“Alien invasion or teen angst?” - BBC Three’s Class and contemporary youth culture
Updated: Mar 3
The BBC3 series Class (2016) was a young adult science-fiction drama, centred around the fictional Coal Hill academy where rips in space and time lead to incursions of aliens from across the galaxy. Across its eight episode run, Class dealt with a myriad of themes relevant to contemporary society and young adults, both directly and through use of metaphor and analogy, and this essay will analyse how Class engages with and comments on youth culture as a whole. First, I will summarise key discourses surrounding youth in today’s postmodern culture using works from Douglas Kellner and Steven Best; then I will discuss the science-fiction genre’s history of engaging with contemporary fears of different periods, with research from John Cook, Peter Wright, and Annette Kuhn. These two analyses will lead into a textual exploration of Class and how it creates a commentary about youth culture.
Today’s young people are growing up in a very different world to the preceding generations, even from as little as a decade ago. As Kehily (2007, p.3) writes “recent years have seen important changes in the social structures and processes shaping people’s lives, including changes in schooling and in higher education, the loss of the traditional youth market, and shifts in the nature of the family and intimate relationships,” as well as other changes such as the rise in importance of technology, climate change, the war on terror, global recessions and shifting political landscapes. All these developments have led to today’s generation growing up with a different view on society to their elders, being more wary, pessimistic or cynical towards the world. These changes are similar to those surrounding the rise of postmodernism in contemporary culture.
As Boggs and Pollard (2003, p.127) write, scholars have yet to decide upon “anything resembling a unified understanding or ‘theory’ of postmodernism”, but in an broad sense, postmodernism is about culture changing beyond what has been considered traditions, as people start to question their belief in the grand narratives of society, and as the world becomes more uncertain. In Best and Kellner’s research (2003, p. 76), they note some of the key themes of postmodernism to be “entropy, chaos, indeterminacy, contingency, simulation, and hyperreality.” These ideas seem to line up with observations about the experience of youth today, with the world changing from what their elders experienced and consequently not believing in the same traditions and values, facing a world of uncertainty and danger. In the words of Best and Kellner “the youth of the new millennium are the first generation to live the themes of postmodern theory.” (2003 p. 76)
One way these cultural issues can be explored for larger audiences is through the media, and one genre that has a long history of this is science-fiction. Since it first came to prominence, science-fiction films and television have tapped into the fears and anxieties of the time, as discussed by Kuhn (1990), from the hidden alien invasion narratives of the 1950s such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) echoing fears of Cold War enemies within, to more grounded fears like overpopulation and pollution of the 1970s surrounding American isolationism, in films like Silent Running (1972). In more recent years, science-fiction films have focussed around the rise of technology and global apocalypse as fears of war, climate change and technology become bigger threats in society.
However, science-fiction television, in particular British shows, have a slightly different history. Ever since the rise of television in post-war Britain, “television drama [has been] a central component of British culture, and that its arguments and debates [have been] both an extension and a complication of social, political, aesthetic and cultural debates” (Caughie, 2000 p. 2). This also extends to science-fiction television. While early American science-fiction of the 60s focussed on exploration and typical American heroes, “British science fiction television, being unable to afford the big-budget special effects of its cinema counterpart, was ideas-led, … on the level of plot, character and situation... Its plots often functioned as metaphors or allegories, reflecting wider social and cultural preoccupations at the time of their production” (Cook and Wright, 2006 p.3). This trend of valuing stronger ideas over spectacle stayed prevalent in British science-fiction through to modern times, just changing the cultural issues it represented, through shows like dark cultural anthology Black Mirror (2011-) and a show about superpowered delinquents, Misfits (2009-2013).
This explorative aspect of science-fiction allows it to work particularly well as a hybrid with the ‘teen tv’ genre for a variety of reasons. Rutherford (2004, p. 29) explores how “regardless of the embodied ages of its consumers, science-fiction is culturally constituted as a ‘young adult’ product, in its status as spectacle, celebrating the pleasures of possibility”, which is to say science-fiction is intrinsically appealing to young adult audiences since it offers visions of the future which, in a postmodern culture, can seem otherwise chaotic and uncertain. Additionally, Freedman discusses how “horror, science-fiction and fantasy fit readily into the highly coded landscape of melodrama for adolescent viewers, for individually and together the generic elements of each form work towards expressing the anxieties of inbetween-ness - a metamorphosing body caught between childhood and adulthood.” (2005, p. 161). This adds another level of compatibility with the teen genre, since they can have innate similarities, and science-fiction can use analogies to discuss topics that are relevant to teens while still providing distraction and escapism.
One such hybrid of teen tv and science-fiction is Class, a spin-off of the iconic science-fiction show Doctor Who (1963-). Class follows four students at Coal Hill Academy in central London who encounter creatures from across space coming to Earth through rifts appearing at the school. Class was broadcast online on BBC3 in 2016, but ran for only one eight-episode series before being cancelled due to low ratings. BBC3 is described as the BBC’s “online destination for 16-34 year-olds, tackling subjects that matter to them,” (2018) so clearly Class was targeted to young adults, and will include themes relevant to that audience. Class can be presumed to be a fairly accurate representation of youth, since even though it is a fictional tv drama, “the creators of media culture are often finely attuned to the hopes, fears, fantasies, and conflicts of their audiences, which are articulated in their products, making media culture an important terrain to gain insights into the dynamics of the contemporary” (Best and Kellner, 1998 p.88). Content creators and producers, especially ones as big as the BBC, have a vested interest in making their media accurate and relatable to their audiences, so they can engage and follow the show by seeing issues relevant to their experiences.
Typical teen shows tend to often discuss similar issues, the most common being “sex and sexuality, drug and alcohol use, family tensions and negotiating one’s place amongst one’s peers, all issues encountered by the average teenager.” (Davis and Dickinson, 2004 p.3) However, taking Class as a hybrid of the teen genre and science-fiction, Class addresses some of these topics but through the conventions of science-fiction, using metaphors and analogies rather than exploring them explicitly as a typical teen drama might do.
One major way Class represents modern youth culture is through its main cast. The four lead characters are all very different from each other - the refugee alien prince, Charlie (Greg Austin); the antisocial but loyal Ram (Fady Elsayed), the child prodigy of immigrant parents, Tanya (Vivian Oparah); and the well meaning wallflower April (Sophie Hopkins). The characters’ differences are all important points to their development and arcs - Charlie is gay and his relationship with Polish Matteusz is a main narrative of the series; Ram loses a leg in the first episode and has to learn to live with his sudden disability; Tanya’s strict Nigerian mother wants her to focus on studying and not spending time with the gang; and April wants to overcome her perceived weakness and fragility.
The characters are all very aware of their differences within the diegesis of the series, which is atypical for the teen genre. Kaveney writes, “there are, regularly, non-white characters in teen genre movies and television, though almost never in central roles… [rarely] is the film even marginally about them, nor does their ethnicity feature even in passing,” (2006 p.7). Class certainly does not fit this description, with the characters of Ram and Tanya. Ram is proud of his Sikh background, and in episode five he tries to educate April on his religion, saying he doesn’t wear the turban because of the complications in life from wearing it, commenting “have you ever tried going through airport security with a turban?”
However, Ram says he's proud that his dad does, saying “it reminds him of where [he] came from.” Similarly, in episode six, April tries to cheer Tanya up when they’re trapped, but Tanya mocks her, saying “white people, always so optimistic, so certain things are going to work out for you, oh well because they usually do!” In typical teen shows, the characters’ race would have been used as more of a narrative point, but instead it's used to inform the characters’ development. Having two main characters like Tanya and Ram, whose ethnicities and background are so important to their personalities and who acknowledge the tensions surrounding their race, is important to Class’s portrayal of youth culture, allowing the show to represent the increased diversity and co-operation of today’s youth without ignoring the racist aspects of modern society.
Similarly, Charlie and Matteusz’ relationship is very important to the series, both within the narrative and as a representation of youth culture. In the first episode, April tries to ask Charlie to the prom, but is rejected. She is initially hurt until Charlie reveals he wants to ask Matteusz, and she replies with an accepting if patronising reply. Charlie and Matteusz’ relationship isn’t treated any differently by the rest of the main characters, simply being a part of the narratives. It even forms one of the series’ main story arcs, with tensions arising from Matteusz loving Charlie but fearing his alien nature. This shows the difference in today’s youth culture from that of previous generations, since Moore and Rosenthal, writing in 2006, found “emerging research that these negative attitudes [towards homosexuality] are reflected in the youth culture and played out in schools,” (p.157). This shows how far LGBT acceptance has come in only 13 years. However, that isn’t to say no problems arise from their homosexuality, because that would arguably be an inaccurate representation of today’s society. In the first episode we see the aftermath of an argument between Matteusz and his “deeply religious parents [who] are very happy [he’s] going to dance with a boy,” when Charlie meets him to attend the prom together.
Subsequently, in the third episode, Matteusz stays with Charlie after his parents kick him out for being gay. Class acknowledges that there is still homophobia in the world, but leaves it as a minor part of the story, focussing instead on the acceptance from Charlie and Matteusz’ peers. These ways that Class addresses race and sexuality echo a statement by Johansson, when he says that “while young people today are aware that limits are set and that factors such as gender, ethnicity and class play a role in and affect people’s freedom, they also cultivate a basically liberal idea about individual choice and freedom to choose one’s own sexuality and way of staging gender,” (2007, p.99). Ram and Tanya are aware they are different from April and Charlie, just as Charlie and Matteusz are aware they're different, but they still cooperate as a group.
Class also comments on the postmodern aspects of today’s youth culture. As Best and Kellner (2003, p.80) discuss, “today’s youth face even more dangerous and anxious times with threats of terrorism, war, and large-scale apocalypse on the horizon.” The characters of Class regularly face danger, with multiple supporting characters dying across the course of the series, and the show constantly maintains this feeling of unseen danger. Even before the aliens arrive in the first episode, police officers and posters for missing kids, alcoholism and gun crime can be seen in the background around the school, clearly establishing the modern world the characters live in and the danger they already face.
How each of these characters change and are changed by living in constant danger is a big theme of the series. Charlie tries his best to maintain a pacifist attitude towards the danger, but in the end is forced to use a weapon of mass destruction on the Shadowkin to save Earth, nearly sacrificing himself in the process. Ram initially becomes angry at the world after his leg is cut off and his girlfriend is killed, but after developing feelings for April partway through the series becomes more optimistic again. April’s main arc is about how her dad caused a car accident that paralysed her mum when April was a child, but Ram praises her for how she stayed strong, saying “she found out way too early the world isn’t safe, but she didn’t let it take her, she adapted and threw it back at the world.” Boggs and Pollard describe how in postmodern films, an overall trend is “the sense of a world filled with chaos” (2003 p.ix). This feeling is definitely present in Class, but it takes a brighter view that the characters are able to stand up and fight back against the dangerous world. This is important in a show for young people since, as Kaveney writes, “[teenagers] watch movies about themselves to make sense of their lives, to be reassured that the pangs of adolescence are a universal truth, not a personal wound” (2006, p.184). Class aims to send a message to young people about the world around them, that they can stay strong through what it throws at them.
However, instead of real world threats like terrorism, Class instead uses allegories for real world dangers and issues. The slaughterous race known as the Shadowkin are the main antagonists of the series, having wiped out Charlie’s race before the series began, and attempting to do the same to Earth as the series begins. In episode five, April explains their world view, saying how the Shadowkin view themselves as the universe’s mistake, and that their central belief system is that “the universe will crush them if they don’t defeat it.” In this regard, the Shadowkin can be taken as an extreme example of postmodern beliefs, that the world is dangerous and uncertain, and that there is nothing to believe in other than living in chaos. They act as a dark mirror to the main cast, who also face the danger the universe throws at them but keep believing in good.
Another enemy faced by the gang that can be seen as an analogy is the Lankin. Appearing in episode three, the Lankin uses images of people’s dead loved ones to convince them to come to “heaven”, except in actuality abducting them as a power source. This corruption of the typical belief that people die and go to heaven is analogous for another aspect of postmodernism in youth culture, the decline in belief of grand narratives. As Jones (2009, p.24) notes, “Grand narratives such as ... structuralism associated with the height of modernity are becoming less relevant”. The Lankin takes this belief and tries to use it to trick Tanya into believing it, but she defeats the creature by refusing its story and fighting back against it, choosing to ignore the grand narrative. This represents how grand narratives can be used to manipulate young people when they’re no longer relevant to their lives, and it can be necessary to stand up against them.
From all this evidence, I argue that Class uses a variety of elements in its commentary on youth culture. Class goes against generic conventions of the teen genre to present a nuanced and accurate commentary around modern youth culture, how attitudes around race and sexuality have changed amongst young people if not the older generations. Additionally, Class uses its science-fiction elements as a lens to present how youth culture has adapted in a postmodern society, and how young people have grown up in a dangerous and uncertain world and yet still remain optimistic and cooperative. Overall, Class sends the message that today's youth culture is one of strength and resilience and diversity in the face of a dangerous and chaotic postmodern world.
BBC, 2018. BBC Three commissioning. [viewed 13/1/19]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/tv/articles/bbc-three
BEST, S. and KELLNER, D. 1998. Beavis and Butt-Head: No Future for Postmodern Youth. In: Epstein, J. S. (eds), (1998) Youth culture : identity in a postmodern world, Malden, MA: Blackwell. Pp 73-99
BEST, S. and KELLNER, D, (2003) "Contemporary youth and the postmodern adventure", Review of education, pedagogy and cultural studies, 25  pp.75-93
BOGGS, C. and POLLARD, T. 2003. A world in chaos: social crisis and the rise of postmodern cinema. Oxford : Rowman and Littlefield
CAUGHIE, J. 2000. Television drama: realism, modernism and British culture. Oxford: OUP
COOK, J. and WRIGHT, P. 2006. British science fiction television : a hitchhiker's guide. London: IB Tauris
DAVIS, G. and DICKINSON, K. 2004. Teen TV: Genre, consumption and identity. London: BFI
FREEDMAN, E. 2005. Television, Horror and Everyday Life in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In: HAMMOND, M. and MAZDON, L. 2005. The contemporary television series. Edinburgh : Edinburgh UP pp. 159-180
JOHANSSON, T. 2007. The transformation of sexuality : gender and identity in contemporary youth culture. Aldershot : Ashgate
JONES, G. 2009. Youth. Cambridge : Polity Press
KAVENEY, R. 2006. Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from Heathers to Veronica Mars. London : IB Tauris
KEHILY, M.J. 2007. Understanding youth : perspectives, identities and practices. London : Sage
KUHN, A. 1990. Alien zone : cultural theory and contemporary science fiction cinema. London: Verso
MOORE, S and ROSENTHAL, D. 2006. Sexuality in Adolescence: Current Trends. 2nd ed. Hove : Routledge
RUTHERFORD, L. 2004. Teen TV: Discourses of Alienation, the Social and Technology in Australian Science-Fiction Television Series in: DAVIS, G. and DICKINSON, K. 2004. Teen TV: Genre, consumption and identity. London: BFI. pp. 29-40
Black Mirror, 2011-present. [TV] UK: Channel 4/Netflix
Class, 2016 [TV], UK: BBC3
Doctor Who, 1963-present. [TV]. UK: BBC One
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956 [film]. Directed by Walter WANGER. USA: Walter Wanger Productions
Misfits, 2009-2013. [TV] UK: Channel 4
Silent Running, 1972 [film]. Directed by Douglas TRUMBULL. USA: Universal Pictures