The Doctor Who universe is about to get a little bigger and a little bit more Buffy-esque, said creator and executive producer Patrick Ness of BBC America's Class in an exclusive interview with Syfy Wire.
Class is a new coming-of-age series set in London that follows the adventures of four Coal Hill Academy students who are thrown together in a secret alliance against alien threats which have "broken through the walls of space and time," all while facing the typical horrors of high school and having to get their homework done. And yes, the Doctor (aka Peter Capaldi) pops in for the premiere to save the day and turn the teens' lives upside down.
The Doctor Who spin-off premieres on Saturday, April 15, at 10:10 p.m. ET, right after the Season 10 premiere of Doctor Who.
Ness, a British-American award-winning YA author, screenwriter and producer, chatted with us about how Class came to be, the show's Buffy connection and why it's some of the weirdest stuff he's ever written.
What was it about this material that excited you and led you to want to do a series in the Doctor Who universe?
Patrick Ness: The Doctor Who people approached me about maybe writing for Doctor Who itself, a couple of episodes. And just in passing they said we also have this idea maybe about a spin-off set in Coal Hill. I didn't expect them to say that. I'm sure they didn't expect me to have the reaction I did, which was just to suddenly perk up and go, "I know exactly what I'd do for that. I know exactly who would star. I know how it would begin and I know how would end."
And so when an idea takes off like that for me as a writer I just know I have to follow it. I'm really not sure why. It hit my wheelhouse really, really well, and it gave me an opportunity to write about a lot of stuff I care about and for characters that I loved and fit it within this set universe. It's so rich and so deep. What a great opportunity. So it felt like a creative challenge and, yeah, it just really felt like this sweet spot.
In a preview for the show one of the characters says, "It's like a Hellmouth," which made me laugh. What's the Buffy connection?
Well, Buffy is one of the very greatest shows of all time. That combination of serious, scary, funny, emotional ... that is such a hard elixir. But if you can get a little bit of it then it's amazing television and the possibilities are endless. Doctor Who was very much a show about the Doctor coming in having an adventure and confronting some sticky moral questions, and then the next week he has the next adventure. Because Class is a show about the people who get left behind once their world is completely rocked and changed it becomes the interesting question of what would that really feel like? Not what would a television version of this feel like, but what would it really feel like if you were 16, 17 and suddenly you knew way more about the universe than you ever really wanted to? What would that really feel like? What if you had seen someone killed by an alien? How does that really affect you? And that's just really rich and interesting to be able to pursue.
What can you tell us about this first season and the journey you're taking these characters on?
There's some real darkness and there's some real sadness and some heartbreak. And there is also quite a few good jokes, thank you (laughs). I hope it's a funny show. But the chance to stick with these people in this location gives you a chance to unpack their lives and unpack their past and unpack suddenly knowing there are aliens in the world and suddenly having to deal with aliens that are climbing through space and time. How are [they] affected? Episode Three is, in a way, a ghost story. It's about ghosts from the past. An alien is assuming the shapes of people that they've lost, and what would that feel like and what does that tell us about our characters? And there's a two-parter coming. Episodes Four and Five are a two-parter, and Episode Six and Seven are some of the weirdest things I've ever written. And then you just won't believe what happens in Episode Eight ...
That would be the finale. I already wish there were more than eight episodes.
Some of your characters are gay. Will you be tackling gay issues?
Well, I would not say gay issues. It's more about finding fresh voices to tell the story. I live in London and if you're not going to get a cast that looks like London then how can you be believed to tell the truth about anything else if you're lying about what London looks like? But also it's a rich creative opportunity just to have different characters ... you know, new sets of eyes on this kind of story and how would different people react. It's like we already would know the reactions of the characters that we've seen many, many times before, so why not somebody different?
It's good to see more of those fresh voices in the Doctor Who universe.
Yeah. Charlie has a boyfriend called Matteusz and nobody makes a big deal out of it at all. They just fit in with the story with everybody else and things that come up, but they're just Charlie and Matteusz and everybody else ... I would have loved to see that when I was a kid. I would have loved to have seen that instead of just the usual people you always saw. So it's the right thing to do and gives you so many new kinds of stories to tell, and isn't that what you want in storytelling?
That's awesome. What are some of the themes that you're going to be delving into this first season?
Buffy was great at it's sort of metaphor-izing teenage life. We do a little bit of that, hopefully wearing it lightly with the feelings of loneliness. Teenagers really do feel lonely, more lonely than almost anyone else. And the feeling of the found community and what friendships are like when you're 16 or 17. Or what having your heart broken is like and dealing with the parents, none of who I hope are stereotypes. They tend to have fairly good relationships with their parents, but what does that mean when you're 17 and trying to strike out on your own? So it's a bit Buffy meets My So-Called Life in a way, with more jokes and lots of aliens. It's taking the teenager seriously, but not overly seriously.
What has been your biggest challenge in bringing this to the screen?
It was a magnificent learning experience and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to do it so keenly, given the limitations of 45 minutes, given the parameters of the Doctor Who universe. How can I still tell the stories I want to tell within these necessary restrictions. These restrictions exist for a reason and I would never want to disrespect the Doctor Who universe, because why would I want to write it in the first place if I wanted to do that? There's no point in that. I think it's a really rich and deep one, and so I suppose it's that. It's the challenge of any good writing. How can I tell the story I want to tell while respecting these rules? And that's a great creative challenge. I have really enjoyed that very, very much.
It must fun to tackle not only Doctor Who, which has been around forever, but also expand the Doctor Who universe a bit.
No matter whatever happens in my career I will always have written dialogue for the Doctor. I got to write a couple scenes for the Doctor because he's in the premiere. And that's amazing! How much fun is that?
What's been the biggest surprise? The thing you weren't expecting?
I think maybe the reception. I come from YA, so we expect to be patronized in a way ... But it got really great reviews here, which was a pleasure. But even better, we got lots of support from Doctor Who fans, and Doctor Who fans are a tough community because the show has been going on for a very long time and they are rightly protective of it. So to get that kind of reception was a real pleasure. I mean I was in no way setting out to disrespect Doctor Who, but I know that some people just are going to resist a spin-off, resist a show about teens if it's not their thing. So the reception has been a genuine pleasure.
What has Class meant to you as a writer?
I feel really, really lucky. I grew up quite poor south of Seattle, and if I had known that one day I'd have a chance to make my own television series and to write every episode, I wouldn't have believed you. So just a chance to work with these wonderful, wonderful, wonderful young actors and to make a show we're proud of, that's amazing. And I will always have that, whatever the future brings. I will always have that and that's very, very valuable and precious to me.
One last question. If someone has not seen Doctor Who for a while or is not a Doctor Who fan or maybe has never seen Doctor Who at all, why should they tune in to watch Class?
You don't necessarily need to know all the backstory of Doctor Who. We tell you enough of what you need to know. Although if you are a fan you're going to recognize a lot of stuff. But it's a new set of eyes on the Doctor Who universe. It's looked at from a different point of view and I always think that's interesting, plus monsters, excitement, jokes, a bit of sexiness. If you like Buffy, hopefully you'll like our show ... hopefully.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Keep your eye out for Easter eggs. We hid a few good ones. So keep your eye out.