And it was a mighty relief to having something upbeat to say about a Frank Cottrell-Boyce Doctor Who story. Particularly as I generally think he’s a terrific writer.
“I’m happy, I hope you’re happy too.” This is how the Doctor mollifies an Emojibot. It’s a line that’s undergone a little revision from the shooting script, and it’s tempting to think it was Peter Capaldi himself who twisted it into Bowie. Perfect for Doctor Who’s own Thin White Duke. Perfect, in fact, to think the time traveller might be a devotee of ‘Zavid’. Particularly – and, yes, I’m going to stretch this thought right out until it gets me to where I need to be – as by the end of Smile, he’s become the man who sold the world.
Quite how the colonists have any basis for commencing a bartering relationship with their new landlords will have to remain a mystery. It’s hard to know what the ‘bots would want, despite their ker-ching of £ signs. Oiling? But that doesn’t feel like a weakness in the story. Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s script sketches out a practical kind of optimism, and so it seems okay to assume they’ll find some sort of compromise.
Practical optimism – goodies prevailing over baddies, after a fashion – is the warp and weft of Doctor Who, and this adventure proves Cottrell-Boyce gets it. He gets our show; his show too, let’s be honest. “Do you know what it means when something chases you very slowly?” asks the Doctor, cheekily highlighting an inconvenient truth of monster costuming. “It means there’s a reason they don’t have to run.” Ah, yes! That works!
Meanwhile, the plot is tapping into the programme’s ongoing background narrative about the doomed future-history of the planet Earth (cf. The Ark, Ark in Space, Frontios, The End of the World) but elevates it up from exposition to incident with Bill discovering the information for herself. “Did something terrible happen?” she asks the Doctor. When you put it like that, well, yes it did, actually. It’s good to be reminded that the series jogs along quite happily on top of epochal tragedies.
Asking questions, shining new lights, proves to be Bill’s MO in this episode. While she’s still in that new companion glow, she wants to know why the chairs in the TARDIS are so far from the controls, how much the thing actually cost, why the Doctor stole it, why he’s Scottish, and how come he takes it upon himself to be the person who puts right what’s gone awry. The latter brings about a lovely line from the traveller: “I happen to be passing by, so I’m mucking in.”
This is really the joy of these 45 minutes, hanging out with a couple of characters who like being together, and who cooperate gently to move a story forwards across a series of entertaining, free-ranging conversations. One almost wishes the episode had remained a two-hander, the Doctor finding some sort of equilibrium before the colonists – who, in truth, are quite boring colonists – stepped out. I could have hung around with he and Bill all day. Particularly when the robots force him to adopt a smile. It’s a hilarious thing, hanging there like a barbecue gazebo on a listed building.
In many ways, this is a brutal tale, lightly told, almost disdainfully so for the casualties. The two deaths (which take place before the title sequence) are bodily rendered, as the shoal of Vardies destroy flesh, leaving a flurry of bones clattering down. One of their victims, it turns out, is played by Mina Anwar, which is a rum final note for Rani’s mum off of The Sarah Jane Adventures. From Bannerman Road to Compost Corner…
In every way, the meat in this story is reserved for the automata, and while their swarming variant is conceptually interesting, it doesn’t have the visual appeal of the Emojibots, who are perfectly placed – like the Chumblies before them – on the cute/evil axis. Okay, they do represent another instance where malfunctioning technology is the root of a story’s ills, but at least it’s a malfunctioning technology with something of a point of view. And while I don’t feel there’s quite enough here to really convince us these servitors have ascended beyond a Fitbit, I appreciate the principle of the Doctor going into bat for the ‘dry brains’. One would like to think that somewhere out there, their brethren, the Mechonoids, were chirruping and wobbling in appreciation. Finally, colony robots getting some representation.
In the stead of The Pilot, Smile continues to be free-flowing, easily enjoyable, beautiful-to-look-at Doctor Who. There’s sufficient to ruminate on, and very little to confound. It’s straight ahead entertainment, featuring highly likeable characters and a realistic morality. That seems to be a solid course for the early part of this run, particularly as we know there are quite masterful complications to come somewhere up ahead… 😉