For her first “proper” TARDIS trip, Bill chooses to visit the future. The Doctor takes her to a time when the Earth has been evacuated, to a planet that is to be the future home of the colonists. The place has been designed to appeal to humans, and make them content and comfortable. Emoji-robots monitor the city, making sure everyone is happy, while microscopic robot “Vardies” take care of construction, and agriculture. But happiness is more than just an aspiration–it’s a requirement. As the advance party found out, anything less than a smiley carries the death penalty. And when the Doctor and Bill find their skeletal remains, they realize they must do something before the colonists arrive, or the human race will be annihilated…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen the episode. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
I can’t say I didn’t experience some trepidation with the second episode of season ten. It was written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the writer responsible for the season eight story, “In the Forest of the Night,” which was–um–not my favorite episode of Doctor Who. Possibly one of my least favorites. Ever. Part of the problem with that story was the complete lack of real conflict. The Doctor assumed a problem that he set out to fix, only to find out there really wasn’t a problem and the earth was just taking care of its human inhabitants. A nice environmental message wrapped up in some witty dialog and tense moments with tigers and lost children, but not exactly riveting Doctor Who. Even “Time Flight” and “Love and Monsters” had proper antagonists! So, would we get more of the same with “Smile”? Or is there really a monster to defeat and people to save?
Well… sort of. Yes, the Vardies are vicious and will kill anyone who displays anything less than a positive demeanor on their emoji badges. And the human race is in peril–or potential peril–as a result of these brutal bots. But once again, we have the Doctor getting the wrong end of the stick, thinking he needs to destroy the city before the colonists arrive. No, the colonists are already there, in hibernation. And then, when Bill shows him the body of the first person to die (of natural causes), it dawns on the Doctor what’s really going on. The robots are programmed for happiness, so when the first thing happens that causes distress (death), the robots are confused, and seek to eliminate the cause of that unhappiness. And since it is the people themselves who are grieving, they kill the people. Which causes grief for other people, so the robots kill them, and so on. The Doctor’s solution? A re-boot of the system! Pop open the head of an emoji-bot, find the “reset” button, and let them discover a new purpose alongside their new human co-inhabitants.
So, there is some real danger, and a real problem to solve. But the “bad guys” are not really bad, just ignorant, and operating according to programming. And the resolution to the story was, like “In the Forest of the Night,” all a bit too easy. Indeed, the fact the Doctor could hit a reset button and make everything right put me in mind of “The Edge of Destruction,” the third ever Doctor Who story. In that adventure, the First Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan, are trapped in the TARDIS, and everyone seems to be turning on each other, possibly due to an outside force trying to take over. In the end, the strange behavior was the result of the TARDIS trying to warn the crew that something’s wrong with the ship, namely a broken spring on the “Fast Return” switch. So the Doctor fixes the switch, flips it, and all is restored to normal. “The Edge of Destruction” was written in two days as a filler story. I think the Who team could have come up with something better for “Smile.” For example, this could have been a great set-up for an alien invader looking to take over. Set the robots on the colonists, wait for them to be wiped out, then settle down and enjoy everything the people from Earth had created for themselves. Instead, we have something that starts out promising, end up a bit deflating, with lots of messaging about technology, emojis, and colonization.
The story isn’t without its highlights, the first being Bill. Her down-to-earth-ness and curiosity remind me of Sarah Jane, with a bit of Rose’s cheekiness. Peter Capaldi is excellent, as usual, and while the story may falter at the end, it’s a good script with a good premise. It’s easy to see the story as a critique of emoji culture, where emotions are conveyed by means of pictures, and there may well be a bit of cynicism intended. Show-runner Steven Moffat has made no secret of his somewhat-curmudgeonly attitude toward the internet, Facebook, and Twitter, but that’s mainly thanks to leaks, spoilers, and piracy, which obviously get up his nose. I prefer see it as a playful take on something that has become part of early 21st century digital life, with a gentle reminder that an emoji is no substitute for real life contact when it comes to knowing how people feel.
In episode one, we learned that the Doctor is watching over a mysterious vault. In this episode, we learn that the Doctor has promised to keep an eye on the vault, and not leave Earth. This is why he’s at the university. In his brief few seconds in this story, Nardole reminds the Doctor of his promise–right before the Doctor whisks Bill away to another time and place. The Doctor assures a concerned Bill that he will get them back before they left, so it won’t matter. But, of course, that doesn’t happen. I’m sure there will be consequences. We’ll have to wait and see.
I mentioned “The Edge of Destruction” earlier. That story ended with the TARDIS crew walking out into a snow covered landscape, to begin a new adventure where they meet Marco Polo. “Smile” ends with Bill and the Doctor walking out into snow-covered Regency London. With elephants. I presume this leads us straight into next week’s story, “Thin Ice.”
To sum up: “Smile” is a good story with a disappointing ending, worth watching mainly for the chemistry between the Doctor and Bill. While it’s much better than “In the Forest of the Night,” it’s by no means a classic, and I doubt it will be the talk of the series.