Tuesday 25 April 2017

Doctor Who - Smile

“Happiness will prevail!”

That is the motto uttered several times by the titular group in the 1988 Doctor Who story, “The Happiness Patrol”. It is a story set on a future Earth colony where sadness is outlawed, and those caught unhappy are executed. Methods of execution vary but are sometimes via a robot made out of licorice all-sorts.

I was reminded of “The Happiness Patrol” early on while watching the latest Doctor Who episode, “Smile” by Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Truth be told, beyond the mandatory happiness and death-by-robot, the two stories are actually quite different, and I don’t want to sound like I’m accusing the more recent story of copying the earlier one. That said, there is another way in which they are similar: They are both reasonably entertaining, yet flawed, stories.

“Smile” starts out strongly enough. It does a good job of setting the scene, and there is a lot of great interaction between the Doctor and Bill. There are some wonderful visuals and the episode maintains a suitable atmosphere that is a mix of both creepiness and wonder. However, the resolution appears and is gone in the space of mere moments. It’s almost as though the story spends so much effort on the set-up that it forgets it needs to reach a conclusion until its 45-minute duration is almost up, and so just tacks on something last moment. It doesn’t help that, apart from the Doctor and Bill, the characters are one-dimensional and entirely unsympathetic.

“Smile” is Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s second script for Doctor Who. His first was “In the Forest of the Night” from Series 8, an episode that I never got round to reviewing; however, in summary, my opinion of that story is, I didn’t like it. “Smile” is certainly a significant improvement on Cottrell-Boyce’s earlier story. However, its rushed ending leaves me with a sense of disappointment after such a good start.


I can almost forgive the one-dimensional characters in “Smile” given that those characters are in such a small part of it. For the most part, the episode is a “two-hander”, centred on just the Doctor and Bill, and works to develop their relationship. There’s a huge pile to love in the first half hour or so as the two of them explore the colony city. Bill asks questions and the Doctor instructs and lectures in return.

Companions asking the Doctor questions is pretty much a staple of the show, sometimes used to excess. Indeed, “What’s happening, Doctor?” (not necessarily those exact words, but the meaning) is probably the most overused line in the show’s history. As a new companion, Bill, not surprisingly, has a lot of questions, and an episode which spends most of its time on just Bill and the Doctor talking (and asking questions) definitely runs the risk of becoming stale, dull, and something we’ve seen a thousand times before.

But Bill is different. She asks new and engaging questions, as well as ones that are a bit difficult for the Doctor to answer, keeping him on his toes. Why are the seats so far from the console? Why doesn’t the Doctor fix the chameleon circuit (really, he’s had more than enough time)? And how is it he can blow something up and not get into trouble? Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie have a great on-screen chemistry, so even when the questions are ones we’ve heard before, the scenes remain engaging and entertaining.

Indeed, even though the appearance of the colonists was predictable and inevitable, I found myself hoping on initial viewing that the entire story would be just the Doctor and Bill, that they would solve the problem and leave before the colonists ever arrived, with the colonists never knowing that there was ever a problem in the first place (well, apart from the dead advance team, I suppose).

It’s when the colonists do show up that the episode begins to go downhill. We are provided no opportunity to get to know these people even a little and they are completely lacking in the way of personality (we never even learn their names). I said before that I could “almost forgive” their one-dimensionality. However, it’s the fact that these characters are meant to elicit emotional responses from the audience that makes this forgiveness not possible.

The boy’s purpose seems to be to elicit sympathy from the viewing audience—he’s confused, wants to know where his mother is and doesn’t know that she’s dead—but there’s so little substance to his character and his total on-screen time is so small that that sympathy never really develops.

At odds with forming any sympathy is the entirely unsympathetic med-tech who goes immediately for the guns. His actions (and those of his fellow, non-speaking colonists) are actually understandable, but the story goes to great pains to make him thoroughly unlikeable so as to try to make his actions not understandable—to make him out as being unreasonable and completely in the wrong.

(As an aside, the med-tech was expecting to be the first person awake, apart from the advance team, and it makes sense that someone in his position would be first up in order to help others through the process. So why is it that the boy awakens considerably before him?)

Similarly, we are expected to develop sympathy for the Vardy partly through the actions of the med-tech and partly through the revelation that they have become sentient. Yet throughout the episode, all they have done is kill people, and the episode gives us no real opportunity to change our opinion of them before their memories are wiped and we’re supposed to accept that they won’t kill anyone any more (and I’ll get back to the memory wipe shortly).

There seems to be an intent here to create a complex situation where no one is truly the good guy or the bad guy, and there are reasons to be sympathetic and unsympathetic to both the humans and the Vardy. This could be a compelling scenario, yet it all goes by so fast that there is no opportunity for that complexity to play itself out. It just becomes a series of rapid events that the viewers have no real stake in.

It’s a shame because this basic idea has all kinds of potential, but frankly, it needed more time to pull off, which means the earlier parts with the Doctor and Bill, as good as they are, should have been shortened. Alternatively, making the story two parts in length might have worked, though that might have caused it to drag on too long.

The Doctor’s solutions this episode also leave a lot of questions. His decision to blow the colony up seems a bit odd when he makes it (after all, that would leave the colonists nowhere to live when they arrive), but I’m willing to accept it at that moment. However, once he’s in the ship and has had a chance to look at the map, I have to question how he doesn’t notice that the colonists are already there. He supposedly memorizes the map. Surely the large hall full of cryogenic pods is on that map? Therefore, that should be the moment he decides not to blow it up. Yet he apparently remains unaware.

Then in the end, the solution is to... well, just wave the sonic screwdriver and reprogram the Vardy. He wipes their memory of events and removes the part of their programming that requires them to keep the colonists happy. If that’s all that was necessary, it kind of makes one wonder why he didn’t do that earlier instead of trying to blow everything up. But now that he has discovered they are sentient, just how ethical are his actions?

The last episode made a big deal about the Doctor attempting to wipe Bill’s memory, and just a couple episodes earlier, “Hell Bent” did similarly. Now, there’s no denying that this is a very different situation than those other times, and indeed, it can be easily argued that the Doctor has no other choice. If he doesn’t do it, the Vardy will kill everyone. However, my problem lies in the fact that the Doctor’s decision is not questioned in any way. Indeed, Bill—who has every reason to be just a little horrified by his actions, even if she ultimately accepts that they are necessary—treats the moment as the Doctor being brilliant and the greatest ever, even though what can be no more than a few hours ago in her own personal time, the Doctor tried the exact same thing on her. Her response just doesn’t ring true.

I also really don’t like the Doctor’s suggestion that the Vardy charge rent. The Doctor has never negotiated peace between two groups by suggesting one side charge the other side. And considering that the story has repeatedly told us that the Vardy don’t think the way humans do, it’s very hard to believe that they so enthusiastically jump on the idea of making money. Why would they even have a concept of money?

And so what starts out so well ends rather disappointingly. I do enjoy “Smile” as a whole and feel that the good overall outweighs the bad. There are some great visuals and compelling concepts. I really like the idea of “grief as plague”, and the emojibots are both cute and sufficiently creepy. And the interplay between the Doctor and Bill is superb. Unfortunately, most of the good stuff is at the beginning and most of the bad at the end, leaving a significant sense of disappointment when the end credits roll. But that’s okay. I’ll just smile and happiness will prevail!


  1. "Elicit," not "illicit." Verb vs. adjective.

    1. Ack! You're right. I can't believe I missed that. I'll change it. Thanks for pointing it out!