Doctor Who Season 10 continues with a rather delightful, creepy adventure that should make everyone feel good about where this season is headed.
Now that we’ve reached Doctor Who Season 10’s second episode, the story can properly begin. After all, season premiere “The Pilot” had to do an awful lot of work last week. It dropped us into an existing story that’s already in progress for the Doctor, introduced new companion Bill Potts, and introduced her to the fact that the universe is just a bit bigger than she previously thought it was. And it was really good at doing all those things. But now the board is set up, so to speak. It’s time to actually play. The second episode is when we get a better idea of what a new Doctor Who season might be headed, both narratively and thematically. And what a “regular” episode might look like, week-to-week.
And so far? Season 10 seems to be doing pretty well. “Smile” is a fantastic second outing for our latest Doctor/Companion duo, complete with an interesting reimagining of an episode format that we’ve seen multiple times before, a genuinely interesting new creature-of-the-week, and an ending which feels more complex and satisfying than many we’ve seen in recent seasons.
"Bill: “Where’s the steering wheel?”The Doctor: “Well you don’t steer the TARDIS. You negotiate with it.”"
A New Adventure Begins
In some ways, a new companion’s second episode is more important than their first. It’s where the fun really starts. This is when the new companion gets to experience a proper time travel adventure for the first time.. And we a lot about the kind of person they are by how they react to discovering who the Doctor is. In short: It’s a big test.
Happily, Bill remains an utter delight. She’s resourceful, curious and utterly practical. (Her question about why the TARDIS seats are so far away from the console was an instant classic.) She clearly loves the idea of adventuring through time and space. She refuses to stay behind just because there’s danger. And watching her puzzle out why the Doctor is the way he is when it comes to rescuing people was lovely. “Advice and assistance obtainable immediately / Officers and cars respond to all calls.” That’s as good a personal motto for his existence as possibly anything else.
And Bill’s reaction to discovering the book of human history was heartbreaking. It’s a lot to take in, for her, after all. Time travel isn’t all just a fun day out where you meet cute robots. Or when you learn that human technology advanced almost terrifyingly far. It also requires you to confront the worst aspects of your own species. And you must deal with the weight of the horrible things that can happen over the course of thousands of years. Bill tells the Doctor that she wants to visit the future because she wants to know if it’s happy. It’s not, of course, not in the way she was probably thinking of. But watching Bill discover the peculiar sadness that often goes hand-in-hand with joy when it comes to time travel was lovely.
"Bill: “If he’s chasing us, he’s moving very slowly.”The Doctor: “Do you know what it means when something chases you very slowly? It means there’s a reason that they don’t have to run.”"
Emoji Robots Are Strangely Compelling
As second episodes go, “Smile” follows a pretty well established pattern. Though the particulars of the story are different, this episode isn’t that far off from other Doctor Who stories that have done the same thing. Think “The Beast Below” (Amy), or “The Rings of Akhaten” (Clara) or “The End of the World” (Rose). The themes are similar. As the new companion finds their feet as a time traveler, they also must figure out how to relate to the strange alien man that they’ve decided to run off with.
Twelve and Bill discover an unpopulated human colony where the caretaker robots who communicate in emoji have murdered all their human charges. Since, for most of the episode, there’s no one else on this planet besides the emoji robots, we get to spend a lot of time with Bill and Twelve on their own. The two work well together — whether it’s puzzling through a problem out loud, or running for their lives. And Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie are clearly more than capable of carrying an episode with few other co-stars.
This week’s story is remarkably strong, particularly given that it was written by the same guy who gave us Season 8’s severely lackluster “In the Forest of the Night”. The emojibots are the perfect combination of creepy and cute, and their evolution from worker drones to overly dedicated caretakers to their own new species serves as a clever narrative out of a previously unsolvable situation. (And everyone ends up better for it, in the end.)
"The Doctor: “Once, long ago, a fisherman caught the magic haddock. The haddock offered the fisherman three wishes in return for his life. The fisherman said, ‘I’d like my son to come home from the war and a hundred pieces of gold.’ The problem is magic haddock, like robots, don’t think like people. The fisherman’s son came home from the war, in a coffin. The king sent a hundred gold pieces in recognition of his heroic death. The fisherman had one wish left. What do you think he wished for? Some people say he should have wished for an infinite series of wishes. But if your city proves anything, it is that granting all your wishes is not a good idea.”"
Language is a Complicated Thing
Predictably, “Smile” deals with many of the subjects of a typical “companion’s second episode”, as we watch Bill attempt to understand the magnitude of time travel and try to figure out what makes the bizarre man she’s decided to travel around with tick. But, to its credit, “Smile” does attempt to wrestle with some meatier issues than a mere monster-of-the-week plot.
That the robots speak only in emoji offers us an interesting contrast between direct communication and nuanced speech. Part of the episode’s main problem is that the robots don’t understand that human emotions are complicated. They read grief as something lesser, simply because it is not happy. They do not understand the idea of degrees, or the possibility that people might be capable of feeling more than one thing simultaneously. And yet the remnants of the human race don’t do much better in their treatment of the robots themselves. (Interestingly, emoji as a communication method can be extremely nuanced. Half the current emoji on your keyboard seem to actually mean something beyond and/or different than the actual picture you’re sending. Something worth pondering, perhaps?)
Though the Doctor and Bill ultimately solve the problem of the murderous emojibots — using the tried and true Steven Moffat era-method of a literal reset button. But the thematic issues raised in “Smile” are interesting ones. For all that the Doctor is a man who saves the universe, he and Bill did just come thisclose to destroying the entire human race because they like to pop around through time and space to look at stuff.
Doctor Who hasn’t been too keen on really examining some of the more problematic elements of its own mythos. (Particularly in recent seasons.) Perhaps this episode will ultimately turn out to be nothing more than a particularly deft piece of writing within the season as a whole. But it could mean that Who is finally coming around a bit on that score. Here’s hoping. The storytelling’s only richer for it.
All in all, “Smile” was a rather delightful Doctor Who. Sure, we have some outstanding questions to deal with. Most notably, we still don’t know what the Doctor must guard in the university basement. (And how he ended up guarding it in the first place.) But that’s a question for next time. After Twelve and Bill get out of the 1800s.