Review by Cavan Gilbey
Big Finish did the impossible; they made Class one of my favourite Doctor Who spin-offs. Prior to hearing Secret Diary I was well accustomed to the first two volumes of the audio stories set within Coal Hill Academy, and I absolutely adored them and hold them up as a pair of Big Finish’s best New Series era boxsets. They have stories which explore new ideas, really interesting small scale sci-fi threats, and have outstanding character development and characterisation. As of time of writing I am yet to hear the later two series of stories, I have been put off due to the recasts, but the finale of Volume 4 was penned by one Blair Mowat; composer extraordinaire who has done Big Finish’s best musical suites as well as composing the excellent score for Class’ TV series. In recent years he has stepped into the world of writing, first with Queen of Rhodia and now with Secret Diary of a Rhodian Prince. Which, with no word of exaggeration, is the best Class story and an easy early contender for favourite release of 2023.
Stranded on Earth after the destruction of Rhodia, Charlie starts a diary to help him cope with the overwhelming imposter syndrome that comes with being a stranger in a strange land. He hates school, but finds Matteusz makes it significantly more tolerable. Soon he’s making friends and battling strange petals, dragons trapped in football coaches and the infamous Shadowkin. Sometimes life can be tough for an alien prince, it can be stressful, anxiety inducing and unpleasant. But Charlie is beginning to fit in and fall in love, although rough patches are yet to come.
This release is closest in format to a Companion Chronicle, with Charlie as the central narrator and Matteusz providing an emotional foil throughout the key scenes. And it honestly works extremely well, especially with a character like Charlie as this really fleshes out his reactions to the events we saw in that TV series. One of my core complaints with Class on television is that Patrick Ness didn’t quite put enough focus on Charlie’s characterisation until the final couple of episodes featuring him. For the most part he’s a very generic, yet endearing, alien character who doesn’t understand Earth culture in comedic ways. But Mowat here manages to inject so much life into the character, which given this is a POV driven hour it is a feat how much he squeezes in here.
Much like Tell Me You Love Me from Volume 1, the most interesting stuff here is about how Charlie navigates his romance with Matteusz. There are so many tender moments, from a really fun first date scene where Charlie explains how he grew up in a society where gender was a kind of abstract concept in terms of romance to scenes where Matteusz admires Charlie for his difference. That isn’t to say the story doesn’t take their romance to difficult places, there is a really great conversation near the end of the release where they Charlie tries to justify his use of the Cabinet of Souls to have nearly committed genocide on the petals while Matteusz relates his experiences hearing stories about the Holocaust from family, it simultaneously shows the gulf between them but also how close they actually are when Matteusz can bring Charlie back from these grimmer moments.
Greg Austin’s performance is by far his best, across all the audios he’s done I was so impressed with how he managed to effortlessly carry a lot of the narration. He injects the lightness and innocence of Charlie’s character so well, often having excellent comedic timing for the moments that needed it. There’s some quite fun moments of deadpan delivery that had me chuckling. But when the mood turns more serious, Austin can bring the pained and lost aspects of Charlie’s anxiety to the forefront for a really compelling emotional performance. Jordan Renzo does a really good job as Matteusz, capturing the hopeless romantic in the scenes where he and Charlie share tender moments. Renzo always lends kindness to his portrayal of Matteusz that also makes the character so charming to listen to.
There was a surprise at the end that I genuinely could have never seen coming. Its really ominous and sinister and gives us our first glimpse at anything past The Lost. If this is a backdoor pilot for an official continuation of the series, then I hope it succeeds well enough for us to see that become a reality.
Stories like this mean I will always jump at the chance the buy more Class stories from Big Finish. This has a really mature emotional core which explores love and loss and what it means to be alien; both literally and figuratively. Mowat seems to just get these characters, capturing the problems and pitfalls of youth perfectly while also giving us the development that Charlie really deserved. Given how cheap this actually is, Secret Diary makes for the perfect introduction to the world of Class on audio. I really hope this gives us more of that world.
Order on CD/Download from Big Finish
Review: Class – Volume 1 & 2
Interview: Shannon Murray (Class)
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