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Dr Who: Rough but “Smile”-y

Dr Who: Rough but “Smile”-y

WORDS BY BRENDAN JAMES O'SHEA

Doctor Who is a show that’s always tried to tap into the zeitgeist, and sometimes it’s very ahead of the curve (see Vengeance on Varos, a mid-80’s story about politics playing out as a deadly Hunger Games-esque reality show). With emoji’s having gained significant prominence over the past decade, it seems more surprising than anything that Doctor Who hasn’t explored this idea earlier. So let’s get this review underway, and I’ll leave the next word to River Song.

 

When reviewing the season premiere “The Pilot”, I took issue with the rushed manner that Bill (Pearl Mackie) was introduced to travelling through space and time. Here in “Smile”, writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Bill herself seem to agree with me.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) begins by explaining to Bill how he stole the TARDIS, negotiates with rather than steers his ship, and unceremoniously kicking Nardole (Matt Lucas) out of the episode to sort out some tea. Bill, meanwhile, wants a “proper” adventure. Following the formula of episodes such as “End of the World” (2005), “New Earth” (2006), “Gridlock” (2007), “Planet of the Ood” (2008) and “The Beast Below” (2010), that adventure is going to be the far future.

It’s here that we meet our emoji-bots. Aesthetically, they’re pretty cute – a mix of Marvin the Paranoid Android and Baymax, with a dash of inspiration from earlier Doctor Who robots as well. It’s not the most original design, but if you’re aiming for “cute robot” a huggable build is pretty handy.

As an episode, “Smile” works pretty well. It’s only the second episode of the season though, so Cottrell-Boyce is tasked with introducing new viewers to core mechanics of the series. As such we get small moments – from Bill’s first proper adventure, allowing Pearl Mackie to explore her character’s enthusiasm and shock in equal measure, to musings on why the TARDIS remains a police box (Bill concludes it has to do with a plaque on the TARDIS doors – “advice and assistance obtainable immediately”). As the Doctor grouchily and cynically gives Bill her tour, Capaldi continues to delight as a rougher and more irritable Doctor than his immediate predecessors. There’s also hints about an “oath” involving a vault beneath Bill’s university, which seems set to be our developing season arc.

Our far future world, one of Earth’s first colony worlds, is also interesting. Lawrence Gough, director of last week’s premiere, is back as the director. The colony itself – a glistening white building – is the right degree of fake. My first reaction was that our location (a  very real building, the Museu de les Ciències de València) looked like a poorly rendered CGI model. That’s probably the point though, considering how plastic it appears under a blue sky and amidst fields of wheat. As the episode unfolds, it turns out that nanobots called the Vardy form the colony building. So yeah, it’s a pretty fake building. They’ve also killed the first batch of colonists.The Doctor and Bill discover the spaceship underneath the colony as they explore, and here we have a gritty and industrial backdrop with appropriate mood lighting thrown in. Elsewhere this would feel pretty stock standard, but it works here as a contrast to the earlier brightness of the Vardy colony building.

One reviewer has criticised “Smile” as being glacial, reminiscent of a first episode in a William Hartnell era story. I don’t think this is such an issue. Often times those first episodes of a William Hartnell story were choreographed as deliberate exploration, and what is this than Bill’s chance to explore her first non-Earth world? The isolation of Bill and the Doctor also adds to the tension, and allows for the twist reveal that more colonists are in cryogenic sleep in the spaceship – the Doctor can’t simply blow up the mysterious Vardy threat without killing off the humans. When this new cast of colonists wake up and learn what happened to the first crew, they react pretty predictably and go straight for the heavy weapons.

 

Cottrell-Boyce’s resolution to this conflict ends up involving the Doctor hitting a reset button. This can come off as being contrived (& why wasn’t this his plan in the first place?), but in an episode dwelling on human colonisation it does set up a final moment where the Doctor proposes acting as a negotiator between humanity and the newly indigenous Vardy population of the colony world.

Thematically, I feel that the Vardy and their emoji-bots are the most recent attempt by Doctor Who to be applicable. Just as the Zygons in “The Zygon Invasion”/”The Zygon Inversion” (2015) tapped into contemporary fears of extremism and the isolation of minority groups, the Vardy and emoji-bots seem to tap into our own fears of surveillance and data mining. Through a mood badge worn on a character’s back, the Vardy determine how happy a person is feeling. Tellingly, the individual can’t see what mood the Vardy is reading – similar to how many people are unaware of the information that Google and Facebook are privy to and selling off to third-parties.

There’s also something unnerving about the Doctor and Bill needing to perform happiness as they evade the Vardy, which also provides GIF-makers the chance to make truly terrifying GIFs of Peter Capaldi trying to force a smile.

Is “Smile” perfect? Well, no. Using a reset button is always going to be a bit lazy, especially coming in at the last minute, and if you’re not a fan of the Doctor walking and making cynical commentary you’re not going to enjoy twenty minutes of Capaldi doing just that. I’m also unsure if there was a point to waking up the colonists when they did. Although it added to the idea of colony present in the episode and produced fresh tension, the episode already had a spaceship full of sleeping colonists and nanobots gone haywire by this point. Regardless, this episode’s strength was in the continued emerging camaraderie between Mackie and Capaldi.

This episode also serves as food for thought – what do we do when robots become self-aware? Just how much power are we giving away to technological entities? Doesn’t this new colony world have such an Interstellar-agrarian aesthetic with that wheat field?

What “Smile” is, however, is nice and minimalist Doctor Who. Whoever thought emoji-bots might actually be neat?

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