Aired 22 April 2017
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW
Every now and again a foe comes along that seems perfectly suited for a particular incarnation of the Doctor, and pairing robots that kill those around them for not smiling and being happy with the sternness and consternation that pervades the characterization of the Twelfth Doctor certainly seems like a natural choice. Unfortunately, after a solid and more deliberate opening half in which the Doctor and Bill get to know each other and the strange world before them, the intrigue of the Vardy threat simply doesn’t have quite enough weight to successfully carry ‘Smile’ to a balanced and engaging resolution.
Writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce shows no hesitation is putting the focus of the story squarely on the shoulders of Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, and the chemistry the two innately share shines brilliantly throughout. After a strong introduction in ‘The Pilot,’ Bill is further fleshed out as a dynamic and multifaceted character who is keenly aware of the details in her surroundings while managing to process the strange world that being with the Doctor presents her. It is a bit of a shame that ‘Smile’ doesn’t take the time to explore Bill’s reactions to the city after learning the truth about the remnants of humanity struggling to survive in comparison to her unrestrained enthusiasm she showed when first arriving, but Mackie does plenty with the opportunities afforded her to present a very clear foundation of who her character is and will be going forward with plenty of potential for further growth.
After seemingly setting itself up to follow in the stylings of ‘The Happiness Patrol,’ ‘Smile’ follows the general trend of series’ second episodes in which the Doctor and his companion travel to the future in order to bring the new TARDIS pairing into focus within a strange environment. There have been some very strong stories with this format, but the Vardy not inherently being evil and instead simply being described as thinking differently than human beings never allows a sense of true danger or malevolence to ever manifest. The moral ambiguity likely intended by writing the robots as such never quite manifests. Still, the central conceit that the manmade robots function to ensure happiness and satisfaction with the living environment and that they have since grown beyond their parameters to become a sentient race of sorts is a strong one, but the proposed definition of grief being the opposite of happiness that warrants elimination from society is never adequately explained and never really rings true. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the Doctor is able to save both species by explaining each side’s viewpoints to the others after resetting the situation without further accentuating the death count. His solution does perhaps leave the potential for a Vardy-dominated world rife with human resentment since the resolution is somewhat haphazardly rushed, especially if the allegory relating to the colony ship beinh named the Erehwon can be further extended into the future, but any bloodless solution has to be considered a win for the Doctor whom death follows so closely.
As it is, ‘Smile’ is an uneven episode that begins to falter once the story starts looking to the bigger picture. As a character study that further reaffirms Bill as a strong and vigorous presence alongside the Doctor set within a truly engaging and beautiful environment with an interesting mystery at hand, ‘Smile’ has to be deemed a success. However, these strengths also prove to be a detriment to the story as a whole since the relevant human survivors are introduced far too late and the Vardy backstory is far too lacking to provide the needed emotional weight to anchor what ends up being a rushed resolution, no matter how seemingly peaceful it is.