cynical amoralist.
Episode 2 pushes Ms Quill into the background (although she gets a fun side plot involving an OFTSED inspector who isn’t what he seems to be).
The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo is a school-based monster-of-the-week episode that could have been an episode from Smallville or Buffy, but with more gore. Yes, the monster-of-the-week stories in any given show can feel formulaic but I *like* monster-of-the-week stories and it is nice to have a new set of characters learn how to cope with discovering that school-stereotype-character (in this case the bullying football coach) is directly connected to freaky gruesomeness.
Unlike early Buffy or Smallville, there is a greater sense of character continuity with this second episode and an emphasis on the emotional consequences of traumatic events. The downside is that show still has to work on its own dark humour, with some aspects being accidentally comical rather than intentionally.
Putting Ms Quill to the sidelines allows the younger cast members to demonstrate their acting abilities and they all acquit themselves well.
So, a show with promise. Currently more of a homage to the teen-school SF/horror shows of the 90s/00s than an actual Doctor Who spin-off but so what? Those shows were great and it was those US shows that kept the TV-can-do-anything-if-you-use-your-imagination aesthetic of Doctor Who going.