Ever wonder what happens to the people left behind once the Doctor’s TARDIS whirs out of their lives? That’s the promising premise of BBC America’s upcoming spin-off “Class.” Created by YA author Patrick Ness, the adventure series follows high schoolers attending the Whoniverse’s notorious Coal Hill Academy. There teen angst over love, sex, friendship and family is enhanced by regular alien invasions and save the world missions.
Preceding “Class”s packed panel at New York Comic-Con, CBR sat down in a pair of roundtable interviews with Ness and his “Class” stars, Greg Austin, Fady Elsayed, Sophie Hopkins, and Vivian Oparah to discuss the show’s influences, how it connects to “Doctor Who,” and who the kids of “Class” are.
We began with writer/creator Ness, who was unexpectedly offered “Class” after he turned down a guest writing gig on “Doctor Who.” “I had just done a bunch of adaptations and I was really at a point, where I was like I’d really like to do something that’s mine,” the author of “A Monster Calls” recalled, “And they said, ‘Well, we have this other idea that’s we’re throwing around a bit, a spinoff set in Coal Hill.’ And suddenly, all these ideas started flying. And that’s how you know an idea’s going to work; it creates other ideas. I figure my job is just to grab an idea when it comes. And that was a real very, very pleasant surprise.”
Chief among those ideas was creating a show that was fresh and self-aware. Ness knew “Class” would not only be compared to “Doctor Who” and its spinoffs like “Torchwood” and “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” but also to other sci-fi/fantasy series like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” And that’s fine by him, because he credits “Buffy” as “the greatest television show of all time.” He added, “”Buffy” has this incredible elixir of emotional moments, scary moments, funny moments, and it turns and turns and turns. And that’s really hard to do. But why not try?”
“It’s part of a really good, really strong continuum of shows,” Ness said of “Class.” “You might as well acknowledge it and engage and subvert when you can…I think the worst mistake that YA television can make is trying to be ‘down with the kids,’ because that’s insulting. What you should do is make the best show possible, with the highest quality possibly. Then implicitly you’re respecting your viewer…And if you do that, then adults come in droves too because they read YA in the millions.”
For Ness, getting teen drama right for a savvy 2016 audience meant inclusive casting. “Cast” boasts lead characters who are female, people of color, and LGBTQA. But before we get ahead of ourselves, lets meet the heroes of “Class.”
“April is a student at Coal Hill Academy,” Sophie Hopkins said of her role on the series. “She is grounded, and she puts others before her. She’s the sole carer for her mum, who was paralyzed in an accident. So that’s given her an insight into a bigger world, and that there are more important things than just high school. These are new friends. It takes quite a while for her to adjust. I think she’s more used to hanging out with adults.”
“Charlie is the new boy at school,” Austin began, “He’s a bit different. He’s kind of shy, but the way he’s thrown into the scenarios that they all have to go through, he starts making friends for the first time.” Austin, who co-starred with Jeremy Piven in the acclaimed drama series “Mr. Selfridge,” also teased that Charlie would have “some huge decisions he has to make” over the course of the first season. Austin demurred from specifying what these might be. Considering the trailer that debuted at the show’s NYCC panel revealed Charlie locking lips with a tall, dark and handsome young man, perhaps Austin’s alluding to Charlie’s coming out?
Fady Elsayed seemed protective of his soccer jock Ram, saying, “He’s a cool, loving, caring, cheeky, very disciplined, very passionate young man.” The ingendude who made his film debut in the 2012 drama “My Brother The Devil” explained, “He could come across cocky to some people–I hope not–but he genuinely has a really good heart, which he gets to explore throughout the series. Which I’m really looking forward to sharing.”
Rounding out the fearsome foursome, Vivian Oparah makes her screen debut with “Class” as the tenacious and whip-smart Tanya. “Tanya is three years younger than everyone else, (but) she’s the brains of the operation,” Oparah said. “She got moved up into their (grade). For Tanya, she’s always been the young one, or someone’s little sister or the small one who’s really smart. She’s just trying to make a name for herself, and she’s also trying to make friends. But obviously being the younger one, it’s a bit scary. So she can come across as a bit defensive. But at the heart of it, once you’ve broken down the wall, there’s just a little girl who’s just trying to make her way and trying to make some friends.”
For the “Class” mates, diverse representation of the series is essential to making it “current and authentic.” Oparah expanded, “If it wasn’t like that, then how are you making a TV show in the 21st century and not touching on any 21st century issues? It’d be really really odd.”
She went on, “For me, it’s amazing, because growing up I didn’t realize see myself (reflected in the media) that much. So I’m not playing the archetypal black friend who’s just off on the side. There’s layers to every one of our characters so you can’t just put us in a box. I think that’s innovative in itself. And like there’s a gay relationship (on the show), which I shouldn’t think should be a talking point. But it is at the moment. So, representation! And yes, I love Patrick for doing that…There’s so many layers that we can work with. You can try pin us down, but you won’t!”
Even the less likeable characters are given enough complexity and backstory to imbrue them with a relatable humanity, Esayed explained, adding, “So it’s never a stereotype. You actually get to explore the characters in depth.”
“There’s no heroes. We’re just people. And there’s no villains. We’re just people,” Oparah declared. “And I think that’s just like real life as well.”
Well, there’s one hero. But the Doctor comes and goes by the end of the pilot ep. “I thought from the very, very beginning it has to stand on its own,” Ness said of how “Class” fits into the Whoniverse. “We have the Doctor in episode one, which you want. Because this is really a different corner of the universe that we haven’t seen before. So we have to see how he sees it, how he looks at it. And then what’s interesting–what we’ve always talked about this show being–is Doctor Who has an adventure; it’s fantastic, then he leaves. And on (“Doctor Who“) we go with him. And so this is what happens when we don’t go with him. This is what happens to the people left behind.”
“The prime thing about the show,” Hopkins noted, “Is that as well as the side order of fighting aliens and saving the world, it’s raw, real drama at the heart of it. And I think that’s why so many people will connect with it.”
“In the crux of it all,” Oparah agreed. “It just shows teenagers. I think young people are just really underrated for how much is thrown at them, and they just keep going. There’s aliens, and there’s love and there’s hatred, and friendships that you don’t want to be friends with. And they just keep going.”
Hopkins remarked that’s not the only way Coal Hill teens are underestimated, adding, “I think it’s what they can achieve as well. I think they are underestimated. If they knew that we were saving the world!”
The “Class” cast admitted to a bit of geeking out when the Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi, came on set for the pilot ep. “His energy when he works,” Hopkins recalled, “Is a force to be reckoned with honestly. We were all fangirling. But once you get over that, he was such a lovely person to work with.”
Oparah added that even Capaldi’s brief time on the production made her a more confident actor. “He would just walk in, and play with stuff and play with the script,” she remembered, “And it just works…and then when you try it yourself, you know it’s okay to make mistakes–”
“And just experiment!” Elsayed chimed in. “It was a collaborative effort. We all could have an input, rather than the director being like, ‘Go away.’…But with Patrick he was so open to exploring.”
Will the “Class” kids to get to cross over to “Doctor Who?” “I wish!” Hopkins squeed, “That’s the dream.” No plans seem in the work just yet, but Elsayed gave a hopeful, “Maybe.” But Oparah had bigger goals, wishing to follow in Capaldi’s footsteps: “In twenty years, I want to be the new Doctor! That’s so 21st Century. I’d love that…I need to work up to it.”
“Class” premieres on BBC America in the spring of 2017.
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