Season 10, Episode 2 “Smile”
Directed by Lawrence Gough
Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
Air date: April 22, 2017
What is the meaning of history? What is happiness? How do humans survive in an automated society? These are some of the weighty topics examined in Episode 10.2 “Smile,” the new installment of Doctor Who this week. With so much potential ground to cover, this episode could easily bog down in a mess of tangled subplots and ideas. Instead, thanks to some strong direction for the second week in a row, director Lawrence Gough turns in some classic “meat and potatoes” Doctor Who that covers ground that is at once fresh and familiar at the same time.
Many of the themes we see this week are not new to the show at all. Modern digital computing is only about 15 years older than the series itself, and the social tensions between humans and machines have been examined on Doctor Who in one form or another since around 1966. In the first serial set in then-present day London called “The War Machines,” the Doctor faces off against an artificially intelligent computer named WOTAN. Much like James Cameron’s SkyNet, the computer will be linked to other systems around the world and seeks to throw off the control of the humans that created it.
Humans as a refugee culture is also not something new. This is prominently shown in two stories in Season 12 of Classic Doctor Who, “The Ark In Space” and “The Sontaran Experiment.” In the first story, the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, and Harry Sullivan end up on Space Station Nerva, where the human race resides in suspended animation as the Earth is about to be devastated by solar flares. The story continues in the next serial where the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah descend to the now regenerated Earth to encounter human descendants of colonists sent to other worlds who have fallen into the hands of a Sontaran. These humans have forgotten about Nerva and even forgotten about Earth, and end up there merely by accident.
Finally, ideas of forced happiness and totalitarianism were explored in the 25th season serial “The Happiness Patrol.” In that story, the Doctor and Ace travel to a human colony on Terra Alpha, where everyone is forced to be happy by law. The secret police roam the streets of the colony hunting down people who are unhappy. It is as the old saying about the workplace goes: the beatings will continue until morale improves.
“Smile” touches on all these themes, but does so with a tremendously modern spin. Communication occurs through the hieroglyphs of present day social media: the emoji. Just as people feel compelled to present their best selves to others in a 24/7 online culture, here humans must smile and appear to be happy at all times. Likewise, the darker side of online culture is also present — happiness can quickly change to a torrent of bile and negativity that seems all-consuming when perception and reality don’t mix well.
Likewise, it touches on feelings of racial hatred and vengeance. We live in a world where feelings of regionalism and anger over injuries in the past seem to unpredictably flare into violence. Planet Earth is also full of refugees at the moment, with North American and European nations coming to grip with how those people will be accepted and treated. The Doctor and Bill arrive on a world where two histories meet, one of human colonists who have spent untold periods of time in suspended animation, and one of what machines experienced while the humans were asleep.
Finally, “Smile” presents the divergent notions of how humans imagine the future and how it actually comes to pass. The bright, shiny, ideal future presented to the Doctor and Bill is not one where humans actually live. In fact, the Doctor observes that it is one designed by machines, clean and bright but devoid of all the messiness that comes from human contact and habitation. That humans must negotiate with that future to ultimately live there is a telling point. That the Doctor refuses to see what others perceive to be as “the monster” as truly monstrous is another such point.
This episode benefits tremendously from some canny choices. Science fiction is littered with cheesy robots, and Doctor Who is no standout in that respect. For every iconic design such as the Daleks, there is the eponymous machine from the Tom Baker serial “Robot,” the Quarks from the 1968 serial “The Dominators,” or the Kandy Man from the aforementioned serial “The Happiness Patrol.” Here, the writing and the direction embrace the limitations of the prop department. If the shiny, white Vardy props can’t really move, then provide some sort of reason that they can be that way, for example.
I am also liking the pared down relationship between the Doctor and Bill. After the last few seasons of wondering if Amy Pond will choose life with Rory or life with the Doctor, or if Clara can have a life with the Doctor and anyone else at all, it’s refreshing to have a companion who just wants to see what’s out there. There is the McGuffin of the vault and Nardole introduced last week that will provide some season-long story arc, no doubt. Yet as much as Steven Moffat had the Doctor say “it’s the Doctor and Clara and the TARDIS,” there was always more history to it than that. Here, it actually feels like “the Doctor and Bill and the TARDIS” in a very old school way… and that feels good.
Is this an episode a masterpiece? No. Would I be happy if the whole season was at least this good? By all means! It references the past without speaking in code to hardcore fans. It features solid performances and some clever writing and direction. It has an easy flow that just pulls the viewer along. It introduces a collision of weighty issues in something that’s ostensibly a children’s television show… a thing at which it has often excelled. While you can’t say that it delves too deep, Doctor Who has always gotten points for just putting that particular set of puzzle pieces together.