This episode contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
“You can’t reach the controls from the seats, what’s the point in that?”
My thoughts on Smile, the second episode of this year’s Doctor Who run – and the second-ever story to be written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (previously behind series 8’s In The Forest Of The Night) – aren’t too far away from my thoughts on the series opener, The Pilot. That Pearl Mackie’s Bill is a breath of fresh air, that the interaction between her and Peter Capaldi’s Doctor feels different, and that the more relaxed pacing is very much to the benefit of the stories Who is currently trying to tell.
This time, we open as Bill gets the occasional option offered to a new companion, where she’s asked whether she wants to on a journey to the past or future. Naturally, she goes future (because that’s the done thing), and we land thousands of years ahead, at a colony for humans abandoning Earth, that, well, doesn’t appear to have humans in it.
The fate of the humans – or, more to the point, the reason for them not being there – isn’t the trickiest puzzle to resolve. I’d certainly be careful if you’re buying fertilizer from your local garden centre over the weekend. But this is a primarily self-contained adventure, which breezes enjoyably by.
We do, in fact, get a couple of (living) humans in the pre-titles sequence, but in a moment that will have classic Who fans scrabbling for their DVDs of The Happiness Patrol (a story whose path Smile at one stage seems to be hinting it wants to follow, before heading off elsewhere), we learn that if you don’t smile, you’re doomed. The twist here is that this is signalled by emojis on your back, an idea that runs through the episode but seemed to run out of steam to me long before the end credits. But then maybe I’m too old. Doctor Who, at heart, is billed as a children’s programme, and in the spirit of spanning its very broad audience, I’d imagine that many will have a lot of fun with the emojis here. I just can’t say I did.
What I certainly did appreciate was that aforementioned second week of patient build up. In particular, that we got the best part of half an hour where the episode spent time with the Doctor and Bill (and them alone) before other humans turned up (Ralf Little, briefly, amongst the supporting cast this time). This afforded the time and space for two things. Firstly, for the Doctor and Bill to get to know each other a bit more, and for us to join in with that too. And secondly, it allowed the Doctor to do some old-style detective work and puzzle solving. There’s still the odd sonic screwdriver wiggle, and a rush to wrap things up. But he’s trying to get to the bottom of things, and Bill is an active catalyst in doing so (Capaldi’s Doctor, more than most, has been reliant on companions to help him resolve matters usually involving otherwise certain death).
“Two thumbs up for Wiltshire-slash-Aberdeen”
As I noted in my spoiler-free review, this pacing also allowed Cottrell-Boyce to structure Smile with a feel of a classic adventure (I certainly got a sense of 70s and 80s Who throughout). That we got 15-20 minutes that once upon a time would have made up episode one, introducing a new world, a new mystery, and allowing the two lead characters to explore both. The downside is that the 45 minute limit led to Smile galloping a little on its way to its ending, but I did find the first half exceptionally strong.
A further thing: I thought the episode looked excellent. The switch to a Spanish location, to a big, stark, modern white building, gave a better sense of an alien world than the majority of Welsh quarries (but lord, I do love a Welsh quarry). Furthermore, the CG realizing the fact that the building was made of microbots was convincing too. Credit to director Lawrence Gough, and to the production team, for coming up with an episode that looked and felt so starkly contrasted with last week’s.
Some more praise for Pearl Mackie, and the way the character of Bill is written, too. Mackie’s Billl does the wide-eyed wonder of a new adventurer, but with a helpful dose of awareness and knowledge. Witness one particular little character moment: the old tactic where the Doctor leaves his companion in the TARDIS where they’ll be “safe” where he goes off to try and save everyone. No companion really plays along with this, but Bill’s response is interesting, an advantage of her having watched lots of sci-fi movies, and presumably exhausted the movies and dodgy internet history on board the TARDIS. For Bill doesn’t sulk. Instead, she asks questions, conducts her own investigations, and makes choices not out of belligerence, but by following her nose.
“They are expecting the new Garden of Eden. What they are not expecting is to be fertilizer”
I got a sense of plenty of touchpoints while watching Smile. The late Micheal Crichton wrote of a swarm in his solid thriller, Prey (a book it’s surprising nobody has made a film of yet), and the episode certainly made me want to seek that novel out again. The emoji robots, too, could have been evolved directly from the classic sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet. The apparently-idyllic world had a tinge of Paradise Towers to it. Then, for reasons I won’t go into to in case you’ve not seen the movie, a healthy dab of Soylent Green was added in.
The old adage goes that if something ‘borrows’ from other sources, then it’s all the better if its sources that you happen to like. And I, for one, like all of those sources. Furthermore, I think there’s enough in Smile to make it its own thing, too. It feels like a solid Doctor Who story, enlivened by the two leads, and the genuine sense of a different world.
It also, at least briefly, continued to tee future matters up. In fact, the longer term threads feel even more Pertwee-era of Who than they did last week.
In The Pilot, we learned that the Doctor was guarding a vault on Earth, and he’d been doing so for some time. Now we discover that he’s not supposed to leave Earth at all, and in fact has promised not to do so. In Nardole’s very brief appearance this week (I do hope Matt Lucas gets some more substantive screen time soon), he also reminds the Doctor of his “oath”, and how “you’re not supposed to go off world unless it’s an emergency”. Who has he made this promise/oath to, I wonder? And is the emergency clause allowing him to leave the planet a scriptwriting get-out, or is it to someone benevolent enough, or with enough knowledge of the Doctor, to know that if there’s one thing he can’t resist, it’s an emergency?
Throw in too that the Doctor then explains a little later to Bill about a thing that happened, that led to him making a promise. No idea what the thing is, mind, and that’s all we’re getting this week. I’m liking the slow, diligent reveal of the longer game, though. It feels a far more settled, less jumpy narrative thus far than Who in recent years has opted for.
I enjoyed Smile, and on reflection, it did leave me thinking that it’s a horrific story that’s been told. Of mass slaughter due to, effectively, a computer algorithm. As if The Jetsons went sinister. Conversely, it then builds up to a resolve that leaves you thinking Cottrell-Boyce has copped out with a Deus Ex Machina, before revealing he’s actually built to a gag about switching everything off and on again. Who knew that the Doctor worked in IT support?
Smile certainly feels like a more complete story than Cottrell-Boyce’s In The Forest Of The Night, and it’s a smart, stark contrast to episode one. Next week, following the new companion trajectory, we’re heading into the past. There’s a frozen River Thames to deal with. A lot of snow. And a bloody big CG elephant. Should be fun….
Our review of last week’s episode, The Pilot, is here.