Class was the first Doctor Who spinoff that failed.
I haven’t forgotten about K9 and Company, but as I mentioned when I wrote about that earlier in the week it was far from being a failure, outperforming the previous season of Doctor Who in the viewing figures, and simply falling between the cracks when the channel controller changed. Class ran for one series of eight episodes, did terribly in terms of viewing figures, and was cancelled, leaving a cliffhanger ending unresolved. The frustrating thing is that its failure had nothing to do with the series itself.
For the benefit of readers abroad, you may recall when I wrote about Torchwood yesterday that I mentioned how it got shunted around from one channel to another, but started on the digital channel BBC Three. The BBC’s third channel was launched in 2003, at a time when a television licence in the UK cost £116. It rose by roughly £4 or £5 per year, until 2008 when it started going up by £3, and 2010 when it reached £145.50, a figure it remained static at for the next six years. With rising costs due to inflation, the BBC had to find ways to save money, and in 2016 BBC Three was closed down as a terrestrial channel. It has limped on since then as an internet service, and that was where Class premiered. The episodes were then shown on BBC One as double bills, in a graveyard slot. I don’t suppose many people were hugely surprised when a sci-fi series about teenagers fighting aliens failed to set the ratings alight at around midnight. The combined viewing figures from the internet and the late-night showing failed to break the one million viewers mark, with the exception of the first episode.
This was all incredibly frustrating for fans of the series. I don’t suppose there are many television channels in the world that would spend a significant amount of money on a science fiction series and then basically toss it in the bin in this manner, but then scheduling has, in my opinion, always been something the BBC are shockingly bad at. They seem to make a habit of shuffling things around the schedules without allowing viewer loyalty to build up. We have seen this with Doctor Who. The viewers cannot rely on tuning in at 6pm, for example, and finding Doctor Who on each week. When it’s on it might be 6pm, or 6.20, or 6.30, or 7.10, or 7.55 or whatever. It’s all over the shop.
So the point is that when we look at the merits of Class as a television series it is probably best not to look for reasons why it failed within the context of what appeared on screen, and in fact as a first series of a new concept it was very impressive. In fact, if you compare this with the first series of Torchwood, it is actually much more competent. It perhaps lacks the one or two standout episodes, but equally lacks the horrendous missteps, and importantly the characters are all easy to like and start caring about very quickly (see my article about Torchwood yesterday for the contrast to that). Class is consistently entertaining, well-acted and intelligently scripted. The premise is perhaps a little flawed, with the Doctor for some reason thinking a bunch of teenagers are the right people to defend a rift in time of his creation, walking away from his own responsibilities, but if we want to criticise the premise we at least need to acknowledge that The Sarah Jane Adventures was about a middle-aged woman, her adopted alien child and a talking computer fighting monsters in suburbia. In terms of pulling in the viewers, if we want to attempt to attribute any of that failing to the series rather than the scheduling, Class did lack the hook of a spinoff character from the television series, with previous spinoffs built around either Sarah or Jack, both successful characters from Doctor Who.
But what Class did, it did well. The adult content was much better-integrated and less gratuitous than the first series of Torchwood, and couldn’t be too extreme anyway because of the appearance of the Doctor in the first episode. Just as The Sarah Jane Adventures dealt tactfully with some issues children might be facing, Class did the same thing but for teenagers and young adults: domestic violence, broken families, the death of a parent and the grieving process, homophobia and parental rejection, relationships. It also showed some real consequences of living a life fighting evil and getting injured as a result, with Ram losing a limb and having to deal with the resulting PTSD.
The most impressive episode of the series is Detained, which just features the main cast stuck in a room together, trying to find a way out of their frightening predicament while dealing with their issues. This series deserved better. The Shadow Kin perhaps lacked the impact of some of Doctor Who’s best monsters, but this was all set to be improved in the second season. What a shame we will never get to see that.
Class was the first Doctor Who spinoff that failed.
…no, that’s not right. It was the spinoff that was failed by the BBC. Never a failure. RP
The view from across the pond:
We are in the midst of a week of Doctor Who spin-offs, so it’s only natural to talk about Class. Class was announced as a new series taking place at Coal Hill school, the school that helped launch Doctor Who in 1963. The idea: due to all the otherworldly activity in the area, it’s resulted in a bit of a rift in space/time that allows all sorts of things to come through. Why not fix the rift? Well then we wouldn’t have a series! But who cares? Doctor Who has taught us one thing: making sense is not needed to make a good series. And that’s the thing: Class had all the potential in the universe to be a good series despite a ridiculous claim. The problem was no one wanted to advertise for it. It was like an experiment in telepathy: surely people will know it exists because Doctor Who fans know every aspect of Doctor Who. But that wasn’t the case. Telepathy is, in fact, a lousy marketing plan.
So Class is the UKs equivalent to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: it’s a series set in a school where a hellmouth is located. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor makes a cameo appearance to launch the series and teach the audience the difference between “hellmouth” and “rift” and then he’s gone. Then we have 8 episodes of character development with some truly solid characters who were growing into their roles amazingly quickly. Charlie, April, Ram, Tanya, Matteusz round out the kids who will grow together and experience the weird world of rift-management and Miss Quill is the teacher who will guide them, all the while jutting her lower jaw out with the intention of usurping Matt Smith’s jaw for universal domination. (And there was something distinctly Caroline John about her, the actress who played Liz Shaw in the classic series. I couldn’t get it out of my head how much she reminded me of Liz!)
The idea of a mature television series based on teens sounds counterintuitive but the setting works better that Torchwood did for scenes of an adult nature. Having teens fall in love and do stupid things is what they do. This series gave us a better forum to discuss homosexual relationships and alienation and bullying because, these are all things teens might experience and wonder about. (Top secret underground facilities designed to save the earth… not so much! Sorry Torchwood!) Putting one of the kids in a different class than the others, being younger than her peers, is enough to show the alienation she feels from her friends. The relationship that develops between Charlie and Matteusz gives a chance to investigate how a same sex relationship might play out in reality. The fact is, like The Sarah Jane Adventures, this series had the potential to explore real life events through the safety of Science Fiction.
And then the cliffhanger came that surely would guarantee a second season. Except no… because again, telepathy sucks as a marketing campaign. If there’s one thing we can take away from this, it’s that telepathy is not a marketing tool! With no one knowing the show was on, and without any advertising to make people aware of it, even the Weeping Angels couldn’t hold back the cancellation of the latest Doctor Who spinoff. It seems we were, once again, in the land of only one Doctor Who series at a time.
Class report card: A for Effort, F for marketing. Teachers comments: Class has great potential if the parents (aka marketing team) were not absent. With a little encouragement, Class could have gone on to be the next big spin off. Maybe next time… ML