Doctor Who review: Bill and the Timelord must grin and bear it in Smile

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This is a post-UK broadcast review of Doctor Who: Smile. River Song always warned the Doctor against spoilers, so be sure to watch the episode first. Doctor Who broadcasts on Saturdays at 7:20pm UK time on BBC One, and 9pm EDT on BBC America.

Emojis aren’t only the future of language for us doomed Earthlings, but we’re also the only poor saps throughout the universe who use them. This is one of many things that the Doctor’s ace new companion Bill Potts learns from her intergalactic tutor in Smile, the second installment of series 10 of Doctor Who.

While Nardole (Matt Lucas) is left back at base grumpily guarding the mysterious vault in the bowels of the university and making a brew (NB: for our American readers, that’s a cup of tea), Bill (Pearl Mackie) tells the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) that she wants to travel to the future. “Why?” he asks. “I wanna see if it’s happy,” she says.

Emojibot serves up a delicious dish of blue algae. Yum!

Enlarge / Emojibot serves up a delicious dish of blue algae. Yum!
Simon Ridgway/BBC

But as fertilizer made from human bones rains down on a seemingly tranquil garden, it becomes clear to the spirited pair that if you’re unhappy, you die.

Before we get to that, though, there’s some lovely interplay and japes between Bill and the Doctor. The almost rhythmic dialogue in the script for Smile, written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who penned In the Forest of the Night for series 8 of the sci-fi drama, helps the viewer become better acquainted with Bill, following Mackie’s terrific character debut—if not storyline—in The Pilot, this season’s opening episode of Doctor Who.

It would seem we may also have a running running joke (geddit?) throughout this series, with Bill reprising the “penguin with his arse on fire” line as, from the safety of the TARDIS, she watches the Doctor run toward danger. It doesn’t take her long to follow his path, nonchalantly asking him why he has a Scottish accent. “I’m not Scottish, I’m angry,” the Doctor says, before he topically japes that people from Scotland are “all over the place, demanding independence on every planet they land on.”

Perhaps the comedy in this episode is deliberate, after all it is called Smile. It certainly has plenty of laugh or cry die moments. But the action is at times a bit flat, relying far too heavily on exposition to propel the plot forward. It’s an intriguing yarn, but beyond the bright, beautiful Valencia setting (the Spanish city’s stunning Arts and Science Museum was used as the main location for the second installment in this series), the whole thing could easily be transplanted to radio.

During a scene that does work visually, Bill reluctantly snacks on a blue cube of algae that she says smells a bit fishy. The Doctor responds: “I met an emperor made of algae once. He fancied me.”

Hardy Vardies face factory setting of doom

It slowly dawns on the pair that the city isn’t quite the garden of Eden envisaged by the final humans left in the universe, who had hoped to colonize it after sending the Vardies, their emojibots, and then a setup team to the planet first.

“There’s a giant smiley abattoir over there, and I’m having this childish impulse to blow it up,” the Doctor tells Bill, before they both return to the passive-aggressive emoji droids. But the second part of Smile struggles somewhat. We learn that the Vardies are the walls of the city and the original spaceship that brought them here is sunk into the middle of the colony. Cryogenically frozen humans are suddenly disturbed from their pods by Bill and the Doctor’s activities as they head for the engine room to blow the whole thing up. All of which feels like sci-fi by numbers.

Ars Technica UK


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