Series Ten, Episode Two
Well, if it isn’t Frank Cottrell-Boyce, back for more after his Series Eight episode that asked “What if there were trees everywhere?”, and bravely answered “That’d be nice, I like trees. Oh they’ve gone now.” Obviously I’m excited.
Of course I can’t resist pitting his efforts against each other, so: Smile is better than In The Forest Of The Night. There’s a plot this time, and the Doctor actually takes part in it. Wow on both counts. But despite featuring numerous deaths and the fate of humanity, this is somehow another episode that dawdles along humming to itself.
There’s this bunch of human colonists escaping a doomed Earth. We’ve seen this numerous times before – even the Doctor points that out, so okay, what’s happening to these ones? They’ve found a nice uninhabited planet, which to be honest is usually their main hurdle, and they’ve got these amazing micro-robots that can link together and build things, so they send them on ahead to make a city to live in, with larger emoji-faced robots acting as go-betweens/butlers. Things look pretty good for humanity (most of whom are still in cryo-sleep), so long as the robots they’ve pinned their entire future on don’t, for example, malfunction and kill everybody.
I don't think that's "algae".
To be fair, why they malfunction is (sort of) a new one: they are designed to ensure your satisfaction and happiness, so when somebody dies and that causes grief, they perceive that unhappiness as a problem… and promptly kill everyone exhibiting it. Apparently they’ve never encountered death before. (Bit odd. Aren’t these the last humans ever? What happened to the rest?) And apparently they respond to unhappiness by turning you into bone meal. I’d hate to see what they do when you’re actually sick.
So it turns out this isn’t just Ye Olde Robot Uprising Plot – it’s also Ye Olde Moffatian Dumb-Technology-That-Means-Well-But-Then-It-Kills-You Plot. You may remember it from such episodes as the one immediately preceding this. Smile isn’t exactly boiling over with originality so far.
The emoji-bots, for instance, feel like a repeat of the Smilers, who also communicate using different faces. (This time it’s supposed to be a satire on our reliance on emojis, but it’s such an obvious hindrance that it’s hard to believe they’d really do away with speech.) They also come with that old Moffat trope, the “do/don’t do a thing if you want to live” gag. A lot of effort has gone into them, but it’s the swarming micro-bots that do the actual killing – recalling the Vashta Nerada as they go – leaving their cutesy counterparts pointlessly bobbing along in the background, and then (no, really) hugging you until you die. Adding a “skull” emoji doesn’t make them scary: so long as the Doctor and Bill can smile enough to fool their facial recognition, they can pretty much elude them indefinitely, or even just escape. The only thing keeping them here is the Doctor’s desire to help. There’s consequently no claustrophobia or excitement to the story.
It’s no bad thing for an episode to be just the Doctor and Bill for the most part: they’re both good actors (to say the least of Capaldi), and The Pilot was mostly just these two chewing on a bit of character development, and that worked. But it’s what you do with them, and Smile puts them in a futuristic (Spanish) location and just has them look at stuff and talk their way through the creaky plot. Aside from some bog-standard “Why do you do what you do?” Companion 101 from Bill, we don’t learn about either of them. I suspect that a two-hander works better if they’ve actually got something to talk about.
Bill asks some fun questions, which seems to be her thing (more so than it’s every companion’s thing), but her point of view isn’t really needed. There’s nothing to react to or be more than generically outraged about, since they quickly suss that the robots killed everybody and just need to stop it happening again. The “Smile or die” thing is perhaps intended to say something about grief, but since there are so few people here to react to that, and neither the Doctor nor Bill are grieving about anything, it just comes across as a random quirk and makes no deeper satirical point. I can’t help recalling The Happiness Patrol, which is also about a world where happiness is the law, except it was full of people with points of view, as well as politics and satire. It was a lot more interesting than “do a thing to avoid the killer robots for 45 minutes”.
"We're filming in a really snazzy futuristic city in Spain!"
"Cool! And the ship's engine room?"
"Washing machine on a gantry, I guess."
Eventually some other people wake up, thank goodness, and they’re not best pleased that the robots went and did that thing robots always do. And then Smile makes a last ditch effort to become interesting: the robots aren’t just dumb, they’re an emergent life form! The Doctor decides to negotiate peace, aka tell the humans to play nice (even though he was happy enough to blow up the robots a minute ago) and wipe the robots’ memories, which is apparently his go-to these days. Cue a happy ending… allegedly.
As nice as it is that most of the humans are still alive, it’s hard to believe they won’t still be angry that their friends and families were murdered, and retaliate in kind. Similarly, the robots might one day remember everything and kill them all. If they are an emergent life-form and not just idiots after all, that puts the whole “turn you into a skeleton” thing in a more sinister light. Maybe there was another reason for it, like not wanting to live out their existence as a bunch of walls? Also, since they’re alive, it’s more than a bit morally dubious to wade in and delete their memories. (Hasn’t he learned anything from not doing that to Bill last week?) Oh well: the entire “debate” is bundled into a couple of fast-talking minutes right at the end, with a literal reset button ending that involves pointing the sonic screwdriver at a thing. It’s an improvement on “And then all the trees went away”, but not much.
Okay, enough grumbling. What’s good about it? The location is an absolute boon: if you want to see a city from the future, you might as well hope for Valencia. There’s an actually quite good bit with Nardole at the start, as he assumes the role of the Doctor’s “mum” telling him he’s got to keep an eye on the vault and not have any fun. The series arc continues to be delightfully unobtrusive, and I’m happy to wait for the answers. And the ending! After promising that the TARDIS will bring them back the moment they left, so he hasn’t really broken his promise to stay put, they find themselves in snowy Victorian London. For a moment it was like the Hartnell era had picked up again, with the TARDIS going wherever it likes. (Is it too late to hope they’ll make it permanent?) That’s both a lot of fun and a simple way to raise the stakes for the arc. Not, admittedly, the work of Smile itself, but I like it a lot. Oh, and Capaldi is brilliant, while Mackie puts in solid (if underwritten) work. Thumbs up.
Nonetheless, it’s a long, boring wait for Frank Cottrell-Boyce to come up with an interesting answer to The Only Plot Involving Robots Ever, and then he goes and thinks of another one when it’s too late to do anything with it. Smile is far too familiar, and it’s a much watered down repeat of those earlier, more interesting stories. Sort of like replacing a complex emotion with a simple pictogram, you might say.