The Good: Good characters, Decent performances, Good direction
The Bad: Fairly simple plot, Long way around to a simple, obvious, resolution
The Basics: "Smile" tries to make emoji communication menacing in one of the simplest episodes of Doctor Who that is still enjoyable to watch.
For someone who came aboard the Doctor Who franchise determined to reinvent it from the restart Russell T. Davies had begun, Steven Moffat sure follows a lot of the formulas that Davies established. The second episode of Moffat's final season as executive producer of Doctor Who follows a long-held tradition Davies established with "The End Of The World" (reviewed here!) where the Doctor's first major journey in time and space with a new Companion is to the future. "Smile" is exactly that.
"Smile" follows on "The Pilot" (reviewed here!), which introduced University cafeteria worker Bill as The Doctor's new human Companion. "Smile" follows in the long-tradition of Moffat's obsession with making common occurrences and devices - blinking, wi-fi, found footage videos - scary. But from the teaser, the viewer has figured out the fundamental concept behind the new murderous robots on Doctor Who.
Opening with The Doctor giving Bill a proper lesson in the TARDIS, the pair is interrupted by the return of Nardole. Nardole reminds The Doctor about his vow to not leave Earth and The Doctor sets him on leaving and boiling a pot of water. Bill asks to go to the future. On a planet in the future, human colonists are living on a planet where a malfunction occurs with their robots. The robots respond to those who are not smiling with lethal force. The Doctor and Bill arrive on the planet, where Bill is unimpressed by the colony robot workers, but is pretty excited when she sees the interface droids, whose faces communicate with emoji.
While Bill eats a meal provided by the droid interfaces, The Doctor theorizes that the human population has simply not yet arrived on the colony. The pair explores a greenhouse and The Doctor revises his theory, especially after he finds the skeletal remains of the start-up team. The Doctor figures out how to keep the robots from swarming and killing and he and Bill manage to smile their way out of the problem. The Doctor leaves Bill at the TARDIS, committed to blowing up the colony so the eventual colonists will not simply walk into the robots' trap. Bill rejoins the Doctor and they find the original ship, which The Doctor is determined to blow up. Their attempt to rescue future colonists is complicated when Bill discovers a colonist still alive . . . and more in suspended animation inside the trap!
"Smile" is a simple problem episode that writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce seems determined to not give a simple solution to. The Doctor has, for almost his entire run, possessed a sonic screwdriver, a tool that has incredibly nebulous abilities. The thing is, well within the range of prior uses of the sonic screwdriver was the ability to reprogram most robots or simple devices that it encounters. Even in "Smile," the sonic screwdriver is used to keep the interface at bay. The moment that The Doctor identifies the emoji-faced droids walking around as the interface to the killer microbots, the solution of blowing up the colony seems like quite a bit of overkill; The Doctor ought to be able to simply use his sonic screwdriver to disable the emoji interfaces.
Beyond that, "Smile" is a dragged out plot of overkill.
On the plus side, "Smile" makes The Doctor a true joy to watch again. Peter Capaldi is delightful and delighted as The Doctor. He expresses curiosity and compassion and he makes The Doctor feel heroic and impulsive in the best possible way again.
Pearl Mackie continues to grow into the role of Bill. She is curious and funny, but given the chance to explore Bill as curious and shocked. Bill starts to see the joys and consequences of traveling with The Doctor. Mackie plays the range she is given well, with a decent amount of subtlety.
In "Smile," The Doctor vaguely reveals his promise to (presumably) River Song. Something happened on Earth in his past and The Doctor made a promise to not leave Earth. The nature of the specific incident is kept opaque, but the explanation is enough to finally explain how River Song ended up separated from The Doctor. River's journeys through time with Matt Smith's incarnation of The Doctor were non-continuous and out of order. When River popped up in "The Husbands Of River Song" (reviewed here!), it was her first time meeting the Peter Capaldi version of The Doctor and they were beginning a stretch of adventures together. How River and The Doctor became separated so River could end up traveling in time again, this time to her unwitting demise, was something of a mystery. Mystery (potentially) solved: she had The Doctor remain behind as Earth's protector and/or he set her free to explore again with the promise to keep Earth safe.
Ultimately, "Smile" reboots The Doctor, re-energizing him to be the explorer of space and time that most Doctor Who viewers expect him to be. And, for coming out of an unknown conflict, it is a very satisfying return to form.
For other works featuring emergent life forms, please visit my reviews of:
"Emergence" - Star Trek: The Next Generation
"Aftershocks" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Leonard Betts" - The X-Files
For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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