Like with “The Pilot”, I had my doubts going into the latest episode of Doctor Who. This time instead of worrying about Steven Moffat I was worried about writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who had previously written for the show back in 2014. His first episode, “In the Forest of the Night”, was received rather negatively by the fans as it incorporated too many fantasy elements that contradicted the science-fiction it tried to imply. That and, well, it was rather soul destroying.
What started out as a good idea quickly turned into a children’s pantomime that happened to have “Doctor Who” slapped on its title, featuring bland child actors, a dull narrative, and a continuation of Clara Oswald’s extremely annoying story-arc concerning her relationship with Danny Pink. With all that in mind I was really, really, really apprehensive about Cottrell-Boyce coming back on-board for Peter Capaldi‘s final series. But surprisingly “Smile” managed to exceed my low expectations and became one of the best “first journey” narratives within the New Series.
Reading up on “Smile” before its broadcast I felt wary as to whether it would be a “good” story. There was clear indication within an advance review I read that the episode would be heavily devoid of action, revolving mostly around a character study of The Twelfth Doctor and Bill, with the guest actors not appearing until the 30 minute mark. In all honesty, this had all the hallmarks of being a really terrible premise, especially since it featured tiny pissing robots (that communicated with emoji’s) as the villain.
However, like with “The End of the World”, “Smile” adopts a more simplistic approach and really tries to drive a narrative that explores a strange, and somewhat, unsettling idealistic future for the companion to become aware of the darker corners of The Doctor’s adventures.
Though it isn’t as in-depth as “The End of the World” (to which featured a slight murder-mystery sub-plot, that quickly turned into a conspiracy) “Smile” definitely offers some insightful look into humanity’s future and where technology could possibly bring us. The episode revolves around a “supposed” shining utopia for human refugees to settle upon after they were forced to evacuate Earth (a point in history that has been referenced multiple times throughout the show’s history), but things quickly become eerie.
Despite my worries that the Emojibots would be a complete and utter joke, I was quickly blown-away by how creepy they became. Yes, they looked like innocent, and child-friendly bots that looked to be there to sell toys rather than sell a good plot, but honestly, that’s what’s so scary about them. There wasn’t much time to point out how ridiculous the premise was, I was too busy thinking, “Holy-shit, they’re actually quite terrifying.” The way director Lawrence Gough (returning from directing “The Pilot”) shot the sequences with the Emojibots really helped to create a sinister atmosphere, like The Twelfth Doctor and Bill were constantly being watched, thereby needing to keep their wits about them.
Once more, the idea that the Emojibots monitor your emotions is a truly unsettling idea because it means you are completely vulnerable to your body. Everybody can relate to the idea that sometimes you have no control over your body, or how you feel. I can certainly put my hand up to this. Emotions, in my case, can fluctuate all the time. One minute I’m sad, the next I’m happy, then I could be angry, or just plain confused and unsure about my given situation. The point I’m trying to make is we can fall victim to our emotions, and so trying to keep happy (like the Emojibots were intrusted to maintain) is utterly impossible.
Thus the story unfolds that the Emojibots begin dispatching anyone that doesn’t remain happy, making this shiny utopia a “death trap”. My one major grudge with this episode is both the publicity, and the freaking introduction scenes. They both go out of there way to tell you the fucking plot. What’s the point? Leave some surprises for us to discover. It would’ve made for a more twisting revelation to learn that the cute, innocent, and non-threatening looking ‘bots turned out to be murdering psychopaths.
Still though, their evil presence still made for some unsettling scenes, particularly when it came to The Twelfth Doctor investigating the city, thus finding out what actually happened to the skeleton crew. They were now “literal” skeletons. I shouldn’t laugh, but, you’ve got to admit this was a pretty good pun from Cottrell-Boyce. With a forced emotion monitor strapped to their backs, The Twelfth Doctor and Bill had to carefully manoeuvre their way around the colony and keep smiling for the Emojibots or risk being turned into compost.
What was also good about this story was the concentration on The Twelfth Doctor and Bill’s relationship. Like with “The Pilot”, it was refreshing to see this renewed companionship of two friends travelling the universe, added by the traditional “tutor and student” bond. Bill continues to feel extremely organic, and inquisitive, to the point where she’s completely relatable. We haven’t had this kind of connection in a long, long time. It’s nice to have a normal person with The Doctor, and having a really compelling companionship.
Another interesting point comes with the further hints of this year’s “mysterious” story-arc. What is inside the vault? And why has The Twelfth Doctor made a promise to guard it? Obviously none of these answers are given, but there are some interesting indications that continue to add intrigue. For those who dislike Nardole will be pleased to hear that he’s reduced to a mere cameo appearance, entering the TARDIS at the beginning of the episode (which is set mere moments after the conclusion of “The Pilot”) and questions what the Time Lord is doing, reminding him he’s not allowed “off-world” except for emergencies, along with Matt Lucas having his usual comedic timing.
You almost get the impression we’re back in The Third Doctor’s era, in which The Doctor is exiled on Earth. I’m really intrigued as to what has happened in The Twelfth Doctor’s recent past as to why he would make such a radical promise. The person must be important, or special, to The Doctor for him to agree to such restricting terms (considering this is the man who hates staying in one place in space and time, and dislikes rules and authority).
Also, I grow more curious as to what lies within the vault. I’m willing to bet that it’s either the Mondasian Cybermen (since they’ve been confirmed for the finale, “World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls”) or it’s The Master (since John Simm has been confirmed to return in the role).
I like how Bill’s presence has returned The Twelfth Doctor’s spark for adventure as he becomes the rebellious Time Lord again, swanning off on brand-new adventures, whilst proclaiming he can easily return to his mission whenever he pleases using his time travelling capabilities. It’s also interesting to see how protective he becomes over Bill and tries at every turn to keep her out of danger, from returning her to the TARDIS, and telling her to stand near a map to guide him through the colonist’s space-craft (only to reveal he had the map memorised in his head).
Pearl Mackie certainly continues to shine as Bill and her interactions with Capaldi are most appreciated. Say, it’s just really nice to have a more traditional Doctor/companion relationship, with the show feeling more inline with its roots. Plus she has that nice blend of courage and emotional depth that makes her feel very likable and easy to follow. I especially liked her change in attitude when she realises that the future might not be so shiny upon discovering Earth’s fate. For the most part, however, she’s very keen to jump into the action, but not to the point where she’s an adrenaline junky like Clara became. Bill’s sensible, combined with a very normal-vibe, and a good understanding of the things going on around her.
Things get complicated when The Twelfth Doctor actually gets things really wrong. He attempts to destroy the colony before the colonists actually arrive but discovers that they’re already there in hyper-sleep. The Time Lord essentially nearly wiped out the last of humanity in a desperate attempt to save them. But things aren’t resolved yet because they have to deal with the Emojibots that will kill them as soon as their happiness fades. It’s rather interesting when you discover the cause of the deaths, stemming back to people grieving over a natural death, thus creating a decrease in happiness which becomes a vicious cycle as soon as the Emojibots began executing their sinister protocols.
What it essentially comes down to (which isn’t original in the slightest) is the computer system not understanding something, and thus trying to desperately complete its task by any means necessary. This in turn provokes the colonists to revolt against their creations. I will say that the human characters depicted here are the most stupidest I’ve seen in a long while, acting on aggression and superiority, making them complete arseholes that I wanted to see perish.
There was no clear reason why I wanted The Twelfth Doctor to save them. I get that they would be pretty pissed at seeing their computers turn against them but it’s not like they deliberately did it. At the end of the day they were following the very programming that they themselves (the colonists) gave to them. And please, don’t give me the bullshit excuse of “Oh, we created them, therefore we control them.”
That statement right there automatically made me hate the human characters The Twelfth Doctor was trying so hard to save. I think even when he did come up with a solution he was deep down pissed he had to save them. But at least the humans got their comeuppance by having to now ask the Emojibots for assistance and refuge (given they were now made the indigenous life of the planet after being rebooted).
“Smile”, like with “The Pilot”, is very stripped back compared to previous Moffat-run episodes but that makes it all the more better by being a more concentrated story. We had a clear, and engaging, development process between The Twelfth Doctor and Bill, a sinister story featuring some neat twist and turns, and some nice nods towards a good progressive series. The direction was nice, the filming within Valencia created a truly alien look for the colony, which certainly added a lot of depth and scale to the overall setting, and Murray Gold continues to up his game this season by composing some really atmospheric tracks.
And to round-off, “Smile” gives us a nice glimpse into next week’s episode, “Thin Ice”, by having the sweet return of the “linking cliff-hanger”. Instead of finding themselves back at the university (as previously planned) The Twelfth Doctor and Bill have accidentally overshot and arrived in Victorian England, where they will soon be met with the mystery of a creature living within the Thames.
What did you make of “Smile”? Let us know in the comments section below or send us a Tweet!