Doctor Who Smile review: “A grief tsunami! It’s a tough one to sell and I’m not buying it”
Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s vision of a future world is gleaming and optimistic but, just like emojis, it’s devoid of real emotional investment, says Patrick Mulkern
★★ I was very kind to Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s first stab at Doctor Who in 2014. I’ve no sense of how In the Forest of the Night went down with TV viewers in general, but I know it was received like a turd in the post by most of the fans and followers of my acquaintance. I had hilarious emails from some well-known names in fandom who thought this was the worst travesty in Who since… well, since the previous one. It bottomed Doctor Who Magazine’s poll that year.
I didn’t mind the episode, which, among other absurdities, saw the entire Earth forested overnight, then abruptly deforested. I forgave because I appreciated the writer’s valiant attempt to weave some poetry into Who, fashioning a fable that paid homage to William Blake – even if, in so doing, plausibility, physics and reason were lobbed out of the window.
I doubt that Cottrell-Boyce hears or heeds his critics. But, with Smile, he seems to have responded by leaping to the other end of the fantasy spectrum. He’s gone all scientific. Instead of a visionary like Blake, he’s consulted the enlightened thinkers of today. I read in DWM that he’s asked real science experts to share their concerns about artificial intelligence and predict where technology and robotics might take the human race and the problems we could bring upon ourselves.
Doctor Who benefits from an occasional injection of hard science. There are only so many “the Moon is an egg” miracles we can swallow. The series has a record of drafting in boffins to stiffen its scientific backbone. In the 1960s, Dr Kit Pedler was hired as an adviser and developed the Cybermen; in the 70s, producer Barry Letts thought it wise to subscribe to the New Scientist, and one of its contributors, Christopher Bidmead, became a lofty script editor of Tom Baker’s final year.
In Smile, Cottrell-Boyce presents a persuasive and optimistic vision of the future and how human beings might set about colonising other planets. As a production, it looks extraordinarily beautiful, from the gleaming surfaces and sweeping arches of the colony base (in reality, the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia) to the endless expanse of crop field where the Tardis lands. So far, so utopian. But, as the Doctor points out, there’s something awry in this new Garden of Eden.
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I completely buy into the idea that if humans ever do make it out into the stars, we’ll have robots doing all the preliminary graft, constructing and seeding new worlds, while the people lie abed in cryogenic suspension. And that one small miscalculation or change in programming could have dire consequences for the colonists, as endured by the aptly named “skeleton crew” who are revived first.
At first glance, the Vardies (which Cottrell-Boyce has named after one of his advisers, robotics specialist Andrew Vardy) look like a harmless murmuration of starlings. These microbots can interlock to form the solid mass of architecture that shelters the colonists. They can also disassemble to dive-bomb a human body and reduce it to bones and fertiliser. One’s faith in nanotechnology dwindles by the second.
The dinky little Emojibots are terribly cute. Great design work. Every kid should have one. They wouldn’t look out of place in Star Wars – or even 1960s Doctor Who. They put me in mind of the Chumblies from Galaxy 4 (1965) and the Quarks from The Dominators (1968) – servile robots that were appealing in their day but very much of the moment. Likewise, playing with emojis is a bright idea, but will they really become a universal language enduring far into the future? Somehow I doubt it. I use emojis liberally but I sense they’re already losing currency and in a few years will look as outdated a form of communication as smoke signals do to us now.
For all its innovation and glistening vistas, Smile also moves at the snail’s pace of some of those aforementioned 1960s Doctor Who serials. It’s plotted like a very long Episode One from the old days, before jump-cutting to the last ten minutes of an Episode Four. Doctor 12 and Bill could just as well be Doctor One William Hartnell and his chirpy companion Vicki arriving on an alien world, blundering about, laboriously, arthritically uncovering the mystery of the week. If it was aspiring to, say, the cold excellence of The Ark in Space (Tom Baker, 1975), it shouldn't have made plain what the threat is right at the start.
This unusual approach could have worked in Smile’s favour, giving us chance to concentrate on the Doctor and Bill, but it's a sparsely populated episode. We need more people. The few humans we do see aren’t on screen long enough to become characters. They’re drips – from the women who wibble and die at the start, to Steadfast, the uninteresting plank who wakes up at the end and is hardly worth Ralf Little showing up for.
Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie remain hugely watchable. Oddly, she’s slightly less vivid as Bill. Despite her colourful clothes and striking outline, which are almost cartoonish, she’s more lightly sketched than she was in The Pilot or will be in Thin Ice next week. Peter Capaldi relishes the tracts of exploration and explanation, but even he looks unconvinced by his big light bulb moment: “Grief! Grief as plague!” he trills. “The Vardies’ job was to maintain happiness… They identified grief as the enemy of happiness and everyone who was experiencing grief as a problem… A grief tsunami.” It’s a tough one to sell and I’m not buying it.
At the close, I’m almost asleep as the “scary handsome genius from space” swishes around, having “pressed the reset button” on the Emojibots and the Vardy. He accords them the status of an “emergent new lifeform” with whom the humans must make friends. It’s a salutary lesson writ large; it’s also a leaden anticlimax.
Fatally, for a tale that toys with emojis, there are few convincing reactions on display. Situations force the cast to go through the motions of emotions. There’s no one to root for and, as a viewer, I make no emotional investment. Smile presents interesting ideas but, as drama, is as bland and insipid as emojis themselves.
So a :–) to end on … Smile plays out with a foothold on the frozen Thames and the next adventure. Don’t be distracted by Peter Capaldi’s shorter haircut as he exits the Tardis. A friendly elephant advances in the fog, trumpeting the fact that Thin Ice will be a cracking episode indeed.