Class S01E01 “For Tonight We Might Die” REVIEW
Essential Plot Points:
- Shadow creatures are killing pupils at Coal Hill School and a new teacher, the mysterious, no-nonsense, slightly scary Miss Quill, could either be helping or hindering them.
- Cheery, kind-hearted April is planning the school prom, apparently single-handedly. She tries to enlist to help of Tanya (a brainbox who’s been advanced two years at school, but who has to deal with a very strict mother)
- April asks odd new boy Charlie (he’s from Sheffield, allegedly) to be her date but he invites hunky Matteusz instead. April is unsurprised to realise that Charlie is gay but still gutted.
- Football jock Ram is put off his game when something weird happens with an opponent’s shadow.
- Later shadows also attack April as she’s decorating the prom hall and Tanya as she Skypes (or FaceTimes or whatever) Ram.
- Miss Quill steps in to save April. She gives April a gun and tells her to shoot the creature.
- As April does so, Charlie leaps at her so that she only gives the shadow creature a glancing blow.
- At which point the shadow creature attacking Tanya also vanishes for no adequately explained reason other than that old SF cliché that if you kill the leader of the aliens, all his followers die too…
- …Except April hasn’t actually killed the creature; it’s MUCH more complicated than that.
- INFODUMP TIME.
- The creature is the King of the Shadow Kin. The gun is a “Displacement gun – it hits both target and shooter, tearing the body apart, scattering to the far corners of the universe, taking the Shadow Kin with it.”
- But as April only gave the Shadow Kin a glancing blow (thanks to Charlie’s intervention) instead of them both dying, the Shadow King has lost his heart, and now – thanks to some spurious technobabble – both he and April are sharing a heart which, thanks to time/space displacement, can be in two chests at the same time.
- The Shadow King kin vanishes – for now – but seems rather amused at the fact that to kill him, they will have to kill April too, and it’s clear Charlie isn’t going to let that happen.
- Turns out Charlie is actually an alien prince from a race known as the Rhodians. They were at war with another race on their planet, the Quill, triggered by the Quills’ belief that the Rhodians’ economic policies were sucking the planet dry of resources.
- Back then, Miss Quill was the Quill leader; either a freedom fighter or a terrorist, depending on your point of view.
- The Rhodians won and inflicted a cruel and unusual punishment of Miss Quill; she had a telepathic creature inserted into her brain which formed a psychic link between her and Prince Charlie, meaning that she was forced to be his servant/slave depending on your point of view.
- She is bound to protect him but cannot use weapons herself.
- And there’s more…
- The Rhodian/Quill homeworld was then invaded by the Shadow Kin, who killed everyone except Prince Charlie and Mrs Quill who were rescued by the Doctor (who appears to be the founding member of the “Last Of Your Kind” support group).
- Through her psychic link with the Shadow King, April learns that he intends to lead a new attack during the prom. Prince Charlie and Miss Quill still aren’t entirely sure what he’s after.
- Next day, Ram and Tanya swap stories with Charlie and April; Ram isn’t interested in joining the geeks to become the new Scooby Gang.
- At the prom, the Shadow Kin attack, as April predicted.
- Ram’s girlfriend Rachel is bloodily killed in front of his eyes. He then has his leg cut off by a Shadow Kin sword.
- The rest of the prom goers vacate the school in a non-orderly fashion when the Shadow Kin gatecrash the main hall.
- But our heroes get locked in…
- …And that’s when the Lonely God arrives in his time machine – The Doctor!
- (It’s not quite gloria deo ex tempore machina because Miss Quill was earlier seen phoning him for help.)
- Anyway, turns out that the Shadow Kin are after the Rhodian Cabinet of Souls, a mystical artefact that Charlie saved from the destruction of his planet, which allegedly contains the souls of all Rhodians.
- Apparently it’s also a powerful weapon. There is some explanation why so, but they may as well have been talking in Venusian for all the sense it made. It all sounds a bit “ark of the covenant” whatever it is.
- Charlie says the stories are just a myth; the cabinet is empty.
- The Shadow King says words to the effect of, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
- The Doctor and the Time Teens send the Shadow Kin back to their home through a rip in time and space by turning all the lights in really brightly. Ram hops in to help as well, pushing the Shadow King through the portal with a well-aimed chair.
- The Doctor partially closes the portal but explains to the Time Teens that Coal Hill has been the centre of so much temporal activity over the years that the tears in space time can never be fully repaired. It will act like a beacon for evil aliens. Oddly, he manages to deliver this whole speech without saying the word “Cardiff Rift” and “Torchwood: The Next Generation”.
- The Doctor charges the Time Teens with dealing with whatever comes through.
- Miss Quill and Ram are not happy with this (which is a bit ungracious of Ram since the Doctor gives him a really cool new cybernetic leg). Charlie, April and Tanya seem up for it, though.
- Charlie is especially impressed that April seems so casual about sharing a heart a murderous alien king.
- Later, in secret, Charlie opens the Cabinet of Souls, which is absolutely crammed with souls. Ooh, the big fibber.
The latest Doctor Who spin-off arrives with a weight of expectations, not just from Who fans but from Patrick Ness fans as well. Anyone who’s read any of his YA books will know how clever, subtle, witty and emotional his work can be.
So, has he brought all that to the Whoniverse?
Well, yes. But not in this rather clunky first episode. Luckily, BBC Three released the first two episodes simultaneously, so we’re able to see more clearly where this show’s going in the much tighter, more tonally assured, all-round more entertaining second episode.
Not that “For Tonight We Might Die” is a disaster; it just doesn’t come out firing on all cylinders. It’s decent enough fun, with some very strong characters and a whole load of brilliant dialogue, but it’s just not different or groundbreaking enough to justify getting really excited about. Part Buffy, part Torchwood there are few moments where it’s offering something in addition to either of those shows. Which is disappointing, as inverting tropes is exactly what Ness does effortlessly in his books.
What works immediately are the characters and relationships. Mrs Quill is the instant standout. Although it’s unclear quite how she ever got a job as a teacher (the Doctor must have been involved, surely?) she’s huge, huge fun. The kids are great too, though it’s a shame that in a show that’s admirably diverse, there’s no room for thick kids. Why does YA sci-fi always star brainboxes? Equality for IQ-deficient, we say!
Also, the gay guy is an alien? Is that the right message to send out? We bet someone picks up on that on the internet, but, to be honest, Charlie (Greg Austin) is so charismatic in the role you’s have to be pretty militant to push that agenda. Fady Elsayed impresses too; even if his “I hate geeks” shtick is laid on a bit too thick there’s real charm and depth there. And Sophie Hopkins may be a little jolly hockey sticks at times but the way she takes everything thrown at her in her stride is adorable.
The plot itself is all rather muddled and doesn’t bear up to close examination… or even long-distance examination through frosted glass during a snow storm, to be honest. Perhaps the script is hampered by the sheer weight of info it has to dump. Admittedly it tries to liven it up with some clever flashbacks (seen in April-vision) but the episode has so much backstory to offload it leaves little time to explore the Shadow Kin and their deeply unconventional search-and-retrieve tactics (randomly terrorise children in secret then crash their prom). The displacement gun ends up being a “magical artefact” capable of doing whatever the plot requires it to do and the bigger ramifications of a school where pupils go missing but nobody seems to care are dismissed in a couple of throwaway lines.
But there are some interesting elements. The fact that the political situation between the Rhodians and the Quill is far from a cut-and-dry Rhodians good/Quill bad dynamic is clearly setting up revelations down the line, while the cliffhanger with the distinctly not-empty Cabinet of Souls leaves you with a chill. Plus, that shot of Ram covered in blood after Rachel is killed clearly signifies that he’s going to be suffering from some kind of PTSD in coming episodes.
As for Capaldi’s guest appearance – well, it’s fun, and a great marketing tool, so it does what it sets out to do. But there is a slight worry that he puts potential psychopath Miss Quill in charge of the kids, especially after revealing that he knows she was responsible for one of the pupil’s deaths. Capaldi is great, as usual, and the idea he’d let the children shine by giving them the task of defending the Earth against whatever come through the rifts at Coal Hill is the Doctor through-and-through. But entrusting Quill? Amusing though she may be that’s a a bit of s stretch.
The good thing is, nearly all the problems we’ve raised in this episode have vanished in the second. Though it does introduce one new big problem of its own…
- Miss Quill. Everything about her, from the way hammers banners to the wall with her bare fists, to the sublime, “Leave us… WE ARE DECORATING!” She’s a great TV critic too, “No wonder this country only exports Downton Abbey.”
- The reveal of Charlie’s and Quill’s true forms (possibly) is cool, though it could just be how April imagines them, we suppose. Especially since Quill has quills… it’s a bit literal. Great alien make-up, though.
- The dynamic between Quill and Charlie is especially interesting and full of dramatic potential; she makes some good arguments about how the Rhodians treated the Quill. It seems Charlie’s side may not be squeaky clean.
- And the idea of the ahn is barbaric.
- “We are here for the Cabinet.”
“Oh, the cabinet. Oh, that’s easy. There’s this painfully strange shop here called Ikea…”
- “Would you believe me if I… if I said I was from another… planet?”
“God yeah. You’re weird and you don’t know anything about pop culture. You’re either alien or Amish.”
- “It’s like the Hellmouth.”
“Or that town in Once Upon A Time.”
“Or The Vampire Diaries.”
“You watch Vampire Diaries?”
“Everyone is very attractive.”
- You have to love the way all the teachers are distracted at the prom by teenage relationship dramas and alcohol abuse.
- The Shadow Kin are brilliantly achieved on screen.
- The young actors playing Ram, Charlie and April are all excellent an instantly charismatic. Vivian Oparah struggles slightly to bring the same charm to Tanya, but as the real geek amongst them (rather than a US-style geek-chic geek) and the youngest of the lead characters she has a more difficult task anyway (plus she’s given a couple of “taking to herself out loud” scenes that just make her come across a bit strange). Hopefully the character and actress will find their vibe quickly.
- The final scene – with Charlie revealing that the Cabinet of Souls is far from empty – is satisfyingly ominous.
- A gun that kills both victim and shooter by displacing both to the far corners of the universe and can also perform interdimensional heart transplants? That’s stretching suspension of disbelief to snapping point.
- And how come Charlie can use it fine without getting displaced?
- Some of the pop culture references are great but a couple are downright clunky, especially the mention of the Bechdel test and “Where is the prince?” “What? The singer?”
- The appearance of the Doctor just avoids being “deus ex machina” (Quill made a phone call, and the teen heroes do help to vanquish the Shadow Kin) but it’s worryingly close.
- So the Shadow Kin decide to put off their search until the prom because… they’re a race with an understanding of dramatic flair, perhaps?
- The conceit that all the flashbacks to Charlie’s home planet are seen through an April-prism (handily cutting back on alien make-up costs as she imagines it to be like Grange Hill meets Narnia) is very clever, but it still looks a little cheesy’n’cheap.
And The Trivia:
- Although it’s probably just a coincidence the above image in the opening credits is really reminiscent of an image in the opening titles to the ’70s sci-fi show The Tomorrow People (inset).
- This old dear who caught her husband fiddling with himself was played by June Hudson, who was a costume designer on classic Doctor Who.
- DID YOU SPOT? #1: There’s a sign on a notice board which says, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Any “Doctor” in particular they were thinking of?
- DID YOU SPOT? #2: Is Charlie’s hexagon-themed bed linen a reference to the TARDIS interior?
- DID YOU SPOT? #3: The camera draws your eyes to the names Pink, RD (as in Danny) and Oswald, C (as in Clara) on the remembrance board, but you can also see Foreman, S (as in Susan, the first Doctor’s granddaughter who attended Coal Hill School back in ’63). There are some other names that sound close to Who references (Tardif, W?) but it’s difficult to be sure.
- Artron energy, to which the Doctor refers, was first mentioned in the fourth Doctor story “The Deadly Assassin” (1976). It’s time energy, basically.
- The Doctor refers to his time working undercover at Coal Hill School in the 12th Doctor story “The Caretaker” (2014).
- Anyone else waiting for Aslan to turn up at this point?
- Did you notice the great new arrangement of “A Good Man (Twelve’s Theme)” when Capaldi arrives and the Doctor’s theme when the TARDIS first materialised?
Review by Dave Golder