Last week’s Doctor Who series opener was a real breath of fresh air for the show, introducing new companion Pearl Mackie in an easy-going adventure with plenty of fun and comedy. The second episode of the series, penned by returning writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, is very much more of the same. ‘Smile’ is a brisk, simple story that is able to set its story up and resolve it neatly within its 45 minutes, while allowing Peter Capaldi‘s Doctor to bond with Bill a little more. Even with all of the material it has to get through, the film even manages to throw in a few jabs at a world constructed as “a utopia for vacuous teens”. What’s not to like?
We open the episode with Bill critiquing the interior design of the TARDIS, with the seats way too far away from the console. The duo then land on an idyllic, bright planet that is home to an elegant and futuristic human colony. The colonists don’t seem to have arrived yet, leaving a small army of robots who speak in emojis to prepare the planet for the new occupants. Bill and the Doctor are each handed a strange device that makes their mood clear and, eventually, they realise that there’s something very wrong with the preparations for the planet – and the only way to save yourself is to smile.
Modern Doctor Who is often best when it forgets longform storytelling in order to tell a simple ‘monster of the week’ tale. That’s very much the case with ‘Smile’ which, apart from a brief mention of an “oath” the Doctor has made to remain on Earth, is largely untroubled by anything that will impact upon the rest of the series. Cottrell-Boyce instead conjures a story that feels pacy, but also relaxed, as it spends a great deal of time allowing Capaldi and Mackie to banter as they both continue their attempts to work each other out. The slender human cast here leaves plenty of room for the duo to chat and there’s also a huge helping of Doctor detective work, which is always entertaining.
This isn’t as complete an episode as last week’s opener and, to an extent, it falls into the Doctor Who trap of being forced to resolve things a little too quickly when the final act falls into gear. The emoji concept, as well, feels prominent in the early stages but is not fully realised when the action starts and, in many ways, the robots simply become a generic threat once the basics of their concept have been teased out. There was room here for a more involved critique of the kind of Snapchat and selfie culture that is familiar to the show’s younger fanbase, but it didn’t transpire here.
The flaws of ‘Smile’ seem to be a result of its positioning within the series. After the first episode’s easy-going introduction of the new Doctor Who landscape, the second episode often functions as a breather before the heavy stuff starts and that’s certainly something that seems to fit with ‘Smile’. Had this been the eighth or ninth episode of the series, there may have been room for something darker and more complex.
However, ‘Smile’ functions very well as a breezy installment in the new-look Doctor Who that allows the audience to see how Bill copes when presented with classic Who tropes, such as the desire to become attached with the people they meet and, of course, being told to wait by the TARDIS. Like just about every companion before her, Bill doesn’t exactly play by those rules. Her interplay with Capaldi is good-natured, but inquisitive, which suggests that she isn’t going to let some of his more questionable decisions slide. The resolution here might be quite a neat one but, eventually, people will die and it will be interesting to see how the Doctor’s new pal reacts when people can’t be saved.
Next week: It’s a source of classic material for Doctor Who as Bill makes her first journey into the past. Cue fancy frocks, flowery dialogue and, of course, a monster lurking under the frozen Thames.
Doctor Who is airing on Saturday nights on BBC One and is available on BBC iPlayer.
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