Sunday 23 April 2017

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 10x02 - Smile

Doctor Who 10x02 - Smile

After dodging alien puddles and being introduced to the weird and wonderful world of the Doctor in last week's Doctor Who episode The Pilot, new companion Bill Potts is now ready to take her first proper journey in the TARDIS. The second episode of this year's series is entitled Smile, and written by children's writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce. This episode is Cottrell-Boyce's second Who outing, having previously penned In the Forest of the Night back in 2014. With that particular episode meeting very mixed reviews from both fans and critics, many were especially interested how this one would turn out.

The Doctor and Bill land on Gliese 581dThe Doctor & Bill

Eluding Nardole to take an impromptu TARDIS trip, the Doctor and Bill land on the colony world Gliese 581d only to find it missing any sort of human activity. What they do find however is a swarm of tiny nanobots which the Doctor names 'Vardies', as well as their 'Emojibot' interface system. After finding the colony's landing party killed by the Emojibots and turned into fertiliser, the Doctor realises that the Vardies are killing anyone who doesn't seem to happy or have a smile on their face.

The Doctor plans to destroy the colony before the colonists lands are inevitably killed, by quickly finds he's made a terrible mistake. The colonists aren't on their way - they're already here and waking up. Time is running out as the Doctor races to find out what caused the Vardies to malfunction - just don't forget to smile.

The VardiesThe Emojibots

Much like last season's two-part adventure Under the Lake/Before the Flood, Smile immediately feels reminiscent of a classic Doctor Who adventure. Stories such as The Ark or Ark in Space have previously dealt with colonies of humans journeying out into the vestiges of space (even the Doctor himself mentions that's he bumped into a fair few over the years), so this is a fairly comfortable setting to properly kick off Bill's grand adventure through time and space. With the extended cast absent for the majority of this story, it's also a chance to get better acquainted with the new dynamic of the Doctor and Bill in a big, atmospheric setting where the only people they have to engage with is each other. Visually this is an excellent start for this series' collection of off-world adventures, the Valencia City of Arts and Sciences making a beautiful futuristic city as well as a much-needed alternative to "wherever it is in Cardiff Doctor Who is filming this week" (even the vibrant blue sky makes a big difference). The aim was to make the colony look as idyllic as possible to fit the episode's themes of happiness and optimism, and this was definitely achieved. Future episodes are going to be hard-pressed to look as good as this.

Before even getting into the story though it's clear that the real highlight of the episode is Bill once again, continuing to prove herself as the kind of companion Doctor Who has needed for a good while.  From her honest reactions to the situations around her to the asking of simple questions no one has ever thought to ask before (just why are the TARDIS chairs so far away from the console?), Bill is just fun to watch. Whereas someone like Clara or Amy would have been helping the Doctor along on his musings as to why there are seemingly no humans in the city, Bill on the other hand becomes completely fixated on the fact the Doctor has two hearts ("does that mean you have really high blood pressure?"). With Smile being primarily the talky type of episode rather than the all-out action one, there's plenty of time to explore their dynamic. It's already a huge pity that Capaldi leaving means that this partnership will only last one series, but if the rumours prove true and Bill's leaving too to give Chibnall a clean slate then it's going to be a real shame.

The Vardies' victimsBill & the Doctor

But back to the episode itself - much like last week's story this is definitely one where the characters are much more interesting than what's actually going on. That isn't to say Smile's story is inherently bad - the whole "keep smiling" angle is a classic science-fiction concept and the Emojibots, groan-inducing as they may have seemed beforehand, are genuinely quite creepy as they shuffle along with cartoon faces and peer eerily out of the colony's abundance of windows. Instead the problem is that as a dialogue-heavy episode there's a whole lot of rambling going on. The Doctor is especially guilty of this as he works out most events with barely any evidence, particularly where picking up a skull instantly triggers a whole flashback sequence that fills in all the blanks (the episode doesn't even make it all that clear whether this was just stylistic or the Doctor actually saw all those things from picking it up). Once the colonists begin to wake up the story moves into rapid pace to wrap everything up comfortably, skipping over some of the more interesting aspects of the Vardies' evolution simply because it's running out of time though. Smile does however end on a fairly interesting note even if the nuances are glossed over, painting humans as the more antagonist party in all of this even in the face of the Vardies' killing spree.

Finally Smile also had a few wider implications for the series as a whole which were worth mentioning. The Doctor has clearly kept Nardole around to keep him in check (not that he's listening), but with this episode came the suggestion that the "promise" to stay on Earth and guard the vault wasn't a self-imposed one - just who did he promise it to? Smile was also another episode featuring a threat that wasn't inherently evil - much like the puddle in The Pilot. Is this going to be a running theme for the series?

The human colonistsPraiseworthy

Smile is another strong Doctor Who episode that has plenty of excellent character moments to rely on even when the story can feel a bit lacking at times. A concept like Emojibots could have easily been a recipe for disaster, but here Frank Cottrell-Boyce has crafted them into a story where they not only work perfectly but also manage to come across as surprisingly sinister. Is Smile an all-time classic episode? Probably not, but if all of the episodes this series manage to be of this quality then this could be a very good year of Doctor Who we have on our hands. Next week the Doctor and Bill tackle the city of London in the year 1840, only something doesn't seem quite right there...


No comments: