Doctor Who Review: Smile

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Why do you think? I want to see if it’s happy.

In something of a fortuitous collision of interests, I’ve actually been writing about fictional depictions of the future – specifically, whether we’ve tended more towards utopian or dystopian ideas at different points throughout history – for quite a while now. So in that sense, I’ve got a bit of a contextual understanding from which to approach this, which is nice.

It’d probably be better if I’d ever read Erewhon, but hey.

The idea of utopia is quite an appropriate one for Doctor Who to be grappling with at the moment; certainly, it feels as though over the course of the past year the public consciousness has turned towards questions of ‘the future’ in ways that it hasn’t in quite some time. The reasons for that are obvious – it feels as though, in that sequence that recaps human history and how it went wrong, someone suggested the inclusion of some Donald Trump clips. In the end it didn’t, obviously, but it wouldn’t have felt out of place if they did.

Being Doctor Who, this utopia eventually tends towards dystopia. It’s generally thought that any dystopia is a deconstruction of a utopian ideal; given how this episode is built, we get to see that deconstruction happen in front of us. Or at least, for the most part we do – we already know from the beginning that this isn’t actually a true utopia, because we’ve seen the robots kill the colonists. There’s a certain tension throughout the episode, as it grapples with the gap between how it appears and how it is. In that sense the emoji are quite a neat metaphor for how the colony is presented to us – it’s communicating purely based on appearances, with the greater depth hidden from view. (It is, admittedly, a simplistic use of the emoji; I’d much have preferred the modern hieroglyph interpretation that Frank Cottrell-Boyce spoke about in interviews. But still, it works well enough here.)

Part of that project that I was doing was considering just what a particular view of the future, utopian or dystopian, tells us about the society in which it was written. So. What does Smile tell us about 2017? The prevailing interpretation, which I admittedly can’t lay claim to, is that it is in part a mediation on capitalism – from the iCity aesthetic to casting the Vardy as an oppressed underclass, that does seem to be an ongoing concern of the episode. It makes the rent joke at the end a particularly bitter note, an inherent limitation on any new society – they’re not going to achieve utopia, just continue circling a dystopian status quo.

Generally speaking, that’s a message that works. I appreciate it; I’m just not convinced it actually conveys very well.

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The reason why it doesn’t convey very well – and, indeed, why I’m not convinced the episode works as well as it could – is largely down to the actual ending. The last 15 minutes or so of the episode are muddled in a way that the prior half an hour wasn’t; it gives the impression that Frank Cottrell-Boyce started throwing ideas out in every direction, trying to stick the landing and faltering somewhat.

That’s a critique, but it’s not a debilitating one; there are plenty of Doctor Who stories where the ambition and the ideas far outstrip the execution. There isn’t the space to properly deal with the idea of the Vardy as an independent species, or a subjected worker class, if that’s structured as a reveal at the end; it’d need to be threaded throughout the episode. To put those ideas out there in an attempt to draw everything to a close doesn’t work – of course it doesn’t, because it’s introducing new ideas. And, oddly, doesn’t actually resolve anything; when the Doctor mindwipes the Vardies at the end, that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t understand grief. Presumably the same problem will arise in the end. (To say nothing of the fact that we’re now mindwiping an entirely sentient species, despite several episodes establishing that memory wipes are quite bad.)

Which is all rather strange, because there’s a point where it seemed like the episode was about to resolve differently. Surely, when one Vardy has a lightbulb moment after the death of another, that’s the moment when they begin to understand grief? The resolution of the episode would grow from that, because the Vardy would now understand the humans. Utopia is reached through understanding; an appropriately utopian message for a 2017 that’s growing increasingly divided.

As it is, the ending doesn’t work. It would be better had we seen the Vardies achieve that understanding; overly sentimental, perhaps, but thematically coherent in a way that the current ending isn’t. A story about communication, about magic haddocks, and processing grief – of course it would end on a note of understanding. That it doesn’t holds the episode back, I think; another limitation on an already muddled ending.

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Where the episode works best, though, is with the Doctor and Bill – two episodes in, and they’re already shaping up to be genuinely iconic. They’re going to be a TARDIS team that people remember for a long time, I suspect on the level of the Tenth Doctor and Donna; for years, people are going to be wishing for just a few more episodes with these two together. Or, people like me will, anyway.

Smile, like The Pilot, does rely largely on the presence of its two leads – but takes that even further, because for most of the episode, it is just the two of them on their own. There’s a lot of space to define these characters and their relationship; when the episode works, it does so because it’s just so much fun to see these two together. It’s a bold choice to hang another episode on this conceit straight after the previous one (consider how much was going on in The End of the World in comparison to this episode) but it undoubtedly works. Of course it does, really – two fantastic actors in an absolutely stunning location. What’s not to love?

Bill continues to be a delight, of course – again, a lot of that is to do with Pearl Mackie’s charm and acting skill. But she gets a lot of nice moments to work with here; though he does lean into generic companion a few times, Frank Cottrell-Boyce characterises Bill quite well. My personal favourite moment was when Bill thanked the Doctor; it’s a subtle thing, but we’ve never actually seen it before, have we? It was really lovely, though, and I’m glad of its inclusion. It’s also worth noting, I think, that there’s a certain significance to the fact that Bill is the companion who wants to see if the future is happy – it’s not a question Clara or Rose ever asked, and I think in and of itself that tells us about Bill and who she is as a person.

Overall, then, this episode was a lot of fun. It’s weak in certain places, undeniably; they’re weaknesses that come down to the script, though, and Pearl Mackie, Peter Capaldi and Lawrence Gough are able to elevate it where it falters.

😊

8/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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