Monday 24 April 2017

Smile.. Your Life Depends On It..!

It was with some trepidation that I approached this episode. Leaving aside the fact the Emoji Robots, shown in the trailer, inspired little confidence, the episode was written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who was responsible for the interminably tiresome In The Forest of the Night. Suffice to say my expectations could not have been much lower.

It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise to find myself immersed in an engaging, entertaining story…

The plot borrows heavily from Ark In Space, with underpinnings of The Happiness Patrol thrown in for good measure, however, it manages to remain original, paying homage rather than simply emulating either story.

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Embarking on her first “proper” trip in the Tardis, Bill’s sense of wonder and curiosity are evident from the start. She chooses the destination (the future), and she and the Doctor land on an Earth colony, which seems to have a curious absence of human beings.

The plot itself is fairly basic; the colony is constructed from minuscule robots, and ‘staffed’ by the Emjoibots, with Emojis serving as a part of human language and culture to survive into the distant future.

The concept of ‘nanobots’ attempting to ensure happiness, as a final state of mind prior to death is a solid enough concept, not dissimilar to the Chula Nanogenes from The Empty Child. They take lives inadvertently, in the learned belief that they are enhancing the human beings, and with no concept of death.

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Much of the first 25 minutes of the episode is spent exploring the surroundings, and is fairly light on plot, however, what it lacks in storyline, it more that makes up for in character development.

Bill is shown to be a compassionate, emotional companion, who is clearly affected by the fate of her home planet, and of the colonists. She is bold, inquisitive, and the chemistry between her and the Twelfth Doctor is becoming more and more evident as the series progresses.

The set design is particularly impressive, and there are some nice cultural references; most notably a subtle David Bowie allusion, in which the Doctor states (to an Emojibot), “I’m happy.. hope you're happy too”. It is all the more pleasing as both Capaldi and writer, Cottrell-Boyce are both fans of Bowie, the latter having written a biopic of The Thin White Duke for Danny Boyle, although the film was ultimately shelved at the behest of Bowie himself.

Unfortunately, the story is let down by a weak “deus ex machina” ending, in which the resolution is a quick wave of the oft overused sonic screwdriver. The concept of “rebooting” the robots isn't inherently bad, however, it would have made a refreshing change to see the Doctor use his ingenuity to resolve this, rather than resorting to the increasingly tiresome use of the screwdriver.

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Nevertheless, weak plot and lazy dénouement aside, Smile is a surprisingly good effort. It’s witty, engaging, funny and emotive, in all the right places. The relationship between Bill and the Doctor is developing nicely, and Pearl Mackie is making a strong, decisive departure from her predecessor, establishing herself as an ordinary, but inquisitive and compassionate human being. She is a much needed breath of fresh air to the show.

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It is also worth noting that Capaldi seems to have softened considerably, although still retains a delightful abrasiveness when needed, not dissimilar to the First Doctor’s persona. He clearly has a better understanding of humans, having spent 70+ years squirreled away in a University, and yet he manages to retain his alien qualities perfectly. The scene in which his two hearts are explained is both logical and entertaining.

Whilst Smile is never likely to achieve cult status, due in no small part to the thin plot and cutesy robots, it is a worthy effort, and a throughly engaging episode. Given much of the story is spent exploring the colony, it could have easily been an exercise in boredom, however, the episode succeeds due to the strong character development, subtle humour and reflections of episodes past.

It is far from perfect, however is certainly worthy of the 7.5/10 I am awarding it. A pleasing story, with solid performances from all, and a cliff-hanger that is both intriguing and suitably bizarre. Well worth a watch!

Sunday 16 April 2017

Guess Who’s Back!

After an absence which seems to have lasted an eternity, Doctor Who is back! And so, dear reader, are my reviews. Regular readers may have noticed that the Christmas episode, “The Return of Mysteriously Tiresome” did not get a review. Frankly, I couldn't be bothered. It was turgid rubbish, not worth of wasting time on! So, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business.

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With Clara now departed for good (we hope!), a new season brings a new companion, in the form of Bill Potts, as portrayed by relative newcomer Pearl Mackie, who wastes little time in establishing her character.

In scenes strongly reminiscent of Shada, the sadly broadcast Tom Baker story, Bill is attending the lectures of a mysterious lecturer at Bristol University. He has occupied a room for many years, replete with Police Box in the corner, lecturing on any subject he so desires. He is, of course, the titular Timelord. He is The Doctor!

Taking a shine to Bill, the Doctor takes her under his wing, offering her private tuition, however it isn’t long until the duo are up to their necks in trouble.


From the outset, Bill is firmly established as a lesbian; the first openly gay companion to travel with the Doctor in his on screen adventures. There have, of course, been gay companions, both in print and in Big Finish audios, and established regular gay characters on screen. However as a travelling companion, this is a first for Doctor Who. And the subject is handled remarkably well. Whilst making it abundantly clear that Bill is gay, it isn't forced, nor is it crass. Moffat has a poor track record of writing LGBT content into his stories (Susan the transgendered horse, anyone?), so Bill’s sexuality is handled with refreshing honesty and realism.

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Whilst the first 25 minutes of the story essentially sets up Bill as the new companion, it is a slow and, at times, rather boring start to the season. Beyond her sexuality and curiosity, we learn surprisingly little about Miss Potts, and even less about the plot of the story. Nevertheless, it seems to work, as Mackie captivates the audience with her debut performance. Her interaction with the Doctor is natural, and their own screen chemistry is evident. Capaldi is, as always, on fine form, and presents a softer, more seasoned Doctor, seemingly more empathetic, less abrasive, and more at ease with human beings. Perhaps the seventy years he has spent lecturing at the University have served him well.

It is a shame that we are starting to see such character development in the Twelfth Doctor now, in his final season. It feels as though his character has much more to offer, and certainly, this viewer will miss Capaldi enormously. He has been an extraordinary Doctor, and beyond the screen, a magnificent ambassador for the show.


Back to the episode. The story centres around a mysterious puddle, which, it transpires has a degree of sentience, and seeks a pilot, which it finds in the delightfully named Heather (Heather, of course being the name of Bill Hartnell’s wife). There is clearly more than a frisson of romance between Bill and Heather, however, again, it is handled carefully and respectfully, without resorting to tokenism or crass innuendo. Unfortunately, the plot is the major let down of the episode. Whilst introducing a new companion is important, doing so at the expense of a storyline is never a good idea. The concept of sentient water (or spaceship “oil”) is a reasonable idea, unlike sentient “eye snot”.

Bill’s reaction to the Tardis is beautifully achieved, with the usual blend of comedic reaction and disbelief, however, flitting around the place, and ultimately, the universe, to escape a puddle is a wasted opportunity. It takes what could have been a reasonable episode, and turns it into self indulgent fanwank. Throwing the Tardis into the Dalek-Movellan war is utterly pointless, and wastes the opportunity to explore that period in history.


There are numerous nods to the past, most, thankfully, much more subtle, such as the photos of Susan and River on the Doctor’s desk, the older sonic screwdrivers, and the explanation for the dimensions of the Tardis, which could have been neatly lifted from Robots of Death. And, just in case you thought you were finally rid of Clara, there’s a nod to her, as the Doctor contemplating removing Bill’s memories of their adventure.


Ultimately, the episode thrives on said fanwank, however, due to stellar performances by Capaldi and Mackie, it manages to remain entertaining and largely enjoyable. It isn’t the strongest season opener, by any standard, neither is it the strongest debut for a new companion, yet it works well enough to leave one wanting to see more of the new pairing. The episode also sets out a season arc, with a mysterious panel, seemingly leading to a door, concealed in the basement of the university. The Doctor is keen to protect it, and to ensure that the newly discovered puddle is focussed on them, rather than gaining access to what lurks inside. It’s a pleasingly subtle introduction to the season arc, and unlike the “Impossible Girl” backstory, invites mystery and intrigue rather than tedium and fatigue.

As far as we know, thus far, Bill is an ordinary earth girl, with no remarkable backstory. She is credible, feisty (God, I hate that word, but in her case, it is apt). She is clearly intelligent, curious, compassionate, and above all, believable. Having endured an increasingly tedious relationship with Miss Oswald, I am looking forward to spending time with Bill, and despite the somewhat tepid plot, I believe this has the potential to be a very good season.

Overall, ranking the episode is difficult. Were it not for Mackie and Capaldi’s performances, it would probably garner 3/10. However, their presence elevates it to a sold 7.5/10. It’s an entertaining, if unfulfilling watch.

Oh. And it has Nardole in it. Hmmm…. I’ll close the review by allowing his expression to surmise my thoughts on that!

The Husbands of River Song