This weekend sees the arrival of long-awaited Doctor Who spin-off Class, and after months of knowing very little at all we’ve recently started to find out all sorts of things about what we can expect from the BBC3 sci-fi series.
We know the characters (Katherine Kelly's teacher Miss Quill and teenagers Charlie, Ram, April and Tanya), the baddies (dark creatures called the Shadow Kin), and even some of the storylines – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still more to learn, as RadioTimes.com discovered when we went behind the scenes to discover a Tardis-full of surprising facts about the autumn’s hottest UK sci-fi show.
Starting with a big revamp for a (in every sense of the word) Doctor Who institution…
1. Coal Hill School has changed
Greg Austin as Charlie
Over the years Coal Hill has appeared a few times in Doctor Who, usually as a pretty traditional, ordinary UK school. But upon entering the set, it’s a more modern, flashier set-up than we’ve seen before – so what gives?
“It’s a bit different from what we’ve seen in Doctor Who before, and we wanted to update it,” producer Derek Ritchie tells us as we make our way down the school corridor. “Make it feel a bit more aspirational.”
“As an ex-pat I can tell you that when the British talk about their schooldays, the phrase that they always say is, 'A bit s**t',” series creator Patrick Ness expands later.
“This Coal Hill is a place you'll want to go, and these students are people you want to have as your friends, and you want to go on these adventures and you want to identify with one of them, or more of them, and so that was always always about really stepping away from the idea of 'a bit s**t'.”
The Department of Education WILL be pleased.
2. It’s not just for kids
Sophie Hopkins as April and Vivian Oparah as Tanya
As we discover on our trip, despite its “Young Adult” branding the team behind Class insist that it’s not just for kids, with its young cast particularly keen to emphasise its cross-generational appeal.
“I would watch it, my friends would watch it, my family would watch it, so I think it’s going to be generational,” Sophie Hopkins (who plays "mother hen" teenager April) says.
“I mean, that’s obviously where it’s aimed, at the young adult,” actor Greg Austin (who plays offbeat Charlie) agrees.
“But young adults want to be and are essentially adults, so I think it will appeal to that demographic, and to people a lot older. They can see references to their own childhood and their own teenage years.”
3. It’s not as dark as fellow spin-off Torchwood
The cast of Torchwood series one
Comparisons between Class and Torchwood, the original Doctor Who spin-off that preceded it by exactly ten years, were inevitable. Both have similar premises (holes in space and time let nasty aliens through) and more “grown-up” themes (Patrick Ness comments that “we've introduced blood back into Doctor Who”) and both are, you know, Doctor Who spin-offs.
But in a meeting room at Cardiff’s Roath Lock Studios (where Class, Doctor Who and other series like Casualty are filmed), Ness and executive producer Brian Minchin are keen to play down the comparisons – especially when it comes to the bleakness.
“Torchwood in the first series went quite far,” Minchin says now (having previously script-edited the older spin-off), “and we haven't done anything like [series one episode] Countrycide or anything like that, because I think you can sometimes push people away.”
Fady Elsayed as Ram
“And otherwise it does look like, 'Ooh look at us, how bad we're being,’” Ness adds. “And you don't want that to happen. It has to be story-driven. It has to come from story. We've talked a lot about how everything has to be earned, or an audience can tell.”
Still, that isn’t to say there couldn’t be any sort of overlap between the two shows – say some sort of crossover one day?
“I couldn’t possibly tell you,” Derek Ritchie says. “Spoilers! You guys don’t wanna find out too much yet, do you?”
Damn their sense of showmanship.
4. Doctor Who’s alien invasions have taken their toll on the world
Jordan Renzo as Matteusz
Back when Class was announced, we speculated about whether Ness’ book The Rest of Us Just Live Here would influence the new series, using its "kids in the background of big world-ending adventures" idea to imagine the real-life repercussions of a country which is invaded by Daleks every couple of years and once had an evil Time Lord for Prime Minister. And as it turns out, we may have been right…
“Well my last novel was called The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and it was a novel about all those characters who live in a world with The Chosen Ones but aren't The Chosen Ones,” Ness says. “What if you lived in the world like that and just had your regular teenage problems?”
And apparently the modern Doctor Who world’s spate of alien invasions (which, having started when the series returned in 2005, would have punctuated the entire adolescence of the main characters) have not gone unnoticed in the series.
“We do talk about that, yeah,” Ness says.
“It's dealt with really cleverly in the script actually,” Minchin chips in. “We should probably wait until you see ep one actually. But we will deal with it.”
5. There’s a specific reason why the series is called Class
If you thought this teenage sci-fi show was secretly hiding a Marxist tract in its name, you’re actually not too far from the truth – because as Patrick Ness explains to us, the title was always supposed to imply a double meaning.
“Again, that's an expatriate having a little bit of fun because I know, having lived here for a long long time, that the British talk about class.
“And I thought, 'Okay, well let's make the title a little allusive, let's make it ring like a struck bell,’ is my feeling about the title. So it is, it's set in a class, it absolutely is, that is the most basic explanation for it. But 'class' has lots of meanings.”
We're sure the oppressed proletariat would agree.
6. The whole series came from a rejected Doctor Who episode
As we reported earlier this year, Patrick Ness (above) was originally asked to write an episode for Doctor Who, but turned it down because he wanted to make his own stuff. And then an idea emerged…
“They said ‘You know we’re thinking of a spin-off set in Coal Hill,’” Ness recalls now. “You never know where an idea’s going to come from or what’s going to stick to an idea, and for some reason I thought, ‘Ooh I know how I’d do that. I know how I’d start that and I know who might be the centre of that and what might stick to that.’
“It was kind of unexpected. I didn’t expect to be writing this but you take a good idea when it comes and embrace it.”
If only all rejections could turn out so well, eh? Certain RadioTimes.com writers' own school proms might have gone very differently.
7. They’ve been thinking about a Doctor Who spin-off for years
Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill and Jami Reid-Quarrell as The Inspector
If you’re wondering why there hasn’t been another spin-off since The Sarah-Jane Adventures, apparently it’s not for lack of interest – at least among members of the press.
“Every time we meet journalists they say ‘is there gonna be a spin-off?’”, executive producer Brian Minchin (who has the same title on Doctor Who) tells us.
“So you guys would come to us saying ‘Is there gonna be a Vastra spin-off, is there going to be a Clara and Ashildr spin-off? Is there going to be a Missy spin-off?’
“So the idea of, the concept of, the idea that people wanted more than just Doctor Who has always been in our minds. But we never wanted to do it just because.
“The question was, why now, because it’s been five years? And the answer was because Patrick Ness came along and he had a great idea for a spin-off. We would never do a spin-off just because there was a want for it or just because it would help make money or whatever. It had to be the right idea behind it.”
In other words, it’s the efforts of tireless entertainment journalists that have brought you all this series. You’re welcome.
8. It’s FULL of Doctor Who Easter Eggs
Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill and Peter Capaldi as The Doctor
While on set we noticed a few fun Doctor Who references, including a building named after a classic character (no spoilers here) and even a tribute to ex-companion and Coal Hill staff member Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) – and apparently we should be looking out for more over the course of the series.
“We’re kind of peppering the show with little easter eggs wherever possible,” producer Derek Ritchie tells us.
“So there’s little nods throughout, in design or wherever, that will always link it to the Doctor Who universe. Because that’s so important to our audience as well. To feel part of Doctor Who, but a new part of Doctor Who as well."
9. They’re already hoping for a second series
“It's designed to be returning, definitely,” Minchin tells us, with Ness more recently telling fans in a Q&A that he’s already made plans for another run of episodes.
“Let's hope everyone loves it,” Minchin continues.
“We love it. We're so excited about this show, it's so special what Patrick and everyone has put together, this cast, these stories.
“I've always wanted to make a show like this that can tell those stories sincerely, an unironised take on what it is to be growing up and I think it's the best combination of brilliant sci-fi stories and emotional stories I've worked on for a long, long time… and it's funny.”
Sounds like the full package.
10. Peter Capaldi might be in it more than once
Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and Paul Mark Davies as Corikinus
Pretty much everyone who’s vaguely interested in Doctor Who must know by now that Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi will be appearing in the first episode, setting the events of the series in motion as he tasks the young heroes (Fady Elsayed, Greg Austin, Sophie Hopkins and Vivian Oparah) with their planet-saving duties.
However, the inclusion of the Doctor is an unusual step (he never appeared in Torchwood and only dropped in briefly a few seasons into The Sarah-Jane Adventures), and not a decision taken lightly.
“The show has to stand on its own,” Ness says when asked about Capaldi’s involvement. “It has to, has to, has to.
“But it's also part of this absolutely fantastic tapestry and universe, and that kind of hand-off and the imprimatur that the Doctor can give... it's not quite how the Star Trek series all did it, they all started with sort of a handoff, but I just thought [it would] really say, 'This is where we are and this is the point of view we're going to take.'”
But when pressed on whether Capaldi would return to the series after the initial hand-off, the team are a bit more cagey.
“The best way to find out what happens is to watch the series!” Minchin argues, before hinting: “It's a world that has the Doctor in it…”
If we were betting men and women, we’d say we’ll be seeing the Tardis again before series’ end.
11. But despite all these crossovers, Class is not trying to BE Doctor Who
“Class is not trying to be mini Doctor Who,” Minchin tells us. “This is its own show with its own voice.”
However, it does “plug” the gap left by Doctor Who’s delayed tenth series, which will air next April rather than its expected 2016 slot – so was there a sense of that while making it?
“Yeah, it's gonna fill a gap,” Ness acknowledges. “But the only way you ever, ever solve that problem is by making the best show possible. And that's always gonna be what I wanna do.
“We can't have a crutch. It's got to work on its own terms. So I hope in a year from now you're asking Brian on a Doctor Who junket if they're going to bring any Class monsters in, cause that'd be the best result."
“There’s enough of a connection that you’ll discover as the series goes on, that every true Doctor Who fan will go, ‘ooh, aw, that’s really cool!’” Greg Austin adds.
“But there’s enough space as well for Patrick’s work to shine in his own right, so what I know I’m hoping for, for the show, is that Doctor Who fans will be surprised, it’ll be something in there that they know and love, but also something new and exciting. It’s a regeneration of the show.”
Doctor Who, regenerated? Sounds class.
Class episodes 1 & 2 will be available from BBC3 online from 10am this Saturday 22 October