Last weeks episode of Doctor Who had the task of reintroducing The Doctor while bringing in a new assistant – Bill. Free from the burden of having to establish a new assistant and situation for The Doctor, how did this weeks episode Smile fare in delivering a more traditional outing for the show?
This weeks episode saw The Doctor and Bill take flight into the future, tackling the curious case of the emoji human colony. It doesn’t take long for the pair to realise that the machines designed to create utopia for the early human colonists have begun turning them into chow. As The Doctor and Bill’s relationship and trust begins to develop, they have to overcome the out of control emojibots.
I actually really enjoyed this episode. Yes the premise was silly but Doctor Who isn’t afraid to dive into pop culture trends – even the more silly of them. Luckily here it was proved to be for the episodes benefit. Vaulting between humor (Seeing The Doctor’s emotions play out) to the horror of seeing robots massacring humans without understanding why is one of the shows most endearing qualities. When done right, it creates the right kind of tension and atmosphere that makes the episodes weaker aspects more forgivable. This episode was no different.
From the opening gambit with the colonists (Which set a hugely unnerving tone) to the way Doctor and Bill were left to slowly uncover the secrets of the colony, it was enjoyable throughout. From making the robots feel like genuine terrors, to transforming them into likeable vessels by the end – the audience was given plenty to get their teeth into throughout this episode. The twists and turns made sense – which is a step up from some of the more ludicrous offerings in recent years.
I particularly enjoyed the huge wrench thrown in around two-thirds of the way through proceedings – with The Doctor’s usual grand bombastic plan being thwarted by oversight. That being said, the show returned to a previous theme of “humans do bad human things” by the end, which was arguably the low point of the episode. The ending felt like it was trying to draw on a moral question that didn’t need to be asked. Of course the human colonists would want to kill the robots that had been massacring their friends and family – but the show was penned in such a way that their view wasn’t given fair treatment. Painting them as the villains felt cheap and slightly robbed from the nuanced build that the episode had been enjoying up to that point.
That being said, I have to say that the titular pair were on form here. Smile’s flow was helped greatly by the fact that Bill and Capaldi’s Doctor had some great chemistry throughout. Even when it was just them two for large parts of the episode, I found myself laughing and enjoying the chemistry that the pair were generating. It seems the two already have a nice back and forth in progress, which makes for the easiest viewing. Even in the darkest moments of the episode “Where did the fertiliser come from?” – it was enjoyable to see the two reacting to each other.
I’m a huge fan of the “fish out of water” assistant – it leads to more interesting back and forth. The contrast between Bill’s wide-eyed wonder and Capaldi’s more stern, universe-weary approach made for some great television. It reminds me a lot of Donna and Tennant’s back and forth – arguably the high point for such relations in the show. I liked how protective he was of her, several times trying to corral her into stepping back from the action.
I’m also finding myself enjoying Bill, who had a great first proper outing in Smile. Hugely enjoyable, more an engaging sidearm for The Doctor than someone who has all the answers (See Clara). It was fun to see The Doctor showcasing his knowledge, seemingly several steps ahead of Bill (Like when he made her read the map, but forgot to tell her she could take a photo). She also brought the emotional core to the episode, like when she uncovered the human colonists and forced The Doctor to rollback his plan to detonate the colony. I also appreciated the toned down emotional bludgeoning on show (Clara’s later run saw her basically berating the Doctor for not picking morally good options, it began to hurt the shows enjoyability). Capaldi’s Doctor is a lot more likeable when he’s not being painted as an out of control maniac that needs to be reigned in by an overburdened assistant.
That being said, I can imagine some will find Bill’s input grating over time. She seems to serve as a vantage point for mainstream audiences with pop culture references and jokes that seemingly serve to draw laughs from the audience. It’ll be important that she develops something more moving forward, as she didn’t seem to do much in this episode other than react to situations and act as a vehicle for the audiences own shock at the twist.
Overall though, I was hugely impressed with Smile. Tense, fun and well contained – this is the kind of episode that Capaldi’s Doctor really shines in – and I’m hoping we get to see plenty more moving forward.