Smile by Frank Cottrell-Boyce
Warning: Minor Spoilers
If the show has one formula it has kept through all 10 seasons, it’s that when we get a new companion, we get a contemporary earth episode introducing them, then 1 historical episode and 1 futuristic episode to develop their relationship with the Doctor and get them used to the time travel concept. Smile gives us a futuristic run-around on a human colony which gave off some serious Black Mirror vibes at times (technology gone wrong etc.).
This episode, on paper, was possibly the one you’d have picked to be this series’ duff entry (every series of Modern Who has had one). There’s two reasons I say this – 1. Emojibots. Not exactly a monster you can take seriously and one that could very easily be mishandled. – 2. It’s written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, writer of Series 8’s weakest entry (In the Forest of the Night) which received a lukewarm response at best (I personally gave it a 3 out of 5, which was probably as positive a rating as it got). Despite these reservations, I’m happy to say the episode, while not a classic, was actually pretty good.
It takes it time building up, as did last week’s opener, but fortunately this again allows us to spend more time with Bill and her growing rapport with the Doctor. Bill seems more inquisitive than most companions – she’s full of questions that aren’t always obvious in a way that feels different from most companions. Her observations/deductions about why the Doctor likes having a police box for a spaceship disguise were nicely played, as was her horror at the massacre of the human colonists and her initial reservation to get involved (again, not a reaction we’ve seen normally from companions). I still think she’s the most believable companion the show’s given us – her reactions seem natural and human in a way we arguably haven’t seen for a long time.
Capaldi gets more to do than last week, as the lack of a guest cast for a good 30 mins of the runtime forces the Doctor to play detective while endeavouring to keep Bill safe. The emoji-bots lacked the menace needed to make this a great episode, but the swarms of nano-bots and the fate of the dead colonists made sure there was some tension simmering in the background (arguably it needed slightly more though). For the second week in a row, Murray Gold’s soundtrack is completely different to previous years – were it not for Twelve’s theme, you’d forget it was the same composer – but this series’ style seemed to have breathed a new lease of life in the music as well as the show itself. The direction maintains the high standard from last week, as the Valencia filming location gives the director some cool architecture to work with as a backdrop.
On a side note, this is as close to an episode of the Classic Series as most you are likely to ever see – the slow build up, straightforward plotline and heroic Doctor getting involved could have been straight out of Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton’s era (minus the decent special effects obviously). However, i’m finding the more straightforward approach refreshing after 5 seasons of complex, action packed episodes and storylines (i’m sure they’re coming later in the season and i’m looking forward to them, but a slow build up is a nice change). On another side note, Moffat likes his quirky monster weaknesses doesn’t he? (‘Keep Smiling’ is basically another ‘Don’t Blink’, ‘Don’t Breathe’ etc.).
There are a few problems: the resolution was all a bit too simple (the Doctor fixing a problem by waving the sonic screwdriver around is never the most satisfying way to end an episode) and the guest cast aren’t the best, but overall this was an entertaining, solid episode of Doctor Who, if not one that you’ll be rushing to re-watch.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Next Time: The series goes Victorian again as the Doctor and Bill hunt a monster living under a frozen River Thames…