If last week’s season opener The Pilot was dedicated to introducing new companion Bill, this week’s episode of Doctor Who is all about fleshing out the burgeoning relationship between Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and his new friend. And like all new couples who’ve survived a few furtive first meetings, they’ve decided to embark on their first trip together as the Doctor whisks Bill on her first proper adventure to a distant planet.
At Bill’s request the TARDIS surges thousands of years into the future to land on the planet Gilese 581D, a brand new human colony that’s worryingly lacking in fleshy, bipedal inhabitants. What it does have, though, is a roving staff of cutesy robots with emoji faces who patrol the gleaming futuristic city to ensure all the humans are perfectly happy at all times. What happens when the smiley face on one of their mood indicators turns upside down? The answer will shake the skeleton from your skin. Literally.
It’s fair to say Frank Cottrell-Boyce split fan opinion with his previous Who episode, In the Forest of the Night, but the screenwriter can surely look forward to a much warmer reception this time out. Riffing on such dystopian blockbusters as The Martian and Interstellar, Smile boats some intriguing and ingenious sci-fi concepts as it explores the perils of a fully digitised future and the possibilities and complications of colonisation, as well as offering come pretty disturbing proclamations about what may be the ultimate fate of our species on this planet. Cottrell-Boyce also throws in a few clever gags about our current relationship with tech. That the humans on this shiny new colony can only express their feelings via emoji’s feels like a pointed jibe at our over-reliance on smartphones and email to communicate.
Long-term fans will certainly be pleased to hear that Smile feels like an old school Doctor Who episode, whisking us off to a wildly inventive new world and giving us plenty of time to explore the unfamiliar surroundings in detail. The first half is pretty much a two-hander between the Doctor and Bill as they gently dig deeper into the deadly mysteries that lurk beneath Gilese 581D. Not only does this give us ample opportunity to take in the episode’s spectacular production design, it also leaves room for us to take a more in-depth look into the Doctor and Bill’s nascent relationship. Pearl Mackie again steals the show as Bill, delivering many of the episode’s best lines with her open critique of the TARDIS’ interior design (“You can’t reach the controls from the seats!”). There’s an entertaining freshness to their dynamic as they continue to suss each other out. The Doctor has been clearly energised by Bill’s arrival, revelling in the opportunity to be a flashy clever clogs as he schools his new friend in the ways of space and time, while Mackie’s excitable, slightly naive curiosity neatly offsets Capaldi’s immediately suspicious, possibly even cynical, attitude when they arrive on the new planet.
Once again, this is not an episode in which the supporting cast are afforded a chance to shine, with Ralf Little and Mina Anwar’s talents particularly underused as two of the planet’s human settlers. As with last week’s episode, Matt Lucas’ Nardole struggles to justify his promotion to series regular, appearing in only one short scene at the start of the story. In fairness, this week’s appearance at least offers a hint of greater things to come from the character, with further reference made to the mysterious vault hidden below the university and the doctor’s as-yet-unexplained oath to watch over it.
The monsters, too, are unlikely to join the ranks of the Doctor’s most memorable foes. Apparently called the Vardys, the Wall-E-esque robotic servants seen in the promos are actually just the user-friendly interface for a giant swarm of worker droids who buzz around the city, hiding in the walls ready to pounce should anyone fail to keep their emotions in check. Of course, the emoji faces are inherently goofy, but the bigger problem is that the army of deadly robo-bees the Varyds control are similarly unimposing, even if their favoured method of execution involves chewing human flesh to mulch and grinding the remaining bones into fertiliser (still preferable to Matt Damon’s method of growing crops). Such a lack of menace means any attempts to raise the stakes in the episode’s final third inevitably fall flat. We just never truly believe that the Doctor and Bill are in any real danger when the Varyds are approaching.
At the very least, the episode looks great. Filmed at the City of Arts and Sciences Museum in Valencia, the architecture is breathtaking. Perhaps taking its lead from The Girl Who Waited, the pristine white aesthetic echoes the glossy, if clinical, minimalist style that’s ever so popular in utopian fantasies right now.
It seems that Smile is another solid, if unspectacular, outing for our new TARDIS duo. The visuals are superbly striking and Cottrell-Boyce explores some intriguing and inventive sci-fi concepts in this futuristic adventure. Yet without a suitably menacing villain or an enticing set of supporting characters, there’s really very little here for fans to sink their teeth into. More than anything, it’s another promising glimpse into new Doctor/companion dynamic that seems to be growing stronger with every episode. Here’s hoping they continue to venture into exciting new directions as series 10 progresses.