An exchange between two of the teen protagonists in BBC America’s “Doctor Who” spinoff “Class” takes place a little over halfway through the season and exemplifies some of the series’ unique strengths:
Ram, trying to explain his Sikh religion: “We believe the important thing in your life is to do good action. But if you do the good action, somewhere in the process there’s got to be God, even if you don’t have faith or believe that there’s some dude out there looking after you. Isn’t doing a good thing, one human to another, the closest we’re going to get to God?”
April: “And what about the bad things we do, one human to another?”
It’s the type of philosophical discussion that one might have in quieter contemplative moments, but since this is the world of “Doctor Who,” it instead occurs on a shadowy alien world, right before the two friends take on the leader of a race of angry, slaughtering monsters. The series’ ability to balance action and adventure, giddy moments of irreverent humor, adolescent angst, and deeper, more profound topics of freedom, identity and morality are all one would hope for in a “Doctor Who” spinoff. It just takes a while to get there.
As with any teenager, one must exercise patience when it comes to the teen drama “Class.” In fact, it takes three rather lackluster, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”-lite episodes (out of eight total) before it truly starts to come into its own. But when it does, all credit goes to YA author and series creator Patrick Ness, who had already proven with “A Monster Calls” to have a deft hand in combining the supernatural with the human experience.
With “Class,” viewers enter a world that was already well formed: Coal Hill Academy was a school that was featured in the first-ever “Doctor Who” episode in 1963 and has popped up throughout the decades, most recently with The Doctor himself (Peter Capaldi) dropping by when Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was an instructor there.
This time, our entry point is four students whom The Doctor deputizes to defend the world while he’s off in his TARDIS. The sweet but rather clueless Charlie (Grant Austin) turns out to be an alien prince, the last surviving member of the Rhodian race, who’s found sanctuary at Coal Hill as a normal teen from Sheffield. While the other three students are definitely of earth stock, over the course of the season we’ll learn about their dark pasts and surprisingly capacity for depth and heroism. Tanya (Vivian Oparah) is a Nigerian child prodigy who is three years younger than her mates, April (Sophie Hopkins) is the unassuming good girl who needs to break out of her shell, and Ram (Fady Elsayed) is a first-team soccer star.
Two other characters deserve mention as absolute scene stealers. Miss Quill is the physics teacher played with scenery-chewing asperity and wit by the fabulous Katherine Kelly (“Happy Valley,” “Mr. Selfridge,” “Coronation Street”). The Doctor has charged Miss Quill with keeping an eye on his ragtag band of students, and similarly, the veteran actress provides guidance to her young castmates in the form of an impeccably committed performance. It feels as if Miss Quill sprang forth from all of the Whoniverse’s most outrageous and impertinent impulses.
Finally, Matteusz (Jordan Renzo) is a fifth student who is seldom mentioned in the core group we suspect partly because of the potential for spoilers and partly because his presence would unbalance the two boys and two girls equilibrium. Nevertheless, Matteusz is essential not only as part of the Coal Hill Scooby Gang but also as the beating heart of the group who rarely wavers morally and who drives some of the key moments in the series. Keep an eye on Matteusz.
While the first half of “Class” is rather rough and full of teen drama cliches — a school dance! unrequited crushes! strict parents! — combined with uninspiring monsters of the week, Episodes 2 and 3 deserve recognition for their nuanced treatment of grief. The show doesn’t offer up any platitudes and instead delves into the ongoing process of dealing with trauma and loss.
Once the series enters its second half, it maintains a consistent level of complexity, but by far the standout episode is its sixth. The brilliant bottle episode places all five students in detention, but this is not your parents’ “Breakfast Club.” What transpires among the group is so well orchestrated and so well considered — having far-reaching consequences — that this installment alone is worth enduring the earlier misfires.
While the show knows how to juggle the heavier issues and high-concept scenarios, it doesn’t skimp on the fun. There are plenty of wicked pop culture references, over-the-top set pieces, old-fashioned fight scenes and all manner of gross blood and chunky viscera.
The show is sparing but deliberate in how it connects to the canon, and of the four monsters it created, we could see at least one — the simplest in design and concept — return. As “Doctor Who” spinoffs go, “Class” may not have established itself quite as indelibly as “Torchwood” did in the Whoniverse, but give it, well, time.
“Class” premieres after “Doctor Who” on Saturday at 10:10 p.m. on BBC America.