“Says milord to milady as he mounted his horse,
‘Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.’
Says milord to milady as he went on his way,
‘Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the hay.'”
I’m writing this on Halloween, so here’s a prediction: next year there will be a rush on Miss Quill costumes. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Miss Quill has only a couple of outfits, depending on whether she’s guesting on The Apprentice or clubbing with the Made in Chelsea posse. Tonight, she’s staring at a transmogrified version of her dead sister with something resembling raw hatred, or at least as close to it as Miss Quill ever gets. “Can you remember what you said to me the last time you saw me?” her sister asks. The terrorist-cum-bodyguard-cum-teacher doesn’t even flinch. “That if I ever saw you again,” she responds, “I’d rip your heart out with my bare hands and make you watch.” That’ll be business as usual, then.
Elsewhere, the dead are…well, not so much walking as they are wavering, perched on beds and kitchen chairs like awkward houseguests, imploring that the living should bond with them in some sort of toxic union. It is repugnant, unless it happens to you. It has happened to Tanya, who is facing her deceased father – introduced through a sweeping, wordless opening montage that charts his courtship and parenthood and early death in a manner eerily reminiscent of Pixar’s Up. Tanya, we fear, is in very real danger of succumbing to the terrible vine, damning herself in the process. And only the rest of the gang can save her.
Or can they? This is, at its heart, a rather messy story, content to wear its ambiguity with pride. Because this is not a tale to watch if you’re worried about consistency, given that it is relatively unconcerned either with making too much sense or fitting in with the wider context of Doctor Who. It shamelessly retreads the familiar ground of Death In Heaven (and, to a lesser extent, Army of Ghosts) and thus manages to remain ostensibly contradictory, at least until we scratch beneath the surface and question exactly what the Lankin actually is and what it’s doing there. Explanations or otherwise, this is still an unresolved tale, as messy and disorganised as the trailing plants that snake round East London.
One thing that strikes you about Class, even three episodes in, is just how minimalist it is. Not for the AS-level students the joys of a hundred green screen alien landscapes, nor the jet-setting beach-hopping frenzy that is Torchwood. They don’t even have Sarah Jane’s Nissan to gallivant off to a jolly at an art gallery. This lot are stuck in Shoreditch – stuck, in fact, in particular buildings in Shoreditch, as if physically tethered to them, the same way the nocturnal intruders are to the vine. What’s telling in Nightvisiting is how much of the action is confined to a series of bedrooms, with Ram and April’s dalliance on the Triffid-infested streets bearing the hallmark of an illicit after-hours encounter between two lovestruck teenagers. They even have a snog in a bus shelter, for heaven’s sake.
Just as the action is confined, so too the episode adheres to a unity of time that borders on the Aristotelian, framing its narrative within a single evening and allowing events to unfold almost in real time. The result is a slow-paced, dialogue-heavy tale: this is a character piece, allowing for illumination into the lives of two of its leads through the people who claim to know them best. Hence we learn that Tanya’s childhood nickname is ‘Puddle’, after an unsavoury incident involving a urinating horse. Jasper is barraged with challenge after challenge and aces every test, prompting us to ask exactly what’s going on: is this an uncanny simulacra? A memory made flesh? Or is it truly a dead man returned to life? That he’s being manipulated as part of a gestalt is not up for debate – just the question of whether he’s real. Played out as a narrative, Tanya’s constant refusal to believe heightens the sense that absolutely nothing in the cynical West is taken at face value, with everything from religion to political statements to acts of giving scrutinised for intent, motivation and authenticity. “There’s no way to convince you,” Jasper argues, with a certain world-weariness. “You just have to believe me.”
Tanya’s absence means that Ram must look elsewhere for help with his homework, prompting a sweet, if rather unlikely alliance with April. A mutual sharing of sob stories quickly blossoms into something a little deeper, and it’s a shame that the chemistry between Hopkins and Elsayed isn’t strong enough, at least at this point, to adequately support the story she needs to tell. It’s nice that we now know why April is ignoring all those missed calls from her father, but the whole thing is somewhat reminiscent of Sandra Bullock’s conversation with Keanu Reeves towards the end of Speed. “You’re not going to get mushy on me, are you?” she asks. “Because relationships that start under intense circumstances never last. They’ve done extensive studying on this.” There’s none of that here: just an insight into April’s Pollyanna façade. “You just think I’m nice or sensible,” she laments to Ram. “but really it’s war. I’m always at war.”
The tentative romance between April and Ram isn’t the only time the episode dallies with love, of course. Nightvisiting has already come under fire in certain quarters for a sex scene that, on the surface, appears somewhat gratuitous – at least until you stop and consider the fact that all sex in the Whoniverse is gratuitous, whether it’s Amy Pond trying to shag the Doctor in her Leadworth bedroom or Gwen walking in on Jack and Ianto in one of the upstairs offices. Besides, it’s handled with unexpected dignity, although Matteusz’s post-coital reaction to Charlie’s hallucination – “Do you often see your parents after sex?” – provides one of the episode’s biggest belly laughs. As to why the scene is there, the simple answer is to mark Matteusz’s cards: it should be painfully obvious by now that he’s not going to be in it forever, and that it’s a question of when, rather than if (my money’s on the series 2 opener, but by all means see me and raise me).
Away from Charlie’s bedroom, the tension builds much as it should, Jasper’s offer to Tanya dangling like forbidden fruit while the other characters endeavour to work out exactly what’s going on. The horror lies chiefly in the coiling tendrils of the Lankin’s deadly stems, although the recurring lag that seems to plague Ram’s webcam is used in one instance, to create a reasonably effective jump scare. Miss Quill vanquishes the Lankin with a bus – “She’s…resourceful,” is all Charlie can think of to explain to Matteusz – but it’s Tanya’s rage against the dying of the light that provides the story’s emotional denouement, with her bitterness providing a pleasing contrast to the ‘love wins’ trope that tends to plague this sort of thing.
It’s very tempting to look at a series like Class and wonder where it’s going. Is the sense of bonding between the characters a crowd-pleasing nod to Buffy, or does it portend certain disaster? Is Ness building his characters to help them triumph over adversity, or setting them up for a colossal fall? More to the point, how does Miss Quill fit into all this? Ness may have written an ensemble piece but it’s clear that Kelly is the star, and it is she who sets the tone – even as the victorious fivesome exchange high fives and proclaim that “We finally did something together,” Miss Quill is already retreating into the distance, presumably with a sick bucket on standby.
But glancing at the end of the rollercoaster track is the surest way to prevent yourself from enjoying the ride, and it’s probably best – for all the speculation – to concentrate purely on that, at least for now. Nightvisiting was the first out-and-out character piece the show’s offered, but it does what it does very well, and manages to say something both moving and profound even amidst its visual spectacle of impaled limbs and face-hugging vegetation. In the end, the story becomes a lament for absent friends, a song celebrating (in however twisted a fashion) those departed loved ones whom we miss so fondly because they may have been the ones that perhaps knew us best. In such close proximity to the Day of the Dead, how can that be anything other than entirely appropriate?