Review by Jacob Licklider
Class is simply an odd series at its conception and connection to Doctor Who. Announced in 2015 as a spin-off, the reaction to it was overall negative and who could blame it? The only connection the show has is that it takes place at the same school as the first ten minutes of An Unearthly Child and that the Doctor shows up in the first episode. It ran for eight episodes in 2016, ended on a cliffhanger, and was quietly cancelled a year later. Major criticisms of the show were that it was generic and had characters closer to a soap opera than a science fiction program. The show was revived in 2018 by Big Finish Production with a deal to make 12 hour long episodes set during the series, though not following up on the cliffhanger and released their first six. It would not be until late April of 2020 that the other six would be produced and released as Class: Volume 3 and Class: Volume 4 and like most things in the Doctor Who universe that isn’t well received, Big Finish Productions have taken the potential Class had and allowed the actors to fulfil said potential.
Volume 3 opens with ‘The Soers’ Ditch’, from newer Big Finish writer Carl Rowens, and primarily featuring Charlie, Matteusz, Ram, and April. The four are on a double date bowling, but once they leave they are all abducted by a group of aliens having a festival and the four find themselves in a variant of The Most Dangerous Game. Each couple has to run away from either the Matriarch or the Patriarch’s wolves in the Soers’ Ditch, in a realm just a few seconds out of time. This story is an excellent opening to the set with a lot of fun things done with characters as each character has a different idea on how to get out of this situation, but it is also the story that feels really out of place with the rest of the stories released in this batch. The rest of the stories have a strong focus on developing and exploring each character’s damage, something that was often hinted at in the television series, but not always effectively explored here. This isn’t to say that Rowens’ script is bad, far from it, the story is enjoyable, but it feels like the odd one out in a series of stories that explore these characters in different ways. Rowens does integrate Celtic mythology and the modern day incredibly well while still being vague enough that the listener doesn’t specifically connect this to a mythologic retelling. This is also the story where Fady Elsayed as Ram gets to shine as a character, due to the date setting, though it isn’t in depth as the other characters. It’s a good way to return to the world of Class after the break between the last sets and the TV show. 8/10.
There are also two major recasts with these new volumes of Class, the first of which debuts as the focus of the second story, ‘Catfish’. Catfish is from Kate Thorman, a new writer to Big Finish Productions, and focuses on the youngest member of the cast, Tanya, recast and now played by Joanna McGibbon. In replacing Vivian Opara, McGibbon gives Tanya her own interpretation of the character. McGibbon plays Tanya as more insecure, due to being younger than the other students and in a home situation where she really isn’t allowed as much freedom as most teenagers. In this story, Thorman and McGibbon explore Tanya as she finds her first boyfriend in Paul Sanchez, a new student at Coal Hill, and like many first relationships, this one doesn’t go very well. Tanya finds herself becoming distant from her other friends, even when Paul wants to hang out with everyone. There is an exploration of the insecurities of being a teenager and an outsider without the common interests that bind people together; this group of friends came together because they were attacked by aliens and Ram’s girlfriend was killed after all. McGibbon gives a powerhouse performance and really shows just what Tanya could be, as she only had one episode to shine in the show, that being the third. This is also a really good depiction of how imposter syndrome works and how someone can succumb to it. It’s obviously draped in science fiction tropes, but the examination is there and Thorman does have it as a major theme of the story. Overall, it’s the first hint at things to come with this set of stories as an excellent character piece. 9/10.
The home dynamic of Charlie, Matteusz, and Miss Quill is explored in Michael Dennis’s ‘Sweet Nothings’, the final story in Volume 3. It is sad that Katherine Kelly had to be recast, but Dervla Kirwan provides a performance that is just as acidic and witty as her predecessor in the role. ‘Sweet Nothings’ has two main purposes. First, it is a story that illustrates just how badly Quill has adjusted to life on Earth. She is miserable throughout her time here: finding absolutely nothing worthwhile on the planet until a man drops into her life, though this man does not provide a healthy relationship. This man allows her to have such an escape to the stars on a series of dates which Charlie and Matteusz notice her changed mood. Second, well that involves spoiling the story, so if you have not listened to it yet, then stop reading now. Dennis explores exactly who Charlie Smith is and how arrogant he is as a literal alien prince. The man is revealed at the end of the story to be a construct made by Charlie in a naïve attempt to do something nice to what is essentially his prisoner/guardian. Greg Austin plays Charlie here as almost a complete dope, not realising that he truly is messing with the already damaged psyche of someone he essentially has under his boot. It truly is an exploitative relationship and something that Charlie doesn’t really understand that he’s doing and it makes for an explosive end to the story when it eventually comes out. It makes Sweet Nothings be the capstone of Class: Volume 3. 10/10.
Class: Volume 4 opens with a story that also delves into Miss Quill and Charlie’s relationship, though this time it delves into their past. Alfie Shaw’s ‘Mock’ takes the form of a real time horror story taking place during a mock exam. For some reason a creature infiltrates the minds of the students and puts Quill into a dreamscape taking the form of a story from her past. Shaw’s script is one that delves into the mythology and culture of Rhodia, something that the show explained in clunky exposition; which works better here as it is integrated into the story. Shaw deals with repetition of phrases to create an unsettling environment while the story essentially becomes an examination of the Quill/Rhodian war and the nightmares that it has caused. The villain of the story is the Cleaver, this mythic figure from the Quill which haunts Miss Quill from her own youth. Dervla Kirwan gives a powerhouse performance in this episode as she deals with the fallout from the death of her own race. It’s an episode where bosh Quill and Charlie have to come to terms with what has happened. With that it becomes an excellent opener for the final trilogy and oddly enough the first installment in a small little arc patching up that clunky exposition from the show. 9/10.
The Class Halloween special is next with ‘The Creeper’ by actor turned writer Lizzie Hopley which is Volume 4’s mythology inspired story. Matteusz and Quill are stuck in a time tunnel found in an old house and it’s up to April and Charlie to save them. The Creeper of the title is this old witch played by the author in an excellent turn, giving the character this real creep factor from babbling to showing a harsher edge. Sophie Hopkins shines here as April as the character’s kind nature is used to great effect. She’s the one who offers to sacrifice herself to solve the story and she’s the one to comfort Miss Steel (Hopley’s character) because she’s just stuck creeping in between worlds. There’s also just this great idea here that everyone is dressed up in Halloween costumes that really makes the listener get into the mood for the season; even if the story was released in April continuing Big Finish’s long tradition of releasing holiday specials in the wrong season. Jordan Renzo is also really fun as Matteusz, not only in this story, but also in the entire set as he is allowed to show just how fun of a character and a grounding for Charlie he can be here. Their relationship is sweet and more developed than the TV series, which had a problem of too many characters for an episode count of eight. Hopley’s script is just another character study, this time about April and how perhaps being too kind could become her own downfall in the end. It’s an excellent story and an easy way to pass an hour. 9/10.
The final Class audio is, perhaps the most fitting, a deconstruction of the show and the reasons why it doesn’t work. ‘Queen of Rhodia’ is an alternate universe tale written by show composer Blair Mowat and set as close as Big Finish could get to continuing the actual show, but different. The story is told through the perspective of Miss Quill where she wakes up back on Rhodia in the service of the Rhodian Queen, Tanya. Obviously there is The Wizard of Oz trope of all of the known characters having alternate personas on this version of Rhodia. Charlie is the leader of the Quill, Ram is one of his generals. Quill, April, and Matteusz are Rhodians underneath the Rhodian Queen Tanya and the story takes place during the Rhodian/Quill war. Mowat’s script is primarily a deconstruction on what lead Class to an early end on a cliffhanger that as of now is never meant to be solved. There are things in this story that are not explained, however what Mowat does explain is excellent. Mowat is not someone you would expect to write a script, but of all the Big Finish creatives, as the original composer and composer for all of the audios, he has the most familiarity with the show. There are even points where there is what I believe is intentionally bad dialogue to reflect quite a bit of the television show’s flaws. It’s also the final audio, making it fitting that there may perhaps never really be an answer, though unlike the television show, whose cliffhanger was not at all earned due to not really finding its own identity, the Big Finish iteration completely earns it and it will be a shame if this is an end. Overall, this may be the best Class audio. 10/10.
Class is still not a show that I would recommend, but if someone wished to experience it, it is perhaps best to go to the audio dramas as they show what potential the show had, if the right people were in charge.
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