DOCTOR WHO continues its soft reboot pattern by sending the Doctor and his companion into the distant future. It’s a pattern that will be well familiar to even the most casual viewers of the recent incarnation of the Time Lord’s adventures, working just as much as an introduction to the series and character as it does in continuing the existing storyline. [NB: Minor spoilers ahead].
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) arrive on a seemingly deserted Earth colony somewhere in the future of human history. They soon discover that the idyllic locale is actually made up of countless tiny robots programmed to keep the populace happy. Yet their definition of happiness differs from humans, and they’ve become a mindless swarm of killing machines instead. Cue the Doctor.
“Smile” is one of the most beautifully shot episodes of DOCTOR WHO to date. From the opening moments, lush wheat fields are contrasted against a crisp sky and and even slicker set of buildings. The architecture and clean vision of things to come adds to the weight of the eeriness, especially when surrounding an empty building with emoji-based interfaces. The emphasis on production design is exacerbated by this being a rare outing that primarily features the Doctor and Bill as the only two faces for the majority of Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s script, allowing Bill to rattle through the exposition required for new viewers.
It’s also an episode that plays it incredibly safe. When other humans arrive, the conflict is minimal, unlike those classic episodes where the Doctor spends all of his energy trying to convince the pudding brains as well as save the day. A deus ex doctor literally flips the switch that solves the problem, and all of that world-building is swept away for an easy solution. It doesn’t always have to be an impossible riddle, but this one barely works for it.
One of the compelling elements this episode emphasises is the notion that the Doctor is guarding some kind of mysterious ‘Vault’ that has made him stay on Earth for at least 70 years to protect. This will undoubtedly drive the series as an overarching narrative. Showrunner Stephen Moffat has chosen to underpin this mystery with a standard pattern of new companion episode, followed by a future episode, and based on the previews, an episode in London’s past. Let’s hope Moffat’s penchant for endings overcomes this familiar plotting.