Doctor Who #984: Smile

"What's the opposite of a massacre? In my experience, a lecture."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.22 2017.

IN THIS ONE... Emoji-bots will kill you if you don't smile.

REVIEW: They really have "rebooted" the series to try and get new viewers, haven't they? The tradition, especially in American television, is to make the second episode a second pilot, retreading some of the points expressed in the first, within the bounds of a "typical" episode. While Bill discovering the Doctor has two hearts and all that is fine (and the high blood pressure joke is a highlight), but the repetition doesn't do the episode any favors. This isn't Bill's first trip in the TARDIS (it's technically her sixth), but acts like it is, and asks some of the same questions she did only moments ago (from her perspective). About the chameleon circuit, for example. Yes, that's used to make her conclude the Doctor sees himself as a kind of "policeman" and follows her train of thought as to what the Doctor's really about (until recently, he was a university professor and personal mentor, not a superhero), but either you don't ask in The Pilot, or you don't ask here. The repetition goes on to include specific jokes like the running penguin gag, the Doctor being crossed, etc. For long-time fans, the season's structure to date wil feel a lot like Series 1's (The Pilot had shades of Rose, Smile is a satirical future à la The End of the World, and the next episode is snowy Victoriana like The Unquiet Dead). And don't get me started on the flashbacks within a 45-minute episode; you know I hate those.

Of course, even older fans will remark that Smile is a lot like The Happiness Patrol, which proposed a future in which being unhappy was illegal and rebels fought for the right to be sad. We might already have had the 7th Doctor in mind because of Bill's similarities with his companion Ace. She too saw the Doctor as a professor (and actually called him that), she too wore badges on her jacket (just many more), and she too used the expression "Wicked!". Plus, as a Rose precursor, the traits Bill shares with Rose, she totally shares with Ace. Bill is still the best thing about this episode. I love how happy and excited she is to visit the future, how she doesn't have to fake a smile even in dire circumstances, and how she continues to burst the Doctor's balloon by asking questions he's not used to. Of course, there's a danger of getting the character to too smug a place, and in the final scene, because we don't see the Doctor explain things to her, she reminds me of Series 2 Rose, the Rose I deeply resented, who reveled in the shadow of the Doctor's authority. Having Bill be completely in love with the lifestyle and in some part a smart alec, could be dangerous for her likeability. But so long as she remains as empathetic as she is, it should be fine. Nardole, meanwhile, is hardly in the episode, relegated to nagging "mum" trying to keep the Doctor on mission. They need to do more than this to get me on board with him as companion.

As for the story itself, the person who wrote In the Forest of the Night is not the first I would have given another shot, especially one in a crucial slot. The set-up isn't bad in concept whether you think the emoji language is too silly or not, with the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain a great-looking futurist set doing most of the hard work. I bristled at the nanobots being called Vardies because I don't think new nomenclature is required at this point in the show's history, but they were at least named after a scientist who works on "swarm robotics", and the ship Erehwon is cleverly named after Samuel Butler's utopian novel about a fictional country where illness is criminalized and machines develop consciousness. And the more clever for being seen, but not mentioned explicitly. But design can't save the story. There might have been something interesting about the robots being unable to read expressions and requiring emoji help, but if that's somehow symbolic of autism, with the Doctor providing a much needed diagnostic, that gets lost very quickly. The solution to wipe their memories must stand in contrast to his NOT wiping Bill's literally an hour before. Why is this now okay, if they're sentient? The magic haddock story takes forever to be explained, and just becomes annoying whenever it's referenced. This is also an episode where the Doctor, despite playing the part of the explorer, has to lay down all the exposition, and the further we get, the less his conclusions are justified. I can accept that the "machines have misinterpreted human directives" plot isn't that original, but the vertiginous shaft where you have to putter around to increase jeopardy is a dreadful cliché. Even worse are the thawed humans who will simply not listen(TM). Why does a med-tech even lead the military charge except that he's one of very few paid actors on set at that point? Annoying cardboard dunce with no real personality. The Vardies care about money? Or is that just the emoji for "let's make a deal"? I have so many problems with the plot that neither the location nor the above average work of the regulars can save it in my opinion.

Intriguingly, Smile ends on a cliffhanger that leads straight into the next show (no sting though). An oddity given how Moffat likes to put gaps into his seasons where writers for book and audio can fit more stories. Will this be a recurring feature? Similarly, will the phone app set up in their ears continue to work in other eras? I.e. is this a new feature of the show to let the Doctor and his companion get separated yet maintain contact? If so, how will this change the show?

THEORIES: Since there's been more than one Earth migration, we might want to ask WHEN this takes place. I think we can rule out the one that takes place 10 million years from now (The Ark, Frontios) for a number of reasons, despite the visual reference to it in the cliffhanger (The Ark also famously included an elephant). First, the history book doesn't seem to go on that long, and second, the reason for leaving Earth at that point was the sun blowing up. Is this the 33rd-Century migration Starship UK was a part of in The Beast Below? Well, the ship IS named after a fictional country, so perhaps colonists who wanted their own identity and didn't keep some national ideal, but I was never too happy with the dating on that. After all, we know humanity is still on Earth in the 40th and 50th Centuries. The history book does seem to point to unhappy goings on that might have made whole countries and smaller enclaves leave while leaving some players still on Earth (a lot of those future episodes reference countries other than Britain and the U.S. as super-powers). But the real link is to The Ark in Space where humans are awakened from suspended animation in much the way we see here, right down to a "med-tech" being awakened first. Those events took place in 16,000 A.D., but that's because the system malfunctioned and left them sleeping too long. The exodus that led to Space Station Nerva was because of solar flares, and would have taken place around the year 6000. I propose the Erehwon would be from this second migration.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - I hate to do this, but on the surface, this is merely okay, and once I start thinking about it, it's less than that.


Anonymous said...

I didn't hate this episode as much as you did, but it felt like it was covering territory we've seen too often before.

I don't have a problem with the Doctor rebooting the nanobots, though, because the alternative would have been for them to destroy humanity, and that would be a kind of bad thing. Giving them a chance to start again, but in a position of indigenousness (indigenity?), is tons better than one side or the other dying.

Siskoid said...

I didn't hate, I was just frustrated by it.

And the solution is fine IF you have the Doctor at least agonize over it. But no, everyone's very happy and not asking questions. Glib.

Andrew said...

Elsewhere, I had read a suggestion that the destruction of the one Emoji-Bot could have been used as a way for the others to experience grief first-hand, thereby justifying the idea that they're sentient and leading to a greater understanding between them and the humans.

Brian said...

Of course, they pointed out early on that the emoji-bots were just interfaces for the component Vardys swarm, so "killing" that one was less murder than crashing a car or smashing a phone – hardly the same grief of losing an irreplaceable life.

Siskoid said...

I think the point Andrew makes is excellent. That really IS how it should have ended. The bots suddenly understand grief and that creates common ground for them and the humans. Something that might have been discovered in the writers' room if they'd done another (much-needed) draft, in the process fixing Brian's point perhaps by putting the vardies under the control of the bots instead of the other way around.


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