The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) takes Bill (Pearl Mackie) into humanity’s far future, where an offworld colony has been prepared for an approaching starship full of people. The original landing crew, however, are dead – killed by their own robot servants – and unless the Doctor can work out what disaster occurred, the entire arriving colony will share the same fate.
With its 10th season Doctor Who appears to be undergoing a long-overdue overhaul. Since its return in 2005 the series has progressively buried itself underneath an increasingly labyrinthine mess of long-form story arcs, complex non-linear timelines and weirdly inappropriate romantic sub-texts. For two episodes in a row now all of that additional baggage has been tossed over the side, leaving behind a stripped-back no-nonsense science fiction adventure for a family audience. There is a strong sense of rediscovery to the season thus far, focusing more than ever on simply telling inventive and visually interesting stories that both children and adults will enjoy.
It is the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach; in the case of “Smile”, written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (Millions), it means an episode that would not have felt out of place with Christopher Eccleston in the title role, or Tom Baker, or even the late, great Patrick Troughton. The Doctor and his companion arrive on an alien planet. There is a mystery to solve and a monster to defeat, and plenty of running down corridors and sharing amusing banter along the way. For some long-term viewers of the series that may make “Smile” a mild disappointment. Given the long-running nature of Doctor Who, I think a few tightly focused no-nonsense episodes is precisely what is required; particularly after the series spent all of 2016 off the air bar one underwhelming Christmas special.
Pearl Mackie is excellent as new companion Bill Potts, giving the series yet another small breath of fresh air. Mackie has a great screen presence and a gift for comic timing, and Cottrell-Boyce provides her with plenty of strong material. Bill is shaping up to be the companion who asks the questions the viewer would ask in the same situation. She is a rare character in science fiction television: one who has actually seen and read some science fiction. Her introduction has also freed up Peter Capaldi’s performance. This is his third and final season as the Doctor, and thus far the scripts are finally allowing him to fully extend himself in the role.
The antagonists of this episode are a deliberately cute style of small robot. They communicate with emojis, and police the emotional states of any people that they encounter. If you are happy, they are happy. If you are sad, their electronic faces turn murderous and they hunt you down and have you killed. It is a nicely creepy use of the seemingly prevalent emoji culture, and a solid demonstration that no matter how far in the future you set your story science fiction is ultimately always about the here and now.
Being a contemporary television drama there is still an ongoing story arc lurking underneath the main action. The Doctor has exiled himself to Bristol to guard a mysterious alien vault, and his eccentric assistant-come-butler Nardole (Matt Lucas) presses him to remain on Earth and keep his promise (to whom he has made the promise, we remain unaware). So far it is a nicely intriguing undercurrent, and hopefully when it does reach the forefront of the series it will be dealt with cleanly and without showrunner Steven Moffat’s now-notorious penchant for time-travelling complexity. Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge fan of Moffat’s writing, and one of his stronger defenders in recent years, but to maintain a mainstream audience sometimes a series benefits from taking a direct and streamlined approach to storytelling.
For anyone who grew up with Doctor Who but drifted away over the decades, “Smile” is a pleasant throwback. For any new viewers looking for an enjoyable all-ages science fiction series, it really may be worth giving Doctor Who a look.