“Smile” is the second Doctor Who episode from screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce. It’s a distinct improvement over the misfire of 2014’s “In the Forest of the Night,” which made the mistake of reducing the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) to a passive bystander, with no role to play in the resolution of that episode’s crisis. Here, the Doctor and Bill (Pearl Mackie) are at the center of the action throughout, and there’s a feeling of accomplishment for them at the end that was missing from “In the Forest of the Night.” Even so, there are points where the logic of the plot is rather strained, with a final ethical quandary that comes out of nowhere.
One thing the episode does have going for it is the impressively designed environment it presents. On a world 20 light-years from Earth, humans have sent swarms of tiny robots called Vardies (nicely extrapolated by Cottrell-Boyce from our current and hypothesised future capabilities in nanotechnology) to construct a new city for the inhabitants of a colony ship. The huge, gleaming white buildings (a combination of striking locations and stark, minimalist sets) create a lovely sci-fi sense of wonder very appropriate for Bill’s first trip into the future and to another planet. The bright, spacious design makes for an excellent contrast not only with the mostly dark interiors of last week’s episode, but also with the grungy feel of the original ship which they eventually find at the heart of the city.
Whereas the classic Doctor Who series sometimes spent much of the first episode of a four- or six-part serial showing the Doctor and his companions simply exploring the environment they’d landed prior to encountering someone or something that would kick off some adventure, the faster-paced storytelling of the modern series doesn’t often allow that luxury. Still, “Smile” takes the time to build suspense slowly, wisely spending its first half concentrating on Bill’s reactions. Thanks to a pre-titles teaser showing the gruesome fate of the humans who were previously in the city, we know that the cute, child-sized robots they encounter are a lot less harmless than they appear. They’re not intelligent in themselves, but are merely the interface for the Vardies; rather than speak, they communicate only through emoji-like graphics and present the Doctor and Bill with badges to wear that signal their current emotional state (“Emojis, wearable communications…We’re in the utopia of vacuous teens,” the Doctor quips).
Mackie again feels like a breath of fresh air, admirably fulfilling the companion’s function of constantly asking questions at the Doctor’s side. He and Bill already seem like a seasoned team as they eventually make the discovery that the Vardies have interpreted their task of ensuring that the humans are happy rather more comprehensively than was intended. Any occurrence of unhappiness—as displayed by the mood-signalling badges—will result in a horde of the microscopic robots tearing the unfortunate human apart. The natural death of one of the inhabitants was all that was needed to trigger a catastrophic cascade that ended with the city totally deserted.
It’s a neat high-concept idea, marred only by the fact that the literal-minded-technology-running-out-of-control story has become a cliché of the modern Doctor Who series. Showrunner Steven Moffat, in particular, has a predilection for it: He’s used it in various guises from 2005’s “The Empty Child” and the following year’s “The Girl in the Fireplace,” all the way up to last week’s “The Pilot.” His fondness for the concept stems at least partly from his preference for more complex motivations for the Doctor’s adversaries than the simple out-and-out evil which was good enough for many of them in the old days—most notably, of course, the Daleks. However, even good ideas wear thin with repetition, and this one is now pretty much played out.
The Doctor’s first idea for dealing with the situation is to indulge “a childish desire to blow the whole thing up,” since it seems there’s nobody left to help, with the human population already completely wiped out. But—in the only real twist of the story—he and Bill discover the majority of the colonists are still in suspended animation in their ship, and have been woken up by their presence. Unfortunately, the colonist characters (with names like Goodthing, Steadfast, and Praiseworthy) are barely even sketched, and the climax with them facing a horde of Vardies is practically tension-free—especially when the Doctor’s eventual solution essentially boils down to the classic IT helpdesk remedy of resetting the system by turning it off and then on again.
Somehow, though, the reset has removed not only the dangerous extrapolations the robots had made about their duties, but also all their knowledge of—and hence subservience to—the humans. The Vardies now think of this city as theirs, and the wrap-up is effectively a scene from a totally unrelated story, about the Doctor mediating between a ship of humans and the indigenous race of a world they intend to colonize. There’s only time for a brief gag about the humans paying rent before the Doctor and Bill are back in the TARDIS with everything left up in the air. It’s a damp squib of an ending, almost as strange and forced as in Cottrell-Boyce’s previous episode.
As for Nardole (Matt Lucas), he only appears briefly at the beginning of “Smile,” casting a disapproving frown at the Doctor’s desire to take a break from his task of guarding the vault we saw in “The Pilot.” We still don’t know what caused the Doctor to take up this duty (“A long time ago a thing happened. As a result of the thing, I made a promise…”), but he seems happy to take a detour before returning to it, as the episode ends with the TARDIS depositing him and Bill directly into their next adventure.
Next Week: In 1814, the Doctor and Bill encounter a monster beneath the frozen river Thames, in “Thin Ice.”
Classic Doctor Who Recommendation: For another futuristic tale of humans being attacked by their own architectural technology, see 1987’s “Paradise Towers,” starring Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.