Here's one alternate idea for how to implement the "forward class" syntax.
The entire point of the "forward class" statement is that it creates the real actual class object. But what if it wasn't actually the "real" class object? What if it was only a proxy for the real object?
In this scenario, the syntax of "forward object" remains the same. You define the class's bases and metaclass. But all "forward class" does is create a simple, lightweight class proxy object. This object has a few built-in dunder values, __name__ etc. It also allows you to set attributes, so let's assume (for now) it calls metaclass.__prepare__ and uses the returned "dict-like object" as the class proxy object __dict__.
"continue class" internally performs all the rest of the class-creation machinery. (Everything except __prepare__, as we already called that.) The first step is metaclass.__new__, which returns the real class object. "continue class" takes that object and calls a method on the class proxy object that says "here's your real class object". From that moment on, the proxy becomes a pass-through for the "real" class object, and nobody ever sees a reference to the "real" class object ever again. Every interaction with the class proxy object is passed through to the underlying class object. __getattribute__ calls on the proxy look up the attribute in the underlying class object. If the object returned is a bound method object, it rebinds that callable with the class proxy instead, so that the "self" passed in to methods is the proxy object. Both base_cls.__init_subclass__ and cls.__init__ see the proxy object during class creation. As far as Python user code is concerned, the class proxy *is* the class, in every way, important or not.
The upside: this moves all class object creation code into "continue class" call. We don't have to replace __new__ with two new calls.
The downside: a dinky overhead to every interaction with a "forward class" class object and with instances of a "forward class" class object.
A huge concern: how does this interact with metaclasses implemented in C? If you make a method call on a proxy class object, and that calls a C function from the metaclass, we'd presumably have to pass in the "real class object", not the proxy class object. Which means references to the real class object could leak out somewhere, and now we have a real-class-object vs proxy-class-object identity crisis. Is this a real concern?
A possible concern: what if metaclass.__new__ keeps a reference to the object it created? Now we have two objects with an identity crisis. I don't know if people ever do that. Fingers crossed that they don't. Or maybe we add a new dunder method:
@special_cased_staticmethod metaclass.__bind_proxy__(metaclass, proxy, cls)
This tells the metaclass "bind cls to this proxy object", so metaclasses that care can update their database or whatever. The default implementation uses the appropriate mechanism, whatever it is.
One additional probably-bad idea: in the case where it's just a normal "class" statement, and we're not binding it to a proxy, should we call this?
metaclass.__bind_proxy__(metaclass, None, cls)
The idea there being "if you register the class objects you create, do the registration in __bind_proxy__, it's always called, and you'll always know the canonical object in there". I'm guessing probably not, in which case we tell metaclasses that track the class objects we create "go ahead and track the object you return from __new__, but be prepared to update your tracking info in case we call __bind_proxy__ on you".
A small but awfully complicated wrinkle here: what do we do if the metaclass implements __del__? Obviously, we have to call __del__ with the "real" class object, so it can be destroyed properly. But __del__ might resurrect that object, which means someone took a reference to it.
One final note. Given that, in this scenario, all real class creation happens in "continue class", we could move the bases and metaclass declaration down to the "continue class" statement. The resulting syntax would look like:
forward class X
continue class X(base1, base2, metaclass=AmazingMeta, rocket="booster")
Is that better? worse? doesn't matter? I don't have an intuition about it right now--I can see advantages to both sides, and no obvious deciding factor. Certainly this syntax prevents us from calling __prepare__ so early, so we'd have to use a real dict in the "forward class" proxy object until we reached continue, then copy the values from that dict into the "dict-like object", etc.