It’s fair to say that the second episode of Series 10, ‘Smile’, was met with a lot of apprehension from many Doctor Who fans. Fears were struck about what became known as the ‘Emoji bots’, a concept that seemed like a cynically desperate attempt for the show to stay relevant. Doctor Who has often subverted mundane things (see Gasmasks, statues and WiFi) but emojis seemed a bit of a stretch to many, including myself. Another redflag that came to attention was the fact that ‘Smile’ would be written by children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce, who infamously wrote 2014’s ‘In The Forest of The Night’. A story that hasn’t got the best of reputations to say the least. It seemed like the makings of a potential disaster – but was it? The short answer is: definitely not, despite some shortcomings.
Following on from a confident well-characterised introduction to companion Bill, we are whisked into the far-future to explore one of the human races first colony planets. It’s not long before The Doctor and Bill find that all is not as it seems, with a suspicious lack of people and a few skeletons stowed away. It’s a simple ‘paint-by-numbers’ Doctor Who plot but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s enough of a hook to keep you invested in the eerie goings on and it feels fresh enough with Bill’s outlook, despite the familiarity of it.
Right. Let’s get the Emojibots out of the way then, they’re not bad. They sway between being okay to interesting but never feel genuinely threatening. The actual ’emoji’ concept wasn’t used to heavy-highhandedly and instead brushes upon dystopian ideas of controlling emotions to enhance society. The idea of ‘mood badges’ and machines monitoring emotion is a fascinating Orwellian concept and I wished they built upon it more. The setting, whilst utterly spectacular to gaze at was also not tapped into its full potential here. A distinct lack of world-building is a gaping whole in this story, with future colonial humanity not given much of a look-in.
‘Smile’ is mainly a two-hander between The Doctor and Bill and this is where the episodes magic and heart lies. Previously, with Clara we got a quickly tiresome relationship of The Doctor and a wannabe Doctor. Now we get two very contrasting personalities that work well on screen, both dynamics benefiting each other especially when we see the lecturer/student aspect come to the fore. Bill continues to be a revelation with another sound performance from Pearl Mackie who continues to ooze relatability with a twinkle of adventure and curiosity in her eyes. Frank Cottrell Boyce produces a script with much smarter dialogue than his previous episode by a TARDIS mile – giving room for Bill and The Doctor’s friendship to organically develop.
Slow, exploratory pacing creates a spooky atmosphere as our new team discover a planet only inhabited by robots. Whilst definitely a good approach for our first full adventure with Bill it perhaps goes on a bit too long for its own good – leading to a very rushed conclusion reminiscent of those that littered Series 7B. If we were to get an ending of “turning them off and on again” then it would have been pleasant to see more threat and conundrums with the Emojibots before everything wrapped up.
All in all, we had a solid mystery and well-written character play. ‘Smile’ also boasts one of the better alien world’s Doctor Who has had in many years. Concepts and pacing were a mixed bag, getting some of it right or in others cases not going far enough. Much like ‘The Pilot’, ‘Smile’ wasn’t a mind blowing episode but it was an entertaining adventure that makes for easy viewing with a refreshing less is more approach.