Doctor Who Review: Smile

doctor who review smile frank cottrell boyce lawrence gough steven moffat series 10 vardy vardies ai emoji

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.

doctor who review smile emoji bot vardy smiley frank cottrell boyce lawrence gough twelfth doctor bill potts series 10

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.

doctor who smile review twelfth doctor bill potts rainbow spain valencia city of arts and sciences frank cottrell boyce lawrence gough steven moffat

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

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

Doctor Who Review: The Pilot

doctor who the pilot review steven moffat lawrence gough series 10 twelfth doctor bill potts nardole heather

Promise you won’t go?

In one of the admittedly less memorable jokes of the episode – and this is only because of how high the standard everything else is – Bill brings up a sci-fi show that she watched on Netflix. It has lizards, in people’s brains. The Doctor responds that he’s going to have to “up my game”. In a world of Netflix and a new golden age of television, he’s not wrong – Doctor Who does have to up its game, consistently.

And with The Pilot, Doctor Who absolutely did up its game.

So much of this comes down to Bill. It’s almost become a cliché to say that Bill is a breath of fresh air, but then, she absolutely is. I loved Clara, and I’ve loved a lot of the Capaldi era, but there’s still something so invigorating and exciting about having a new companion – and Bill has made a great first impression.

Much of this episode is structured to allow her to, of course. We absolutely revel in Bill’s presence, luxuriating in those long scenes, where the joy of the episode is simply to spend time with such a fantastic new character. Every other aspect just falls away in her presence, as Pearl Mackie anchors the episode around her performance. On paper, this is something that might have looked like a risk – taking your relatively untested new character and hanging every aspect of the episode on the strength of the new actor. But then, of course it works in practice – because Pearl Mackie is excellent. This wasn’t a risk but the most sensible choice; you almost find yourself wishing the episode could be longer, to be able to spend more time hanging around with Bill. The wait until next week was a long one, and it’ll be a massive shame if we don’t see Bill continue on with the Natalie Dormer Doctor next year in the Chibnall era.

Why is Bill so excellent? Well, like I said – a huge part of it is Pearl Mackie’s performance. There’s a real charm to the character; Bill has such a boundless enthusiasm and sense of wonder that its difficult not to feel the same way. That early description of her – “When other people don’t understand something, they frown. You smile.” – is not only the perfect starting point for a new companion, it’s the best way to breathe that new life into the show. As Bill is introduced to the world of Doctor Who, we’re able to see it all anew, through her eyes.

And isn’t it wonderful?

doctor who the pilot review bill potts pearl mackie heather stephanie hyam mirror reflection water lawrence gough steven moffat peter capaldi

This episode also marks the first of Peter Capaldi’s final series – the first episode of his victory lap. And what a lap it’s set to be.

As ever, Capaldi’s performance is pitch perfect; he’s clearly relishing the chance to depict a new take on the Doctor/companion relationship, and working with Pearl Mackie is clearly pushing him to new places too. The pair of them have an excellent rapport together – wouldn’t it be wonderful to see these two together for another few years? If only we were so lucky.

But then we should still count ourselves lucky to have this episode.; The Pilot is a wonderful piece for Capaldi’s Doctor. There’s a whole host of lovely moments for the Doctor here; obviously, grounding him in academia is wonderful, and there’s something about the Doctor playing professor that just feels right. Indeed, letting this professorial role form the basis of his relationship with Bill is great, and matches her enthusiasm wonderfully – he’s showing her the universe and fulfilling that curiosity. That’s not the only great moment to come from the Doctor in academia, of course – everyone loved the “Time and Relative Dimension in Space” lecture, didn’t they?

However, those aren’t the only great moments for the Doctor here; often, many of the highlights of this episode are far subtler than that. There’s a real progression of the Doctor’s character here; he’s matured since we last saw him, become more considerate. In many ways, it’s a fulfilment of the arc we saw him start upon in series 8; he doesn’t need someone to care for him anymore. The little moments where the Doctor asks Bill if she’s alright, or takes pictures of her mother, or reassures her that she’s “safe here, and always will be” – that’s when the character sings.

Further, though, it’s that scene. The confrontation between the Doctor and Bill where he nearly takes her memory, and all the raw emotion it entails. It’s not just a standout moment for Peter Capaldi, but Pearl Mackie too – and, indeed, in terms of both the writing and direction of the scene. What an excellent place to start for these characters – and what an excellent way for the Doctor to shake off academia and get back out there into the universe.

After all, that’s the moment we were all waiting for, wasn’t it? Much as it was lovely to see him in the university, we know where we really want the Doctor to be. All of time and space. Anything that ever happened, or ever will.

Where do you want to start?

doctor who the pilot review peter capaldi twelfth doctor it means life tardis backlit steven moffat lawrence gough hd screenshot wallpaper

This episode has something of a thin plot, yes. But then, it’s not the plot that matters – rather, it’s the story.

I’ve already highlighted, of course, how much of this episode is dedicated to fleshing out Bill. It makes sense then to have a relatively simple plot; just a jaunt through the universe, laying out the basic concepts of Doctor Who, and letting the characters carry our attention. (It’s still worth noting, of course, just how well this is all done; one of the problems of having left this review so long is that everyone else has already pointed out just how fantastic the TARDIS reveal is. But then, it is, and it’s worth pointing that out – as well as noting just how good Lawrence Gough’s direction was.)

However, despite the simple plot, there’s actually quite an involved story here. In a sense, it’s all about promises: the promise Heather made to Bill, the implicit promise the Doctor made to Clara, and the Doctor’s promise to someone to guard the vault.

Of course, the episode began with another promise – The Pilot, and its promise of a new start. It is, I think, a promise that’s realised; everything comes together here to create an episode that really does show how much Doctor Who can do, and how much it can be. In that sense, there’s so much to comment on, and so little time – Lawrence Gough’s direction, Stephanie Hyam’s performance, the lovely dialogue flourishes. It’s enough to make you wish you could just go on forever about how good the episode is, but at that point you’re better off just showing people the episode again and letting them enjoy it for themselves. You’d love it – I promise.

But then, The Pilot is also about a different kind of promise. The promise of what’s to come. The promise – the allure – of the universe. All the days of your life, laid out like a city. The day you were born; the day you died. The day you fell in love and the day love ended.

Time and Relative Dimension in Space.

It’s a promise.

The promise of everything.

8/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index