The emoji eyebrows say it all,
But sometimes the Doctor drops the ball.
Mind-wiping antics have been over-played,
There’s value in grief, so don’t be afraid.
I suspect this won’t age well, with its emoji theme. But never mind, for now it stands as a very enjoyable episode, although something of a filler that will probably tend to be an episode that does not especially stick in the mind. For the most part it is a two-hander, and that requires two great lead actors, which we have. The lack of Nardole is a continuing frustration, but I could be mentioning his under-use virtually all the way though the season so we’ll take that as read from now on!
As a concept the Emoji robots are a lot of fun, and the whole emotion badge thing works well. This is quite a derivative episode, with people forced to be happy strongly reminiscent of The Happiness Patrol, and the Vardies similar in many ways to the Vashta Nerada. Ideas-wise that makes Smile a little thin, although there is nothing really wrong with picking a couple of good ideas from the past and throwing them together in a different arrangement. There are also shades of The Ark in Space. This is quite a traditional slice of Who, with much of the episode given over to the Doctor and Bill exploring and talking to each other – that’s old school and probably would have lost a few viewers who are more used to faster-paced modern Doctor Who. But again this series continues to feel like proper Doctor Who in a way that the previous two years often did not. This is much more familiar. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is, but a big part of it is a sense of adventure, excitement, exploration and enthusiasm. The overall tone of this year is more positive so far.
The only thing I really think could have been significantly improved is the resolution, with the Doctor mind-wiping the Vardies. This has a couple of issues with it.
(1) The Doctor isn’t learning his lesson. He mind-wiped Donna when she would have rather died than lose her memories and stop being the person she had become. Just last week he tried to mind-wipe Bill and she showed him the error of his ways. Here he is doing it again and thinking it’s the best solution. It isn’t, because…
(2) It’s a boring reset button way to solve things. It’s a sonic screwdriver saves the world ending. And there was a much better one available and already set up in The Pilot. Bill has experienced the grief of losing her mother. She could have taught the Vardies the value of that – how it can be turned around as a positive thing in the long run and can shape who a person becomes. The Vardies could have learnt how erasing grief is not the solution, but instead the Doctor just erases what they have become.
Look at how poetic the ending to The Happiness Patrol is, and you can see how this episode spectacularly drops the ball. RP
(by the way, that amazing bit of cgi is actually a building in Valencia – give me some Death to the Daleks city model work any day!)
I’ll leave you with somebody’s lovely little tribute to perhaps the Smiliest of all Doctors on YouTube. Enjoy! (and then scroll down for another review!)
The view from across the pond:
Doctor Who season 10 came in strong with The Pilot, an episode with mystery, a new companion full of wonder and awe, humor, solid pacing, even some scares… it was what Doctor Who needed after the extremely weak season 9. To keep the momentum, we need an equally strong story. What we got was Smile.
Smile isn’t a bad episode, it’s just not a strong one. It has too much working against it.
It opens with Rani Chandra’s mom from The Sarah-Jane Adventures. Nice seeing her again. Shame she has to be eaten so early in the episode by… a Vashta Nerada knock off. Then we get some wonderful dialog in the TARDIS where Bill is getting accustomed to her new tutor and his miraculous box. She points out things like that fact that the seats are not near the controls. A simple observation, but a valid one. Nardole arrives, and the trio are together… if only for a few minutes. Nardole is woefully underutilized for the second episode in a row. This is a mistake as he seems to be a wonderfully humorous character. Bill and the Doctor leave to see the universe and find an amazingly lovely place… where the inhabitants have been turned to Soylent Green. The robots have misunderstood how to take care of the inhabitants and decide to kill anyone who is unhappy. The Doctor has to save the day… obviously.
This story took The Happiness Patrol and introduced those guys to the Vasta Narada. That’s part of the problem: the Vardies, (the nanobots that do the actual work) are too derivative of the Vashta Narada from The Silence in the Library. The point of the inhabitants being happy is too derivative of The Happiness Patrol. It’s dangerous ground not getting something more original for the second story of a season. And forget that they can grind down the bodies to little more than calcium, but when the Doctor finds a machine that feeds the soil, the skulls are intact. Why? The skull is made of the same material as the other bones!
Another problem is the ship the Doctor has to go into to destroy the vardie (vardy?) menace, like that of The End of the World, the builders don’t put handrails up. Not to mention how idiotic the placement of the device is: in the middle of a crosswalk that hangs above a reactor. Were the designers trying to kill the crew? Form and function should at least play a part in the design! That statement applies to the fictional builders of the ship as well as the production crew that has to create the scene. Did no one think that through?? (Again, this from the same crew that put enormous propeller blades in the walkway of a satellite!)
And the episode has the pacing of a classic Star Trek episode. There’s a lot of dialog with little action. Yes, the Doctor and Bill run down a flight of stairs into another cross-corridor (that one wonders why anyone would build as no rooms branch off these corridors) but that doesn’t constitute action. It’s a talky episode. In fairness, some of the dialog is great. I love Bill’s realization that the Doctor doesn’t call the help line because he is the help line! But beyond the visuals of the place, which is stunning, and the wonderful looking emojibots, the story doesn’t hold up that well. There’s not enough menace.
And as for resolutions…. the conflict gets heated, a kid is held hostage for all of 30 seconds and people start shooting. The Vashta Nerada knockoffs are flying and can disintegrate everyone easily (but don’t) and the Doctor saves the day by hitting the bright light reset switch. Everyone forgets the conflict and the Emojibots are willing to rent their space out (in pounds sterling, obviously). Roger accurately points out that the Doctor has taken to mind wiping but what would have been better is negotiation. It wouldn’t have felt so contrived an ending and since the episode was already dialog-heavy, a good piece of emotionally charged dialog would have been more impressive. (We get to see such a piece of dialog in the very next episode, Thin Ice and it’s brilliant, and proof that it can work!)
Look, my review isn’t exactly kind, because I do look for both form and function and the episode has too little of both. That said, it’s not a terrible episode. It just doesn’t have enough substance. But one odd thing that I found was that I was smiling a lot through it. The Doctor says to Bill that smiling is more than just a look, it sends an emotional trigger to the brain and makes you happy. Every time someone said to smile, I found myself doing it. So maybe I tricked myself into liking the episode more than I should have. Visually, it’s easy on the eyes so it’s easy to smile about that. The emotion badges were really well designed and I loved the way the mystery around them unfolded, but something was just missing. I think we can call it pacing. It just didn’t have the momentum it needed.
This marked the second episode of season 10. One very strong episode, one pretty weak episode. Hopefully the next episode will give us greater reason to smile… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Thin Ice