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.
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.
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.
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.
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!