Doctor Who: 10-02 “Smile” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
To say that there was a heavy amount of trepidation amongst a portion of Doctor Who fans entering the second episode of Series 10 would be an understatement. Not only was this episode written by the writer of the much-maligned Series 8 episode In the Forest of The Night (which I personally enjoyed very much for its fairy-tale sensibilities, despite its flaws), Frank Cottrell-Boyce, but the main supposed antagonists- the “Emoji-bots”, robots with big round faces and bodies communicating via Emoji’s, caused many to recoil in the face of another possible clunker from poor Frank. The Pilot got our brand-spanking new series of the show off to a great start, so the last thing anyone wanted was for Smile to undo that goodwill.
Picking up just seconds after The Pilot ended (with the episode itself ending a little while into the next one- are we going to get this level of continuity all series?!) Bill continues to steal our hearts completely with her inquisitive nature bringing up more questions that we’ve never really had addressed before. Just why are the TARDIS seats so far from the controls? (she also gets a wonderful moment later when she is shaken a bit by The Doctor’s admission that he has two hearts). Nardole briefly interrupts to scold the ol’ Doc that he shouldn’t be leaving the university due to his oath- but of course he’s not going to listen to that. The show then keeps up the breath of fresh air sweeping through it with Bill being offered the question that many companions are faced with when their TARDIS trips begin- past, or future? And we’re swept off to a pristine new world, where you must keep smiling always- or you die. This pre-titles sequence in the colony is terrific- Sarah Jane Adventures alumni Mina Anwar calling in one of her co-workers from her duties to deliver the news that many people have died, all while desperately trying to smile from ear to ear- is darkly comic and suitably atmospheric to kick off. The inspirations of Smile are keenly felt throughout, from Classic Who episode The Happiness Patrol to modern-day TV sensation Black Mirror, we’re established in this utopia-gone-dystopian world instantly.
Smile is, much like the episode prior, a more enjoyable, relaxed affair. Echoing Classic Who, which would often use the first episode of stories to establish the world, characters and mood, Smile takes its time to venture around this new world. And wouldn’t you want to give your story a slower, explorative development if you had location filming as gorgeous as what Smile does? Filmed on location in the beautiful Spanish city of Valencia and its’ City of Arts and Sciences complex, it adds a whole new layer of believability to this futuristic world when the show’s team have ventured out abroad to bring a story’s world to life with a location that fits. And my word does this location fit- all gleaming white and fresh, it’s an architectural marvel. Director Lawrence Gough showed his horror inspirations last week, and this time out he and those involved with production have brought us a fine addition to the showcase of locations of the future, realising with remarkable success the microbot created world (even on the show’s budget) with some suitably out-there techno soundtrack stylings from Murray Gold. I didn’t care one bit that the opening twenty-five or so minutes of the episode are spent exploring the newly-formed friendship of The Doctor and Bill.
It’s what the show needed as a second episode to this series, to help us care more about their relationship and understand how they work together and react to each other. This relaxed pacing is to the absolute benefit of the episode, even if it does lead to the pacing rapidly picking up speed as the climax approached, and with a lesser amount of screen-time afforded to guest stars (sorry Ralf Little)- but that’s no matter, because this episode is all about The Doctor and Bill. Bill learns as the episode progresses just what The Doctor’s life is like, and as they get to know each other, you begin to understand them as a dynamic duo at the same time. Much was made of Bill’s knowledge of science-fiction last week, and it’s a benefit to her again this time out, when The Doctor leaves her in the TARDIS after they discover just what is very wrong with the future paradise. The Doctor in these moments is naturally protective of her, but she conducts her own investigations into matters (not before making another remark on Peter Capaldi’s running- which may be my favourite running-joke ever for how accurate it is, I’ll be honest) and joins up with The Doctor even more inquisitive, proving she can take care of herself. Her resourcefulness and head-strong nature is part of what makes this Doctor/Companion pairing so compelling, with Pearl Mackie’s enthusiasm she brings to Bill’s character shining through in a way that could so easily be irritating, but in fact is the direct opposite.
The world of Smile is the perfect arena for these relationship developments to take place- the episode is absolutely brimming with ideas and concepts. The level of imagination on offer here is something very special indeed, and a direct contrast to some of the negatives that people through at Cottrell-Boyce’s previous episode. Microbots that create worlds, blue cube food made of algae, the vistas we see, there’s so much on offer here aesthetically. Which brings us nicely to the Emojibots themselves- the crux of their idea is that they are an interface with the “real” robots, the Vardies (not of the Jamie variety thankfully) which created this world, and hand out little disks which display how each person is feeling when attached- the great twist being they fuse to the back so only others can see how that person is feeling. While you can see where the concerns came from for this episode- after all, Emoji’s have taken over the world essentially, with even an Emoji film releasing this year, starring Patrick Stewart as the “poop” Emoji (God help us all), and this could’ve come off as a trite concept piggybacking on the current-thing. But it’s played fantastically silly (with a dark undercurrent), with the Emojibots themselves looking the definition of goofy, pot-bellies and all. The concept and details of this new Emoji-dominated world in the stars is superbly realised- little details like the puzzled or frowning Emoji faces that show on The Doctor’s badge when his curiosity is piqued are hilarious. There are undoubtedly those who will be still turned off completely by this concept, but for me it was pure classic silly Who.
But at the end of it all, Smile is an episode all about how this bright, curious young girl discovers about this ancient, alien man and his world, and how that will affect her. Bill late on sees a video montage of how humanity will turn out in many years (not good, at all), which deeply affects her, calling back to Rose in The End of The World and Amy in The Beast Below. It’s this key moment of pathos that is intrinsic in how the relationship between Bill and The Doc will develop this series, and letting us see her so touched and troubled by this moment allows her to become an even more empathetic and real character. Bill wanted to see how happy the future was at episode beginning- and she got her answer. But it’s not all doom and gloom, with Smile ending on an optimistic, but still darkly comic (after all, the robots did kill a lot of people, and may well do so again!) note as the now-indigenous species Vardies and the humans are given a chance to get along. It’s worth mentioning that the fact the resolution was essentially “have you tried turning it off and on again?” was incredible. Just shows that sometimes the most complex situations can have the simplest solutions! Graham Linehan would be proud.
Smile doesn’t break exceptional new ground, but it didn’t have to. We’re in the golden hour of this series of Doctor Who, when what matters most is selling the audience on our new companion and their relationship with The Doctor. And it does that with flying colours, with Frank Cottrell-Boyce giving us a lovely episode with a well-developed world and some fantastic character work. We’ve had two character-building episodes now, and next week looks a pure romp of an episode- if an elephant appearing out of the mist on the frozen Thames isn’t a statement, what is? Over to you, Sarah Dollard!