Doctor Who S10E02 “Smile” REVIEW
Essential Plot Points:
- Nardole warns the Doctor not to break his oath about travelling off world unless there’s an emergency, but the Doctor takes Bill to an Earth colony in the future anyway, saying he can return the TARDIS to Earth before Nardole notices he’s gone. You’d think Nardole would be wise to that one.
- The colony (Colony world Gliese 581 D, fact fans) turns out to be a vast, gleaming city built by and from “vardies” – nanobots that swarm like birds when they’re not being futuristic Lego.
- The vardies have also created robot interfaces that Bill calls emojibots…
- But the city is totally devoid of any humans.
- The emojibots give the Doctor and Bill a square meal (literally – blue protein cubes) and two badges that reflect their emotions.
- On continued exploration the Doctor finds the “skeleton crew” that should have accompanied the colony ship to prepare the planet for the mass of colonists to follow. They’re all dead and being used as fertiliser.
- The vardies killed them because they weren’t happy – and now that the Doctor and Bill are decidedly unhappy too, they’re in danger of becoming fertiliser too.
- The Doctor decides to blow up the city to prevent the next wave of colonists from suffering the same fate.
- But the next wave isn’t on a ship heading to the planet; it’s just now waking up from cryogenic hibernation in pods within the city itself.
- The Doctor scraps his blowing-up-the-city plans and tells the colonists what’s happened.
- They’re not happy. This is not looking good.
- The Doctor realises that the vardies were programmed to make life as idyllic as possible for the human colonists, but took their programming too far when one of the colonists died; sensing the humans’ grief at the death, and interpreting grief as the enemy of happiness, they began killing anyone who was unhappy. And that just lead to more unhappiness.
- It looks like all-out vardy-human war is on the cards until the Doctor realises the vardies have gained sentience.
- His solution is to reboot the vardies and wipe their memories of ever having been built by humans or serving them.
- The vardies now believe themselves to be the planet’s indigenous life form, and the Doctor acts as a negotiator between them and the humans about how to share the planet. The humans aren’t particularly happy with this but it looks like the truce will hold and a new empire will grow.
- The Doctor tries to take Bill back to the university but the TARDIS takes them to a frozen Thames in 19th century London instead where an elephant is having a stroll.
There’s something almost nostalgic about “Smile”. For the first 25 minutes it’s very reminiscent of the first episode of any number of classic Doctor Who serials, from “The Ark” to “Ark In Space” and “Terminus”; stories which begin with the Doctor and co arriving in a deserted futuristic setting, having a good look around, discovering that something’s not right, and then there’s a cliffhanger where the humans (or humanoids or monsters) finally crash in and turn everything on its head.
The thing is, those old serials usually had three of five episodes to wrap things up. “Smile” has 15 minutes of people running around with guns and the Doctor making some very lucky guesses.
It’s a solid enough story, with some striking sci-fi images, an intriguing mystery, amusing ideas and some really creepy robots who go from cute to scary with one swipe of their face screens. The production design, setting and stylish camerawork make it look glossy as hell and the FX are excellent too.
But it’s just a little… dull in places. There’s a lot of walking and talking. There’s a lot of theorising. There’s a lot of infodumping. Even when the colonists awake and there’s a bit of action, everything grinds to a halt while the Doctor and Bill basically fill in all the holes in the plot and come up with the emojibots’ complete backstory as if from thin air.
In such a talky episode it’s quite odd, then, that the denouement – which actually has some quite interesting moral questions going on (the Doctor doesn’t destroy the vardies because they’ve become a new life form, fair enough, but he’s quite happy to alter their memories, which surely raises issues of free will) – actually glosses over many of those issues with a breezy “Doctor knows best” approach.
But it’s never less than watchable, and there are lots of fun moments. If anything, it’s a good excuse for a Doctor/Bill bonding session and these two are still on course to become one of the all-time classic Doctor/companion partnerships.
- The emojibots are great and the way their faces changed could be genuinely creepy at time.
- There are some gorgeous sci-fi images; the shots in the wheat fields with the city in the background are especially striking, and the CG makeovers on the Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences cultural complex (designed by Santiago Calatrava) are incredibly effective. In terms of production design, it’s a great-looking episode.
- Didn’t you just love it when the Doctor revealed why he’s been saying magic haddock the whole episode? (Though why he started it saying it so early on when he didn’t know the full picture is a bit of a mystery.)
- “You don’t steer the TARDIS, you negotiate with it. The still point between where you want to go, and where you need to be.” This is just about the most poetic explanation for why the TARDIS is so unreliable we’ve ever heard; really lovely. It may also be foreshadowing the cliffhanger… which reminds us…
- Fantastic cliffhanger! Did anyone else think the elephant sounded like Chewbacca?
- We love the fact that Bill is taking selfies of herself on an alien world. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
- “I’m over 2,000 years old, I don’t always want to take the stairs.”
- “Why is she here?”
“Because she isn’t anywhere else.”
- “I’m not Scottish, I’m just cross.”
“Is there a Scotland in space?”
“They’re all over the place, demanding independence from every planet they land on.”
- There’s an awful lot of theorising going on. Worst offender is the scene by the body of the first victim where the Doctor natters on for ages, correctly guessing the sequence of events based on the flimsiest evidence.
- The child actor is a woefully stiff.
- Sorry, we’re not buying this whole “wet brains design rubbish architecture, dry brains design lovely architecture” guff; that seems a really odd bias for the Doctor to suddenly develop.
- As we said in our preview, we like a good piece of cerebral sci-fi as much as the next geek, but “Smile” is very talky at times; you can’t help wondering if there might not have been a more exciting way to dramatise the cool ideas or another way to structure the plot.
- “You can’t reach the controls from the seats!” We’re slightly worried that Bill is going to spend the entire series pointing out all the ironies and inconsistencies in show’s format like some poster on a Doctor Who forum. It’s still funny now but let’s hope it fades out soon.
And The Random:
- The colony ship is named nowhere Erehwon, which is “nowhere” backwards. This may also be a reference to a 19th century Utopian novel “Erewhon” by Samuel Butler, although the spellings are slightly different, so maybe it’s just a coincidence.
- “Earth was evacuated, but there were a number of ships. I’ve bumped into a few of them over the years,” says the Doctor. He may be referring to the Ark from the 1966 First Doctor story “The Ark” and the crashed colony ship in the 1984 Fifth Doctor story “Frontios”.
- “Skeleton crew” is supposed to be a gag, right?
- “A long time ago a thing happened. As a result of the thing, I made a promise. As a result of the promise I have to stay on Earth.” Well, that’s clarified what the Doctor’s up to with the Vault. Although it does suggest he made the promise to someone; after last week we assumed his “exile” was self-imposed but now we’re not so sure.
- There is another allusion to the First Doctor’s era (about the theft of the TARDIS); there seem to be a lot of those so far this season.
- Bill also mentions the loo again; does the show now have a loo agenda?
- The Doctor’s line, “I’m happy, I hope that you’re happy too,” is very close to a line from David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes”: “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.” Considering how apt that song title is in the context of the episode, maybe this is deliberate?
- Many of the colonists appear to be wearing wetsuit boots…
Review by Dave Golder