Going into “Smile,” I was leery about two things: Emojibots and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s writing credit. The former because, well, I’m a writer, and like many other writers I cringe at them instinctively. The latter because Cottrell-Boyce’s only other contribution to Doctor Who was season eight’s ambitious failure “In the Forest of the Night,” arguably the weakest offering of that year. Turns out the ’bots weren’t as annoying as actual emoji and Cottrell-Boyce’s script is an improvement on his previous offering — and yet “Smile” still feels like a mild letdown after all the promise of last week’s season opener.
Bill Potts: “You can’t reach the controls from the seats. What’s the point in that? Or do you have stretchy arms like Mr. Fantastic?”
The opening TARDIS sequence is loaded with the sort of priceless banter that “The Pilot” laid the groundwork for. Bill’s grilling of the Doctor over the seats is especially amusing to anyone who’s been watching this show for the past decade: Why are the seats so far away from the console? (Why are there seats there at all? Nobody ever seems to use them.)
Enter Nardole, whom the Doctor refers to under his breath as “Mum” — not nice Mum, but stern “I’ve got my eye on you” Mum. The irritation on the Doctor’s face signals a more antagonistic relationship between the pair than previously seen. It now feels like the Doctor and Nardole have been cooped up together at the college for a very long time, and that their friendship has lost its luster. Again, the promise of guarding the vault is mentioned — “an oath,” as Nardole calls it. It’s mentioned again later, and again in only the vaguest of terms. By the close of “Smile,” we’re no wiser to what’s in that vault.
Nardole: “Why is she here?”
The Doctor: “Because she isn’t anywhere else.”
With Nardole out of the way, the Doctor gives Bill the classic first TARDIS trip choice: the past or the future? Bill chooses the future because she wants to see “if it’s happy.” The action shifts to that future in the middle of an expansive golden wheat field with two full suns (à la Tatooine) bearing down on it, the sort of field that one might see in an Andrew Wyeth painting, which is a curious artistic decision because nobody ever looks at Wyeth and sees the future. On the horizon is a mammoth, bleached white sci-fi structure — a brilliant city of the future. Its contrast to the wheat field only heightens its beauty. While “Smile” is far from perfect, its visuals do not disappoint, and the episode is well worth watching for the look of it alone. In the real world, that wheat field can be found in Gileston, Wales, and most of the city is a real place called the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain. Give a big round of applause to the production team for traveling there, because in so many ways the structure is the star of the episode.
The Doctor: “Between here and my office, before the kettle boils, is everything that ever happened or ever will.”
Kezzia (Kiran L. Dadlani) wanders through the field. Her panicked sister Goodthing (Mina Anwar) warns her via a communications device not to come back to the city. But Kezzia’s having none of it as she strolls through her utopia, with an Emojibot following behind her and millions of microbots called Vardies swarming above. She ignores the warning and returns to a visibly frightened Goodthing insisting that Kezzia keep smiling. She proceeds to tell her their mother is dead, along with a list of others. Discs on the women’s backs change their emoji status to correspond with their shifting moods. The Vardies attack Kezzia, reducing her to a pile of bones and dust. Goodthing is next. It’s a shocking series of events and the rest of the episode never exhibits quite the same kind of danger.
Classic Who fans might flash back to Sylvester McCoy’s 1988 story, “The Happiness Patrol,” which was set on a planet in which it was illegal to be unhappy and death was frequently the punishment. (Speaking of that story, Bill channels Ace at one point with an enthusiastic “Wicked!”) “Smile” is similarly nightmarish, but whereas “The Happiness Patrol” was a dark satire, “Smile” feels like more of a cautionary tale about our dependence on technology. The remainder of the first act sees the Doctor and Bill entering the deserted city, which the Doctor assumes has been built for humans from Earth who are currently en route. The duo encounters the Emojibot and Vardy tech, and, mildly baffling for the Doctor, allow the mood-sensing Emojidiscs to attach to their backs and communication tech to attach itself to their ears.
The Doctor: “Emojis, wearable communications. We’re in the utopia of vacuous teens.”
This being Bill’s first real time-and-space rodeo, she’s enthralled. Her enthusiasm is infectious, but never played for naiveté. The Doctor, however, is skeptical and suspicious. After a grim discovery in the nursery — a collection of bones turned into fertilizer — the Doctor realizes the score and how they must smile to escape the Emojiibot and Vardy threats. They run from the city to the TARDIS, grinning all the way, only for the Doctor to turn around and head back. He plans to destroy the city. (“There’s a giant smiley abattoir over there, and I’m having this really childish impulse to blow it up!”) Bill follows, even after the Doctor gives her the option of the safety of the TARDIS.
Bill: “Why are you Scottish?”
The Doctor: “I’m not Scottish. I’m just cross.”
Bill: “Is there a Scotland in space?”
The Doctor: “They’re all over the place, demanding independence from every planet that they land on.”
The second act is a frenetic mission to blow up the city, and the com devices grafted into their ears become a necessity so the Doctor can attempt destruction while Bill can discover a reason not to, all while staying in contact with each other. All this time the Doctor has assumed colonists are on their way to the city, though why a massive spaceship buried in the bowels of the city doesn’t tip him off to the truth is questionable. It’s Bill who begins to find out the truth. First, she finds the body of an elderly woman — the deceased mother from the beginning of the story. More disturbing is the video diary chronicling the end of the human race on earth. Pearl Mackie’s horrified reaction to what she sees is one of the high points of “Smile.”
The Doctor: “Earth was evacuated. But there were a number of ships. I’ve bumped into a few of them over the years.”
Everything changes when Bill turns a corner and sees a young boy, Praiseworthy (Kaisar Akhtar), who asks two questions that turns everything around: “Are we there yet?” and “Where is everybody?” If “Smile” echoed “The Happiness Patrol” before, now it shifts into a loose sequel to 1975’s “The Ark in Space.” The colonists are already there, in hibernation, and they’re starting to awaken. Once they realize so many of their loved ones have been killed, they too will fall victim to the tech gone awry. Suddenly, the plan to blow up the city and the ship must be abandoned, and instead the Doctor must find a way to save everyone and everything. While it would certainly be tragic to lose all of these good people, the threat of it being the end of the human race feels hollow, especially since the Doctor has already admitted to running into other colony ships.
The Doctor: “You know why I always win at chess? Because I have a secret move: I kick over the board.”
Peter Capaldi is such a compelling actor, he can take material teetering on the edge of ridiculous and sell it like a mad carnival barker. Lines like “grief as a plague” and “grief tsunami” come out of his mouth wrapped in amazement. Later, the Doctor declares that the tech is alive and psychotic and the colonists attack the Emojibots and Vardies with guns in a battle that should’ve quickly ended in a massacre. It’s a shame when the episode climaxes with a gag that once fueled an entire sitcom (The IT Crowd): “Did you try turning it off and on again?” While a reprogram would have been less flashy, I might’ve bought it. But a reboot? With the sonic screwdriver, no less?? If it were that easy, why didn’t he do it at the start of the episode? Did he want to blow up the city to impress Bill? It’s a real cop out to set up such a thoroughly elaborate scenario only to solve every issue at once by flicking a switch.
I didn’t at all buy Cottrell-Boyce’s construct in “Forest,” but, in spite of my grievances, “Smile” still makes more sense within this universe he’s created. He certainly likes to infuse his Doctor Who with ample doses of spectacle, and there is nothing wrong with that. As an excuse for Bill to learn more about the Doctor’s universe and for the Doctor and Bill to learn more about one another, “Smile” succeeds. It’s also a fun collection of ideas, especially the notion that emoji could be the form of “written” communication that outlasts all the others, which given its universal appeal isn’t unreasonable conjecture.
Odds and Ends
• For those still arguing about the Doctor’s age after the events of “Hell Bent,” he categorically states he’s “over 2,000 years old,” not four-and-a-half billion. Bill also learns that he has two hearts.
• Will the Doctor and Bill have those com devices implanted in their heads going forward?
• In the final moments, the story immediately bleeds into the next episode — a very classic Who thing to do, particularly in the early years of the show.
• Naff bits: In the opening scene between the two sisters, there are numerous other people in the background of several frames, seemingly calmly chatting up one another (why isn’t there mass panic?); the clumsy name of the ship, EREHWON, is “nowhere” spelled backwards.
• Props to new-to-the-fold director Lawrence Gough for his work this week and last. From a directorial standpoint, he did a fine job with both episodes.
• In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a new streaming service available called Britbox. It’s loaded with BBC content including the bulk of the classic series, and both “The Ark in Space” and “The Happiness Patrol.”