After last week’s series premiere (which you can Rate & Discuss here), it’s big smiles all around – for now, at least – as Bill Potts is officially aboard the TARDIS.
There isn’t a Dalek or killer puddle in sight this time, however, as we’re fast tracked to the edge of the galaxy where a human settlement is said to hold the secret to everlasting happiness. Well, where else would you take your new companion on her maiden voyage?
OK, so it isn’t technically Bill’s maiden voyage, thanks to her quick-stop visits to Australia and the end of the universe (as you do!) last week, but as she points out in the opening moments of Smile, this is her first proper one, so it better be a good’un.
The latest episode picks up directly where The Pilot left off, with Bill bemusing her personal tutor with yet more of the hilariously random questions of which she is already acclaimed. Her unique take on the TARDIS continues to highlight her fresh perspective as she brings light to areas of the Whoniverse you probably never realised you wanted to know the answers to. We also get to learn a bit more about the conditions of the Doctor’s elusive promise, referred to in this episode as his oath, which we suspect will continue to be teased to the point of tears in the episodes to come. You can share your own theories regarding what lies inside the vault in our dedicated discussion, here.
Back to the mystery at hand, though, and the foreboding pre-titles scene wastes no time in establishing the hidden terror of the escalating Emojibots, with swooping crane shots of the surrounding settlement adding a sense of cinematic grandeur to the proceedings. The sequence also features the first and only appearance of one of the episode’s underused guest stars, Mina Anwar as Goodthing, who is robbed of any opportunity to develop her character when she’s the victim of a very sticky situation in the first four minutes. Slightly problematic.
Ralf Little is another example of a character that could’ve been, especially as a teaser video of him inside the TARDIS suggested that his role as Steadfast would be playing a much bigger part in the action. In reality, he never actually gets to set foot inside the police box, which is parked off in the middle of a cornfield for the majority of the story.
After the opening credits have rolled, the bulk of the episode takes place within the confines of the aforementioned human colony (which is missing one vital ingredient), against the real-life backdrop of the City of Arts and Science Museum in Valencia. The simplistic yet stunning location adds a sense of clinical purity to the luxurious landscape, helping to maintain its connotations as the idealistic utopia. But as the story unfolds, it soon becomes evidently clear that this picturesque paradise is far from ideal. Well, this is Doctor Who we’re talking about, isn’t it?
Enter the Doctor and Bill, whose jaunt to the far future quickly becomes a fight to the death (but what else is new?) when they come face to face with this week’s technological terror. The rampant robots are a fundamentally simple premise, but it’s one that still manages to create a sense of ominous fear, especially as throughout the episode you’re never 100% sure where they are or what they’re up to. Let’s just say, you wouldn’t want to bump into one of these guys in a dark alley. Unless, that is, you were smiling…
One of the most interesting aspects of this episode is that it is, for the most part, a two-hander between Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie. As they explore their new surroundings, you keep expecting somebody else to pop up and join the party, but it just doesn’t happen for the first 30 minutes. Thinking about it, this is exactly the sort of story you want from the Doctor and Bill’s first “proper” adventure, as it enables them to get to know each other – and, in turn, us to know Bill – amidst their investigation of a good old fashioned, albeit futuristic, science-fiction mystery. It’s one of those that you really have to pay attention to, but the best science-fiction mysteries usually are.
As a result, expect a lot of talking. In the Forest of the Night writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce returns on top form with plenty of brilliantly executed dialogue, and Bill’s inquisitiveness and infectious enthusiasm is particularly refreshing and fun to behold. While generally slow-paced, that’s not to say that the episode doesn’t have its fair share of drama, too, as we finally discover what’s really going on at the same time as our heroes do (although admittedly, and rightly so, the Doctor is always one step ahead of us all). It just takes a while to get there, is all.
Sit back and enjoy the ride, though, as it’s one of the first times that the show has managed to execute such a simple format alongside a concept that it can comfortably fall back and rely on. With today’s ever growing technological advances, the story is definitely a grower in the sense that, if you’re anything like us, you’ll find your appreciation for it growing the more you think about it post-viewing.
While it probably won’t be one that we revisit as much as others, Lawrence Gough has directed an intriguing insight into the future of our species, and there is something quintessentially Doctor Who about our heroes jump starting a new civilisation and being home before the kettle has boiled. Or at least, Bill thinks they’re going home…