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Doctor Who Smile

Review by Paul Bowler

[Contains Spoilers]

Smile brings the Doctor and Bill to a colony planet on the edge of the galaxy. It look like a beautiful, idyllic utopia, but this gleaming city holds a dark secret. The Doctor and Bill soon encounter some welcoming robots, but these robots want you to be happy, and the only way to stay alive here is to keep smiling!

The second episode of series ten, Smile, is written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who also wrote 2014’s In the Forest of the Night, continues the series’ back to basics approach as the Doctor takes his new companion Bill on her first fully fledged adventure to an alien planet in the distant future. Directed by Lawrence Gough (Misfits, Atlantis, and Endeavour), Smile was partly filmed Valencia in Spain, and features some incredible locations – including Valencia’s futuristic looking City of Arts and Science complex.

The first proper visit to the far future for a new companion is always an exciting event, so when the Doctor and Bill arrive on the colony world of Gliese 581 D, Bill naturally finds the experience really exciting and continues to ask all the bright, fun questions that makes her character so appealing: enquiring about things like why the seats are so far away from the TARDIS console, along with numerous other questions about the time machine, along with why the Doctor is Scottish (something which the Doctor gives a very timely response), she discovers the Doctor has two hearts, that he stole the TARDIS, and Bill is clearly a comic book fan as she even mentions Mr Fantastic – the leader of Marvel’s Fantastic Four – at one point!

The sunny planet and the futuristic city they set out to explore is managed by tiny bird-like Vardies robots, and their very useful interface – the friendly looking Emojibots. As their name implies, the Emojibots have a very special way of communicating, and Bill is thrilled to meet her first robot. But something is amiss in this oasis of happiness. The human colonists are nowhere to be seen, a grim pile of skulls is soon uncovered, there’s something in the walls, and the Emojibots watch and wait as the Doctor and Bill close in on the horrifying truth!

Award winning author Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s scrip tackles familiar sci-fi themes, such as concerns about artificial intelligence, a futuristic utopia that’s not quite what it seems, and a threat that cleverly eschews the present day subtleties of communication through emojis to give us menacing robots that smiles pleasantly before hugging you to death. Peter Capaldi’s performance as the Doctor excels on every level, and Pearl Mackie also continues to impress as new companion Bill Potts. Predominantly featuring only Capaldi and Mackie for the first 20-30 minutes or so, Smile isn’t that eventful an episode initially, in that respect it feel very much like an old-school-Doctor Who episode 1, which often acted more as an atmospheric scene setter, and this traditional approach from Cottrell-Boyce’s script affords a welcome chance to give the narrative the time to explore the characterisation of the Doctor and Bill as they get to know each other more.

Matt Lucas only appears as Nardole in one scene at the start of this episode, but his brief appearance dose instigate some more hints about The Vault the Doctor has been guarding at the university with Nardole. It transpires that the Doctor isn’t supposed to go off world at the moment, which he subsequently explains away in Smile to Bill, as because of something which happened a long time ago, that in turn made him make a promise, and the results of that promise means he has to remain of Earth guarding The Vault. I find it is all very intriguing how the mystery of The Vault is being built up, its clear this will probably be a key factor in Series Ten, but I really like how it doesn’t seem to be something that’s being done in a way that feels unnecessarily overcomplicated or shoehorned into the plot just to stitch everything together.

The super-technology of the future in Smile presents us with the small Vardies, a kind of nanotech that works in conjunction with their robot interface with humans – the cute yet creepy Emojibots. Both have been engineered from technology created to keep people happy, colonists haven’t “cracked the secret of human happiness”, instead of being a garden of Eden their new world has become a lethal trap, and the chilling realisation that the doomed “skeleton crew” ended up as fertiliser makes their fate all the more horrific. The Doctor has visited many Earth colonies is the series’ past, The Ark (1966), Colony In Space (1971), and The Ark in Space (1975), all spring to mind as stories of humanity setting out to find a new home in the cosmos, and of course The Happiness Patrol (1988) was a story where sadness was something to be avoided at all costs! Smile brings an added twist to some of these themes by having the Doctor and Bill thinking that the colony is deserted, but their space ship is in fact already here, with the crew in cryogenic hibernation waiting to be revived, a fact the Doctor discovers during his attempt to blow up the colony.

After such a strong start, Smile does come a bit unstuck towards the end, and the episode does feel like a mad dash for the finish line as it attempts to wrap everything up. Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie are joined by a good supporting cast featuring Mina Anwar as Goodthing, Ralf Little as Steadfast, and Kaizer Akhtar as Praiseworthy, but, with so little screen time, the guest actors roles do feel rather underused. However, the revelation about the Vardies and the Emojibots sentience subtly entwines with the fate of the colonists, who also happen to be the last survivors of Earth, and provides the story with surprisingly timely and relevant ending.

Smile provides a good adventure for Bill’s inaugural trip to the future in the TARDIS. Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie have forged a great bond between their characters that positively lights up the screen. Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s second story for Doctor Who is a skilfully crafted, cautionary tale, interwoven with some extremely clever ideas and themes. Lawrence Gough’s stylish direction really makes the most of the beautiful locations and scenery, the plot builds gradually, there are some good scares along the way, and the ending provides a satisfactory – if a little bit rushed – resolution to the whole Emojibot threat.

Series Ten is shaping up quite nicely already. I thought Smile was a good episode, the Emojibots might not be the most memorable robot menace the series has ever had, but they were quirky enough, and overall the stunning scenery and excellent performances by Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie more than make up for any of the episodes slight failings. Smile continues Bill’s introductory trilogy of adventures in time and space in fine style, and the way Smile concludes by leading straight into the next episode Thin Ice was an inspired move to leave us eagerly anticipating this historical adventure set in the Regency Era on the frozen Thames!

Images belong BBC