Series 10 of Doctor Who continues with a story set in the distant future on an eerie human colony planet…where the Doctor and Bill discover an army of homicidal emoji-faced robots!
Wait, come back! It's actually good!
The Quick & Spoiler-Free Verdict
A satisfying episode that makes good use of familiar Doctor Who tropes while strengthening Bill’s character and her relationship with the Doctor. Not groundbreaking, and not without fault, but highly enjoyable.
Those who read my review of “The Pilot” last week will know that it didn’t entirely sell me on Bill as a companion. After “Smile,” however, I can definitely say that I like her. Where she will fall on my ranking of favorite companions remains to be seen, but in my opinion, she is definitely proving her worth as a TARDIS companion at this point. “The Pilot” tried a little too hard to establish her uniqueness. “Smile” takes a more laid-back approach, letting Capaldi and Mackie play to their strengths and develop their chemistry without extraneous characters and plot elements getting in the way. (It helps that Nardole only features in one brief scene, and—bonus—it looks like circumstances will keep him out of the TARDIS for at least most of the next episode as well. Not gonna lie: I’m happy about that.)
As I said last week, it’s a plus that Bill hasn’t met any of the Doctor’s previous selves. Clara’s presence in the TARDIS inevitably led to Twelve constantly being compared with Eleven. The whole of Series 8 revolved around how he differed from his last incarnation. Series 9 succeeded in letting Twelve be Twelve, but Clara’s familiarity with the Doctor often got in the way of her being an effective audience surrogate. Bill only knows Twelve as an eccentric, somewhat crotchety schoolteacher figure. This makes the dynamic between him and her feel fresh, and brings out the best in Capaldi’s portrayal. It’s really a shame that this is his last series, given how long it’s taken him to come into his own as the Doctor.
*ahem* I'm fine. Really.
Other good points about “Smile”—the effects are spectacular, the monsters are creepy, and the story is—for the most part—rewarding. At its heart, this is an old-school Doctor Who episode; essentially a base-under-siege story. Except in this case, there’s nobody in the base to protect from the monsters…or is there? And no, the emoji robots aren’t nearly as stupid as they sound. For one thing, there’s a lot more to them than the name implies; for another, the concept of emojis really isn’t that crucial to the episode. It’s more about emotions. Thus, it avoids getting bogged down in tiresome pop culture references. After “In the Forest of the Night,” the absolute stinker that Frank Cottrell-Boyce contributed to the already-messy Series 8, I was expecting very little from this episode. I came away pleasantly surprised.
The main problem with “Smile” is that it tries to tackle too many themes at the same time, which leads to a messy plot resolution. It starts out being about dystopian emotion control. Then it evolves into an intriguing examination of grief. Then it abruptly shifts gears in the climax and starts dealing with the rights of an emergent alien species instead. Each of these themes gets leapfrogged over so fast that there isn’t time to adequately unpack any of them. And to be honest, if I had been among the people the Doctor attempts to help, I’d have thrown him off the planet and handled the problem in a much more straightforward, if harsh, manner. Then again, I frequently take issue with the Doctor's decisions.
The Final Word
Those issues aren't enough to make this a bad Doctor Who episode, however—and as I said, it soars far above the pathetic “Forest,” which is a relief. In the end, the stellar performances of Capaldi and Mackie outweigh the episode’s shortcomings. Things are definitely looking up for the rest of this season. Doctor Who fans have plenty of reasons to smile.
Which is a good thing, because it appears that not smiling on some planets can be dangerous to your health.