STORY 268: SMILE
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.
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