Smile – Doctor Who Review

What was this episode trying to say?

While the chemistry between the Doctor and Bill is eternally watchable, and this episode had plenty of good ideas, it fell a little flat. The rush to a resolution, and the lack of development for new characters was deffinately a factor here, but the ‘point’ was the biggest let down.

Visually, this episode was much more of what I want to see from Doctor Who. Bright, open, slick, and imaginative. It also had the Doctor praising optimism – another thing the show has lacked for some time.

Now, I will admit that I went into this episode with fairly low expectations. When I first heard that this series would include ‘Emoji Robots’ I think my eyes rolled all the way to the back of my head. I felt sure we would get a cynical battering of ‘youth culture’, and have the Doctor moaning about young people. To its credit, we didn’t actually get that, barring a throwaway line or two.

Themes

Communication seemed to be one of the main themes of this episode. Given that this has been an issue for the Doctor and his companions for a while, it was one well worth addressing.

Bill pushes the Doctor for details on what he is doing and he gives her some vague answers. Obviously, as a matter of narrative tension, he doesn’t give her too much, but enough to be getting on with. The same might be true of the deadly robots from this story.

Using the power of emojis, the Vardy attempt to gage the mood of the human colonists and adjust the world around them accordingly. A slight miscommunication in the programming leads them to diagnose any form of sadness, grief, or unhappiness as a disease that needs to be purged. It is a classic case of the ‘computers take things too literally’ story we’ve seen before, but I was willing to give it a shot.

Optimism was another theme of this story, but let down somewhat by its ultimate ending. Bill wants to see if the future is happy, and given the contemporary political situation of Earth, that is perhaps a wise choice. Knowing there’s something worth fighting for is as much a motivator as having something to fight against.

Bill’s wide eyed wonder at the future is infectious and another welcome addition to the show. The way she bounces this off the Doctor brings out the best in him, and we are seeing a much happier, much more smile-laden Doctor. Even if smiling is a little sinister in this episode.

Let Downs

Where this episode starts to unravel is in its solution. We’ve seen ‘humans are the real monsters’ before in Doctor Who, but the shift here was a little half hearted. Much more of a twist for twisting’s sake. The human colonists, who Bill and the Doctor have been trying to protect and save, are suddenly the villains come the climax.

It’s difficult to really see what the point was, here. Are we supposed to sympathise with the Vardy? Are we supposed to sympathise with the colonists? Is it both? Well, whatever the answer, it just left a question mark over the whole affair. Which can be fine if done right – not every story needs a clear message. But deliberately ambiguous endings need to be done with care, and I don’t think there was much to be had here.

Pushing the reset button is so often derided as an easy way out for writers who paint themselves into a corner. This is not without reason and this episode demonstrates why. We have here set up an interesting dilemma between sentient robots and human colonists. The robots have killed the colonists and, naturally, the humans want recompense.

Resolution

There could have been a genuine solution found through the Doctor’s superior negotiation skills, and we could have delved deeper into the communication themes. Perhaps if the Doctor had taken to attempting to communicate through emojis the solution might have been that much more satisfying. As it is, simply turning the robots off and on again while removing the offending programming was just lazy. It didn’t feel like a Doctor Who solution to me.

“They killed our people!”

“Yeah, but they’ve forgotten about it.”

This line will probably come under a lot of scrutiny, and rightly so. Given the obvious and overt parallels with the colonisation of the British Empire, and other imperial forces, this sort of thing can come across as crass. Though you might argue roles are a little mixed up, it still leaves a bad taste and as a general rule will not be appreciated by anyone who might have suffered a cultural injustice.

Given that we never really got to know the human colonists, there’s much less incentive to feel for them. Especially as they are almost immediately turned into antagonists, grabbing guns at the first opportunity. Again, a lack of communication seemed to be the issue here with the colonists only wanting to listen to the Doctor so far.

Conclusions

For the most part, the pacing was good, and the interactions between the two main leads was brilliant. However, missed opportunities and a lack of thematic consistency left it feeling rather empty. Just as empty as the robot-built city.

Next week looks fun, though!

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Doctor Who - Smile
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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.