Something to Smile About

Review of Smile
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

[Note: It should be "Something to smiley About," but my site doesn't cope well with emoji. Clearly.]

For Bill's first "proper" trip in the TARDIS, she chooses to go to the future, "to see if it's happy." I would have chosen similarly myself (though my reasoning would've been more along the lines of, "to see how long it takes for things to become relatively 'happy' again"), and it's always a pleasure to see another writer's vision of how human history will progress.

This is one of those visions in which the future is smooth and shiny, things neatly ordered and designed to be aesthetically pleasing. Of course, even when everything is shiny on the surface (as it certainly is in "one of Earth's [carefully unnamed] first colonies"), nothing is ever completely happy. Similarly, although there is plenty to love about Smile, there are a few problems, too.

At first glance, the episode is full of lovely things. There's Bill's refreshing perspective, seeing the Doctor and his way of life through unjaundiced eyes. There's the Doctor being a bit on the naughty side, shirking a duty of unknown-to-us magnitude. There's the perfect amount of Nardole (read: hardly any). There's Bill's glorious joy in all the weird ("You're an awesome tutor"). There's the fact that the advance team appears to have been primarily (if not exclusively) of Asian Indian descent (we don't see our first white-person-who-isn't-the-Doctor until more than 2/3 of the way through the episode). There's Bill calling out the possibility of "food sexism" still existing ("Is this bloke utopia?"), and then immediately wondering—upon learning the Doctor has two hearts (why would they read him as two people but put both portions on one plate?)—if he has really high blood pressure. Then there's Bill. And more Bill...

The story isn't bad, either. As a slightly different take on the old standby "robots go berserk" theme, it adds just enough new flavor not to feel like a complete retread. Similarly to The Pilot, though, there are plenty of callbacks to previous stories, if one looks for them. For example, the Vardy, tiny robots that act in a swarm, seem very like the nanogenes from The Doctor Dances, while the emojibots are more akin to the Vox robots from The Robots of Death. We get all the usual beats, and the story itself is thus relatively pedestrian and unsurprising.

There are, of course, a few less-than-stellar moments. It always bothers me when the Doctor comes across as judgmental of difference (since his broad acceptance of all kinds of beings is, to me, one of his defining characteristics), and there was one line he had that really sat wrong with me. In describing the technology of the colony, with its face-bearing badges and interface robots, he summarized the place with, "Emojis. Wearable communication. We're in a utopia of vacuous teens." That kind of comment—dismissive of an entire group of people based solely on when they were born—seems so very un-Doctor-ish that it made me squirm. It took me a moment to get back into the flow of the narrative.

Another facet of the story that made my teeth itch was actually the eponymous conceit: in order to survive, everyone had to smile, whether they wanted to or not (unless you're a kid; I guess you get an extra minute or two, then). Women (at least in the US, and I can't imagine it's too different in the UK) get told by random strangers that they should smile, no matter their mental state or what may be occupying their attention at the time.

Worse, there are real-life instances in which a woman has to smile because her life depends on it. If she doesn't please her abuser, make her boss think she's behind him 100%, or a plethora of other situations, her life or livelihood could be taken from her. Adding the science fictional context doesn't remove the sting of recognition.

When Bill became the instigator, then, exhorting the little boy to "Smile, smile, smile, smile!" my stomach knotted a bit. Maybe she's just not very good with kids, but I felt certain Bill could have thought of something more to say to help him understand, rather than just shoving that same nonsensical command at him. He's alone, afraid, and clever enough to know the grown-ups are keeping something from him; why would he smile? It was too easy to put myself in his shoes; I would've kept crying, too.

Speaking of the kid, how did they manage to lose track of him so thoroughly? One minute the Doctor's face-to-face with him, the next the Doctor and Bill are waltzing through stacks of cryo-pods while the kid wanders through the city alone. WTF? And no one remembers him until after a bunch of colonists are awake and packing heat? That part was pretty sloppy.

None of that is to say that I didn't enjoy the episode. On the contrary, the Vardy would've walked right past me. I can't say for sure whether I'm simply still in a honeymoon period because it's been so long since we last had a regular season on our screens, if Twelve and Bill are truly shaping up to vie for the title of my favorite TARDIS team (shhh! Nardole doesn't count), or something in between, but so far this series is really working for me. And that's something to smiley about.







I enjoyed the pacing and story of this episode far more than Pilot. Much better than all the times that bombs were defused and enemies stopped through the magical "power of love" that the show seems to love using when they've written themselves into a corner. I got hints of "The Beast Below" as well as the Nanogenes from "The Doctor Dances/The Empty Child" - but it wasn't bad enough to distract me and stop be from enjoying this episode.

Morality lessons about civil rights through the use of AI/Robots is one of the few Sci Fi tropes that is still Very relevant - it could use *more* exploration than what we've seen from the genre.

By Matt Bova (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

No magical power of love, but there was a Big Red Reset Button! Not exactly trope-free. ;)

Glad you enjoyed it, though. It's more fun for me when my friends and I agree. Ha!

By mrfranklin

Why the Nardole hate? What little screen time he's had I've immensely enjoyed.

By Travis (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I can't really put my finger on it, but I've been a not-fan of Nardole since he first appeared a year and a half ago in The Husbands of River Song. I'll have to pay closer attention to that one next time I re-watch it, to see if I can figure out what rubbed me wrong.

I think if I'd only seen him in these two episodes—maybe even just starting with The Return of Doctor Mysterio—I wouldn't have any objections. But there's a lingering distaste from my first introduction to him that colors everything else.

I'll try to keep an open mind for the future. ;)

By mrfranklin

If The Doctor took me for a ride in his TARDIS and asked me where and when I wanted to go, I would not choose the future. I'd start with seeing the Great Pyramids when they were shiny and new and follow it up with a trip to the Cretaceous to see real, live dinosaurs.

Maybe the future next. Or maybe not. There are plenty of places, times and events in the past I'd like to check out.

I also like Nardole. I haven't rewatched The Husbands of River Song since it was broadcast but I don't remember him as being unpleasant or off putting. I thought he was rather droll.

I've read enough stories about nanobots that the Vardy didn't seem like a new concept and I wasn't immediately reminded of The Doctor Dances. The emoji robots were cute but they looked so clumsy that they didn't seem very useful. Why have them at all if the nanobots were so versatile. If they could become a city, why not become a humanoid robot when necessary and then go back to being a wall when the job was done? Similarly, The Doctor assumed there was a spaceship at the heart of the city. But couldn't the space ship have been made of the nanobots and been disassembled to form the city? That would have been my supposition.

If the nanobots only killed you when you were inside the city (and they didn't chase The Doctor and Bill once they left the city though we saw them doing farming tasks in the fields before The Doctor arrived) why didn't the colonists run out into the fields when the nanobots attacked them? Did their grief make them stupid?

I could go on picking nits (why did the grinders grind up all the bones except the skulls) but that would be pointless. It was an engaging enough episode. It was certainly better than most of the episodes in Capaldi's first season. Looking forward to more.

By Kara S (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

There are certainly plenty of places (both in space and time) I'd want to go, if given free rein in the TARDIS, but right now I'm feeling so unsettled, I'd just want to know more about the relatively immediate future *first*.

I really don't know what it is about Nardole that has rubbed me the wrong way. He's been fine here in Series Ten; there was just something from my first impression that has carried over. I'm trying to let that go and take him as he is. ;)

Pretty much any Doctor Who story is easy to pick apart if you think about it long enough. :) For now, I'm enjoying S10—then again, I'm a big Capaldi fan, so I'm pretty forgiving of anything with him in it!

By mrfranklin

I'm enjoying the season so far but I'm not that happy with the pacing of the episodes. The time to resolution from the time the problem is understood or the 'enemy' is identified is far too fast for my taste. It really makes me miss the old pre-haitus standard four and six part episodes where not only did it take more than an hour to figure out and solve the problem or defeat an enemy but that was stretched across a month or even more where there was time to think about what was developing.

By Matt Cohen (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

That pacing issue is endemic to all post-Hiatus stories, in my opinion. While I don't necessarily disagree with your assessment, I don't think the episodes in this series are any more egregious in their rushed pacing than those of any other season since 2005. ~shrug~

That said, I wouldn't mind a return to the pre-Hiatus serial format. I just know it will never happen. :)

By mrfranklin

Perhaps you are correct but this season seems even worse to me so far in that respect.

By Matt Cohen (not verified)
mrfranklin's picture

I'll have to think on that more, and keep it in mind when I watch again.

By mrfranklin
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