With Doctor Who spinoff Class returning for a BBC One airing, Alex Moreland continues his reviews of this YA hit…
When your entire people are being killed before your very eyes, then you can talk to me about monsters!
In many ways, this is a chessboard episode; it feels almost like a perfunctory piece, dedicated more to establishing important details about future episodes, rather than being concerned with how it works as an hour of drama in its own right. In fact, ‘Brave-ish Heart’ lampshades this at the end, as Dorothea Ames (Pooky Quesnel) comments “now we know quite a lot more about young Charlie and about the Cabinet than we did before”.
Unfortunately, these revelations feel somewhat out of focus. Much of Charlie’s plotline in this episode is concerned with the Cabinet of Souls, and its potential use as a weapon of mass destruction; the plotline is presented with one eye on setting up a future conflict, this essentially being a practice run for an inevitable later return to the concept, meaning that at times there’s a certain loss of perspective in how the debate is framed. The rather weighty themes of genocide don’t quite hit home because the target of such an attack is a group of apparently non-sentient carnivorous flowers; Matteusz’s pacifist objections ring slightly hollow, given that Charlie’s choice is essentially just an exaggerated use of weedkiller.
No, this aspect of the episode is far more effective when it’s grounded in the personal – in Charlie’s fear of letting down the last of his people, or in Quill’s rage and need for revenge. It’s some of Greg Austin and Katherine Kelly’s best work in the series so far, in fact, and it does a long way to elevate the material in the few places where it drags; certainly, Quill’s raw emotion when Charlie refuses to kill the Shadowkin is a standout moment for the character, who has thus far been somewhat neglected in terms of development. It’s a particularly insightful look into the psyche of this character, and goes a long way towards helping us gain a far deeper understanding of just what motivates her.
What else, then, does the episode achieve? It’s clear that the same distinction is apparent for the other aspects of the story; it’s far more effective in terms of the emotional storytelling than in the mechanics of the plot, which frequently left something to be desired.
April and Ram’s storyline continues from the previous episode, picking up essentially exactly where it was left off. There’s an interesting subversion going on here, as Class deliberately avoids any of the usual ‘damsel in distress’ tropes for much of the episode; it’s very firm in stating that April is, in fact, the proactive one in this situation, with Ram often on a backfoot. However, the close of the episode counters this quite neatly, with April telling Ram “I think I need saving” – in this case meaning emotional support. It’s another aspect of Class’ admirable commitment to intimate storytelling, emphasising the importance of emotional support and mental wellbeing – all while breaking the typically prescribed gender roles one might associate with such actions, helping to further develop both Ram and April as nuanced, well rounded characters.
Similarly, the April’s father’s storyline is most effective when it is grounded in real emotions; Class manages to be present some particularly intelligent writing in this regard, inviting us to sympathise with April’s father (a man who’s clearly struggled with mental illness at points during his life) while at the same time reaffirming that April doesn’t have to include him in her life. There’s a certain honesty to this, and it resonates in a way that other aspects of the episode don’t; certainly, it feels as though it’s able to touch upon deeper themes than the series has thus far, while at the same time emphasising the strength of April’s character.
The issue with ‘Brave-ish Heart’ – entertainingly titled though it may be – is that it often loses sight of these moments and their value, instead choosing to focus on the more mundane aspects of keeping the plot ticking. It’s difficult to be enthused about the return of the Shadowkin, for example; the sequences set on their homeworld are of varying quality, carried well by Sophie Hopkins and Fady Elsayed, but limited by the fact that the pair are unable to bounce off the rest of the cast. More disappointing, though, is simply the Shadowkin themselves – as antagonists, they feel somewhat derivative, lacking much of the innovation that embodies Class and makes the series so reliably entertaining.
In the end, ‘Brave-Ish Heart’ isn’t quite at the level of the best of Class; it is, however, an episode that exemplifies what is the best of Class. At the same time, though, it’s limited in a few key regards – and for the rest of the series to succeed, these are limitations it’ll have to surpass.