Friday, 28 April 2017

Smile written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Lawrence Gough

This story in a nutshell: A Doctor Who story entirely without jeopardy? 

Indefinable: The Doctor is proud of humanities optimism in the future, how that sense of optimism can touch even the architecture. The Doctor met an Emperor made of algae once who fancied him. It’s a shame we couldn’t enjoy that adventure rather than this one. What precisely is in the Doctor’s browser history that he wants Bill to steer clear of? Remember when Bill said that he looked like a penguin with his arse on fire when he runs? Watch him dash through the cornfield away from the TARDIS. It’s hilarious. The Doctor doesn’t use the phone in the TARDIS door to phone the helpline because he is the helpline. The Doctor has bumped into a few of the colony ships that left the Earth over the years. Who can name them all? I get that the Doctor is a fallible hero but there is a massive difference between making a mistake and almost blowing up an entire colony without checking to see if it’s people are in suspended animation. When was blowing things up ever the Doctor’s option? Is he channelling the Brigadier? It makes me look like a destructive child that has made a severe overreaction. A bit like he was in Hell Bent. 

Funky Chick: Bill looks very impressed that the Doctor had the gall to steal the TARDIS, she admires his honesty and his criminal activity by all accounts. Cheeky. She’s wonderful, far better than nonsense like this deserves. She wanders through the blandness of it all smiling and cracking jokes and trying to keep our interest levels up. Imagine if this had been a Clara episode? 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Between here and my office, before the kettle boils is everything that ever happened or ever will. Make your choice!’ 
‘Who needs loos? There’s probably an app for that.’

The Good:
· For my money, the first and last scenes in Smile were the episode at its height and they were nothing to shout home about beyond introducing Bill to the core concepts of the TARDIS and the exciting segue into the next adventure. Things that I did enjoy though were Bill’s continuing questions, Nardole’s darker presence in the Doctor’s life and the appearance of a feature film elephant at the shows climax, which promises much greater things for next weeks’ episode.
· Visually this is a very strong episode and it is clear that a great deal of money has been thrown at it. I’ve read some commentators praise the use of CGI in creating the landscape of the colony, not realising that it is actually on location in Valencia. That doesn’t stop the establishing shots of the colony and the TARDIS in the wheat field being quite spectacular. I was perfectly convinced that this episode was going to be a winner based purely on the type of visuals I was seeing. It just goes to show that you can throw all kinds of money at the series and it doesn’t mean that it will automatically generate interest.
· I like the contrast between the aesthetic on the inside and the outside of the colony and how that is discussed (wet brains, dry brains). From wide open gleaming spaces to claustrophobia, pipes and steam. I realise I’m reaching here but an episode so devoid of interest forces me to.
· The music deserves recognition again this week, it was much subtler and less bombastic than usual. It suggests a quiet menace that the episode fails to deliver.

The Bad:

· I never bought the Vardies as a credible threat and that is a big problem when they are the shows sole attempt to do something sinister for almost half an hour. I like the idea of something cute becoming threatening but this is a failed attempt at that because the robots are simply too clunky and cumbersome and move in such an unthreatening manner. The emoji faces are a neat idea now in 2017 but they will dates the robots really quick because the pictographic method of communicating with people is already a little passĂ©. Nothing dates a show faster than obsessing on the latest craze (just take a look at Terror of the Autons and its amazing black plastic chair of death). Emoji badges (sorry, mood indicators) might seem very cool right now but we’ll look back on this in a few years and cringe. Besides, Doctor Who has never really cared to be ‘in’ before, I’m not sure why it should start now especially if this is the level of imagination on display. The Doctor and Bill being chased by the painfully slow Vardies doesn’t exactly get the heart racing. We’ve seen monsters in Doctor Who make a slow advance before (the mummies in Pyramids of Mars are a particularly terrifying example) but this is probably the least sincere example. Clunk clunk clunk go their little feet. The idea that the Vardies identified grief as the enemies of happiness simply because they weren’t programmed to recognise is it is absurd, and the idea that they would kill to eliminate it even moreso. I’m having trouble following this logic at all, it feels like my brain is short circuiting. Following Cottrell Boyce’s logic I know what I am supposed to do.
· The pre-titles sequence with the Vardy’s attacking and the colonists having to be happy about it doesn’t work at all. The attempt at forced happiness comes across really awkward as portrayed by Mina Anwar (usually so reliable in The Sarah Jane Adventures) and the Vardy’s simply are not a credible threat. ‘Is it hugging me?’ indeed! The bones falling to floor in slow motion so unconvincingly is simply the icing on the cake. I was very nervous heading into this episode after this. After Gough’s stellar direction of The Pilot I was mighty confused that this felt so awkward in contrast.
· The idea that the walls are built from interlocking microbots should be the coolest thing ever but the reveal is so…plodding. Like so much of Smile, it lacks the wow factor.
· The first thing that happens in Smile is around the 30-minute mark where the Doctor decides to blow up the colony for no intelligent reason. His actions are countered by the appearance of a child emerging, sleepy eyed and all innocence, to let them know that the colony is actually still populated and they need to stop the countdown. This is hardly what I would call subtle storytelling. Or convincing storytelling. Or remotely interesting storytelling. It gives storytelling a bad name. ‘What’s in those pods, Bill, is the surviving population of Earth. And I nearly killed all of them.’ When the Doctor starts admitting he’s an idiot, we’re in trouble.
· Ralf Little is a mammoth talent. Go and watch The CafĂ©. Wasting him on such an insignificant role is inconceivable.
· The Doctor essentially does an IT Crowd ‘turn it off and on again’ which wipes the Vardies memories and resets the whole colony? Why does this mean the colonists are suddenly accepting of the loss of their loved ones? This kind of pull a giant lever and everything is okay storytelling beggars belief. Surely Doctor Who should be aspiring to something more complex than this in its 54th year.

The Shallow Bit: Bill’s smile. She’s a keeper.

Result: ‘We’re in the utopia of vacuous teens…’ You said it, mate. So much of Smile relies on the interaction between the Doctor and Bill because very little happens in the first half beyond them exploring the empty colony. Barry Letts once said that the Doctor and companion should have an appeal that carries the story even when what is on screen isn’t particularly engaging and this is the living embodiment of that approach. I just think the show should be aspiring to something a little more riveting in its tenth season than a story that solely relies on the charisma of the leads because the story it is telling is so slight and dull. People have made allusions to the fact that this episode is a bit like The Happiness Patrol (forced happiness) and a bit like The Ark in Space (the clinical atmosphere of finding a human colony in slumber) but in truth beyond the ideas they have very little in common. For a start both of those stories have some substance and interest about them. When I compare one story to another I am often talking about direct steals or similarity in tone but Smile only has the most insincere similarities to those classic Doctor Who adventures. The pacing of Smile is way off balance; the first 30 minutes plays out like a really plodding classic series first episode and the last 10 minutes is a manic fourth episode condensed down. It flies from one to the other with a scene of painful exposition in between. I always applaud Doctor Who’s attempt to do something a bit different and Cottrell Boyce has tried that twice now and I clap my hands at the braveness of having two Doctor Who stories taking a less suspenseful and more cerebral approach. However, both episodes failed to engage me because of the lack of action, their lack of interesting guest characters, their unconvincing climaxes and their failure to do anything interesting with their core concepts. It’s almost as if the notions of the forest of London and the deserted colony are enough. This is aping the pace and tone of the classic series but it is failing to remember the one core ingredient, the engaging narrative. And don’t get me started on the Doctor almost randomly destroying the human race and the robots that murder because they don’t recognise a frown. The ideas Smile does flaunt I simply could not buy in to. This episode rests almost entirely on the characters of the Doctor and Bill and their reactions to pretty much nothing and it is a testament to their partnership this early in the season that this doesn’t bomb entirely. When episode one and two are both quiet, unassuming stories with small guest casts you have to wonder if the series isn’t losing its nerve a little. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Bill had asked the Doctor to take her home because travelling to other worlds is a massive yawn: 3/10

The Pilot written by Steven Moffat and directed by Lawrence Gough

This story in a nutshell: Bill Potts had no idea that she was about to walk through a door into the universe when she started attending the Doctor’s lectures…

Indefinable: Peter Capaldi has been having something of a Goldilocks experience during his time as the Doctor. From a public perception point of view, I mean. In series 8 he was considered too cold and inhospitable (‘SHUT UP!’), in series 9 he was redefined into a rock Time Lord and just a little too hot to handle and now in series 10 there seems to be some kind of middle ground forming, and he feels just right. I would say that this much more relaxed, amiable 12th Doctor emerged in The Return of Doctor Mysterio and it almost feels a terrible shame that he will only be around for a single year now that that the character (and the performance) has been perfected. But let’s dwell on such minutiae when the net result is that Capaldi has finally been handed a character that seems to have won over the public at large. I think the inclusion of a new companion helps immeasurably. And it’s clear that there is an immediate rapport between Capaldi and newcomer Pearl Mackie. I love the idea of the Doctor lecturing at a university for over 50 years and simply teaching whatever he wants with nobody having the audacity to question him because he is clearly a genius. There has always been something rather scholarly about the Doctor, even in his most playful and irreverent of incarnations and so this post seems to fit him like a glove. Also winning is the concept that it isn’t a student that the Doctor notices, but the girl who works in the canteen who keeps sneaking into his lectures. He notices how she reacts differently to everybody else in the class, her uniqueness. The whole teacher/student angle has never truly been exploited before and it’s such a natural and instant dynamic it is difficult to see why not. It’s one of those aberrations that becomes apparent when somebody has a crack and gets it right (like the whole Rose being missing a year angle). There seems to be more of an effort to give Nardole a purpose in the Doctor’s life here, rather than just a comedy tackalong without purpose. If you would have told me that scenes between Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas would be the mainstay of Doctor Who in 2017 I would have laughed in your face but somehow this pair of high profile actors shine when working together. You can always tell when two perfomers are having fun together and it really feels as though there is the weight of history behind the Doctor and Nardole now, after having spent so much time together. Watch the Doctor fly when Bill puts a mystery in his path. Clearly he has been bored guarding the vault all these years and is desperate for a bit of adventure. 

Funky Chick: What a revelation. Who would have thought that Moffat was capable of introducing a character as a companion? Not an arc plot like River Song or a plot device like Clara Oswald or a fusion of the two like Amy Pond…no Bill Potts is a regular Josephine who exists simply to stumble into the Doctor’s world and offer a fresh perspective on events. She’s a living, breathing person, somebody that I can buy into totally and for the first time in an age I have a window into the Doctor’s adventures because I have character that I can go on these adventures with that I really care about. Pearl Mackie has to take most of the credit because she gives an effortlessly real performance, there is no point where I felt she was trying. There’s an earthiness to her acting style that wasn’t even hinted at in the preview for her character last year. Moffat has to be applauded for a slice of the good work that has been done here; Bill functions as a far less momentous event in the Doctor’s life than all of the previous companions in his era and yet is far more fresh and vital because of it. She’s uncomplicated but never uncomplex, inquisitive, curious and engaging. I liked her very much. The fact that Mackie is a relative newcomer to television matters not one jot…her inexperience is never there to see. More importantly, her rapport with Capaldi simply shines on screen. I was hungry for them to have more scenes together at the end of the episode, which bode well for Smile that seemed to promise just that. The last time I was this interested in seeing what happened with such a sunny Doctor/companion dynamic was way back in the halcyon days of the Doctor and Donna. And even then there is something slightly less showy and razzle dazzle than the, still dazzling, combination of David Tennant and Catherine Tate. 

Bill is clearly the companion to ask all the questions that should have been asked but never have been before. ‘I had fatted her’ – Bill has dialogue as alien and unusual as Ace did in the eighties but Mackie simply has a better way of dealing with it. I love her asking the Doctor if she built the TARDIS with a kit. Did Bill come to the university to serve chips or to learn? The Doctor could spot the answer to that questions the first time he met her. Her buying the Doctor a rub is the cutest thing ever (‘It’s okay. It was cheap’). Bill’s mum dying when she was a baby sounds like something we should be remembering, so I am. Her foster mother is self involved and thoughtless, but clearly loves her. I think there are more mother-daughter relationships out there like that than you might think. Bill admitting that she has never liked her face is a truly honest moment, and I think we have all had a moment like that. She doesn’t strut about going ‘oh yeah it’s bigger on the inside because it’s dimensionally transcendental’ as everybody seems to these days as if dimensional engineering is a subject taught in schools. Bill is in genuine shock at the nature of the TARDIS and what it can do and she has a million and one questions. The moment Bill asks the Doctor how he would feel if somebody wiped away his mind and took away all the wonder of the universe she has more than earned her companion stripes. She reminds him of his conscience, just as Donna used to. A shame Donna didn’t use that line when he took away her memories…but then she would have died. Bill on the other hand survives that fate but something tells me with the hints that he had an involvement with her mother’s death, she might wish one day that he had. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why do you run like that?’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Like a penguin with his arse on fire.’
‘What is sky made of?’ ‘Lemon drops!’ ‘Really?’

The Good:
· The design work on Doctor Who these days is simply stunning. Not only does the TARDIS interior look sexier than it ever has before (unless you genuinely liked Willy Wonka’s dayglo orange lounge in the Matt Smith era) but the Doctor’s study comes alive in unusual ways too. The personal touches such as the various sonic screwdrivers arranged like pencils in a jar and the pictures of River (I’m hoping the next showrunner drops the references to her completely, she’s become a bit of a vice like Rise was during Davies’ time) and Susan are lovely. Goodness knows what that latticework in a jar is, let’s leave that to the imaginations of the audience. He’s got a beautiful silver globe too. And they clearly have quite the imagination, they are watching one of the most creative shows on television. The design work throughout is impressive, but I particularly like the two representations of the Doctor. His home and his work, both stylish, full of fascinating nooks and crannies to explore and exploding with personality.
· I was unsure about the super-fast cross cutting of scenes that establish the Doctor and Bill’s relationship (mostly because it is presented in Moffat’s clever clever lecturing style not unlike a number of sequences in series nine – Missy explaining about the Doctor escaping from an impossible situation is a good example) but it ultimately served a purpose. We get a lot of the opening months out of the way, quick as a flash and can move on to moments of character like their first Christmas together. It reminds me of the sequence in Forest of the Dead that pointed out how television cuts out the narrative flab of real life and relationships and just allows us to get to the good stuff. This is the epitome of that approach. It also means that for once the Doctor has a solid few months under his belt with his latest companion before she even steps foot inside the TARDIS. I can only think of Liz Shaw (who never did) and Jo Grant (who did) who had such a deferred invitation. It’s rather nice to have the relationship established before it is shattered with a million and one questions about the Doctor’s insane lifestyle.
· Would this feel as much like a Davies opener if it didn’t obsess so much with chips? Actually, yes it would. A down to Earth companion with a life we can recognise, a light plot to ease her in to the series and show us what she is capable of, a focus on mood and humour and how it obsesses on the abilities of the TARDIS in a very punchy way. The last time I enjoyed a series opener this much was Partners in Crime, the last time that Davies wrote one. This kind of economic storytelling, giving far more attention to the characterisation is the last thing that I expected from Moffat at this stage. What a pleasant surprise. Also the whole nature of the vault and what the Doctor is guarding is just the sort of seeds that Davies used to plant at the beginning of his seasons. Moffat has always been more overt with his arc plotting previously and this is a real refreshment.
· Is it worth acknowledging the fact that Bill is the first openly gay companion? Only insofar as it is never made an issue of at any point in the episode and in a climate where gay rights are being infringed in America and concentration camps are being used to detained gay men in Russia that this is a very positive message to make, especially in a family programme. Imagine being a child that knows they have desires for the opposite sex and listening to the all the news around the world that suggests that it is a bad thing. Now imagine them sticking on this episode of Doctor Who that presents it as the most natural thing in the world. I guess the message is don’t fall for any cuties with stars in their eyes.
· Moffat reaches his apotheosis with trying to make the mundane frightening. What he manages to achieve here with a puddle is terrific. Who has ever looked at a puddle and thought that it could be a scary portal to another dimension? The idea that a puddle isn’t a puddle but that the reflection is something in the puddle pretending to be you is super creepy, and an intriguing way for an alien to attempt to escape from the planet. It is worth acknowledging the similarities between the watery Heather and the Flood in The Waters of Mars (the physical effects utilised are very similar) but in storytelling terms it is a very superficial similarity.
· I simply accept that the music in Doctor Who is going to be of a reasonable standard these days, whilst being plastered all over the episodes in a slavish manner. The Pilot stood out for me as an exceptional example, especially the jaunty introductory music and the chilling, fingers down the spine string work during the tense scene in Bill’s flat.
· One of the best TARDIS introductions ever (‘er they’re made of wood…’) with the pull back from the doors and the ship coming alive being matched only by Mackie’s wonderful reaction. If you are looking to discover the magic of the TARDIS within one episode, this might just be the one for you. Sydney, the Movellan War, an unknown alien planet…the Doctor gives Bill a little taster of what she can expect in a life with him.
· The scene with the Doctor, Bill and Nardole on an alien world trying to figure out what the nature of the alien is reveals a fascinating new dynamic to the show that really works. They investigate by asking and answering intelligent questions.

The Bad:
Is Nardole a robot? Have I missed something? Why does he sound as though he has hydraulics in his arm? I thought we had disposed of the electric guitar. It would be quite cute if it was used at some point in Capaldi’s final year as the resolution to a plot (like Victoria and her endless, pointless screaming). Otherwise I would be quite happy to never hear from it again. I couldn’t entirely buy into the relationship between Bill and Heather because there was a distinct lack of humour between the two and little is done to establish affection between them. Heather has something of the Dawn Summers (from Buffy) syndrome, drearily miserable and longing to be elsewhere. It makes you wonder what somebody as vibrant as Bill would see in her. It seems to come down to the fact that she is quite cute. Which is plausible, but a little shallow. The Movellans? Hahahahahahaha. And might I add…hahahahahaha. Fancy taking the naffest alien race from the classic series and giving them a dynamic repolish and a war to fight with a bigger budget. The Movellans look great being thrown around an exploding set but this is little more than fan lip service. My other half groaned at the use of the Daleks and questioned aloud if the show was bold enough to have a season without them.

The Shallow Bit: Bill has one of the most expressive faces of any companion. She’s really quite beautiful but not a regular way. I love seeing her react to things. She’s a snappy dresser too. I love a good dresser.

Result: Welcome back Doctor Who after two Christmas specials that have erred on the side of high camp entertainment and the show has been off our screens, seasons wise, for longer than the hiatus is 1985. The Pilot would have felt like a welcome return even if it had turned out to be shit but the fact is there is much more to this than your standard Doctor Who episode. Whilst this will receive the same mark as both of those Christmas specials (Husbands had a glorious last ten minutes and Mysterio was one of the cutest pieces of television ever) because it has a number of issues holding it back, this is far more my kind of Doctor Who than either of them. The pacing is lethargic in the first half but that is just to give us time to get close to Bill and drawn into her relationship with the Doctor but things really pick up from the halfway point and it is ghoulish attacks and a whirlwind tour of the universe until the touching conclusion. As I’ve stated elsewhere, Bill Mackie is a revelation and I think this is the biggest surprise, in the eyes of fandom, since Catherine Tate turned out to be one of the strongest actresses to ever appear in the show. She’s effortlessly good and extremely watchable and much of the episode relies on you liking Bill and wanting to stick close to her so that is a really good thing. I love how much she questions and doubts whilst employing a keen mind and allowing herself to be afraid. Clara I know everything and nothing bothers me Oswald she aint. Gough’s direction is worth noting for its atmosphere, he gives The Pilot a lightness of touch and still manages to throw in a couple of effective scares. This is a very easy piece of television to like. Downsides? The Bill/Heather relationship never really came alive for me so I never truly felt anything when they were forced to part, there are the trademark unanswered questions that might frustrate the casual audience (my other half was baffled that so much was left hanging) and looking forward with Smile also being a little low key it is a very gentle introduction to the season. I wouldn’t expect a newcomer to be particularly knocked off their feet. But overall this is a triumphant return for the show in what feels like reboot before the reboot takes place. It’s funny how the introduction of a new companion can give the show a massive facelift and The Pilot confirm my suspicion (which I stressed in several reviews last year) that Clara simply hung around for too long. This opener belongs to Bill and Bill is fabulous and that means Doctor Who is fabulous for me again. Go figure, when Moffat said the show is all about the companion perhaps he was right. I’m optimistic once again: 7/10