BBC America announced has announced the cast for its Doctor Who spinoff series Class, a new science-fiction show geared toward young adult viewers to be co-produced with BBC Cymru Wales and aired concurrently in the United States and in Great Britain. Created by young adult author Patrick Ness in consultation with current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, Class will focus on the day-to-day happenings of four students (Greg Austin, Fady Elsayed, Sophie Hopkins, and Vivian Oparah) and their teacher (Katherine Kelly) at the Coal Hill Secondary School — the same place where the original series began in 1963, and which reappeared in the 50th-anniversary special and subsequent seasons. The premise sounds promising, and if Moffat’s “British Buffy” comment is accurate, then Class sure to be a good thing — not just for Doctor Who, but for younger television audiences as well.
The ninth series of Doctor Who didn’t fare as well as previous seasons. Stellar guest work by Maisie Williams and Ingrid Oliver notwithstanding, actor Peter Capaldi’s second turn as the Doctor didn’t score any major ratings victories. Rugby championships, Moffat’s darker storylines and the BBC’s apparent lack of interest have all been blamed, but whether all or none of these suspects are guilty doesn’t matter. What matters is Doctor Who needs a boost, and Ness’s Class might have what it takes. Why? Because Doctor Who, a program whose audience has traditionally consisted of young children, adolescents and families, has strayed from its base in recent years. Class sounds like it will be targeting this precise demographic.
Previous spinoffs have tried to corner and redirect Doctor Who‘s increasingly diverse audience since Russell T. Davies brought the show back in 2005. This began with Torchwood in 2006, an adults-only version starring John Barrowman as the lustily omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness. Along with a government-funded team at the Torchwood Institute, Harkness defended Earth from interstellar menaces whenever the Doctor couldn’t make it. A year later, The Sarah Jane Adventures sent the Doctor’s former companion, Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) in a more kid-friendly direction. The program’s plot was much of the same — non-Gallifreyans protecting the planet from alien incursions, albeit with school children, an artificial intelligence, and the Doctor’s famous robot dog, K-9.
Both spinoffs went off the air in 2011 — Torchwood due to a lack of interest (despite a trans-Atlantic miniseries), and Sarah Jane after Sladen’s death after complications from cancer. Yet when they were on, they managed to attract viewers from their target demos and redirect them to Doctor Who for occasional crossovers and multitudinous references to shared plot lines, past episodes and Easter eggs. And since they never stepped on each other’s toes in the programming schedule, Torchwood and Sarah Jane never stole eyeballs from Doctor Who. If anything, they encouraged their own audiences to visit the older, bigger show for a time.
Not only has Doctor Who lost the ratings funnels Torchwood and Sarah Jane once provided, the long-running science-fiction series has lost more and more ground to a smorgasbord of similar genre pieces whose ability to attract young adults is unmatched. This is especially the case in the U.S., where The CW maintains a growing monopoly with the likes of Arrow, The Flash and newcomer The 100 — a weird, successful mix of Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones. If the Doctor Who universe could somehow tap into this demo’s interest, then the demonstrably aged time-traveling alien might be able to find a renewed sense of purpose via greater interest and strong ratings thanks to one of television’s largest markets.
But that’s just business, and wishing for Doctor Who to do better shouldn’t just be about commercially-driven figures like these. It should also be about the story, and considering Class‘s pedigree, there’s a great deal to be hopeful for. As Moffat put it in the press release:
“Coal Hill School has been part of Doctor Who since the very first shoot in 1963, but this new show is anything but history. Class is dark and sexy and right now. I’ve always wondered if there could be a British Buffy — it’s taken the brilliant Patrick Ness to figure out how to make it happen.”
If Class is even remotely like Joss Whedeon‘s cult classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then BBC America and BBC Three viewers are in for a real treat. Sure, the show originally aired on The WB and UPN, the now-dead networks that preceded The CW, and its audience was never as high as the mainstream numbers shared by ABC, CBS and NBC. Yet the “cult” devotion to Whedon’s creation (and many others) has stood the test of time, and if Moffat thinks Ness — author of the successful young adult book series, Chaos Walking — can do the same with Class, then the fortunes of Doctor Who might be posed to make a dramatic rebound.