The Real Enemy, Class: The Metaphysical Engine, Reviews, 30/11/2016

Well, having gotten the opportunity to watch “The Metaphysical Engine, Or: What Quill Did,” I think I can agree with Phil Sandifer’s review of the episode. It’s quite the hot mess. A really cool hot mess with loads of crazy and fascinating sci-fi ideas.

The story is balls out, whack-daddy, batshit crazy. But kind of ridiculous. Just the kind of crazy that Doctor Who has been good at since the early days.

Charlie's prohibition of Quill to use weapons carries a remarkable
double edge, given Rhodian pretensions. Rhodian morality is
insufferably Kantian: to think an evil carries the same burden of
guilt as actually carrying it out, and even their weapons are
condescending exercises in moral ego. You can only kill by taking a
blast backward and killing yourself: the ultimate embrace of the
permanence of sin.
With a storyline utterly all over the place, “The Metaphysical Engine” can only find an anchor in Katherine Kelly’s performance as Quill. And she’s thankfully pouring on the charisma, bringing Quill’s intensity to a fever pitch of anger.

To the audience, Quill has a very deceptive demeanour. Kelly’s physicality appears very cold and distant in the initial promotional material. They shoot her like an ice queen, and her behaviour in the early episodes displays a cold, manipulative aggressiveness.

Rage peeks out from Quill’s stony physiognomy occasionally. As do all her passions. Her genocidal anger at the Shadowkin. The desperate eros of her kiss with the android in “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo.” The giddy glee of driving a bus into a grotesque alien tentacle.

Patrick Ness cheekily subtitled this episode “What Quill Did.” It’s a joke, a counterpoint to the bottle episode of the under-25s cast* stuck in their classroom in a nameless void.

* Class is positively 90210 in casting adults as teenagers. Charlie’s Greg Austin is 24. Fady Elsayad is 23. Vivian Oparah is 19, but she plays a 14 year old. April’s Sophie Hopkins is 26 years old and plays someone who just turned 18.

Quill's role in the early episodes of the show was to be held at a distance
from the main cast. She was the adult, but also a bodyguard, a slave, and
a sardonic commenter on the teen angst that often consumed the rest of
the characters. That aloofness held her distant from the audience too.
Katherine Kelly’s passion is completely unrestrained in “The Metaphysical Engine.” Not only are her emotions beaming from her, but she can turn her charisma up to the highest possible intensity as well.

She has to, because the episode is a ridiculous Maguffin chase. It succeeds only because its actors are totally dedicated to its madness.

More than just saving the episode from collapsing into a pile of disjunctive nonsense flying away in all directions, Kelly’s charisma as Quill effects a very important transformation in how the audience sees the show.

Heroes and Villains

I’ve come back several times to the moment in the first episode of Class, “For Tonight We Might Die,” where the Doctor admonishes Quill for a crime. She defends herself as a freedom fighter, because she’s long become accustomed to people calling her a criminal because of her guerrilla campaign against Rhodia’s monarchy.

But the Doctor’s upset with her because of how she tricked a Coal Hill student into killing himself firing Quill’s self-sacrificing Rhodian gun at a Shadowkin. The point of the moment is that Quill is not the self-evidently obvious villain that Charlie’s described her as.

The Doctor is the ethical compass of Doctor Who’s universe, and if he sympathizes with you, it’s a sign that you’re in the right. At least in part.

Quill's narrative is fundamentally about overcoming domination,
whether it's from the monarchist government of her homeworld, the
condescending slavery of Prince Charlie, or the pretentious
directions of the mysterious Governors who offer her a chance at
freedom. She's been a democrat the entire time.
Quill is a freedom fighter, but the show has been largely focussed on Charlie, his personal self-discovery, and the ensemble of his new friends. Throughout this episode, Quill is a charismatic adventurer fighting desperately for her freedom. There’s no more sympathetic story in our culture.

Because the under-25s are absent from this episode, we can let ourselves sit with Quill without interruption. She’s in every scene of “The Metaphysical Engine,” carrying the story almost entirely on her own.

This has never happened during the entire run of Class so far. She’s essentially locked the under-25s away where their ensemble can self-destruct and she’s taken over the show.

More than that, she deserves to take over the show by the time “The Metaphysical Engine” finishes. Though it constitutes


to say so, this episode is her emancipation story. We’ve been shown how much Quill is willing to risk for her freedom from the biological weapon in her brain, enslaving her to Charlie.

The show has challenged Charlie on his treatment of Quill before, most obviously in “Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart.” So we’ve been primed to a more sympathetic view of Quill than the show first gave us when she was Charlie’s ice queen bodyguard and the most psychotic physics teacher you’ve ever had.

The episode includes several confrontations with apparent divinities,
which in a more conventional philosophical review series of Class,
would be the primary focus of this post. But what's more important in
the story itself is Quill's words for her god when they meet. The
encounter with God is an element in her own story of liberation: the
moment when she asks where God was when her people were
humiliated and then destroyed. She speaks the fundamental
existential rage in the human relationship with the divine.
But here, we have Quill’s own journey to free herself – travelling literally to realms that only exist as pure thought. The imagined afterlife of the Arn, the hell of Ballon’s people, the birthplace of the Quill god, the Cabinet of Light itself. All this to free herself. It’s a story of liberation that bestows heroism.

So if Quill has become a hero, Charlie would become even more villainous in contrast. It completes the journey from his squeaky clean appearance at the start of the series, through his critiques from Tanya and Matteusz, through his immense guilt and rage in “Detained.”

More than that narrative role, it shows more profoundly than Class has ever done yet what the nature of heroism is.

Right and Wrong

Because when you think about it, Quill has always been in a subject position. Consider the fact that Charlie – her literal master – always calls her by her surname. A surname that’s also the name for her people. It would be like calling someone “Black” or “China” as their name.

Considering that Andr’ath’s rebellion was the uprising of an oppressed class on Rhodia, there’s probably plenty of racism in Charlie’s condescension toward her. So while Charlie’s been positioned as the hero from the early press materials through the show’s first episodes, Quill is the most sympathetic figure according to all our political moralities.

She is a freedom fighter, and “The Metaphysical Engine” was her most intense fight for freedom yet. As an agent of liberation from racism, monarchy, and slavery, there’s no more pure representative of the good and of freedom than her.

Charlie has entered the role of oppressor, and Quill depicted completely as a freedom fighter.

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