A Terrifying Universe, Class: For Tonight We Might Die, Reviews, 25/10/2016

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Media studies is easier. That’s the last of many lampshaded moments in the first episode of Class. But it’s probably the most important one. 

That line follows a conversation among the teenage regulars where they drop the names of all the television shows that have guided them on how to handle a weird spacetime wormhole under a high school. From Buffy onward. Though discussing those references will constitute 

Rachel is a sadly textbook case of a refrigerator character. All she does
in this episode is look lovingly at Ram, remind him of what a kind
person he is under his footballer douche self-image, then get brutally
killed by a Shadowkin right in front of him.

But it isn’t enough to know the rules that govern your show. That’s the message from the Doctor, the most metafictionally complicated character in television today – probably in the whole history of television. You can throw in as many references as you want – like Tanya’s joke about the Bechdel Test – it won’t be enough to save you from actual invading aliens from a wormhole in the depths of your high school.

That said, this kind of trope awareness is needed. If only to highlight that the viewer should be wary when characters like Rachel are so clearly fridged to provide motivation for our footballer-with-a-good-heart Ram.

The real meat of “For Tonight We Might Die” lies in two issues. One is the nature of sacrifice – asking what you’re willing to give up to save another or (at the scale of the conflicts in Class), to save your entire civilization and world. The other is an extremely sticky engagement with the nature of genocide.

The Strength to Give It Away

I have a distinct feeling that I’ll be returning to questions of sacrifice throughout my reviews of this series. It seems to be the major philosophical theme of April’s long-term character arc. Consider that she’s been tapped as the heart of resilience in the Coal Hill team from the end of “For Tonight We Might Die.”

Rachel's death scene even sprays Ram with her blood in a moment
that I think was a riff on the mass shooting flashback sequence in
The Fisher King.
Consider how we understand her family background. Raised by her mother, seemingly without a father figure, April describes her family’s situation to Charlie as the grounding she has for dealing with the immensely dangerous life she’ll lead from here on. Paralyzed in a car accident she never should have survived in the first place, April’s mother continued on, raising her daughter alone.

Likewise, April now carries a burden and a duty in the face of a physical disability. She has the weirdest heart condition in Britain, as it disappears in and out of phase with our reality whenever Corakinus the leader of the Shadowkin appears in our world. 

Knowing her fatal link to this monstrous invader, she’s actually prepared to stab herself in the heart to stop him. The ethical strength to take that drastic step upon yourself is at the heart of April as a character in this show. 

And I think we’ll see that strength as a narrative of conflict and growth with Ms Quill. April’s willingness to give of herself to save another is a stark contrast with Quill, whose first act in the show was to trick another student into sacrificing himself without any knowledge of what he was about to do.

Yes, she defended herself and the school from a Shadowkin invader, but the weapon that destroyed it also destroys the one who fires it. That lack of scruples to dispose of another person as a weapon to defend yourself is the real crime that the Doctor is right to label her with.

April and Tanya's first scene in Class, in which a conversation about
decorating for prom turns to April's question about how
available Charlie is. So Tanya delivers the show's first piece of
media studies. April doesn't get it.
Quill was a freedom fighter for her people on the Rhodian homeworld, leading a failed guerrilla campaign against the monarchist government, represented by Prince Charlie. When the Doctor first refers to her punishment, her reflex is to defend herself as a freedom fighter. 

But the Doctor is well-accustomed to overthrowing monarchies – If they had met years earlier on Rhodia, he probably would have helped her in the fight for her minority’s freedom. And Charlie would have been a sympathetic villain instead of a hero with secrets. But the only crime of hers that the Doctor cares about is having tricked that student into his own death in that first scene of the whole show.

Her willingness to give up another’s life for her own without transparency is Quill’s weakness, while April’s openness to give of herself for others is her strength.

To Deserve Genocide

That’s a horrifying concept for most humans – whether anything actually deserves its genocide. We rightfully consider genocide the ultimate evil humans could commit. Even the planetary destruction of a full-on nuclear war would be less evil than a genocide. 

At least in a nuclear war, the perpetrators are just as dead as the victims. In a genuine genocide, there are survivors to profit from the remnants of the dead. Just think about all the Russians, Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians, and other folks who moved into those fertile farming communities along the old Pale of Settlement in the late 1940s.

Once you know their backstories, you can better appreciate how much
Quill relishes their cover identities, since her job as a math teacher lets
her boss around Charlie, the prince who's essentially her slavemaster.
The original owners were never coming back. They were all dust, ash, worm food, and lampshades. 

So genocide would be the ultimate moral horror. The Shadowkin are monstrous because – as we see from what they do to Rhodia and the casual way they commit violence at the Autumn prom – they literally live by genocide. They stalk entire civilizations interdimensionally, nesting in their shadows until they strike. In a single day, every individual member of the entire civilization is killed.

It’s the Shadowkin’s essence to be the most effective genocide machines in the universe. Speaking in the context of Doctor Who’s monster gallery, they’re more efficient killers than the Daleks. Daleks at least enjoy torturing other creatures enough that they let you live long enough that you might manage to escape or fight back.

The Shadowkin seem beyond pleasure. They are driven by a desire to kill without exception. They are less a sentient or sapient species and more a disease. 

And yet Shadowkin are sapient. They have individual identities like Corakinus, and presumably a society – horrifying though it is. A society of individuals that is simultaneously a plague of fire and smoke. Given the inherently destructive nature of the Shadowkin, would we call their total destruction genocide? Or disease control?

I also can't help but think that Charlie's name is another meta joke,
this time throwing some UK history into the show.
Given their relentlessness, a clear case can be made that their total destruction would be an act of self-defence on the part of your entire civilization. And an act of defence on behalf of all other civilizations in the universe, whose lives are threatened by the mere existence of Shadowkin. If they’re alive, then any of us could very well be next.

We have no guilt about wiping out smallpox or polio. So why the Shadowkin? Charlie explicitly says that he won’t answer a genocide with another genocide, that he won’t take on the burden of destroying the Shadowkin out of revenge for his own people.

Yet if they are more destructive than smallpox, it would be a great good to destroy the Shadowkin. So what makes their death genocide?

I can only conclude – from the narrative evidence I have, at least from the first episode – that it’s because of their self-consciousness. You can destroy an entire species of virus, bacteria, or fungus if their existence threatens your own because it’s the basic civilizational self-defence of disease control.

Yet despite genocidal propaganda, destroying a whole community or species of self-conscious individuals would not be mere pest control. It would be mass murder on the most horrifying scale. It would be genocide. 

Can even a Shadowkin's face summon you to an ethical confrontation?
In the phenomenological ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, he identifies the experience of the stare of another person – particularly another face – as the foundation of ethics itself. The face is itself a plea for recognition, its living presence a call for consideration and an absolute demand on you. 

Experiencing a face, you meet a force that limits your own action by its very existence. Reaching out to it humanizes you as much as the face itself imposes its humanity on you in that first encounter. And to harm or destroy that face is an ethical ruination. The face accuses you as it dies.

To destroy all faces of a particular kind is a genocide – even of something like the ontological plague of the Shadowkin – because they can accuse you as they die.

Kind of heavy stuff for a teenaged-aimed show. See you in a few days with my review of “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo,” and I’ll see you tomorrow with some more thoughts about Jacques Rancière’s philosophy of radical democracy.

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