Battle of the Doctor Who spin-offs: Torchwood v Class

What can we learn about the new BBC3 sci-fi series from John Barrowman’s original spin-off?

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Exactly 10 years ago today, a Doctor Who spin-off began its run on BBC3. Promised as a darker take on the Whoniverse for a different audience, the series featured swearing, blood and sex in its first few episodes, staking out its claim as a different animal from the parent series that gave it life. 

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That series was Torchwood – but now, thanks to some kind of spatio-temporal anomaly another adult-themed, darker Doctor Who spin-off is set to begin on BBC3 this very day a decade later, that’s even based around a similar premise of rips in space-time allowing aliens through to the present day. THAT series is called Class.

Now, my intention here isn’t necessarily to compare the two series beat for beat, or even say which is the better. What I’m looking to do is look at how both series set out their stall in their very first outings, defining their push-and-pull relationship with Doctor Who, and maybe even ask how likely it is for Class to match Torchwood’s four series and international success going forward.

For now, let’s get started at the most appropriate point – the beginnings.

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Looking back, Class and Torchwood’s first episodes open in a strikingly similar way – with darkness and death. In Torchwood this takes the form of a bloody crime scene in the rainy night, where police officer Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) first encounters the mysterious Torchwood team as they use alien technology to revive a murder victim. Class’ first scene sees a student atmospherically stalked through the halls of Coal Hill Academy by a shadow, only to be cut down with a scream before the credits roll.

There are similar things going on here – the literal and metaphorical darkness that aims to set a different tone to Doctor Who, the juxtaposition of ordinary life (Gwen’s plans to meet a friend for pizza and the students entering school the next day) with sci-fi horror – but some of the way the divide from Doctor Who is emphasised is different.

Ironically, the adult-casted Torchwood’s method of separating itself is that of the teenager, throwing in bad language and grittiness from the off in an attempt to look more grown up. Accordingly, the first “fuck” occurs within the first two minutes, and there’s blood in the opening shot.

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Fady Elsayed as Ram in Class

Class, despite also bringing in a lot of blood in episode two, goes for a different tack. Swearing in the series exists but is milder (I detected a “shit” in episode one and a “dickface” or two elsewhere, but it’s much less than Torchwood), and instead the series marks its difference from Doctor Who with a certain pop-culture savviness. Lead characters April (Sophie Hopkins) and Tanya (Vivian Oparah) joke about the Bechdel test in an early episode one scene, and later throw a mild jibe at the racial politics of Downton Abbey and the work of Idris Elba. 

This works slightly better than Torchwood’s juvenile posturing, but these lines still don’t quite land, sounding vaguely like an “cool adult” trying to be down with the kids. It seems either choice is a little awkward and stilted, both the “teenager” and the “cool adult” not being entirely genuine as the two series struggle to find a voice and tone distinct from Doctor Who.

As the opening episodes go on things diverge a little more, but there are still some similarities. Both series are consistently a bit awkward and have the odd clunky line or performance, and beyond the first episode both try to solidify their more adult themes by including sex (though Class is slightly less obsessed with it than Torchwood was).

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Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill and Sophie Hopkins as April in Class

Both also feature some shocking twists early on – Class offs a character in a particularly grim way towards the end of the first episode, while Torchwood sees one of the team betray the others and die by her own hand – which further distances itself from the traditional, safer world of the Doctor.

In a more prosaic point, both series also suffer slightly from looking a bit cheap compared to Who, though in fairness Class is shot with a sense of imagination and style that make it the prettier show.

But perhaps most importantly of all, both series share the need for a lot of world-building in their first episode, creating their unique universes and rules while still emphasising their selling point – that they’re in the same mould as that show you like, Doctor Who.

Despite or perhaps because of the presence of an actual Doctor Who star in John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness, the callbacks to Who in Torchwood are subtle, limited in the first episode to Jack wishing he had “the right kind of Doctor” to help cure his immortality.

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Meanwhile Class, unlike any Who spin-off thus far goes full pelt in the other direction, making the Doctor (Peter Capaldi, above) actually appear and play a crucial part in the first story, eventually setting up the premise for the whole series (by giving the kids the mission of fighting off aliens) before departing to presumably return at some point in a future episode. 

The reason for this more hands-on connection is obvious – without an actual Doctor Who character to build itself around like Torchwood or the Sarah-Jane Adventures had, Class needs to set out its stall as a show for Who fans in a more direct way. Basing it in a school that’s appeared sporadically over five decades and looked different every time is a weak link, with the majority of modern Doctor Who fans probably unaware of what Coal Hill even is. So it makes perfect sense that the series would be “blessed” by the Doctor in this way, and the fact that he sets up the premise is a neat, almost meta twist – Doctor Who believes in these kids, and so should you.

However, it’s not as organic a way of introducing a series premise as Torchwood used in its first episode. In Everything Changes, Gwen Cooper and the audience are discovering a world and organisation that already exists, so the series had the freedom to be slightly more languid, and the reasons the characters were thrown together felt genuine. 

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Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper in Torchwood’s first episode

Series creator Russell T Davies riffed on his 2005 Who opener Rose to present Gwen Cooper’s introduction to the Torchwood organisation as a mystery, to be solved from her perspective. The information is drip-fed and story-led, and for the most part character introductions are hinted at or actually shown rather than told to us – we learn almost nothing about techie Toshiko, Doctor Owen or office boy Ianto apart from brief scenes of their home life, but you get the sense that there’s plenty of time for all that later.

By contrast, Class has to set up the entire status quo in the opening storyline. This makes Class’ first episode a huge info dump, with various characters explaining their backstories and motivations in pace-sapping monologues, while other scenes rush through the motions to get to where the show needs to be.

Frankly, it’s a little muddled, and while watching Torchwood’s first episode can be slightly cringeworthy now for various reasons it couldn’t be accused of that. 

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Burn Gorman as Owen Harper in Torchwood

So what, if any are the conclusions to be reached here? Well, one is that Class should be allowed to be a bit awkward while it searches for its voice. Torchwood started similarly and didn’t really nail its identity until parts of series 2 and the excellent series three, so it’s fair for Class to be given the benefit of the doubt until it finds its feet.

Equally though, it feels like Class has more work to do at establishing its world after the opening episode than Torchwood did. This is by no means a dealbreaker – Class has a lot going for it that Torchwood didn’t, from its (pardon the pun) classier aesthetic to its less try-hard sense of “darkness” – but it could end up holding it back in a more crowded sci-fi marketplace than Torchwood had to deal with. We’re living in the period of peak TV, and shows need to be distinctive enough to grab people early on , especially when they’re airing on demand.

Alternatively, it could be that with all its similarities Class will be a reminder of how many people felt about Torchwood when it first began – that it couldn’t measure up to its parent series. Doctor Who is a show that’s evolved slowly over more than half a century, and as many TV programmes have learned to their cost, it’s a difficult thing to reverse-engineer. Arguably Torchwood never quite managed it in easier circumstances, so who’s to say Class will do any better?

Perhaps in the end watching Class WILL be a vivid flashback for many of what watching Torchwood exactly 10 years ago today was like. Enjoying a decent hour of television, sure – but vaguely wishing we could all just watch Doctor Who instead.

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New episodes of Class are available on BBC3 online every Saturday at 10.00am