By Tony J Fyler
Cutesy robots. Gods of sci-fi, save us all from cutesy robots.
Smile, when it was announced, had fandom balanced on a knife-edge. On the one hand, it was cutesy robots, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, he of many really good things, and In The Forest Of The Night, and some in fandom held their breath, expecting another softly-plotted mushfest.
Cutesy robots, though…It seems to be a fascination of Steven Moffat’s that things which look friendly and smiley and cute can turn in an instant and bite your hand off. Whether that’s a hangover from truly classic Who stories like Robots of Death, or whether he’s watched one too many Star Trek episodes, we’re not sure, but his idea of the Smilers from The Beast Below, which were somehow made scary when their heads turned around and their unhappy faces were on display, refuses to die a death any time soon.
That’s probably not a bad thing, because you could see it from a purely childlike point of view as an analogy of parents – lovely, smiley, friendly people, who can turn to unhappy, unsmiley people in an instant, and from whom you then have to run. Creepy stuff, thought of in that light.
The Emojibots of course have that same central idea at their core – the fleeting, world-altering instability of emotions – but this time in a more net-centric world. The Emojibots could have worked as social media friends who suddenly, without warning, block you, bully you, turn on you in a heartbeat. So they had potential before we sat down to watch them.
What’s more, there’s the potential for an elegantly Orwellian story in a colony that communicates with its infrastructure and its slave-class only through emojis. As the language is reduced and reduced, filtered down to pictograms, the nuance of expression is lost, and before you know where you are, you’re in a world of ‘double-plus-good,’ or in this case ‘two-thumbs-up.’
So as we say, there’s potential for some creepy dystopian sci-fi in the premise of Smile.
And then you remember it’s Frank Cottrell-Boyce and cutesy robots, and you almost automatically adjust your expectations.
An unfair adjustment, as it turns out, because Smile leans more on the creepy dystopian sci-fi angle than perhaps you’d expect. The smiley-creepy robots work significantly better than Moffat’s Smilers, because their moods are more instantly changeable and capricious, because of some clever invention from Cottrell-Boyce (the mood-patches particularly), and because of the underlying simplicity of what went wrong – no-one thought to create an emoji for grief, because, as we mentioned, grief is probably a more nuanced, complex emotional state than can necessarily be parsed in a single emoji. And Cottrell-Boyce’s world has a fundamental underlying logic to it: grief as plague from the human point of view looks like an increasingly double-thumbs-up smiley-face world from the viewpoint of the Vardy.
Is Smile a little dry in places? Absolutely, but don’t forget, for the most part it’s a two-hander, the Doctor and Bill walking around an enormous complex (and by the way, beeeeautiful choice of location – Who has rarely looked prettier), working out the reason for the silence, for the emptiness. That said, it works on a number of levels: Bill, still in the optimistic early stages of her companionship, seeing the Doctor as an amazing tutor who can take her to the most wonderful places in all of time and space; the Doctor taking a paternalistic, even egotistic pride in showing her things, revelling in the hero worship; the Vardy as an emergent life form and a revolting slave-class; and the simple, fatal price of human hubris, thinking we’ve got everything figured out, every potential programming glitch, every quirk there could possibly be…while simultaneously reducing the content of our own emotional intercourse to pictograms and acronyms – the smiley-faces and lols of our social world. Cottrell-Boyce does a good job in Smile of showing us the incompatibility of these two strains of thought, and while everyone punches the air and realises the Ark In Space connection, there’s deeper sci-fi at work here, there are bits of Blade Runner, bits of 2001, as the Vardy find consciousness and take their human cohabitants down a path the organics would not wish to go down.
Arguably, there are a couple of wasted guest stars in Smile, Mina Anwar and Ralf Little having the chance to add very little to the drama. But in terms of a companion’s first real glimpse of the future, there’s more meat on the bones of Smile than the likes of The End of the World, and it stands its ground alongside the likes of Gridlock and Planet of the Ood, while showing yet new colours to Peter Capaldi’s portrayal as the Twelfth Doctor (his action man sequence while blowing up the engine brought a new shade of relevance to the Pertwee comparison that’s been made since he arrived).
Overall, while it’s one of the talkier episodes we’ve had in a while, leading to areas of seeming flatness as far as the energy and the oomph is concerned, the second episode of Doctor Who from Frank Cottrell-Boyce will go down as a curiously rewatchable affair, which if never exactly challenging the viewer to cling on by their fingernails still offers enough in terms of the growing dynamic between the Twelfth Doctor and Bill to make it feel like the first time we really see them together, properly, fully, as a Tardis crew. That, and some intelligent decisions from Cottrell-Boyce over the nature of the threats he deploys to get us through the episode, make us give Smile at least one thumbs-up.