It’s all go at Coal Hill. They’ve lost two headteachers in as many months. The P.E. department is understaffed, and the cleaners aren’t showing up. The prom was a disaster. And now the Shadow Kin are back, and this time no one is safe. How – we might ask – can one institution have quite so much bad luck? Was it built on a cosmic rift? A sacred Indian burial ground? Or did Mr Armitage steal a valuable diamond from Prabhas Patan? In any event, I’d wager the academy is on OFSTED’s ‘to watch’ list, although presumably suffixed with ‘preferably at a distance, or if we have to send an inspector we’ll use that bitchy one from Chester that nobody likes’.
You’ll forgive the present tense; I’m actually writing this with the benefit of six weeks’ retrospection. As we go to press, Donald Trump has been in office for five days and is signing executive orders left, right, and centre. It’s a week for snap decisions, expeditious funding cuts, and unexplained media clampdowns. I look at the hotly debated viewing figures for the first Class series and the last Doctor Who series, and think about the numbers for the inauguration ceremony and try not to draw parallels about what the facts (or alternative facts) have to say. Suddenly, in the real world, it feels like bad things are happening. Suddenly, the prospect of war – or, at the very least, tremendous civil unrest – seems chillingly real.
But enough of that.
Back to November. Or, if you’re watching the BBC One repeats… uhm, tonight. It’s been a riotous few weeks for the Coal Hill mob, and if anyone is going to need therapy when this is all over, it’s Ram – whose yearbook entry surely ought to read ‘Most likely to wind up spattered in blood’. He’s privy to another violent death this week, occurring out on the football pitch before the opening credits have rolled. The one blessing of his father’s unfortunate demise is that Ram at least gets to witness it from a distance, thus keeping his tracksuit comparatively spotless and the police off his back.
While all this is going on, April is singing – Sophie Hopkins displays a raw natural talent, and if there’s no second series she surely has a future on the folk circuit – although it isn’t long before Ram shows up to wail in her ear. (“For god’s sake, April,” her mother doesn’t quite say, “take him outside. People are trying to listen.”) We barely have time to process Varun’s execution before there’s another – this time, it’s Tanya’s mum, graphically impaled while she’s lecturing her daughter, thus fulfilling the fantasies of angst-ridden teens everywhere. (Yes, I know we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but Vivian was annoying, and her loss will be felt by no one but Tanya and her brothers.)
The Lost is a curious thing: a series finale that is both deadly serious and sublimely ridiculous. It wraps up the events that initially united the dysfunctional group by recalling their first and deadliest adversary: the episode plays as a social commentary on international terrorism (the sword-wielding Shadow Kin’s ties to ISIS couldn’t have been more transparent if they’d bellowed “Allahu Akbar” before impaling their victims) but it does so in a way that is both miserable and paradoxically amusing. Bad things happen, hands are forced into impossible decisions, and not everyone comes out alive, but the impression the story leaves is less one of impenetrable darkness and more one of excessive, almost cartoonish violence; a morality fable delivered with a wink at the audience.
It helps that (with one exception) the characters don’t cease to be themselves, even in the face of impending disaster. They still behave like teenagers – Ram’s initial response to all this tragedy is to get as far away from it as he can, which is the sensible thing to do, and it is only his complicated bond with April that returns him to the front line. “He said you were number five!” he bellows, indicating Matteusz. “Are you just gonna stand around and wait to see who three and four are?” Meanwhile, Matteusz (who, shockingly, emerges from the final battle seemingly intact) waxes lyrical about the price of war. And April does that thing where her eyes inflate.
Over in the Smith household, Miss Quill – fresh from her experiences in the Metaphysical Engine – keeps up the one-liners even as she struggles to find clothes that fit. “So is this a thing with April, then?” she inquires of a sobbing Tanya. “Or has a pony hurt its leg somewhere?” Characters waking to find themselves in a sudden, advanced state of pregnancy is something that the Whoniverse tends to do with alarming frequency – it happened to Amy and it happened to Gwen – but Miss Quill takes it in her stride, managing to beat off Corakinus in the school library and teach basic kung fu in less than ten minutes (and yes, that’s how long it took; I was watching the clock in the hall). A certain suspension of disbelief is required, although perhaps the bigger question is exactly why she owns a tartan shopping trolley.
That Class ultimately resorts to the nuclear option shows a certain bravery on the part of the creative team. Glib comments about becoming the monster aside, we are for the most part spared the seemingly obligatory wrestling of conscience about whether or not to press the button – and in the end, the Shadow Kin are eradicated precisely because they thought they wouldn’t be. It comes as a surprise because it flies in the face of what’s come before: there is a scene at the end of almost every action movie where the cop-on-the-edge has the chance to kill his adversary and decides not to, only to have said adversary break free of police custody and pull out a hidden revolver, whereupon the cop shoots him in the head. It is refreshing when, at the end of Se7en (spoiler alert!), Brad Pitt ignores Morgan Freeman’s pleas to drop his gun and does exactly what we’d all do under similar circumstances. The same thing happens here: Charlie’s decision to sacrifice April, even at her behest, is pleasingly casual even as it is ultimately noble. That’s not to say that his hand wasn’t forced, of course. It’s always tempting to conclude that there should have been another way: this time, there really wasn’t.
The Shadow Kin have always been the series’ weak element – somewhat paradoxically, since they serve as its main antagonist – and perhaps the best thing about The Lost is that it concludes their arc by seemingly killing them off for good. Indeed, Class follows the pattern of many of its predecessors by establishing a new antagonist in its closing minutes, opening a box file of new questions just as it manages to answer a few of the old ones. That said antagonist turns out to be the Weeping Angels is both uproariously cheeky and slightly baffling; it feels like a throwback to the closing sequence in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake, or Doc’s final conversation with Marty at the end of Back To The Future, where he declares “Something’s gotta be done about your kids!”. That was a joke that Zemeckis and Gale used as a starting point for a not-entirely successful follow-up. Similarly it remains to be seen whether Patrick Ness can stretch this particular punch line to a full series. Not that we should berate him for opening this particular can of worms: sometimes that’s the only way to catch fish.
The question of where Class is going next depends, surely, on its reception on BBC One and over in America, where it has yet to be broadcast. In a year of big disappointments, the show was a pleasant surprise, succeeding far more than it failed. Class has come a long way from its shadowy beginning – it isn’t the British Buffy yet, not by a long shot, but if the twists and turns of the blood-soaked finale and its genocide leitmotif have taught us anything, then surely it ought to be that the BBC has created something that’s only just beginning to tap into its potential. Given wider scope and a bigger budget, there are all sorts of places that Miss Quill and her students can go, as long as they’ve got the audience along for the ride.
And as long as Donald Trump doesn’t see it. That’s just asking for trouble.