Making its debut via the online BBC Three, and with some shoddy treatment from BBC One schedulers, it is fair to say Class, 2016’s Doctor Who spin-off, struggled to find its audience.
Set around the Coal Hill School, a location with enduring links with the parent show, Patrick Ness created a drama series aimed at a young adult demographic; high on emotional content and packed with bold ideas. Sadly, despite its talented, diverse young cast, a Twelfth Doctor cameo and a tantalising cliff-hanger ending, the show did not achieve a recommission.
Fortunately, audio producers Big Finish have stepped into the vacuum, publishing two volumes of stories set within the timeframe of that initial series. Volume One is comprised of three approximately hour long tales, each from a proven Big Finish writer, and reuniting the core cast in various combinations – very much following the model established for their excellent Torchwood dramas.
First up, writer Roy Gill brings us an old fashioned tale of temptation for Ram (Fady Elsayed) and April (Sophie Hopkins) at what seems to be the start of the their romantic relationship as we find them both encountering new student Thomas Laneford (Rhys Issac-Jones).
Befriending April, sharing her interests in both poetry and music, Tom is also a rising star on the football field while Ram is still struggling to master his alien prosthetic leg (as provided by a certain Time Lord).
With a clever twist on folklore, Ram is tempted by unbelievable opportunities and placed in incredible danger, and it is up to April to reveal the truth to him. In a small cast, Deirdre Mullins almost steals the show as Mab, Tom’s seductive and accommodating guardian.
Ram returns for the second episode, this time paired with Tanya (Vivian Oparah) as they head out from the school on work experience at a scientific laboratory.
Locked in with a rampaging alien monster, Jenny T Colgan’s story channels a classic horror movie, base-under-siege vibe, with a terrific scene-chewing amoral villain in Mrs Vanderburgh (Lu Corfield) and a group of entertaining fellow internees/victims – including the lab staff as well as the local Mayor and her assistant, played by Wizards Vs Aliens’ Scott Haran.
We enjoyed the ample opportunities the story gave for Tanya to show her intelligence and quick-thinking under pressure, while Ram was keener on knowing about lunch having demolished his packed lunch on the journey.
Tell Me You Love Me
For some inexplicable reason, Jordan Renzo’s Matteusz was never billed as a main character on screen, despite being involved in events from the start and with his burgeoning relationship with the alien prince Charlie being a core plot thread for the show.
Producer/director Scott Handcock’s script tackles this head on, with the three hander for Matteusz, Charlie (Greg Austin) and the indomitable Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly) as the young lovers find themselves exploring the nature of their feelings for each other when infected by an insidious alien presence.
Demanding impressive performances from all three cast members, and a terrific concept monster, Handcock’s story put us in mind of Russell T Davies sublime Midnight, and it was great to hear that Quill has lost none of her whip-smart acidity.
While composer Blair Mowat has continued to score the series, ensuring that this very much sounds like Class, the opening theme song Up All Night has gone, replaced by the instrumental burst of strings which accompanied the closing titles on screen.
If Class took a couple of episodes to find its feet on screen, with the stronger stories away from the main Shadowkin arc, these audio adventures hit the ground running – providing entertaining situations for the characters and allowing them ample time to interact. They also offer some tangible villains, something the television episodes felt a little light on.
With three further stories in Volume Two, including a link to the wider Whoniverse thanks to a guest appearance for Ace and the Daleks, we are happy to report that the transfer to audio has done the show proud.
Top marks Big Finish! Now, about that cliffhanger…