Class S01E07 “The Metaphysical Engine, Or-What Quill Did” REVIEW
Essential Plot Points:
- Having locked the kids in detention, Quill goes to find Dorothea so she can have the Arn removed from her head, or die in the process.
- She has no idea quite how convoluted this process is going to be.
- First Dorothea frees a prisoner who’s being held by the Board of Governors; a shapeshifter called Ballon who’s frozen in his current form, who also happens to be a surgeon. Only shapeshifters can remove can perform an Arn removal, apparently, so they’ll need to unfreeze him (or his hands at least). He was hiding out on Earth pretending to be a Zygon looking for his family when the Governors nabbed him.
- Using a device called the Metaphysical Engine (which Dorothea only just seems to be able to pilot) they travel to Arn heaven. The Metaphysical Engine, y’see, doesn’t take you to real places, but places that don’t exist but which enough beings believe in. Seems the Arn have a concept of the Afterlife… and it’s very pinky purple.
- Ballon captures an Arn; they will need it to calm the Arn in Quill’s head during the operation.
- Next they travel to the Hell for Ballon’s race, the Law. There they nick some blood from the Law God, which will be used to unfreeze Ballon’s hands so he can perform the operation.
- Next it’s a trip to the Quill’s garden of Eden to witness the birth of their Goddess (though Quill is devoutly atheist – and argues most of her kind are – it seems that enough other quill still believe in the stories enough for the Metaphysical Engine to work).
- Ballon decapitates the Goddess. Ballon needs its brain to complete the operation. We’re not entirely clear why even after listening to the explanation about 10 times but there you go…
- Both of them being ex-soldiers, Ballon and Quill start to bond.
- Dorothea uses to Engine to take them all back to Coal Hill (apparently) but leaves Ballon to perform the operation. She instead scurries off to explain to the Governors why the mission didn’t go as planned (which is all a bit odd as the mission appears to have gone exactly to plan).
- Ballon performs the bloody operation perfectly, extracting the Arn for Quill to stamp on. He even does some magic plastic surgery to close the wound leaving Quill with only a very unconvincing scar.
- Ballon and Quill shag on the assembly hall floor.
- Post shag Quill follows a trail of sand out of the hall doors and they discover that they aren’t in Coal Hill at all but in a hologram of it in a desert inside the Cabinet Of Souls. Being on Rhodian soil increased the chances of the operation being a success, explains Dorothea in hologram form. She can’t enter the Cabinet herself as the Metaphysical Engine is dying and only has the power to return one of them to the real world in one final journey.
- But Dorothea has brought Quill her gun.
- She says Ballon and Quill must fight to the death. The Governors will allow the survivor to return.
- When the two seem reluctant to fight, Dorothea adds another incentive; she says the Governors have located Ballon’s niece on Earth…
- They fight. Ballon gets his hand on the gun. He reluctantly attempts to shoot Quill, but the gun has been booby-trapped and backfires, killing him instead.
- Quill buries Ballon, then the cabinet’s souls arrive in the form of voiceless sparks. She rages against them, then demands they show her the way out. Oddly, they oblige, even though she appears to making veiled threats against the last of their kind (ie, Charlie). Maybe they actually want Charlie dead, or maybe they just want this annoying shouty woman out of the cabinet.
- Oh and her hair grows really quickly because time is like time in Narnia inside the Cabinet.
- Quill clambers out of the Cabinet like Sadako out of a television.
- She storms to the detention room and saves Charlie from being taken prisoner by the alien rock.
- She then makes her threat about how things are going to change now…
- …before passing out!
So this is what they were saving all that money up for with last week’s cheap (but very cheerful) episode. “The Metaphysical Engine, Or What Quill Did” boasts four new alien landscapes, two new monsters, a full-on gory operation and loads of action. This was ambitious sci-fi for TV and a while there were a few times it betrayed its BBC budget, there were also moments when the visuals were genuinely breathtaking. Plus, after so many alien planets on US shows looking like Canadian forests it was good to see a UK show pulling out all the stops to bring a new aesthetic to the genre. This did look refreshingly different. Arn heaven in particular was full of lush colour and fun detail, but even the Rhodian desert has a pleasingly different vibe to trusty old LA’s trusty old Vasquez rocks location for any vaguely deserty planet.
And with the operation scene we were getting into full-on David Cronenberg territory. Most of that sequence was magnificent, though there may have been one shot of the Arn too many; the final look we got at it coming out of Quill’s eye was less Alien and more Zippy and Bungle. But up until then, it was wonderfully gory.
The story itself was a gloriously entertaining mess so stuffed with ideas and great character moments that its main problem was trying to cram everything in. As a result, a few elements felt underdeveloped and poorly explained (as listed below) but the main dramatic sweep was so compelling that it swept you along on a wave of creative bravado.
It was certainly a great work-out for Katherine Kelly who, after impressing as Quill in the first couple of episodes, has been pushed into the wings slightly in recent weeks. The biggest gamble of the episode is having so little screen time the show’s main teen stars, but honestly, when Quill is rocking like this who cares? We’d probably have screamed in anguish if we’d been dragged away for another scene of Ram whinging about his leg or April looking in the mirror going, “I’m not just nice… I’m not just nice!” Quill is like a force of nature here, and if quips could kill she would have left Dorothea a bloody mess by about 10 minutes in.
There are also some interesting themes being explored, from Ballon as the intergalactic equivalent of a boat refugee, arriving on Earth looking for sanctuary and just finding hated and mistrust, to the various discussions on the nature of faith; none of it heavy-handed, some of it thought-provoking.
You also have to love the way Dorothea booby-trapped the gun for that shock ending. The fight looked like it was heading for a tired old “self sacrifice” cliché, but no; Ballon would have killed Quill. On the other hand – why did Dorothea booby-trap the gun? Sure, we get the feeling that she was loading the dice in Quill’s favour (the Governors want her alive for some reason) but what if Quill had picked up the gun? Was it a special gun that would only misfire if Ballon used it? Or were the Governors simply convinced that Quill would never shoot Ballon? It’s another case of slightly irritating vagueness in the episode, but hey, good twist, so it doesn’t matter too much.
A fine, pacy, unpredictable, great-looking and unashamedly geeky piece of small screen sci-fi, “The Metaphysical Engine, Or What Quill Did” is not without some creaky moments, but you have to applaud its chutzpah and audacity.
- Excellent performances from Katherine Kelly (Quill) and Pooky Quesnel (Dorothea).
- The Arn heaven looks gorgeous with some lovely details and subtle effects.
- More gorgeous direction from Wayne Che Yip. With wonderfully emotive shots like the one below, we hope he gets a directing gig on Doctor Who pretty soon. He also has a great sense of pace and rhythmic editing (check out the first time the trio use the Metaphysical Engine).
- We get to learn some very intriguing details about both Law and Quill culture. The fact that the Quill still eat their mothers at birth despite the fact that modern science means they no longer need to (it’s simply an archaic tradition they find hard to abandon) is an especially nice touch. As is the idea of Hell for shapeshifters being frozen for eternity as a statue.
- The operation was deliciously icky.
- Some great Quill lines this week:
• “Is that why they sent you? Expendable?”
• “Okay I’ll just ask. Where are we, o’ wise head teacher and mistress of nauseating space travel?”
• “Are kittens dangerous?” “Only if you insult their worshippers online.”
- The teasers that Dorothea is dropping about the Governors (“There are those who think the tears aren’t accidental, that they were placed there to provide for those who will listen… Coal Hill provides, it always provides”) are very intriguing indeed.
- We’re beginning to think there’s nothing significant about all the references to UNIT. This week’s mention, plus the mention of the Zygons, purely seem to be the kind of things the characters would say if they knew of their existence. Good continuity, in other words.
- Quill’s scar looks terrible in close-up, like she’s tried putting lipstick on in an earthquake.
- Ballon chasing the Arn looks intensely silly, and no, Quill pointing out it looks intensely silly doesn’t excuse it.
- Why didn’t Ballon and Quill simply take more blood from the Law God so they could completely unfreeze him?
- Not bad so much as a wasted opportunity, but the whole “Ballon as war refugee” angle is underplayed to the point of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it.
- There are a few too many things that don’t quite makes sense: why the souls let Quill out of the cabinet; why Dorothea bobby-traps the gun; why Dorothea thinks the mission didn’t go to plan; why the governors imprisoned Ballon; why Dorothea didn’t come back to give a Quill a lift home in the Metaphysical Engine. Now, there’s a good chance most or all these might be explained in the season finale, but the sheer weight of dangling threads here is distracting.
- The Quill Goddess was a bit naff; the show might wear its Buffy influences on its sleeve but giving us a monster that looks like it was actually made for that show 20 years ago and there’ve been no advances in prosthetic make-up since is going a bit far.
- The battle against the Law god was pretty feeble too. Did anyone understand how that throwaway line about it thinking they were statues factored into the fight? Are we to presume it simply ignored them and tamely let them take a sample of its blood?
And The Random:
- Anyone else think that, “Quill, Ballon. Ballon, Quill,” sounds like some bizarre meditation chant?
- Dorothea states that the mission didn’t go as planned and that she’ll have to explain herself to the board. Yet, it seems like the mission went exactly to plan (they got what they needed to perform the operation successfully), so what was supposed to happen?
- Miss Quill first referred to herself as, “I am war itself!” back in episode one, saying, “I am what waits for you, and I am war itself!”
- The quotation, “No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark,” comes from the poem “Home” by Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire. It’s about the plight of refugees and is very powerful.
- Right at the start of the episode, why does Dorothea describe the thing she uses to unlock Ballon’s handcuffs as, “Remarkable”. It just seems like a fancy key and not particularly remarkable at all.
- Also, if Ballon is a prisoner of the Governors, why does Dorothea complain about him being late? It can hardly be his fault – she should be complaining to the Board!
- So, the Law’s God lives in their Hell? That’s some crazy, mixed-up religion.