Alex Moreland reviews the seventh episode of the Doctor Who spinoff Class…
At some point today, should everything go according to plan, there will come a moment… when you start to believe.
This episode is interesting primarily because of how different it is from the average episode of Class.
Consider the difference between this episode and the last; in many ways they represent the two most extreme ends of the spectrum of what Class can be. Where ‘Detained’ was very much about our younger characters, and set solely within Coal Hill, ‘The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did’ goes very much in the opposite direction. It’s set predominantly on alien planets, focuses primarily on Quill, and even has its own supporting cast. In many ways, ‘The Metaphysical Engine’ is an episode of Class which could well come from another show entirely; perhaps, but not quite, the closest that Class will come to doing an episode of Doctor Who in its own way, right down to the inter-dimensional, bigger on the inside, slightly impossible, six-sided blue travelling device.
What that does, admittedly, is make this episode rather difficult to review – it refutes the typical status quo of Class in such a way that we’re unlikely to see a story quite like it again. Meaning that it’s difficult to see just how ‘The Metaphysical Engine’ fits into the broader scheme of the programme, and in turn meaning it’s hard to comment on exactly how good an episode of Class this is; after all, it’s quite unlike any other episode of Class, both before and probably going forward as well.
There’s a real depth of textuality to ‘The Metaphysical Engine’, which demonstrates a lot of Patrick Ness’ greatest strengths as a writer – indeed, strengths that he perhaps hasn’t always been able to demonstrate on Class, given the nature of the programme as a Doctor Who spin-off. Here, however, you can really see his imagination being let loose; Ness deftly establishes the three different belief systems with relative ease, and quite quickly too, while still allowing each time to breathe. It helps that, typically speaking, they’re relatively simple and well-defined ideas – the best being Ness’ conception of hell for a shapeshifter – but ‘The Metaphysical Engine’ does touch on some interesting concepts regarding belief and one’s perception of it. True, more could have been made of it; in some regards, one is almost inclined to wish that ‘The Metaphysical Engine’ had been the two-part story for this season, rather than the previous Shadowkin episodes. However, there’s plenty going on here for the episode to be both entertaining and thought provoking, which is more than enough for now.
Katherine Kelly deserves most praise, of course, for anchoring the episode. Quill is an interesting character, and one who’s difficult to get to grips with; she’s never quite been allowed to lead the narrative in her own right before, and occupies a strange place within the programme. Of all the core cast, she’s perhaps the most enigmatic – which is likely why much of this episode does come down to the question, “Who is Quill when she’s free?”. ‘The Metaphysical Engine’ doesn’t quite answer that question, nor does it really leave us with a greater understanding of the character herself. However, it undoubtedly leaves us with a greater appreciation for the character, and indeed for Katherine Kelly’s wonderfully acerbic yet vulnerable performance.
One of the key aspects of this episode is the development of a romance between Quill and Ballon (Chiké Okonkwo); in many ways, it’s the spine of the story. Some intriguing parallels are formed between the pair – both warriors, both trapped, both fighting for their freedom – which gives a certain intensity to their romance, but also makes it clear why a relationship could never be sustained: to each, there will always be something more important. In the same way though, that’s the tragic irony: what they prioritised ahead of the other – the attempt to reconnect with their race, either through survivors or through revenge – was in pursuit of the closure they would have been able to give each other. They turned away from the solution they didn’t know they had. Indeed, the scene depicting their fight is a wonderful piece of direction from Wayne Che Yip, intercutting the violence with their final conversation – the fight itself doesn’t matter, because we always knew it was inevitable, but this means of presenting it allows us to focus on the characters themselves, and lends the scene a far greater intensity than it would have had otherwise.
Which does, admittedly, make one slight quibble stand out all the more. Quill and Ballon are fighting for a way home, a means of escape only one person could use. And yet, when the fight is concluded… Quill escapes a different way! True, the image of her climbing out of the Cabinet of Souls is a lovely one, but it also rather undercuts the drama of what had just occurred, suggesting Quill and Ballon’s fight was essentially meaningless if there was another way out.
But then, that’s only a small flaw to an episode which is often clever and poignant, and displays some of Patrick Ness’ best attributes as a writer. It is, however, not really indicative of the strengths of Class as a whole – but then, perhaps the ability to provide an episode so wildly different from what we’ve seen so far that’s still excellent is a strength of its own.