Contains some spoilers for the episode
It must take a huge sense of self-confidence and belief to be the show-runner of a huge international series like Doctor Who, to the point of hubris and arrogance. That’s not a criticism – I just don’t see how anyone could do the job otherwise. Part of that mindset must include never fully accepting when you’ve made a mistake – or at least, not one that you can’t rectify down the line.
Back in season 8, Steven Moffat picked children’s novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce (of London 2012 opening ceremony fame) to write an episode for Doctor Who. The end result – “In the Forest of the Night” – sharply divided both fans and critics, and was the least popular story of that run. Personally I liked the episode somewhat better than most people seemed to and found its change of pace refreshing, but even so I can’t say I was clamouring for more of the same anytime soon.
But Moffat sticks to his guns, and Cottrell-Boyce gets a second bite of the Who apple with this week’s episode “Smile”. This sophomore effort shows that the writer has worked hard to address the criticisms of his maiden outing and in some areas is much improved, while other aspects show much the same hallmarks of Cottrell-Boyce’s work – for both good and ill.
Just like “In the Forest of the Night”, Cottrell-Boyce’s latest contribution spends half its running time on the creation and detailed exploration of a striking premise and location in which to set a story. In the 2014 episode it was the sight of a fairy tale forest suddenly rising up and engulfing the streets of London; in “Smile” we’re transported to a far-off world, an Earth colony designed to be utopia and which on first sight appears to have done a remarkably good job in meeting its objectives. You might think that there’s little in common between the settings of his two contributions to the show – between magical forest and futuristic city – but the sense of lyrical poetry Cottrell-Boyce brings to the disparate settings provides much more of an overlap then we might at first appreciate.
The new world certainly looks absolutely spectacular: the production team went on location to Valencia in Spain and shot many of the interior scenes in the achingly beautiful City of Arts and Sciences. If you have any interest in modern architecture then you’ll have been as spellbound as I was. The Doctor and Bill (Peter Capaldi and Pearl Machie – Matt Lucas gets only a one-scene cameo appearance this week as Nardole) could have spent the entire hour wondering around this backdrop and I wouldn’t have complained, unlike “In the Forest of the Night” wherein we mainly found out just how quickly we could get bored of trees. There was some nice organic variation to the gleaming white buildings with a vast golden field of crops swaying in the breeze under a perfect blue sky, and some effective contrast to both with scenes set in the dark and dirty bowels of the original spaceship which brought the colonists to their new home. It was all directed beautifully by Lawrence Gough, who retains the same innovative sense of handheld jittery excitement that he introduced in last week’s “The Pilot”.
Story-wise it’s a very quiet start: the Doctor and Bill amble around this new world as if it’s the first episode of a 1960s six-part adventure starring William Hartnell, in much the same way that Cottrell-Boyce presented the first half of “In the Forest of the Night”. However that earlier episode fell at a point in season 8 where Clara and Danny Pink’s relationship was already at an advanced stage, and the Doctor had become something of a third wheel to the dynamic and indeed to the story as a whole. By contrast, “Smile” arrives as the second story to feature a brand new companion, where the show’s (and the audience’s) attention is more on the character of Bill Potts than anything else – and especially how her relationship with the Doctor is evolving. As such it’s the perfect point in the series to have a lot of quiet time featuring the two characters just talking and getting to know one another, and the admittedly very slow pace of the first half of “Smile” actually feels quite welcome and barely drags at all (although it does push the bounds a little.) There are other characters around – The Royle Family’s Ralf Little pops in late in the day as a medtech – but they’re mostly confined to a walk-on part with negligible impact.
The major criticism about “In the Forest of the Night” was that after setting up its interesting premise in the first half of the story, it then failed to tell a worthwhile story in the second – not least because of a chronic aversion to jeopardy that might unsettle any little children watching. Well, “Smile” certainly faces that complaint square on and deals with it in the first few minutes of the teaser, where the robots (flocking clouds of nanobots and their humanoid ‘front men’ who sport expressive emoji faces) responsible for creating the new colony for their human settlers turn deadly and slaughter two innocent young women. Later on the Doctor uncovers their remains, and refers to them in a rare burst of black humour as “the skeleton crew.” Although the Soylent Green overtones are played down for the younger audience watching, it’s clear that Bill realises the implications for the colony’s food supply.
After that, this time there’s real jeopardy as the story kicks in – signalled by a brilliant throbbing electro score from Murray Gold that sounds utterly unlike anything we’ve heard from the composer in 12 years of his work on Doctor Who, adding to the overall sense of the show reinvigorating itself. The Doctor soon realises what high stakes he’s playing for and promptly goes off without a plan. As a result he very nearly commits a catastrophic error in the process due to his impetuosity – a rare rebuke for our favourite Time Lord for whom madcap improvisation isn’t so much a strategy as it is a way of eating, breathing and existing. The approach rarely lets him down, but it very nearly does so here forcing him into a complete re-evaluation of the situation which is a refreshing new insight into the character that makes us realise he’s not infallible after all.
Up to this point, you’d have to say that “Smile” has improved on “In the Forest of the Night” in almost all respects and be impressed by Cottrell-Boyce’s efforts in upping his game. The extent of all the research he did into the current state of space exploration, methods of colonising alien worlds, and the implications of artificial intelligence is clear. Unfortunately the episode stumbles in its final ten minutes – or to put it another way, having got the Doctor into a position with no viable way out Cottrell-Boyce isn’t then able to stick the landing.
(This is the point where anyone avoiding spoilers should really look away and skip to the final paragraph.)
To start with, there’s the revelation that the robots originally turning deadly was down to their wanting to make their human masters happy, but not knowing what to do about the natural grief experienced by the colonists when someone dies of old age. That triggers “a grief tsunami” which the robots try to cure by euthanising anyone who has been made sad (shades of the 1980s serial “The Happiness Patrol”, and being told to “Smile” at all times also has clear overtones with “Blink”) This revelatory moment might work if only it hadn’t already been explicitly detailed (to greater effect) in the opening teaser in which it’s shown that being informed of a loved one’s passing leads to the sadness and consequent death of the person being told. Even worse, it was far more effective as shown in the first two minutes than when repeated in words and computer graphics 35 minutes later. Our reaction to the Doctor’s revelation is “Yes, why are you being so slow figuring this one out?” which is not a great way to finish.
It’s also largely disconnected from the problem of what to do with the deadly robots now that the rest of the colonists are waking up from hibernation (strong links here to 1970s classic story The Ark In Space.) The “turn it off and on again” moment is a nice one-line gag, but it’s a well-known cliché that by its very nature makes for a very disappointing climax to the story no matter how smartly it tries to milk it for some meta-humour. And then what do we do for a real long-term fix? In the classic era of the show, the solution would have been simple: use the emojibots’ WiFi network to destroy them by reversing the polarity of the neutron flow (or some such), which as a side-effect would fuse the dead nanobots in their current location and state so that the city continues to exist as a sort of mechanical coral reef remnant. But this is the 21st century and the minute that the Doctor identifies the robots as an emergent lifeform (what isn’t these days?) there’s no question of wiping them out, as this would be construed as genocide.
Instead the Doctor seeks to organise an alliance between the robots and the humans and make them agree to an uneasy peace, an attempt to impose a superficially happy but ultimately vacuous ending. But this is immediately unrealistic and impractical: for example, how did the newly-wiped emojibots suddenly get to grips with the concept of capitalism? What basis is there for trade between the two parties on this new world? The scene where the lead ‘bot signals its understanding of the Doctor’s proposal by flashing an emoji with pound signs for eyes is funny (I laughed, anyway) but makes no sense – not least because it’s hard to imagine the British pounds sterling symbol meaning anything to anyone in this far-flung future. But the solution feels fundamentally flawed in a more serious way, the writer putting blind optimism ahead of grounded realism just like he did in “In the Forest of the Night” two and half years ago. Specifically, if the robots have gone homicidal in the past then there’s a very real likelihood that the same underlying programming will result in a similar outcome again this time around too, in which case the human colonists will be wiped out within days. In other words, the Doctor has resolved nothing – he’s just delayed another more calamitous crisis that he won’t be around to avert, like every other politician of the modern era who promises lasting solutions but instead delivers only temporary fixes and general procrastination. We might expect that from May, Corbyn, Fallon, Farage et all but it’s a bit galling to find the same thing coming from the Doctor.
The show does what it usually does at shaky moments like this, and briskly moves on to give us an epilogue scene setting up next week’s episode “Thin Ice”. The sight of a huge elephant walking on the frozen surface of the Thames in the early 19th century is certainly a jarring enough sight to make you momentarily forget the frustrating end to “Smile”, an episode that aimed high and promised (and to be honest achieved) much, but which ultimately didn’t quite have the necessary fortitude to get it across the finish line without stumbling.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Doctor Who continues on on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on May 29 2017 with the second half of the season following on July 17.