Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote one of the weakest episodes in the Who canon, which first aired back in October 2014. I am of course referring to In the Forest of the Night which was more of a homage to the William Blake poem The Tyger, and eco-politics, than an actual adventurous episode of Doctor Who. I found that episode lacking in pace, as well as plot cohesion. Thankfully, its fate isn't shared by Smile.
Primarily an action adventure, this episode wears its influences from Moffat's earlier work - The Beast Below and Tom MacRae's The Girl Who Waited - on its sleeve. We see human civilisation once again fleeing the destruction of Earth. And killing, though not 'a kindness', is done to eradicate anything other than perfect happiness - as determined by a smiley detector. But Smile also nods to many a sci-fi trope running through film and televisual drama, dating back to the 1970's: programmes such as Space 1999 (with its 'Moonbase Alpha' ) and films like Solyent Green. In the latter, famously, the dead were recycled as nutrients for the living: "Solyent Green is people". Thankfully though, Cottrell Boyce shies away from re-creating such a fate for his unfortunate colonists; blue jello nutrient cubes made from reconditioned algae. But, touching on eco-horror as a trope (as Cottrell Boyce also did in In the Forest of the Night) endless fields of wheat, cultivated and managed by swarms of tiny robots are, unmistakably, a negative comment on GM foods.
As much Sci-Fi before it, this episode pitches man against machine on an alien colony, far, far away. And, as in much Sci-Fi, humanity is found wanting.
The Doctor is the only one to realise the robotic Vardy have achieved consciousness (I assume theirs is a hive mind) and thus deserve the respect (and land rent!) offered to sentient races. In contrast humanity glares at them down the barrel of a gun, man stereotypically portrayed as warlike and possibly oppressive. Most obviously this can be seen when Bill finds a filmic record, detailing humanities recent fate, in which all the footage is of endless war and bloodshed. This 'text' (disappointingly the props department simply housing a tablet within a jewel-encrusted book) carried to the stars, lacking the majesty of Voyager's Interstellar Mission.
Launched by NASA at the end of the 1970's, Voyager set forth to explore the solar system - and beyond. Voyager's 'Golden Records' carried on the spacecraft are a time-capsule, carrying humanities greetings, nature's sounds, music and images from Earth into space.
Whilst the first clutch of images do tell of man's historic achievements (parietal art, the pyramids etc.) there is nothing uplifting or positive as regards man's later achievement in the footage which follows. Watching the historic record Bill goes from wide-eyed to grief-stricken and shocked, Pearl Mackie emoting beautifully across that gamut as she tries to pin the Doctor down on what happened to the human race. The existence of this emigrating band of humans (terraforming and colonising this planet with the help of their A.I. slave-race the Vardy) links back to the final episodes in David Tennant's second series, to Utopia, which re-introduced the Master as the Doctor's long-time nemesis. That episode also marked the start of the plot-arc prophecised by Carmen, in the previous Christmas Special, Planet of the Dead:
"Your song is ending sir... It is returning. It is returning through the dark and then Doctor, oh, but then... He will knock four times."
This ultimately predicted the Doctor's regeneration, which Davies and Ten/nant framed as being akin to a death - of personality and ego - a death of the Tenth Doctor, who didn't want to leave. Given we know Peter Capaldi will be leaving the TARDIS at the end of this series, I assume this slight nod back to the end of Series three isn't incidental.
And what of the Vardy, the new or indigenous robotic race?
Rebooted by the Doctor - their malevolent misunderstanding described as a virus now wiped from their programming - the Vardy are rendered innocent, or childlike. This impression is reinforced by the appearance of the one innocent amongst the human settlers: a young boy who appears seemingly out of nowhere, comedically asking "are we there yet?". He is notably clad in white, like the robot-interfaces, (white in Western culture and art denoting innocence, purity and goodness) whilst the adult human settlers wear black, grey and denim blue. If not for the fact that the Doctor is similarly garbed I'd say the costume department were making subtextual nods along a colour chart. But, I am probably reaching. That said, Bill wanders through time, space and these two episodes, wearing a rainbow-stripped top which has to be a subtextual statement.
The tragedy befallen the child is symbolic, he is but one of a possible number of colonists children who may have lost their parents. More so, he can be seen as a personification of children separated or bereaved in current global conflicts on this planet. Unknowingly he questions his mother's killers, asking the robot interfaces if they know where she is. We (the audience) know that the Vardy killed her, and that the Doctor both found her holo-locket lying in the hydroponics garden where she fell. And, it's implied, the Doctor 'read' the horrific events which occurred prior to his arrival via psychometry (as in The Rings of Akhaten) whilst cradling her skull.
Two thirds of the way through the episode, amid gunfire and death, the Doctor detaches the 'head' of a robotic interface and reboots the Vardy. A white blinding flash follows. Given that all the humans present are rendered unconscious following this, and that the young bereaved boy wakes to sit tamely at a table being served a drink, I did wonder if the Doctor hadn't also wired some Gallifreyan device into that interface, and mind-wiped the child too. Wrapping up, the plot utterly ignores his loss, hand-waving his grief aside. Shock would be a possible reading for the child's behaviour, but that awkward side-stepping of repercussions emphatically proves this episode - and possibly the entire series - is firmly aimed at younger viewers. In fact if Smile were a novel (in reference to Cottrell Boyce's work as an author) I'd say it was firmly aimed at 8-12 year olds, unlike the last series of Doctor Who which could happily have sat nestled among books for YA readers.
As a companion Bill stands as intrepid guide to the Whoniverse, rather than intrepid explorer. For all that she nibbles and then eats her cube of blue jelly (the Doctor leaving his untouched) and takes multiple photos on her smartphone, Bill seems quickly sanguine about travelling the universe, her initial delight and exuberance (i.e. when she finds rosemary growing in the hydroponics garden, "I'm smelling home, twenty-thousand light years from home") blunted by the impending catastrophe the Doctor is struggling to avoid. I found her curious and enthused (about the planet she had travelled to) but far more so about the man she's travelling with. If the Doctor is investigating the fate of the missing colonists, Bill Potts is investigating the Doctor. As she ponders and questions, we're reminded of moments from the last two series. We're reminded that Missy gave Clara Oswald a phone number, ostensibly for an IT helpline. We’re reminded the Doctor is an alien, with not one but two hearts. And, we're reminded that the TARDIS, with its broken chameleon circuit, is stuck as Police Box for a reason. Back in the early 1960's (when the show was devised, and first aired) this would have been clever camouflage, the TARDIS just one amongst many such a box on an English street. Now, the focus is obviously on the message this box imparts, with the St. John Ambulance logo on the TARDIS double doors. Smile, rather ingeniously, threads catch-up crib notes on the show’s history between moments of impending disaster.
Filmed on location in Valencia Spain, at the City of Arts and Sciences (designed by the Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava) Smile benefits greatly from the location, the complex seen being suitably elegant, minimalist, and stereotypically futuristic. Props-wise, I did wonder if the plethora of skulls which tumble out of the greenhouse feed bins were those cast for Hell Bent in the last series. I also wondered if the sum of the props department was contained in the colonists spaceship hold, the way it once made up exhibits in the space museum Clara Oswald wandered through, in the prequal minisode He said, She said.
Acting wise, Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie are all charm, banter, repartee and rhythm in this episode. And, I can see shades of Donna Noble in Bill's character. Donna challenged her Doctor almost from the first moment they met up again (in the Series Four opening Episode Partners in Crime) following her near sacrifice to a giant alien spider in the Christmas Special The Runaway Bride ). Similarly, Bill - with one adventure and a brush with a life-threatening alien under her belt - is already acting as if she's been a companion for some time. Despite the Doctor trying to keep her safe, in the TARDIS, (whilst he does a u-turn and hurtles back through the fields, to the colony habitat, to try and reverse his actions and his mistaken decision) Bill follows him. It is the role of the companion to follow the Doctor, into adventure, into danger, but above all to a greater understanding of themselves and the universe. And, that self-understanding? It's a metaphor on growing up, on facing life in all its complexities.
Apeing Moffat's use of a Grimm fairy tale in Heaven Sent, here Cottrell Boyce also refers to a fairy tale - that of the Fisherman's wife. The Doctor mis-remembers the tale and recounts it as that of a magic haddock offering a fisherman three wishes.
"Once, long ago, a fisherman caught a magic haddock. The haddock offered him three wishes in return for its life. The fisherman said, "I’d like for my son to come home from the war. And a hundred pieces of gold." The problem is, the magic haddock, like robots, don’t think like people. The fisherman’s son came home from the war, in a coffin. And the king sent a hundred gold pieces in recognition of his heroic death. The fisherman had one wish left. What do you think he wished for? Some people say he should have wished for an infinite series of wishes, but if your city proves anything, it is that granting all your wishes is not a good idea."
The tale, as told, is a warning given the inexactitude of wishes. Much like prophecies, wishes seem always open to interpretation, and someone cannot out run their fate. Yet the tale of The Fisherman's Wife is about avarice and not taking things for granted. At the top of the episode Nardole knocks on the TARDIS's double doors, and then sticks his head around the door to condescendingly ask why the Doctor and the TARDIS aren't in the office, reminding him he's made a vow not to leave the planet - unless there's an emergency. Bill wrongly believes his warning is enough to curtail the Doctor's plans and wanderlust
"So, back up to you office for a cuppa then?"
- until surprised:
"Between here and my office is everything that ever happened, or ever will. Make your choice."
It is strongly implied this adventure and the next (the tag leading us directly to 1814 and "Thin Ice") could take place in the time it takes Nardole to get back to the Doctor's office and boil the kettle. There's even the implication most of this series could be interlinked in such a way, taking place while a pot of tea steeps. More importantly, Bill's query as to what would happen if the Doctor ..."got lost, or stuck, or something" off world, (and so couldn't get back to the vault he is supposed to be guarding) is obviously Chekov's gun firing at the start of what is Act I for this series. The tale of the magic haddock? I'd say it prophesises the cost the Doctor will have to pay for his hubris, this series.
Before heading off on adventure the Doctor warns Bill (and in so doing reminds the audience) that the TARDIS takes you where you need to be, rather than where you might want to be. Thus Bill is only partially correct in believing the Doctor acts alone as the universe's help line, or policeman; the thief and his TARDIS running away, righting wrongs along the way. It will be interesting to see if the TARDIS plays a more central role this series, and how Nardole may go from being a 'third wheel' to one of a team of three.