REVIEW: Class The Novels

I’ve been playing a fun game lately, and asking anyone I know with a passing knowledge of Doctor Who (the ‘casual fans’ as they’re termed) to name the spin-off shows.  Most of them named Torchwood; a couple recalled a children’s series with an old companion (The Sarah Jane Adventures); and one was convinced a big-budget film had been made recently. (Interestingly, I assumed they were getting confused and meant The Day of the Doctor, but they were talking about Deep Breath.)

Not one person mentioned Class or knew about it. Worse still, a couple of those people are huge fans of Patrick Ness’ novels, and they thought I was kidding when I told them about the show.  The utter lack of impact which Class made cannot be underestimated.

It was, of course, not helped by no publicity whatsoever from the BBC, nor by eight episodes of highly variable quality that needed not so much a complete rewrite but an editor to step in and force Ness to listen.

It’s telling that the episodes which ranked the highest when Doctor Who Magazine surveyed them were the opener (which everybody watched) and then episodes 6 and 7, i.e. the good ones.  Those who stuck with it recognised quality when they saw it. Those two episodes were more character-led affairs, and it’s this approach which made its way to the three tie-in novels written for the show.

Although none of the books’ adverts or publicity material will tell you, there is in fact a reading order for the three novels. The first is Joyride by Guy Adams, and the second is What She Does Next Will Astound You by James Goss. These both appear to be set a little after the second episode of the series. The third is The Stone House by A K Benedict, and this is set after the third episode as April and Ram are an item by then. I don’t know why the publishers go out of their way to not tell you these things, but they did this with the Twelfth Doctor and Bill trilogy of novels, too, so I guess it’s just a ‘thing’, albeit an annoying one.

Back to the books though. Joyride begins with a schoolgirl killing herself after nicking a car and tearing through London before crashing into a betting shop. All is not what it seems though, as the girl in question had been temporarily possessed. The ‘joyride’ of the title refers to a secret immersive experience offered to the rich, where they can jump into the bodies of other humans and take them over for a short period of time. Corrupt owner + stolen alien tech = profit.

It’s a good idea and makes for a mostly good story. Adams captures the leads well, especially Ram, and clearly enjoys exploring the relationship between Quill and Charlie, examining the ins and outs and morality of such a bond. The sex when it comes (and of course it does) feels a bit awkward and gratuitous, but that’s Doctor Who spin-offs for you. I actually feel Class on screen handled this far better than, say, Torchwood did, but that’s damning with faint praise, and here in this book it feels more like the latter than the former.

Where things are less good in this book is with some of the plot mechanics, which rely entirely on chance and people doing extremely stupid things. This is always the sign of a story running out of steam, and Adams tries to justify the stupidity by having the antagonists reflect that they’ve been sloppy, but I don’t buy it. It doesn’t stay in keeping with everything else and smacks of needing a resolution but being unsure as to how to get one.

The book is also riddled with proof-reading errors, especially with regards to grammar, which is extremely off-putting. This lack of proof-reading is something that plagues all three books: characters will have conversations with themselves because the wrong name has been used in error, or people will suddenly have weapons where they dropped them only moments before and made a fuss about this. I’m not sure what happened here, beyond someone not paying attention, but it’s very notable and very poor form.

Our second novel, What She Does Next…, is a beautifully-drawn satire on YouTube vlogging and clickbait with some VR gaming chucked in for good measure. It isn’t subtle in its approach, but neither is clickbait so it works well. The chapter titles are especially fun; parodies of the sort of sensationalist headlines you see online all the time, which you can tell Goss had fun creating.

Goss rarely lets us down with his work, and this is no different to his usual high form.This is another very good story for character, with Quill being the star and April close behind. He also really looks into the impact Ram’s lost leg would have in reality and explores this in a believable and important way; the sort of way the actual television show never bothered to do. Both Goss and Guy Adams before seem to have a better grasp of the characters, motivations and mechanics of Class’ universe and potential than Patrick Ness himself did.

Again though, the book is let down by its end, which feels far too neat. After all the trauma experienced by the children in the book, the plot just resolves and everyone goes about their day, which doesn’t feel entirely right. You’d imagine that half of Coal Hill School being aware they were abducted by aliens would be a big thing, but apparently not. I suppose this is no different to the approach of Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures, where everyone just carries on their way, but it really stands out here as everything else feels pretty watertight.

The final novel, The Stone House, is far less variable and more just a shrug of a novel. Set in a haunted house (ish) and telling of aliens, online conspiracies and refugees, it should be fine, but unlike the previous two novels, none of the characters whatsoever feel true to life, with Quill being especially off. Imagine Quill as a more acidic Sarah Jane Smith with a couple of knives and you’re close.

I wonder if Benedict was able to read the scripts beforehand, because there is zero evidence of that here. It means that the entire story feels extremely odd and as a result it never gels or works.  If this were a totally standalone tale with original characters, I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more. As a tie-in novel to Class though, it completely fails because it really doesn’t tie in at all.

Conversely, in that sense The Stone House is arguably the closest to Class on screen in some ways. There is some potential there, but the writing feels way off and it never works. It’s frustrating as deep down there is something good there, but you’d never recommend it to anyone.

How very like the TV show.

I suspect in the future someone will try to resurrect Class. For now though, Class remains a badly-executed oddity with some very exciting and good highs, a lot of middling incident, and some crushing lows. If you want to see the best of Class, skip to episodes 6 and 7 of the show, or better still read the novels by Adams and Goss. Class here is Buffy meets Doctor Who and that’s an exciting premise. I hope someone else sees this and runs with it one day.

Review by Nick Mellish
Nick’s book “Target Trawl” where he reviews and discusess every Target “Doctor Who” novel published will be published by Pencil Tip Publishing in 2019.