Try to keep a smile on your face, dear reader. Frank Cottrell-Boyce‘s previous Doctor Who adventure was the poorly received In the Forest of the Night (2014), a misjudged experiment in pseudo fairy-tale nonsense, one completely out of step with the tone of the Twelfth Doctor’s earlier, darker run of adventures. Smile though is a different kettle of fish from said-author, a traditional sci-fi adventure with proper monsters and mysteries to be solved. But is this alone enough to keep the audience happy?
Taking new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) to a human colony on a distant planet in the far future, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) encounters Emojibots and a robotic menace called the Vardy, microscopic servant drones that seem to have a horrible case of hurt feelings should their efforts fail to make their human masters happy. If they can’t make them happy, they kill ’em. Hence why our heroes must force a smile in order to avoid being stripped of their flesh and turned into compost.
Smile starts out with plenty of promise. Top direction, cinematography and production design help deliver us one of the best looking alien cities seen on the show to date (in actuality a cultural complex located in Valencia, Spain), whilst the character of Bill and her relationship with the Doctor is given time to breathe and develop naturally through some great dialogue as the two time-travellers arrive in the city. Even the visually unimposing Emojibots are made to feel like a credible threat thanks to cracking pre-titles sequence that sends chills down the spine.
It’s only as the episode slowly crawls along that it starts to feel a bit slight. It takes forever for the Doctor and Bill to find themselves in any peril, and the time spent between moments of action or incident take an age. It’s a leisurely paced tale, make no mistake. The idea of having to constantly smile to stay alive is a creepy one, but beyond a couple of small moments, the script never really exploits the idea to it’s full chilling effect.
Like many a so-so episode of Moffat-era Doctor Who, Smile unashamedly repeats recurring themes and tropes – the threat/monster isn’t bad, just a piece of faulty technology failing to understand simple human behaviour (in this instance, misunderstanding the nature of grief). Its starting to become a bit worn-out now, no better highlighted then in a rather dull climax that simply has the Doctor press a reset button on the Emojibots, wiping their memory of their need to serve humans altogether. As conclusions go, there’s little build-up, the human characters being so particularly uninteresting that the audience no doubt cares little whether they live or die.
And that is ultimately the main issue with Smile. It’s bland. It’s unexciting. It plays it safe. Any original ideas it has lose their effectiveness through lack of development. There’s bursts of excitement and intrigue, but ultimately the clever ideas are sidelined in favour of endless corridor scenes and a nest of previously utilised plot points. Beyond the wonderful onscreen chemistry between Capaldi and Mackie and some sweet scenes between their two characters, Smile really feels like Doctor Who on autopilot.
You can wipe that smile off your face now. There’s no need to pretend.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One next Saturday.