Doctor Who: Smile Review
Writer: Frank Cottrell Boyce
Director: Lawrence Gough
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Ralf Little
The Twelfth Doctor’s weak-point has always been his level of comfort with emotion, so putting emotion at the heart of an episode’s plot seems like it would open up some interesting doors. Instead, Smile is an episode straight out of the standard Moffatt Don’t Blink, Deep Breath, Listen formula, but it works because the barebones science-fiction plot is only there to play aesthetics to the story of the Doctor and Bill. Smile continues the idea of keeping the tenth series of Doctor Who easy for a new viewer to pick up by keeping the focus on our protagonists and the core concepts that have made the series endure for well over 50 years. Series ten also continues to feel the most like the classic series, with shades of The Ark in Space and other early Fourth Doctor stories elevating a fairly basic sci-fi story into something true to the show.
There was never any doubt that Smile would be anything other than an utterly gorgeous episode to behold. The BBC found the perfect setting and used it to their full advantage. Valencia, the City of Arts and Sciences, transposed into the middle of a cornfield, makes a totally convincing off-world colony, with bright, ever present light bouncing around the scene in a way that only location shooting in Spain can only bring. You just don’t get light like that in Cardiff. The stark, white, futuristic architecture adds such incredible production value to Smile that it could honestly get by on aesthetics alone. The fact that Brexit means these kind of shoots may happen less often in the future is a travesty. It felt very 1960s science-fiction based. Capaldi on the crosswalk of the ship, meanwhile, was straight out of Star Wars, a utilitarian metal structure in direct opposition to Valencia complete with a dangling off the edge moment that thrilled me as it all went down.
As monsters, the Vardy present an interesting challenge. Being more of a passive threat rather than an active one, their omnipresence lets Smile take on a more meditative quality, with conversation and curiosity developing at a natural pace. The Emojibots are cute as hell with their pudgy bellies and expressive faces. The unassuming facades give off a genuinely unsettling quality as they stand around and judge the happiness levels of the city’s occupants, eliminating the unhappy. This never gets as truly unsettling as in the first scene, where a desperate Mina Anwar tries to keep a smile on her face while delivering the news that her mother and many other colonists were murdered in front of her.
The concept of grief as a virus was interesting, but it went largely unexplored in the finale. This was a disappointing turn, especially considering how the last series dealt so explicitly with grief, I wanted a resolution that didn’t handwave it away so easily. Instead, the show flaunts the reset button and the power of the sonic screwdriver to magic the problem away in the last few minutes, leaving many of the colonists as confused as the viewers. I’m usually never one to turn down a The IT Crowd reference, but turning it off and on again just didn’t do it for me. There was a more complicated solution to this problem, one concerned with embracing empathy, the complexity of emotions and communication. Smile instead chose the easy way out and was poorer for it.
Having said that, I still hold incredible affection for Smile when I look at how much I loved how purely Smile was intended to be a two-hander between Bill and the Doctor. The Doctor and companion discussing a problem, theorising, and solving it from multiple angles is what Smile is really all about. The actual mechanics of the story were allowed to be basic because what it was trying to accomplish was pure aesthetic. Those smaller moments of interaction between the Doctor and Bill as we learned their chemistry and saw how they would work in completely different ways to solve a problem was exactly what we need at this point in the series, and although I missed Matt Lucas, I’m even glad Nardole stayed home to put the kettle on at home.
A small grudge lies in how that closeness does impact the guest cast. Ralf Little almost qualifies for a cameo in Smile based on the small amount of screentime he had. He’s a cardboard cutout meant to carry the plot forward to an inevitable confrontation. While I did like how the actors of colour were put at the forefront of the earlier scenes, with Mina Anwar’s aforementioned opening being one of my favourites of the episode, I would have loved to see more of them as the refugees woke up later on. It would have been cool to see that representation carried over to the entire cast.
Excitingly, Smile also ends with an elephant on the Thames, a small glimpse at Sarah Dollard’s Thin Ice in episode three as the Doctor and Bill walk out into Regency London instead of St. Luke’s University. This is another classic staple, something which has been sorely missed as the Doctor seems to have gained more control over the Tardis and producers have gained more control over episodic storytelling that feels less like an ongoing soap opera. But I love it when the Doctor gets lost. It’s the sort of storytelling that’s narratively so much more fulfilling than the usual “Next Time” trailer that I was actively disappointed when they had one afterwards.
Watch It! I smiled the full way through Smile. It was a fantastic bonding episode for the Doctor and Bill that only started to fall apart a bit in the end from having to wrap everything up so quickly. Much of Smile was paced like a classic serial and splitting it into two parts may have solved some of its bigger issues and allowed it to really stretch the legs of its idea. However, taking it on its own terms as a one-off episode that continues the process of easing new viewers into a science-fiction juggernaut, there’s still plenty to adore.