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Meet the creator of “Doctor Who” spinoff “Class,” the show coming for “Buffy’s” crown

BBC America

In what is now its 54th year, Doctor Who essentially wrote, ripped up, re-wrote, and digitized the book when it comes to science fiction.

The British sci-fi staple began it’s life in 1963, and in that first episode we were introduced to the enigmatic and legendary character of the The Doctor, along with Coal Hill School. As the show has progressed, and the Doctors have changed, Coal Hill School has remained a constant in the show, with the Doctor making various trips to the establishment, with more recent drop-ins surrounding his former companion, Clara Oswald, who was a teacher there.

The location, then, seemed like the perfect place to launch a new spinoff show for Doctor Who aimed at a teenage audience (aka all of us, ’cause who doesn’t love a bit of teen angst, eh?). The show, titled Class, was announced in 2015, with award winning Young Adult (YA) author Patrick Ness at the helm, and Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat acting as executive producer. Ness is the author (and scriptwriter) of the sublime A Monster Calls, which was released earlier this year and stars the fabulous Felicity Jones, and is also behind stunning YA novels More Than ThisThe Rest of Us Just Live Here, and the Chaos Walking trilogy.

Having already aired in the U.K., Class has developed something of a cult following, and has now come to BBC America. The first episode aired following the Season 10 premiere of Doctor Who on Saturday (April 15th), and promises to fill that Buffy the Vampire Slayer-shaped hole in your life. Seriously, if you love teen angst (tick), murdering aliens (double tick), heartache and romance (triple tick), and moral dilemmas in which the fate of the world is in your hands (quadruple tick), then Class is for you.

The premise is this: Four students all with secrets to hide — Charlie Smith (Greg Austin), Ram Singh (Fady Elsayed), April MacLean (Sophie Hopkins), and Tanya Adeola (Vivian Oparah) — become embroiled in each other’s lives after the walls of time and space begin to thin around Coal Hill School. Monsters and aliens interrupt their daily lives, which are already complicated enough with school, relationships, sex, grief, and the potential end of the universe, and after a visit by the Doctor, the four of them must navigate saving the world and passing exams. Exciting stuff, we think you’ll agree, and totally and utterly addictive.

Ahead of the premiere of Class, we chatted to YA author, and the show’s creator and scriptwriter, Patrick Ness, about entering the Whoniverse, why writing for young adults is so important (and rewarding), and which Doctor Who monster he’d most like to write…

Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

Patrick Ness (center) with the cast of “Class

HelloGiggles: Hi Patrick! How did the idea of a new spinoff of Doctor Who come about?

Patrick Ness: It was sort of unexpected. The producers came to me asking if I would like to write for Doctor Who. As part of that conversation, almost as a throwaway, they said to me about how they were also possibly thinking about a spinoff at Coal Hill [School], and I immediately perked up. I immediately said, “Oh I know exactly how you’d pitch that. Here’s what I would do, and I know how it would start, how it would end, and these are the people that I’d have in it.” You never will know when or why an idea is going to take off, but a few sentences said to me and I came back full throttle with a show and they liked it.

HG: You wrote all eight episodes of the show. How does that experience differ from writing a novel? 

PN: The challenge of a novel is that anything is possible. You are completely, 100 percent in charge of it. And that’s the great thing about it, but it’s also a terrifying thing, too. But with a screenplay, you have quite strict format restrictions, and you have things you have to do in a certain amount of time. So, there are problems to be solved in a screenplay that I found really interesting because I think, when given a limitation, I can use that to be creative. It’s problem solving, but in particularly satisfying storytelling kinda way.

HG: Obviously Doctor Who has a long and rich history, did you find that an advantage or disadvantage going into writing the show?

PN: I didn’t see it as a disadvantage. Why would you write in the Doctor Who-universe if you’re just going to ignore it? I view it as something to be engaged and interested in; it’s a really cool challenge, and something that I respect. The history of Who is so long and rich — it’s 54 years this year — so I thought, “Alright, how can I engage and tell stories that I want to tell?”  You also have fun dropping in Easter eggs and references, and I really enjoyed that part of it.

HG: It must also hold a lot of pressure, too. 

PN: But it’s the pressure of creating anything new. It’s the pressure that I feel on any book or project. The creative pressure of how I tell a story in the best way, in a way that is emotionally satisfying to me is something I always feel. I didn’t do anything extra, but I always feel that pressure. I think you should [feel it] because then you’re running a huge risk of taking it for granted, and that’s when you’re going to fail.

HG: Having seen all the episodes, one thing I was drawn to was the reactions and implications that having these monsters and aliens attack had on the characters’s lives. It wasn’t just a monster of the week type thing – there were repercussions. Why was it important to show that, too? 

PN: I always use The Hunger Games as an example. It’s set in a place where society has broken down, where it’s divided into groups, there are very strict rules, and no one will explain to you fully what the rules are. You have all the responsibilities of being an adult but none of the privileges, and your friends are loyal but also duplicitous; that is a description of high school.

So teenagers, when they read something like They Hunger Games, don’t feel that it’s something that’s super far off; it’s an emotional accurate representation of what high school is like. In a sense that’s what YA does, and that’s why there’s so much science fiction and fantasy in YA. Teenagers are very comfortable with the allegorical part because it seeds so well into this position where you’re trying to assert your first power but you’re also powerless — that’s what it is to be a teenager.

HG: There’s also a resistance  by the characters from them, too, and it’s something you’ve touched on in your novel The Rest of Us Just Live HereWhy does the rejection of the chosen one or hero trope appeal to you? 

PN: The chosen one story exists for a reason: As a teenager it’s the first time that you step away from your family and declare that you are no longer one thing but that you are something new; I am something else. You’re finding out who you are and what your boundaries are, and the first thing that you have to do is find yourself as something different from your family. It’s a necessary thing, but it’s a bit of a violent action. The chosen one story explains why you feel the way you do when you make that decision; it explains the loneliness, it explains the feelings of difference, and the sudden alienation. For example, it’s okay that you feel like this because “you’re a wizard Harry.” That’s why it exists, and long may it exist as it provides a lot of hope.

But I began to wonder, because it’s so common, what about the kid doesn’t feel like that; what if they feel like the ones that sit in the back of the classroom, and just want to graduate and never go to high school again. I like that resistance. Heroism feels so common nowadays, but what if you’re not, temperamentally, that person? How do you exists? It’s another way to feel separate, and I like that.

HG: On the one hand Class deals with issues like grief, sexuality, gender, relationships, and alienation, but it also touches on things like genocide and murder along with its science fiction and fantasy setting. How difficult is it finding a balance touching on those different topics and themes?

PN: It’s not at all. My theory is that there’s no such thing as a realistic story. If you set a story in London, it’s still made up characters arcing to a made up destiny. So all that a story needs is a setting where it can realistically take place. Either all stories are realistic or all stories are fantasy. For me, I just happen to set the story in this place, but these are things that I care about, and that’s the story that I’m always going to tell, even if it’s in a sci-fi realm. And sci-fi and fantasy have so many possibilities that I’m eager to do that, and I think it’s such a fertile place to talk about huge issues. The best sci-fi and fantasy always has, and it pairs so nicely with YA. So I don’t see that balance as difficult, it’s just how you view the grounds in which you tell your story.

HG: The relationship between Charlie and Matteusz has garnered a huge online following on Tumblr and YouTube. Why do you think same-sex relationships in YA and teen dramas develop cult followings? 

PN: One of the strongest things that YA is about is claiming ownership. Young people can say that this book or TV show is for them. That’s why I think things like Twilight and Harry Potter did so well — it’s young people saying that this story is for them rather than for their parents. So something like [the fandom around] Charlie and Matteusz is about claiming ownership around that. It’s people saying, “The world that I want and the world that I live in makes space for these characters that I care about.” And perhaps the same-sex relationships are more popular because they feel a little riskier, and for a young person to say that they value it is almost defiant. It’s them saying, “My values include this, and if yours don’t then that’s your problem.” They’re protective of them.

BBC America

HG: Is there one Doctor Who monster that you really want to write? 

PN: Well if you’ve seen all eight episodes you’ll know where we end up…

HG: I do, yes, and it’s *very* exciting. 

PN: Well, no spoilers, but that would be the story of Season 2, fingers crossed, so I’d be very much looking forward to that.

HG: On a side note, you have a new book coming out this year, Release. What can you tell me about it? 

PN: It’s based structurally on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and it takes place across a single day. It’s about a boy called Adam Thorn, who was a lot like me as a teenager, who is from a small town in Washington state. He’s from a religious family whom he has to hide his current boyfriend from, and it’s about the day where everything falls apart. That happens when you’re a teenager, everything falls to pieces, but maybe it has to because maybe you have to be a new you by the end of it. It’s an incredibly intense single day, story.

HG: Finally, is Season 2 of Class on the horizon? 

PN: I already know what Season 2 will look like. But [because Class aired in the UK first and is now airing in the US] we’re in a quirk of scheduling. So all the decisions will be made after worldwide airing. Fingers crossed!

Both Class and Doctor Who air on Saturdays on BBC America. Catch up on episode one here.

Patrick Ness’ new novel Release is published on September 19th, 2017.

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