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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The Pseudo-Science of Doctor Who

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So, In the Forest of the Night and Kill the Moon recently have both got me thinking about science and realism in Doctor Who, and to what extent something actually has to be ‘correct’ within any given episode of the show.

I mean, Doctor Who is only science fiction in the broadest of terms really – how concerned it is with the science part of science fiction is rather malleable across the fifty years of the show. I think normally people would point to the beginning of the show, or Christopher Bidmead’s episodes as evidence of a time when Doctor Who was more concerned with actual, ‘hard science’, but equally you’ve got the Daleks and Maths Priests saving the universe.

It’s probably fair to say, I think, that Doctor Who is a show that uses the trappings of science fiction to present different forms of drama, and examine aspects of society.

The question is though, of course, to what extent does it matter how accurate the scientific trappings are.

Things like the TARDIS and other original ideas get a pass, I think, because they’re part of the suspension of disbelief. You accept that because no one really has a way to argue against a time machine, or a warp drive – if the narrative says “Aliens can do this” viewers are more willing to go along with this because it’s all fictional, and that’s inbuilt into the show.

But conversely, something like the Moon being an egg isn’t going to have such an easy time of it, because people know a lot about eggs. The problems with an egg increasing in mass, or the Space Dragon laying another egg identical in size to the one it just hatched from, are relatively self-evident to a pretty large amount of the audience.

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It kinda comes down to a quote from… I think it’s Community? Anyway, it’s “That sounds wrong, but I don’t know enough about it to dispute it.” In scenarios where you can easily debunk something, or you know that the writer could have solved the issue with a quick google search, it’s far more likely to be a problem. But when there’s nothing more than a sense of “Hmm-I-don’t-know-about-this”, which is where In the Forest of the Night fell for me, I think one is more likely to go along with it, albeit with some reservations.

Equally though, how much does that matter?

For me personally at least, it depends how much I’m enjoying the actual story. I’m far more likely to give errors a pass if the plot itself is engaging – if I’m bored or disconnected from the story, I’m more likely to notice mistakes, and that’s only going to take me out of it more. (Incidentally, I think much the same of plot holes.)

And sometimes there’s moments where the incorrect science is actually better for the story than something which would be more correct – right now I’m thinking of Robot of Sherwood in particular. In a Robin Hood story, it makes sense for the resolution to relate to the firing of an arrow; the fact it doesn’t actually make scientific sense is mostly not the point, because it makes story sense.

Ultimately, of course, it is down to one’s own particular tastes. I think with simple things that can be easily fixed, then yes, the writer probably should amend it.

But to go into Doctor Who expecting rigorous scientific accuracy is probably missing the point a little bit.

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Doctor Who Review: In the Forest of the Night

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Tyger Tyger burning bright, in the forests of the night. What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?

I read somewhere once that Steven Moffat, moreso than anyone else who’d been in charge of Doctor Who, is to be credited with the introduction of celebrity writers. And you know, it does make sense really – Richard Curtis, Neil Gaiman, and to a lesser extent Simon Nye, are all pretty big names, which are just as likely to generate column inches as a celebrity guest star.

And now of course we have Frank Cottrell-Boyce.

Whilst I don’t have any massive attachment to them, Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s books are one’s which I’ve read and enjoyed quite a lot – my own favourite is Cosmic, which shares a few themes of parenthood with this episode.

Obviously then, with the announcement of Frank Cottrell-Boyce, I was quite looking forward to this episode. When the synopsis came out though, I paused a little bit. Trees? Didn’t really know what to make of it.

And, to be honest, I still don’t?

I mean I always say that thing, don’t I, about how it’s wonderful when Doctor Who is doing original things, because it’s a showcase for the series, and just how innovative it can be. And I stand by that! I honestly do mean it, and I would defend that view as best I could if ever someone tried to dispute it.

But, you know, trees. Trees. That’s… that’s pretty bizarre. I am not really sure what I meant to make of that? Like, at all.

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I think in part that’s because I am still not entirely certain of what actually happened in the episode. The trees, are, like, a planetary defense system, which are run by some strange glow-y life forms, who are sort of intrinsic to the eco-system of the planet, or something. These glow-y life forms, who I shall henceforth refer to as photoarboreals, or something, can communicate with Maebh (not Maeve?) because she has suffered a trauma and is now vulnerable and somewhat unstable.

That’s… that’s pretty bizarre. Not a slight on the the episode, not at all. But I am somewhat at a loss for words. The best critical opinion I can offer on the plot is a sort of squinty eye thing and non-committal wavey hand gesture.

There was, of course, a lot of good stuff to enjoy here. Peter Capaldi gave another great performance, and his interactions with the children were quite nice to see. I particularly liked the analogy drawn between TARDIS and Coke, which was rather a nice touch.

As a whole actually, this episode was a pretty good showcase for the regulars. Lots of nice little character moments – Danny in particular came off really well here, albeit perhaps at the expense of Clara. I’m actually quite liking Danny as a character; Samuel Anderson is a great actor, and there’s something about his portrayal that makes Danny fun to watch on screen.

I also really enjoyed the exchange between the Doctor and Clara towards the end, where she was trying to make him leave, and he offered to try and save her. There was a nice sense of foreboding there, and the dialogue between them – “I don’t want to be the last of my kind” – was just excellent.

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But, you know, there was an awful lot of stuff that wasn’t so great about this episode.

I’m in two minds about the kids, for example. Generally, they were on point – they were mostly believable, they had good dialogue, they were funny without being irritating, and the actors were all pretty good too, which is practically a miracle.

But… I can’t buy these kids as a group of 12 and 13 year olds. In part because of how young they all looked, but also because of their dialogue – it was really accurate, if you’re trying to show us ten year olds. This isn’t really what 12 and 13 year olds are like; or, at least, none of the 12 year olds that I know.

Something I was also sort of unsure of was Maebh, and her psychological issues. I’ve seen it be pointed out that this is meant as a parallel with William Blake – the person who wrote The Tyger – but… well, this isn’t something I would have picked up on, because I don’t know a lot about Blake, and I’d wager the same is true for a lot of the audience. As it was, I felt a little bit uncomfortable with the way the voices she heard and the fact she needed medication was presented. Frankly, I’m with Ruby on this one – they should have just given her the medication.

(Also, how ridiculous was the bit with the sister at the end? I know they were going for a grace note, and a bit of a happy ending, but somewhere along the lines that was lost, I think. Was… did the sister come home, and think “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if I hide in the bush, and jump out yelling ’gotcha!’ after I’ve been missing for two years?” or was it meant to imply that the sister was formed from the bushes? I’m also sort of struggling with the idea of introducing that sort of tragic event for the sole purpose of setting up a happy ending, but I can’t think about it logically with the way it was presented at the end.)

So, so. In the Forest of the Night. Really not sure what to say about this one? Because ultimately, there was nothing extremely awful or offensive about it, but equally, there was nothing extremely amazing of compelling about it.

I think really, in the end, it was just a load of tree-related nonsense. But it was fun tree related nonsense, and it was enjoyable enough to watch, and I think that’s all that matters really.

6/10, bordering on a 7, I think.

Related:

Doctor Who series 8 reviews

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