Reviewed by John Hussey
Apologies for the lateness of this review. But as they say, “Better late than never.” Continuing from a promising start with “The Pilot”, Doctor Who seemed to have found its footing once more. Steven Moffat had apparently learnt from his mistakes, i.e. his ego had gotten too big and that his outlandish ideas for how the canon should be written wasn’t entirely appreciated by the fandom.
I will admit though that despite the new approach in direction I was still a little anxious as to whether Moffat could pull off such a necessary U-turn, in the sense that he could win me back over, and that he could repair the damage he had already initiated. Plus, I couldn’t help but feel really unsure due to the fact that writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, whose last contribution to the show (back in 2014) led to the holy what-the-fuck episode “In the Forest of the Night”.
That episode hands-down enters my Top 10 Worst Episodes Of All Times simply because it had great promise but never actually went anyway, instead revolving around bland, and uninteresting, child characters, whilst pocking us further with the ridiculous Clara and Danny relationship drama (who actually gave a shit?). Above all, it didn’t make any fucking sense and his ideas certainly weren’t welcome within the world of Doctor Who.
However, Cottrell-Boyce certainly proved me wrong with “Smile” which felt at home within the confines of the show. Gone were his childish, and over-the-top, fantasy elements, replaced with genuine, hard-core, science-fiction drama. The concepts he brought to the table were marvellous. Sure, a robot that communicates via Emojis looks like a massive fucking joke (one that is simply there to diminish the credibility of Doctor Who) but when you look deep into the episode you quickly look past the retarded nature and are blessed with some really neat ideas for your inquisitive mind to soak up.
Before moving onto the actual plot I have to talk about the relationship between The Twelfth Doctor and Bill. Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie continue to show great promise with their unique chemistry. What adds to the uniqueness is the classic companionship they share, developing the tutor and student dynamic (as established incredibly well in “The Pilot”). Their scenes together are like a breath of fresh air (excuse the corniness of my statement, but it’s the best I’ve got to give).
I had grown tired of the complicated companion relationships the New Series has strived for, especially when it came to Clara Oswald. In the end she started to take over the show with her over-importance, thus losing any redeeming features within her character as she strayed away from being an organic presence to simply being a plot device served by the different writers to help their individual narratives to move along.
Bill, on the other-hand, stands out as an individual as she asks all the right questions, shows a keen interest in everything that goes on around her, whilst also displaying many different layers of personality, along with a supporting presence to The Twelfth Doctor. What I like most is how she notices things and is quick to keep up with the Time Lord’s accelerated intelligence and problem-solving. Plus, she’s just really fun to watch.
It’s also clearly noticeable that The Twelfth Doctor really has a clear connection with Bill. One of the thing I’ve most hated about Capaldi’s era (prior to Series 10) was his lack of consistency, particularly with his relationship with Clara (which constantly changed throughout her time aboard the TARDIS). Here we have an established relationship and the writers are sticking with it. It was definitely wise of Moffat to return the show back to its basic settings in order to establish a clean-slate, thus allowing Doctor Who to find itself once more within the modern era of television.
What is also intriguing is the mentioning of this year’s story-arc, i.e. the mysterious Vault. Nardole (played by Matt Lucas) is further shown to have the purpose of aiding The Twelfth Doctor with his secretive mission of guarding it, thus giving the Time Lord a sort of purpose. It makes for an interesting development for The Twelfth Doctor’s character (particularly with Series 10 being his last series) as he’s watched over by Nardole in order to remain in one place and time (similar to The Third Doctor’s exile).
But of course the arrival of Bill has revitalised his spark for adventure and thus starts to become “the rebel Time Lord” again, stating he can return to his mission whenever he pleases due to having a time machine. Bill then quickly contemplates what would happen if something happened to him during his travels, to which the Time Lord is quickly without an answer. For those of you who don’t like Nardole’s character rest assured that he only appears briefly at the very beginning of the episode before returning to the university.
“Smile” serves as a traditional first outing adventure, establishing the new companion’s reaction to the wonders of The Doctor’s universe. Of course Bill is a unique specimen to the rules as her first story already had her travel in the TARDIS to different locations on Earth, across space, and even time. So this adventure is simply a more concentrated tale in order for Bill to actually enjoy being in one location for the duration of an entire episode. Plus “Smile” has a more concentrated message compared to “The Pilot” (which was, at best, an okay episode due to its mixed tones and missed opportunities).
“Smile” had The Twelfth Doctor and Bill travel to one of the first human colonies within the future. Bill is thrilled to see what to expect from her races future, but of course this is Doctor Who and things are never what they first seem. The Twelfth Doctor picks up on the fact that something is wrong and pieces to the larger puzzle begin to take shape in order to reveal a terrible truth to this supposed utopia.
An interesting feature that is quickly established, linking with the Emojibots, is the Emoji badges which indicate a person’s emotion (though the wearer can never see them). Constantly the wearer is solely reliant on the people around them to tell them what emotion they are feeling through the indicated Emoji, establishing a rather confused and demented society. The badges quickly become deeper as it indicates to the Emojibots what their masters are feeling, acting as a kind of feedback to help them understand their masters needs in order to keep them happy.
This happy utopia quickly becomes the place of nightmares when The Twelfth Doctor uncovers what the Emojibots are using for fertiliser. The skeleton crew have literally become a skeleton crew. In order to survive The Twelfth Doctor and Bill are forced to remain smiling (which is clearly a lot harder to do when robots are trying to fucking murder you).
I will admit that I was weary about the Emojibots because their design seemed utterly ridiculous, and none-threatening, but honestly, despite these two factors I found that they did deliver a chilling presence, probably because they look cute and innocent (which is exactly the point).
The Twelfth Doctor attempts to send Bill back to the TARDIS whilst he does something dangerous and stupid (something of an annoying Doctor trait, which he has failed to learn from time and time again). Bill cleverly puts two-and-two together and realises that his fondness for the TARDIS’ police box exterior represents who The Doctor is as a person, “a man that helps people when and wherever he can”. I like how Bill is constantly trying to understand him, just as The Twelfth Doctor was trying to understand her in “The Pilot”, building on this great dynamic that they have in understanding one another.
The Twelfth Doctor tries keeping Bill out of trouble again by telling her to direct him through the skeleton crew’s ship via a map, but she eventually learns that this was another ploy to keep her away from danger, which she gets annoyed at as she genuinely wants to help. What I like about Bill is she isn’t insistent on getting herself in danger, or proving herself to The Doctor. She just wants to help and learn for all the right reasons (being the Time Lord’s personal student after all) and The Twelfth Doctor respects this.
One thing that has to be noted is that “Smile” doesn’t actually feature any supporting cast members for a good 30-35 minutes of the episode’s duration. Now this could’ve easily have sealed the episode’s fate as being a rather dull, and tiresome first outing for Bill, but in fact, this element made “Smile” a really good episode. Why? Because it didn’t need a supporting cast, that’s how good Capaldi and Mackie are together. They could carry the episode’s narrative on their own.
Sure “Smile” features the Emojibots throughout but I wouldn’t class them as full-on supporting cast members, especially when you consider they don’t speak. Plus, whenever the supporting cast do show up they’re not the best supporting characters ever devised (though to give the characters credit during the pre-title sequence, they were in peril and did a good job at establishing the terrible dilemma of remaining happy despite knowing their friends and loved ones were being murdered).
Upon the arrival of the supporting cast we learn that The Twelfth Doctor nearly made a grave error of judgement, to the point where he nearly eradicated the last surviving members of humanity in an attempt to save them from their cursed utopia. It was rather bold to have this moment happen because it showed that despite the Time Lord’s massive storage of knowledge, and his ability to think himself out of any given situation, he sometimes gets it wrong, thus reminding us that he isn’t perfect and isn’t incapable of failing.
I really enjoyed the revelation as to the reasoning behind the massacre at the hands of the Emojibots. They were simply doing their job. That might seem like a rather shit excuse for the slaughter of the entire skeleton crew, but at the end of the day they are simply following their programming (inserted into their robotic minds by the very people they killed). Their purpose was to make their masters happy and upon one of the elders dying they came across grief, an emotion that detracts a person their happiness.
This event led to the Emojibots trying to deal with this outbreak with a logical solution fitting to a robotic mind, i.e. termination. And thus a vicious cycle broke out, one that would continue to occur unless The Twelfth Doctor and Bill intervened. Of course the colonists (now waking up from hyper-sleep) are a bit pissed about this news and decide to return the favour upon their robotic servants.
In order to prevent a further massacre The Twelfth Doctor does what he thinks he has to do (which turns out to be a rather simplistic, and seemingly cop-out resolution). The Time Lord resets the Emojibots system and so they no longer remember anything, meaning the colonists are forced to play a game of “forgive and forget”, particularly if they still wish to have a future on their new world, which the Emojibots and the Vardy (the micro-robots that built and became the very walls around the colonists) have now inhabited.
Considering the colonists came across as massive dickheads who were unable to listen to The Twelfth Doctor’s instructions (thus nearly leading to their own destruction by acting like fuck-wits) I liked the fact they are forced into this uneasy alliance, made even better by The Twelfth Doctor forcing this idea into their hands as if to say, “Tough shit, this is your only option. Take it or live.” I know the skeleton crew didn’t deserve to die but this is a clear reminder of what happens when humanity becomes too dependent on machines, bad shit will happen.
So, yeah, in many ways it’s humanities fault the Emojibots turned on them. Plus, anybody who proclaims dominance over something they’ve created is a massive tool that should be put in their place (which The Twelfth Doctor rightfully does here – and at the end of the day he saved humanity from themselves and ensured that everybody gets a fair future, so win-win surely).
As far as first outing adventures go “Smile” was up there with the likes of “The End of the World” and “The Rings of Akhaten”. It was basic and straight to the point with its tale but held a grand scope, helped by the clever commentary of modern society and the location filming in Spain (the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia to be precise). Director Lawrence Gough continued to deliver with his direction and vision (as shown within “The Pilot”) and really pushed the boat to deliver a surreal landscape for this eerie narrative of promised utopias. And of course composer Murray Gold continued to push the boundaries of delivering an intense and gripping soundtrack that really emphasises the mood of each and every scene.
“Smile” concludes on a really interesting note as it returns the show to its roots by having a cliff-hanger that connects to the next episode (which was also done for the conclusion of “The Pilot”, directly linking into the beginning of “Smile”). In an attempt to return himself and Bill back to present-day Earth (thus meeting up with Nardole, who went off to make them tea, and continue his mission to guard the Vault) The Twelfth Doctor accidentally lands the TARDIS atop of the icy Thames in Victorian London…