A naïve British tween discovers an inner trove of unusual powers and whisks off to a foreboding castle to learn the magical arts. The kid cultivates strong friendships with talented peers, harbors dangerous rivalries with snotty elites, and always seem to incur the withering fury of a goth-y potions teacher. Naturally, only they can save the day when the hijinks get a little too hard.
Sound familiar? Before the name “Harry Potter” dominated the zeitgeist, there was Mildred Hubble, the clumsiest kid to ever barely scrape by at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, an all-girls magical boarding school staffed almost entirely by women. The Worst Witch, Jill Murphy’s popular children’s book series about a ne’er-do-well young sorceress, debuted in 1974 and has since inspired five screen adaptations, including a jaunty ’80s TV movie starring Fairuza Balk and Tim Curry as well as a majestic cult-classic ITV series that ran from 1998 to 2001. The latter, whose cast included Byronic goddess Kate Duchene as martinet potions mistress Constance Hardbroom, may have featured some of the best lesbian subtext in the history of children’s entertainment.
The Worst Witch’s big-budget 2017 reboot, created by CBBC and now streaming on Netflix, does not attempt to tap into the series’ camp history. Instead, writer Emma Reeves has carved something modern and sophisticated out of Murphy’s classic work, reworking the story’s timeless fish-out-of-water conceit for a young audience growing up in a tumultuous age of socio-economic fracturing. The only student of nonmagical origin at Miss Cackle’s, Mildred faces relentless discrimination from peers and instructors alike, revealing the false meritocratic scaffolding of a culture where magical ability alone is supposed to determine one’s worth. The newest iteration of Mildred is no longer merely maladroit; departing from the books and filmed versions, our protagonist is now less defined by her clumsiness than her culture shock.
Delving into our heroine’s home life more deeply than any previous version, this Worst Witch introduces 12-year-old Mildred (Game of Thrones scene-stealer Bella Ramsey) living in a dingy public housing flat with her single mother. She’s as klutzy and impulsive as ever, but the character’s signature sulk has been replaced with a gawping gob. (Seriously, Ramsey’s mouth doesn’t ever seem to close, as she’s constantly in a state of awe at the witching world.) One minute, she’s watching a girl her age zoom past her high-rise kitchen window on a broomstick, the next, she’s zipping off to orientation at her new friend’s school. After a series of complications and existential threats, Mildred stops Headmistress Cackle’s blowhard twin sister Agatha from taking over the school, and despite the faculty’s concern that a girl from her background can’t hack it at as a witch, she’s admitted to the school on a probationary basis.
There’s a whiff of eugenics in the air at Miss Cackle’s, a thousand-year-old institution more invested in maintaining blood legacies than opening its doors to talented but rough-hewn upstarts. The hierarchy is clear: The further back your magical pedigree goes, the higher your social status. Miss Cackle’s campus is dominated by small-minded conservatives: When we first meet Miss Hardbroom (Raquel Cassidy, all slithery drawl), she’s lamenting the unfitness of the next generation of witches. They couch the importance of exclusivity and heritability in language about respect for “the craft.” “The craft is in decline,” we’re constantly told, as adult after adult flattens Mildred’s self-esteem when her spells go awry or her flying is wobbly. To us, she’s raw talent; to them, she’s a dangerous interloper diluting their honor. At an orientation feast, the girls are told they are part of a primeval history: “For millennia, witches have been learning their craft at the site of ancient power, and now you yourselves will become Cackle’s girls. You will be carrying on our traditions as your mothers and grandmothers did before you, not to mention your great-grandmothers and your great-great-grandmothers.”
Episode after episode, Mildred struggles against the tide of prejudice. When the omnipotent Grand Wizard visits Miss Cackle’s and finds out she is of nonmagical origin, he assumes she’s not a witch at all and forces her to prove her powers. In an episodes-long arc, Mildred becomes obsessed with discovering at least one ancestor who attended Miss Cackle’s, as though lineage alone could prove she belongs there. Despite the series’ tonal cheeriness, it’s heartbreaking to watch this version of Mildred work so hard to seek social legitimacy by any means. Her earlier counterparts are melancholic about their academic abilities, but almost never about the very core of their sociopolitical identity. “If I were a proper witch I’d already know these things,” she grieves.
While the gritty-fication of children’s television is part of a larger current trend that also includes Netflix’s Anne with an E and Disney Channel’s Andi Mack, CBBC is breaking ground for social-emotional learning by openly questioning the political value of worshipping past glories. It’s a stark curriculum for today’s audience, going beyond a mere morality tale: Its lessons are immediately applicable in today’s heightened culture of fear and mistrust of newcomers, not to mention the desperate attachment to nostalgia. The Worst Witch is a clever and emotional nature-vs.-nurture debate shaped for a young audience that regularly witnesses Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and acid attacks on the news. “If you want this school to be great again, stand up and follow me,” demands Evil Agatha, the twin who wants to return Miss Cackle’s to an imagined past of witchcraft, before their culture faces further “dumbing-down.” Wanting your storied institutions to be great again is a cautionary theme for 2017, and it is heartening to see a rare children’s series so expertly push back against class stratification and xenophobia.