If last week’s review was less than complimentary of the new season of Doctor Who, the second episode has more than reassured me, with a thoroughly good return to form. Smile is a story that could feature any other Doctor in any other season. Bringing new companion Bill to one of Earth’s future colonies, the Doctor notes that the colony is missing one very important feature: the colonists themselves. While the Doctor soon realises that there is a malfunction impacting the nano-bots used to construct the colony, it is not until the very end that he realises that the malfunction has its roots in the most fundamental human desire: the pursuit of happiness.
While far from the most clever story ever written, Smile nevertheless pleasingly tackles a number of contemporary issues. The story features nano-technology on an ambitious scale, with the entire colony structure built from microscopic robots known as the Vardy, and the ‘interface’ for these robots represented in what have been popularly described as the ’emoji robots.’ Bill’s delighted exclamation “They speak emoji!” and the Doctor’s disgusted “Of course they do …” perfectly reflects the interaction of every pre-millennial generation to the current emoji deploying generation! If one ignores the slightly daft name (I can only picture Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy …), and the slight Deus Ex Machina use of microscopic robots, the Vardy are a pleasing adversary to include in a Doctor Who adventure.
At the story’s heart is one of the oldest challenges to face humankind: how one pursues happiness given the inevitability and finality of death. In essence, Smile is another variant on the “Be careful what you wish for” story. The Vardy were programmed with a simple directive: “Make your human masters happy.” They measure this through an emotional tracker (represented through the inevitable emoji badge) that displays a person’s emotions. Prior to the Doctor and Bill arriving, one of the colonists dies of old age, and the Vardy notice the spread of grief, as one grief stricken colonist tells another that their family member has passed away. To the logical robotic mind of the Vardy, this spread of discontent looks exactly the spread of a disease or virus – and so they resolve to treat the grief stricken colonists like any other virus, and wipe them out.
I grant you that there was scope to do a lot more with the story material. When more human colonists arrive, they feel entirely one-dimensional, set up simply as fearful animals reacting aggressively, rather than any of the nuance you get with humanity. One also cannot help but feel that the issue of the Vardy’s self awareness, and the Doctor’s realisation that the robots have themselves become sentient life, is far too rushed for what is a massive current debate on the role and development of Artificial Intelligence. Equally, the Doctor’s solution is lifted straight from the IT Crowd (“Switch it off and on again”) and definitely feels rushed. But one does not end up minding too much, because as light television entertainment, it definitely works!
For the regular series cast, I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying the chemistry between Bill and the Doctor. As with Donna and the Tenth Doctor, the TARDIS is a much better place when you have a companion who is going along for the adventure, and not determined to be the centre of attention (Clara’s absence is very much appreciated!). Peter Capaldi has been a fantastic Doctor, demonstrating that you do not need a young, hyperactive, likeable figure in the role, echoing what Hartnell’s Doctor was like in the 1960s, and doubtless what Colin Baker would have become had he been given the time.
We also see the hands of Steven Moffat at work in this episode, carefully including references to the Vault mentioned in “The Pilot”, and a promise by the Doctor to protect whatever is in the Vault. Knowing Steven Moffat, fans will be feverishly speculating on the Vault’s contents between now and episode 12, and there is a fairly good probability it will be completely different to our guesses!