If last week’s opening episode of Doctor Who series 10 had some parallels with Rose, in the way that it introduced new companion Bill, then Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s Smile slightly follows the idea of the episode that followed, The End Of The World. That’s because this one zips Bill off on her first adventure, and the TARDIS takes her – by request – well into the future.
In this case, the Doctor takes her to a colony for humans, one that doesn’t appear to have any humans in it. Although it does have robots that hark back to Robby from the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, albeit with emojis on them. It’s also a colony with superb production design, a future world that feels just that, with science fiction ideas and influences both under and on the surface.
I got flavours of The Happiness Patrol, Paradise Towers, a Michael Crichton book that I won’t name else it give things away, and the aforementioned Forbidden Planet, in terms of touchpoints. Plus one or two more that, if I name them, would be a bit too spoiler-y. Smile‘s core story stands up too, better for me in its first two thirds than its finale, but – full disclosure – the preview version I had access to stuttered through the last ten minutes, and thus I’ll be giving the episode another run through ahead of this weekend’s spoiler-filled review. Technical problems may have hampered the flow a little.
But I did take away some notable positives here.
Pearl Mackie’s Bill, again, steals the show. She’s just as much fun here as she was in The Pilot, opening with some critiques of the TARDIS design, and displaying the same savvy knowledge of sci-fi productions that continually save 30 seconds here and there of the script having to explain things for her character. Furthermore, the relationship between her and Capaldi’s Doctor feels fresh, interesting and entertaining, as they work each other out.
I liked too that there’s a sense of an old-school Doctor Who structure here. The first 15-20 minutes feels like a traditional Who episode one of old (modern Who has tended to blast through a lot of its set up work, that once upon a time would have been afforded an opening episode, pre-credits), and this was my favourite bit of Smile. Cottrell-Boyce’s script patiently sets up the story – this feels as relaxed and uncluttered as the opening of The Pilot – and affords The Doctor and Bill some quality time for a natter. All the while exploring why the colony of Gliese 581 D is empty. Modern Who stories that take their time with the set up do have a habit of rushing the ending, and there’s perhaps an element of that. But it still stands up, has internal logic, and works.
I did find myself wanting more Nardole – Matt Lucas’ companion is barely in this one – and the emoji robots didn’t really do it for me. But the story is good, the visual realisation of it is terrific, and the interplay between Capaldi and Mackie is both a treat and the highlight. Plus, there’s some fresh information about that Vault, that slowly continues to tease the bigger underlying narrative of the story.
I think Smile is going to get a much warmer reception than Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s previous Doctor Who, In The Forest Of The Night (a story that has more fans and people fighting its corner than it gets credit for). I also think it’s testament to the talents behind the show and the ambition for it that such a future world tale is both attempted and realised so well.
A good episode, this. I don’t see it challenging too many favourite episode ever lists, yet this is a fine slice of Doctor Who.