While watching the second episode of the 10th season of Doctor Who, I found myself grinning through the introduction and later grimacing at the end. The episode, “Smile,” demonstrates some of the best and worst of what the show has to offer.
Clips from “Smile” appeared frequently in the trailers for the 10th season of Doctor Who. They promised funny moments intertwined with Bill’s unique personality. The episode promises to make viewers smile, even if they don’t want to.
The episode opens with Bill exploring the Tardis and comically pointing out flaws in its design. As The Doctor explains the Tardis’ ability to travel through space and time to Bill, Nardole enters. Both The Doctor and Bill sigh, annoyed at his interruption. They go on to chide him about leaving the planet. It’s nice that the show is finally acknowledging how awkward Nardole is as an extra character.
After Nardole departs, The Doctor asks Bill where she wants to go — the future or the past? She enthusiastically chooses the future. Before launching the Tardis, The Doctor asks her why she made this choice. She responds, “I want to see if it’s happy.”
However, like most companions, Bill shortly learns that the future can be a troubling place.
Upon their arrival to the minimalistic future city, filmed at the Museum Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, the duo see a swarm of what appears to be insects. Closer inspection reveals that they are intelligent nanobots called Vardies. After being disappointed by the creatures, Bill is thrilled to meet the adorable robots that help run the city and control the Vardies.
The Vardies excellently represent predictions about future technology. People are becoming more interested in the use of nanobots, and the concept that they could be used to help build a city thousands of years from now doesn’t require too big a stretch of the imagination. The larger robots are similar to traditional images of what people expect robots to look like.
However, the episode’s writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, does add a humorous twist. The larger robots communicate by the “long-lasting aspects of the human language” — emojis. Bill and The Doctor receive badges to wear that display their emotions.
The Doctor grows concerned that they didn’t run into any other people when they explore the city. Bill and him wander into a garden tended to by the robots, as well as a stash of calcium-based fertilizer. The Doctor opens the bin where the fertilizer comes from to reveal a pile of human bones.
Shocked and understandably upset by the discovery, Bill and The Doctor soon realize that the robots monitor their emotions and react poorly when their badges display negative emotions. They devolve from helpful hosts into death-bringing machines that pursue the two back to the Tardis. The Doctor quickly runs back to the city to blow it up when heputs together that the robots will destroy all future settlers.
Despite the exciting introduction, the rest of the episode loses momentum. The Doctor makes erroneous assumptions; the city cannot be blown up because the rest of the settlers remain in stasis pods in another location. While the shift away from The Doctor’s flawless, all-knowing problem-solving methods is refreshing, the choices and mistakes reflect an immaturity that doesn’t align with the character.
Cottrell-Boyce also creates a minor, but important, contradiction in the script. The Doctor reassures Bill that numerous ships left earth full of humans, then a few minutes later says that The Doctor and Bill must keep the settlers safe because they are the only hope of the human race.
This contradiction feels like it was added only to boost the ending’s drama, which feels just as forced as Cottrell-Boyce’s previous episode, 2014’s “In the Forest of the Night.” After the settlers wake up and arm themselves to attack the robots, The Doctor tells a short story about a fisherman and a magical, wish-giving halibut. He also reboots the robots. This reduces the resolution of the episode to the tension-free I.T. help desk solution of simply turning it off and on again.
The concept of minded technology running amok works well for Doctor Who, but has been a staple of the series for so long that it has worn thin. Steven Moffat uses it numerous times and places, including 2005’s “The Empty Child,” 2006’s “The Girl in the Fireplace” and even in the last episode, to a certain extent.
It does, however, allow for some gray areas. It pushes the series away from the good-versus-evil plots that frequented earlier seasons. In this episode, it allows viewers to explore the dynamic of the desire to constantly be happy, when in reality people’s emotions naturally fluctuate. This is also seen with Bill’s desire of a happy future. As a commentary on modern society’s need to display outward happiness, “Smile” certainly makes a point.
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