Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Happy Face of The Doctor


When I learned that Doctor Who was going to build an episode around emojis, those small pictures that many Millennials use to communicate emotions, I was aghast.  It's the lowest point on a show that has had too many low points.  A show about emojis?  Is the show now catering to the fanboys who use these via texts?  I was filled with dread.

Smile, the episode built around emojis, defies low expectations.  It doesn't mean that it is good, or that we don't get a quick resolution and some weak moments.  It just means that there is some logic to using emojis.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) offers his newest Companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), a chance to travel on the TARDIS.  It has to be done a bit under the table, as the Doctor's other Companion, Nardole (Matt Lucas), scolds the Doctor for so much as moving the TARDIS even if it's to avoid taking the stairs.  Nardole tells the Doctor he has to stay on Earth, having made a pledge to do so, especially with regards to safeguarding a vault (which appears to be the recurring theme this season...what's behind Door Number One?).

The Doctor pretty much dismisses Nardole's warnings and offers a chance to show Bill some sight either from the past or the future, and she chooses the future.  With a bit of travel, they arrive on the Earth's first colony, patiently awaiting arrivals.  There is already a native population of sorts there, the Vardy, nanorobots who have literally built up the city.  There are also robots who communicate through emojis.  All this thrills Bill, whose tag has a happy face.  The Doctor's tag shows more questioning, but at least it's not a sad face.

There is some sort of glitch in the system among the robots.  They detect sadness as being bad, so bad that they have to kill you if you aren't smiling.  We know this because was saw some of the crew die as a result of showing grief, but to The Doctor and Bill, all they see is a world ready to be occupied by the colonist.

They soon however put two and two together when they discover what happened to the-now literal skeleton crew.  Fearing that there will be a massacre when the colonists arrive, the Doctor and Bill attempt to blow everything up before they arrive.  Bill, however, makes a few discoveries.

One, she finds the corpse of an old woman and a visual journal detailing the chaos they left behind.  Two, she finds a little boy looking for his Mummy. 

That means that the ship bringing colonists isn't coming.  It's already here. 

The Doctor finds that the emojibots, programmed to have happy colonists, didn't understand sadness and took it for disease that had to be exterminated.  As such, when they saw some showing grief, they were promptly killed.  Worse, the crew has started waking up and when they find the bots are murdering them left right and center, they will attempt to wipe them out, unaware that the nanobots are the real danger, not the emojibots.

The Doctor races to stop them from going to war, and he does so by essentially rebooting the emojibots: setting them back to a default status before they knew what grief and sadness were.  With that, trouble avoided and the two travelers can go back in time for tea. 

Unfortunately, they end up in a frozen Thames, with an elephant walking towards them.

I think my issue with Smile is a bit two-fold.  The first part comes from the fact that Smile hits similar themes as a Classic Doctor Who story: the Seventh Doctor story The Happiness Patrol.  Frank Cottrell-Boyce, I don't think, intentionally meant to hit on similar plot points with Smile that were hit on by The Happiness Patrol (people who were killed for not being happy), but in many ways Smile can be called at the least a variation of The Happiness Patrol.

If you want to call Smile a remake, reboot, reimagining, or flat-out rip-off of The Happiness Patrol, that is your business, not mine.

I figure most NuWho fans have never heard, let alone seen, The Happiness Patrol, so they wouldn't think anything was amiss.  Classic Who fans, or at least those with vague or hazy memories of it, might, and that might lead them to look a little askance at Smile.

The second part comes from the quick resolution, one that pretty much would have or perhaps should have come to the Doctor earlier.  It's almost a 'push the magic button' type resolution: all you had to do was reboot the robots and there you go.  It's almost a wonder why the Doctor didn't think of it sooner.

I suppose if he had, there wouldn't have been as much 'tension' as Smile wanted to have.  I didn't feel a great deal of tension for the most part, but when he basically tells us that all that was needed was to restart the system, one almost gasps at both how quick the resolution is and how easy it all was.

This entire 'the colonists are going to war' thing wasn't building up to a great deal.  Perhaps some reworking of Smile might have amped up the tension (such as having the colonists find the skeletons and, becoming enraged, then going off to war, with the Doctor and Bill desperate to stop the chaos).

If it weren't for those two primary elements (and the gruesome nature of the human fertilizer), I think I'd be more inclined to like Smile.  There are good elements, such as both Capaldi and Mackie's performances.  They are working so well together that Lucas can be forgotten (and frankly I wish he were).

Oh, and one last thing.  The name of the colonists' ship, the Erehwon, may be a nod to a novel, but it still spells 'Nowhere' backwards.

Smile did not cater to pop culture trends with the emojibots.  I don't think that in fifty years time we will be able to rewatch Smile without seeing it as slightly dated because of the emojis.  They are ready-made for toys, aren't they?  It wasn't a horror but it could have been more.


Next Episode: Thin Ice

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Gay Companion of The Doctor


It's no secret that Doctor Who has been having a bit of a crisis.  Despite the constant propping up of professional sycophants like The Nerdist's Kyle Anderson, who keep telling its readers that the show is still both brilliant and highly popular, the formerly can't-miss sci-fi show has lost a lot of its luster.  Apart from the Christmas Special that met with mixed reviews and interest, Doctor Who has been on hiatus for a year (and for some, not been missed).   The show also has lost its lead, as star Peter Capaldi will have his final season this year.

With all that, we turn to The Pilot (formerly known as A Star in Her Eye), as pun-worthy a title as any we've seen.  For the uninitiated, The Pilot is what you usually call a premiere episode of a new series.  It's as if showrunner and writer Steven Moffat, held in equal terms as a genius and a monster, wants us to think of this season as a fresh start, as if in effect The Pilot were a whole new beginning for the decade-long plus show.  The Pilot also refers to the thrust of the story: aliens who find someone to 'pilot' them out of Earth.  The Pilot also introduces us to a new Companion: Bill Potts, who is touted as the first openly-gay Companion on Doctor Who (Captain Jack and River Song notwithstanding). 

Now, the question to ask is, "Does The Pilot work to restart the show, or is it a case of false branding?"

Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) serves chips, and is a biracial lesbian (aside: is it me, or does it look like Doctor Who has some sort of list of minorities it feels it has to check off to meet some kind of quota).  She serves chips at the university, where The Doctor (Capaldi) and his other Companion, Nardole (Matt Lucas) have been hiding out (shades of the unfinished Fourth Doctor Shada).  The Doctor is intrigued by Bill (who despite being in her mid to late twenties apparently still lives with her foster mother).  She's not a student but attends his lectures, and her reactions are always different from all the other students.

Taking her under his wings as a mentor, even getting her enrolled at the University, Bill proves a sharp and inquisitive mind.  She also finds herself attracted to Heather (Stephanie Hyman), whom she met at a club and who also goes to the University.  Bill quickly gets involved in the Doctor's mysteries when she follows him and Nardole to where they have a secret vault containing something wicked, and when it comes to Heather, she notices what looks like a star in Heather's eye (which Heather describes as a defect).

Heather appears rather obsessed with a puddle and asks Bill to look at it, asking two questions: how can there be a puddle when there's been no rain, and if there is something wrong with her reflection.  Bill doesn't give that much thought, but does sense that something is off.  Shortly after, Heather is at the puddle again, and she promises Bill that she won't leave.

She does disappear however, and Bill is a bit upset about that.  However, something wicked this way comes in the form of a water-dripping Heather, who now pursues Bill with an almost murderous abandon.  The Doctor, Nardole and Bill first go the vault, fearing that Water-Heather is after whatever is in the vault. 

Nope, it's after Bill, and thus the trio fly on a mad race: first to Australia, then to the very edge of the universe, only to find Water-Heather following them.  Finally, the Doctor takes them (and the pursuing Water-Heather) to a place with fire: the war between the Daleks and the Movellans (a nod to the Fourth Doctor story Destiny of the Daleks).  Heather-Water even takes the form of a Dalek, and this hunt has been to try and get Bill to be the passenger.  Over the Doctor's objections, Bill takes Water-Heather's hands and sees the universe, but tells her she has to let go.  Water-Heather does so, and thus ends the crisis.

Back on Earth, The Doctor wants to erase Bill's memory but she pleads to remember for a week, or at least this night (reminding me of Desdemona's plea to Othello, "kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight).  The Doctor doesn't have it in him to wipe out her memory and tells her to run.  Quickly, however, he offers her a chance to go on the TARDIS.

The Pilot is an improvement over some of the horrors of the past few seasons.  Granted, that's a low bar, but at this point, one should be grateful for getting any positives.  A good part of the credit should go to Mackie, working on her first big project as an actress.

I personally don't care whether Bill's a lesbian, biracial, a biracial lesbian, or a biracial lesbian who lost her virginity to a non-binary transgender and celebrated this by doing cartwheels while singing I've Written a Letter to Daddy.  

Her sexuality isn't a major part of the story, at least to me because I didn't believe that she'd be that heartbroken about losing Heather.  I'm going to put her sadness to seeing a person die, not because she lost someone whom she didn't have an actual romantic relationship with.  I didn't buy that Heather was this big love of Bill's life (at certain points, I don't think Heather even knew who Bill was despite meeting at a club).  Yet I digress.

Mackie's Bill is smart, eager for a change, and genuinely pleasant. Her longing for her birth mom, her lack of honesty with her foster mom (who thinks she's straight), and her ability to put things together quickly are all positives in the characterization.

I can do without the comic stylings of both Nardole and Matt Lucas, who didn't have that much to do here (and whose appearance as a full-on Companion is strange to me).  Why he has become so important to the series is something I can't get behind, and some of his comments are cringe-worthy (such as telling Bill to "give it a minute" before going to use the TARDIS toilet).  I think he could have been written out of The Pilot without it affecting the story.  Capaldi does strong work as the not-as-grumpy but still a bit eccentric Doctor, and he brought a sense of tragedy to his role (even if it involved that awful River Song via photos of her and Susan Foreman, whom I know some NuWho fans have no idea who she is).

There were other elements that I didn't care for.  Moffat still cannot resist throwing in a "Doctor Who?" line, or in this case, "Doctor What?".  That pretty much has grown stale to being cliché in any Moffat-penned script.  While I did enjoy hearing Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart (one of the great songs in my opinion), it's another case of something being too on-the-nose to what is going on.

I suppose there was a logic to having Water-Heather being able to fly about through time and space in pursuit of Bill (though seeing Heather all wet wasn't scary as it was slightly amusing). 

I just wasn't overwhelmed with The Pilot, though if it had been an actual pilot it might have scored higher.  I don't think you can ask Who fans to ignore a lot of what has happened, and I don't know that they would even if they were overtly asked like they were with The Pilot.

Neither a horror nor a masterwork, The Pilot is slightly above average.  Given some of the absolute drivel we've been handed, that in itself is almost a miracle.



Next Episode: Smile