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Smile Review

Posted by SonicR on April 30, 2017 at 12:45 AM

Doctor Who has taught us to be afraid of shadows, statues and...frowning? Smile - or die.

When Frank Cottrell-Boyce was announced as the writer of an episode of Series 10, I wasn’t particularly enamoured. Memories of his previous episode, Series 8’s In the Forest of the Night resurfaced, and I groaned at the thought of a repeat of that distinctly lacklustre episode. Thankfully though, my fears were unfounded. Smile is completely different from In the Forest of the Night, both in theme and subject matter, and it makes for a much better episode.

Despite promising Nardole that he would not leave Earth to go on adventures with Bill, the Doctor takes her to the distant future, where a city ready for human colonists has been constructed on an otherwise deserted planet – too deserted. It doesn’t take the Doctor and Bill to realise that things aren’t as they seem, and that although the ‘emojibots’ that roam the city appear friendly, it doesn’t take much for them to turn that smile upside down.

Emojis. Emojis are everywhere these days. And while they are undoubtedly an extremely effective form of communication across language barriers, it’s not untrue to say that they’re being blown out of proportion a bit – emoji plushies exist, as will (sadly) an emoji movie. Needless to say, the notion of an emoji monster in a Doctor Who episode felt to me like the show was jumping on the emoji bandwagon in an attempt to use a cheap gimmick to appear more ‘up to date’. But to my surprise, they actually work quite well, and don’t come across as a gimmick at all. Having them be a mobile interface for the robot drones that make up the city came across as quite a sensible and realistic idea, and worked well to give the episode a physical menace that wouldn’t exhaust the CGI budget.

Unfortunately, the actual menace of the episode, the robotic drones, were a bit naff. Their style of execution reminded me a lot of the Vashta Nerada from the Library two-parter in Series 4, and they weren’t used often enough to be effective. Having the Doctor and Bill be stalked by the emojibots was all well and good, but you knew that even if they were caught, they would manage to escape before the drone-cloud descended and stripped the flesh from their bones. I think having a couple of extra, expendable cast members in the first two-thirds of the episode would have allowed the drones to come across as a more effective threat. A character slowly backing a corner, only to step straight into an emojibot would have worked a charm, I think.

But therein lies the problem – other than for establishing a more credible threat, there’s no need to add more expendable cast members. Having the first two thirds of the episode with the Doctor and Bill as the only characters was fantastic, allowing us to see how the their friendship was developing. And so ultimately, I think that while I would have appreciated a greater presence from the monster-of-the-week, I definitely wouldn’t trade it in for some good character building. Bill continues to impress, and if she’s as well written as she has been in her past two episodes, I don’t think it will be long before she’s rapidly climbing up my ‘favourite companion’ list – which is seriously impressive considering I was dreading her before the series began. There was only one moment where she annoyed me, but it was quickly forgotten about and wasn’t made into a huge episode-defining plot point. I’ll repeat the sentiment I expressed last week: Bill already feels like more of an actual character than Clara ever did.

I’m actually quite surprised at how well the first two-thirds of Smile worked, actually. In addition to the great character moments between Bill and the Doctor, we had a great mystery bundled in as well. The Doctor and his companion exploring a deserted structure reminded me strongly of the Fourth Doctor’s second story – The Ark in Space, and in many ways Smile is an updated version of it. It certainly feels like Cottrell-Boyce intended for Smile to be set around the same time as The Ark in Space, as the backstory Bill read in the book could certainly be harmonised with the history provided in The Ark in Space. There’s also the added bonus of one of the human colonists in Smile referring to himself as a ‘medtech’ – a phrase that has only previously been used in The Ark in Space. But regardless of all the callbacks to the classic Fourth Doctor story, it can’t be denied that Smile is ultimately inferior. The first two acts are great, but the last one drops the ball in a way that, although not terrible, leaves me underwhelmed. It’s like the episode was happily dragging along, only to realise that the time limit was about to run out, and then rushed to tie everything up in a neat little bow.

The explanation that the robot drones developed sentience just came completely out of nowhere and was rather muddled. A much simpler explanation would have been to stick with the ‘faulty programming’ angle, and just have the Doctor modify their base code so that they would no longer kill people for grieving; all the sentience stuff really was extraneous. I get the impression that Cottrell-Boyce wanted to conclude the episode in a ‘unique’ way, and that sentience was his answer to that, but he unfortunately didn’t have the time to make it work satisfactorily. Had the episode been another five to ten minutes longer, then I think the sentience aspect could have been fleshed out much better and made to work quite well.

All in all, Smile was an enjoyable episode. Bill continues to impress enormously as the new companion, and her exploring the deserted city with the Doctor and unravelling the mystery behind it all was definitely the highlight of the episode. The emojibots were a clever idea, but unfortunately the main threat of the robot drones were underused and given an unsatisfying conclusion.


Categories: Doctor Who Reviews

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Reply Photon
2:02 AM on April 30, 2017 
That is a good review Sonic.
I agree that the ending was a bit rushed.
Reply SM
7:13 AM on April 30, 2017 
Reply Patch
12:16 AM on May 1, 2017 
Another great review, thanks Sonic. I love reading them. Your points about the similarity to The Ark in Space had escaped me until you mentioned it. You don't miss a trick. :)