The thing about doing an episode that unashamedly harkens back to the likes of The Sensorites, The Wheel in Space or Four to Doomsday, stories wherein you get to spend a little time with just the Doctor and his companion(s) as they explore a brand new and rather futuristic location, is that eventually in all of those stories the time travellers have to meet the local population in order for the threat of the week to mean anything, so the audience at home have someone (or something) other than the regulars to care about. That was something that Smile spectacularly failed to provide – even the non-regular characters it did introduce were barely characterised and failed to elicit any kind of empathetic response – and so unfortunately, in spite of some incredible visuals and despite the always welcome company of Peter Capaldi’s twelfth Doctor – Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s second attempt at a Doctor Who fell rather flat.
Cottrell-Boyce’s script was almost a cover version of showrunner Steven Moffat’s works, replacing “Don’t blink!” with “Keep smiling!” but retaining the theme of technology misinterpreting its surroundings, albeit with a much-simplified version of Moffat’s occasionally impenetrable plotting. It also consolidated the themes of the 1966 William Hartnell story The Ark, giving us Emojibots in place of Monoids and an outbreak of grief instead of the common cold – and a glimpse of an elephant just to make sure we didn’t miss the allusion. There was a Med-Tech straight out of The Ark in Space (Smile very deliberately positioned itself as a remake / alternative to both The Ark and The Ark in Space, as well as Moffat’s own The Beast Below) and the “glumness kills” motif from The Happiness Patrol. It was a bundle of influences and archetypes, the biggest of all being Samuel Butler’s 1872 technophobic satirical utopia Erewhon, wherein illness is treated as criminality and machines develop consciousness, but Cottrell-Boyce failed to provide much in the way of suspense, surprise or even sympathy to keep the viewer interested. He raised lots of ideas, many of which might have been interesting to explore, but rarely expanded upon any to the degree whereby they might have made an impact.
Instead, the one purpose of Smile appeared to be to convey to new companion Bill, the Doctor’s role as intergalactic policeman, a realisation that came after a lovely if somewhat contrived mid-episode retreat to the TARDIS, the contrivance of which was undermined by the demonstration fewer than three minutes into the cold open that the tiny nano-robots would have been perfectly capable of following the Doctor and Bill out of the city. As a continuation of Bill’s introduction to the Doctor and his travels, Smile hit a single – if continuously amusing – note of addressing its purpose, that rather ran out of things to add once the mid-point of the story had been reached. The vast majority of the episode was an exercise in treading water between instances of “So that’s what this is all about!”, the lack of anybody worthwhile by which to illustrate the Doctor’s adoption of worthy causes selling his activities a little short. Smile was all about telling us who the Doctor is and what he does, rather than necessarily showing us instead.
The low point of this approach, was the sheer amount of essentially unwarranted expository dialogue given to Peter Capaldi. Much of the episode consisted of him entering a variety of environments and telling us – and Bill – exactly what was going on, rather than discovering these things as we watched. And while occasionally it’s a good thing for the audience to be ahead of the regular characters in this regard, the pre-titles sequence placed us so far ahead of them that the moment that ought to have been a big revelation for everyone watching – the reason Gliese 581d was so deserted – happened as the apparent result of the Doctor reading a mind that had already been removed. It was an approach that eliminated most of the tension that the script might have been aiming to build. The resolution, which amounted to the Doctor rebooting the system, would have been fine if we’d been given an opportunity to care about where that would lead. But his subsequent “negotiation” with the Emojibot, while attending to one of the oversights of The Ark (that of the humans taking over the Refusians’ homeworld with little thought given to consent or co-operation), relied on the idea that the Emojibot had both a prior claim to Gliese 581d and some semblance of sentience, neither of which was really sold to us during the course of the 45 minutes. Capaldi’s brief entreaty instead came across as superficial and unjustified.
The robots’ misapprehension about how to deal with grief was a gross overreaction that might have worked better if the story had fashioned itself more as pulpy b-movie sci-fi than gleaming philosophical Science Fiction. Lawrence Gough’s direction, so beautifully judged in last week’s The Pilot, was prone to tonal inconsistencies that created disengagement with the episode’s ambitions, huge claustrophobic low-angled close-ups distracting from the empty spaces, and poor acting choices from the under-served non-regulars destabilising the suspension of disbelief chief among them. The drama lacked coherence.
Peter Capaldi himself was left to flounder a little as the story progressed, almost as if the actor was forced to enlarge his performance to offset the lack of input elsewhere. If he was evoking the ghost of Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor, there were moments he risked slipping into Season Seventeen mode, especially during the sequences where he was acting by himself. That he never reached the levels of frustration Matt Smith endured during Nightmare in Silver is a blessing, but the introduction of a group of grief survivors from the first wave of Emoji-killings would have mitigated against that ever becoming a possibility.
The ongoing introduction of Pearl Mackie as Bill, despite the fact that after ninety minutes of screen time she still hasn’t had any substantial interaction with any character other than the Doctor, was the episode’s brightest note. There’s no doubting the chemistry that exists between the two actors, and Mackie continues to be fresh and natural in her role, a real – and realistic – audience identification figure. Once her adventures are properly underway, there’s every possibility that she’ll ultimately prove the most likeable and comprehensible companion we’ve had since the series’ return.
And Smile was far from a poor production. Its story was clear and coherent, and the visuals – other than some murkily lit sets in the Erehwon’s interior – were spectacular and evocative. It was like an early period “future”-set Hartnell story given a motion picture budget and going to town on it. In terms of what Doctor Who is capable of on the kind of money Hollywood blows on its stars’ trailers, it was sumptuous to look at and sensually scintillating. Even the music managed to invoke a pleasing sense of displacement, Murray Gold’s authentic orchestrations mixing with synthetic textures to produce something distinct and unsettling. Fans of classic Doctor Who had plenty to take to their hearts.
It’s just a shame that as a story with so much potential, a few possibly ill-advised decisions and the lack of emotional credibility meant it landed somewhere south of a Terence Dudley script from 1982.
DR. WHO SERIES 10, EPISODE 2: “SMILE” / DIRECTOR: LAWRENCE GOUGH / WRITER: FRANK COTTRELL-BOYCE / STARRING: PETER CAPALDI, PEARL MACKIE, MATT LUCAS, MINA ANWAR, KIRAN L. DADLANI, RALF LITTLE / RELEASE DATE: AVAILABLE NOW ON I-PLAYER (AIRED 22ND APRIL)