The last time we had Frank Cottrell Boyce write for Doctor Who, we got the disappointing and tacky Series 8 episode, ‘In the Forest of the Night’. Now he’s back with the futuristic story of ‘Smile’, and if I’m being completely honest, when I saw that he was returning I wasn’t all too excited.
So was ‘Smile’ as much of a letdown as his last contribution to the Doctor Who universe? Not exactly. It was fun, it had some great character development, and our whole cast was on top of their game as usual. But when it came to the writing it had some serious faults.
We kick off where we last saw our two main characters, with the Doctor officially inviting Bill to travel onboard the TARDIS with him. As always, Bill comes out with some brilliant one-liners that poke holes in the Doctor’s special brand of logic.
You can’t reach the controls from the seats. What’s the point in that?
Nardole makes a very brief appearance, connecting this episode to the larger story arc of “What’s behind the vault”? In his brief piece of exposition it becomes apparent that the Doctor has made an oath to stay on Earth to protect whatever is behind it. But the Doctor can’t be tied down that easily, and he promises to be back almost instantly (a promise that he hasn’t exactly kept before, right Rose? Amy?).
So on their first proper adventure, the Doctor whisks Bill away to Gliese 581d (a real habitable planet, for science fans out there) where humans have established one of their first extra-planetary colonies.
On the surface, it seems like humans have finally created the perfect utopia. Or more accurately, they created a special brand of artificial intelligence that have perfected the art of building and maintaining human civilisation. Humans are encouraged to constantly be happy, and other people’s emotions are easily read through real-time emoji badges on their clothing.
The city is upheld and maintained by microscopic robot birds called Vardi and emoji robots that act as a sort of emoji-speaking, interactive interface.
The Garden of Eden parallels are strong here, but the Doctor notices something is off – there are no humans present. It turns out the Vardi, whose mission is to eliminate unhappiness, misguidedly go about this by eliminating the people who previously lived here when they became unhappy.
Oh, and there is also a spaceship of cryogenically frozen humans within the city who are expecting to wake up and join their families who have just been killed. A convenient discovery for the Doctor to make only seconds before he almost blows everything up.
The twists keep coming as Bill and the Doctor find that it all only started that morning when, for the first time in this new colony, an old lady died of natural causes. Her loved ones went into mourning and were killed by the Vardi for being unhappy, causing a “tsunami of grief” as the Doctor aptly puts it. These deaths only led to more people grieving, eventually culminating in a massacre.
This raises serious questions regarding our personal concepts of a perfect world. In this case, the human colony on Gliese 581d largely resembles that of ‘Brave New World’ where nothing but pleasure has any value. We are moving towards a society that depends largely on technology to fulfill mundane tasks, and yet ‘Smile’ makes a serious point that bridging the gap between human emotions and artificial intelligence is unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
Just as the episode touches on something thought-provoking, the episode collapses beneath its own weight of tackling such an enormous topic and the writing becomes desperate to move the plot along.
The Doctor informs the now unfrozen human colonists that their loved ones were just killed by the Vardi. As expected, they are all pretty riled up by this and want their revenge, so they stupidly march out to fight an indestructible army of microscopic killer robot birds. Honestly though, what did the Doctor think would happen? It felt like a stupid move on his behalf, but one that was only put in there to help move the story along.
In the battle between the humans and the Vardi, the Doctor performs a frustrating deus ex machina by simply reprogramming the robots to not kill. As Bill puts it,
He turned it off and on again.
Despite these criticisms, ‘Smile’ is not a terrible episode. Deus ex machina’s are common in Doctor Who and as fans it’s something we often have to grin and bear. ‘Smile’ raises some excellent philosophical questions about human psychology and desire, and it is certainly a step up from ‘In the Forest of the Night’. ‘Smile’ is never going to be a classic fan favourite, but it still provides solid grounding for the rest of Series 10 to build on.
Next Up | Bill’s first trip to the past, a giant water snake that eats people, mysterious lights under the Thames, and our two heroes go scuba diving.