Ever since the show returned to our screens in 2005, every new companion has faced the same, almost ceremonial initiation. There’s the story on present day Earth where they first meet the Doctor and get pulled into his life, the invitation to travel in the TARDIS, and then a visit to the past and a visit to the future. Newbie Bill Potts keeps to the pattern established by Rose Tyler, Amy Pond and all the others with a visit to Regency London next week and this week a trip to a far flung human colony in an unspecified, but distant, future.
Appropriately Smile does have a sense of being your regular, everyday Doctor Who. Coming from the keyboard of Frank Cottrell-Boyce that’s perhaps a little surprising, given his reputation for innovative and experimental storytelling on film as well as television. Especially as his previous episode, In the Forest of the Night took huge chances in pushing the series’ recurring flirtation with fairy tale logic past breaking point. But its place in the season positions it as a showcase for the benefit of new viewers. As a demonstration of what the Doctor’s world is like, for us as well as for Bill, rather than a format buster, it’s nicely judged.
What Bill’s first proper voyage as a companion gives us, then, is simple, familiar Doctor Who very well done. An isolated colony under threat has been a standard bit of the show’s equipment since the days of Patrick Troughton, and rampaging nanite sized robots simply fulfilling garbled instructions to the best of their abilities is an idea we’ve seen a few times since The Empty Child. Even a notion as oddly specific as a failing human colony where unhappiness is punishable by death has been done before. But Cottrell-Boyce twists them both enough to still be entertaining and fresh. Undoubtedly that’s partly down to his homework and the research that’s gone into his script. According to Steven Moffat, this story was born out of Cottrel-Boyce asking scientists what terrified them. In particular, the naming of the Vardies underlines the influence of Dr. Andrew Vardy, a robotics professor advocating the use of biological patterns – like flocking in birds – as a model for cooperative behaviour between robots.
Even the emojibots reflect this sense of real world futurism. Communicating through smilies, thumbs up, exclamation marks and skulls is not so far fetched. After all how better to communicate between people from every nation and language, or to future proof against changes in language between different human worlds over centuries? Their main purpose is being able to present a relatable, anthropomorphic connection to the swarms of infinitesimal and unknowable machine intelligence. This reflects a constant of human nature and the future built here, both in its flaws and ideals, and is totally believable as something humanity might build for itself, if we survive that long.
If it’s not hugely original, the episode impresses with how well constructed it is. There’s not a line or scene that’s wasted, no jagged edges implying unfinished ideas or holdovers from earlier drafts. If it were a vehicle it would be a bullet train, designed to aerodynamic perfection and slicing from A to B in a perfectly smooth ride. This extends to the season arc elements too. Historically, these have been one of the show’s weak spots and sometimes clumsily inserted haphazardly into otherwise unrelated episodes. But the slow drip of information here integrates effortlessly into the story. “A thing happened. As a result of the thing, I made a promise. As a result of the promise, I have to stay on Earth, guarding a vault,” the Doctor semi-explains to Bill, along with why the TARDIS seats are so far from the console, whether two hearts give him high blood pressure and why he’s Scottish (“I’m not Scottish; I’m just cross,”). We learn, as we suspected last week, that Nardole is both assistant and guard; a nagging mum reminding the Doctor he’s not supposed to leave Earth, even as his boss sneaks Bill away for an adventure off planet. This wrinkle of the Doctor and Bill’s travels being an illicit secret for which the Doctor could get in trouble promises to deliver consequences later on. At one point in Smile Bill ponders if there’s not some higher authority that the Doctor should be calling on, or which holds him accountable for blowing up entire cities on his own initiative. Despite the Doctor’s implications to the contrary, it’s hard not to conclude not only that there now is, but they’re going to be remarkably unimpressed with the Doctor once they find out what he’s been getting up to.
The extraordinary City of Arts and Science provides a stunning backdrop to the Doctor and Bill’s latest adventure
What really elevates this week above the level of other similar stories is the stunning visuals. The emojibots are a deceptively simple idea but they’re beautifully realized. Every emoji that flashes across their big yellow faces is perfectly judged. One communicating a Doctorish quizzical face captures, in two dots and three lines, Peter Capaldi’s expression exactly, and their sweet little ambling gait plays off the deadly threat they represent. Filming on location at the City of Arts and Science at Valencia in Spain is the real masterstroke which brings Smile to a whole other level. Breathtaking in its architecture and endlessly inventive it really convinces as a utopia sitting under an alien sky. More than that, it lends something to an episode that even the best set or green screen work could. Every corridor or stairwell our pair of heroes runs down is unique and fresh and yet consistent as all part of the one place. It grounds the action in a believable reality even as it looks like some gorgeous dream.
The premise of a city where you smile or you die is well suited to Bill. Pearl Mackie’s smile lights up even the sun kissed vistas of Valencia and Bill’s enthusiasm about pretty much everything around her, even when it’s trying to kill her, is infectious. After Clara’s total confidence and Amy’s affected pose of being too cool to be impressed by most things, Bill’s pure unadulterated joy is a welcome change of pace. With the Doctor her “best tutor ever” the explicitly teacher/student dynamic between the two feels different from what we’ve seen before too. For his part, the Doctor seems inspired by Bill to be kinder and more fatherly than we’ve seen this incarnation before. It’s still early days for their relationship, and he’s still in that odd phase we’ve seen before where he pretends to his new companion that he doesn’t go looking for trouble and saving worlds and escaping death are only an occasional pastime and not a constant way of life.
All smiles for blue algae cubes!
Smile continues the rebirth of Doctor Who as a show both new and familiar. Fresh and funny and brimming with ideas. It’s hard to believe this is Capaldi and Moffat’s final season rather than their first. If they can keep this level of quality up they’ll be presenting incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall with a major challenge to best them.
[Five TARDISes Out of Five]
To learn more about Dr. Andrew Vardy, his work, and his impact on this episode see here:
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
By: Peter Nolan