Like the Emojibots, 'Smile' has motility problems – but Bill (Pearl Mackie) keeps shining.
If I was watching this episode of Doctor Who as one of the emoji-obsessed colony that appears in ‘Smile’, my face would have depicted a solid 🙂 – which ‘Emojipedia’ (yes, that is a thing) defines as a ‘slightly smiling face’. So my survival would be pretty touch-and-go.
Episode 2s often prove a challenge for Doctor Who, especially those that directly follow the arrival of a new companion. We’ve had some corkers (‘The End of the World’) and some stinkers (‘The Rings of Akhaten’); so how does ‘Smile’ fair? Well, it’s nor terrible nor brilliant, middling somewhere between the aforementioned Ep 2s. It’s a very different tone to last week’s acclaimed opener, ‘The Pilot’. Where that could be criticised for over-cramming with a largely unnecessary gander across the universe, ‘Smile’ is guilty of the opposite. The first half-an-hour moves tediously slowly, and the most interesting plot point comes into fruition in the last five minutes.
Where they boast different weaknesses, the episodes are linked by their strengths, largely in the form of the blossoming relationship between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie). Despite the odd try-hard line, Bill remains the most three-dimensional Who companion of Steven Moffat’s era. She’s constantly learning and challenging her teacher, finally endearing us to the usually grumpy and frustratingly inconsistent Twelfth Doctor. She brings out a softness in the cantankerous Time Lord that finally makes him likeable – a key trait for a protagonist.
The Emojibots – a laughable concept – aren’t as bad as you’d expect. The science behind them is cleverly constructed, especially given that writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s previous episode ‘In the Forest of the Night’ has a painfully impossible concept at its core. The robots face motility problems, moving no faster than a waddle, which makes their presence as the only serious threat of the episode troubled. In consequence of this low threat rate, the Doctor and Bill spend the first half of the episode running around not doing very much apart, bar making the occasional incorrect assumption.
The real conflict ramps up when the colonists finally wake up and do the traditional human thing of freaking out and doing very stupid things. In the final five minutes, the Doctor decides the Emojibots are the real colonists of the planet, with the humans that once enslaved them now their guests. While this sets up some interesting moral questions, the Doctor and Bill instead abandon them for elephants on the frozen Thames (more on that next week). It leaves you almost vying for a return to the Cottrell-Boyce colony – well, almost.
Ultimately, Frank Cottrell-Boyce fails to learn from most of what made ‘In the Forest of the Night’ amongst the worst Doctor Who episodes in existence. Though ‘Smile’ is a very different adventure, both episodes somehow manage to be boring, despite having apocalyptic themes at their core. A glimpse of the fall of Earth seems to hint to an apocalyptic near-future for Bill’s time, which, as well as being frighteningly real in the Trump era, seems to nod at what’s come in the rest of Series 10.
‘Smile’ does its job as Episode 2, keeping to a relatively low stakes tone as not to overshadow the Doctor and Bill’s blossoming relationship. Next week: the Doctor and Bill visit the Thames frost fairs of Regency England, with a far darker threat looming beneath the ice of the river…
Doctor Who continues next Saturday. Check out our series guide for what’s still to come.