Sunday, 23 April 2017

TV Review: A messy ending doesn't ruin a confidently character driven Doctor Who

S10E02 - "Smile"

Contains spoilers.

When one hears the word "Emojibots" in connection to Doctor Who, a slight panic attack is inevitable. Let's be honest, it just sounds awful. What a relief it is, then, that not only is the word "Emojibot" never uttered in the episode at all but the robots themselves are actually kind of effective. Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who also penned the unfairly criticised "In the Forest of the Night", "Smile" is an episode that didn't sound great on paper but, in its execution, has become a confident, compelling hour of sci-fi television.

It's also far darker than an episode called "Smile" has any right to be. Don't let the stunning, gleaming white set design fool you, "Smile" isn't just a cutesy, fun little trip to the future at all - but we'll get to that later. When the Doctor and Bill arrive at the futuristic colony, they immediately notice something is wrong - this human colonisation is severely lacking in humans. They stumble across robots that speak via Emoji, and start trying to work out what's really happening in this bizarre place.

Unquestionably, the best aspect of "Smile" is its structure. After a somewhat unnecessary opening flash to the colony, once the Doctor and Bill arrive in the TARDIS we just stay with them, and them alone. Besides the Emojibots and the skulls that roll out of the fertiliser container, no other face pops up until at least the 30-minute mark. What we have, then, is essentially a two-hander, with Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie more than up for the task.

Bill is already proving a brilliant addition to the show. Inquisitive without being annoying and excitable without being childish, she brings a playfulness back to the show that's been missing for a long time now. Don't get me wrong, I've been a huge fan of the darker version of Doctor Who that Steven Moffat has served up for the two previous seasons, but this more light hearted return is still welcome. It also helps that Mackie is sinking her teeth fully into this character, her performance is committed without ever appearing so. She feels natural in the role, it's delightful to watch.

Isolating the Doctor and Bill for a good half an hour allows "Smile" to take on two identities at once. We have the investigation of a futuristic sci-fi world, and we have two new friends trying to work each other out. Bill is essentially learning as much about the human colony as she is about the Doctor. It's all a matter of perspective, and Cottrell-Boyce strikes that chord perfectly here. Peter Capaldi is as reliably on form as ever, he possesses such a firm grasp on his Doctor that I already dread the moment he leaves the TARDIS.

Where "Smile" fares less successfully, however, is in its final fifteen minutes - AKA, when guest stars begin to appear. It's a kind of double edged sword, really. Spending so long with just the Doctor and Bill is an absolute treat but it forces a handful of thinly sketched supporting characters into the spotlight come the resolution. Every decision made makes perfect sense, there just isn't a lot of weight behind any of it.

And that's a real shame, as "Smile" starts to offer up some dark, complex material as it heads into its final act. Essentially, the "Emojibots" are really a species called the Vardi, who see humanity as a kind of singular entity and ended up wiping out a crew of engineers entirely through misinterpretation, creating a moral battle between right and wrong all while acting as a surface level metaphor for the society we occupy right now. Killing one sad person makes everyone around them sad, forcing them to also be killed and so forth. The Doctor words it best himself, "grief as plague".

Still, a jumpy resolution doesn't give in to what is, for the most part, a confidently character driven episode. Bill and the Doctor's relationship is fleshing out nicely, it's a dynamic we haven't really seen before and it's giving the show a nice shake up - the set up feels retro but the dynamics feel new. "Smile" is fun right up until the moment it gets dark, if it had managed to land its resolution a bit cleaner and fill its supporting characters in a bit faster, it could've been a classic. As it stands, it probably won't make anyone's top 10 list but it's still upper tier Doctor Who with its heart and mind in the right place.

  • Nardole's brief moment here was well used. This talk of a vault is certainly interesting, and very different to any other narrative thread we've had so far.
  • This has gotta be the most visually stunning episode since Heaven Sent. The gleaming white cityscape, the beautifully framed cornfield, the beautiful TARDIS interior. Director Lawrence Gough did a great job here.
  • Bill's immediate realisation that no-one eats animals in the future was nice, and her "food sexism" line was pretty hilarious.
  • As was the Doctor's "I met an emperor made of algae once. He fancied me...." Capaldi's delivery of that line was perfect. As was his fake smile. This man is golden.
  • Seriously, Cottrell-Boyce's other script for this show is massively underappreciated. "In the Forest of the Night" is hardly game changing, but it's a perfectly middle tier, character focused episode that shows Doctor Who's tonal range. It's a freakin' fairy tale.
  • The episode ended right where the next will begin. I feel like that has happened before, but I can't remember where...

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