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 passé. 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 Café. 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


Anonymous said...

I liked the idea of the Doctor and Bill going up against a space colony, which had unintentionally became a murder machine, but I found the ending deeply unsatisfying. The robots becoming sentient seemed to come out of nowhere, and if their sentient doesn't that mean they should be held accountable for murdering all those people?
This episode will be horrible dated very soon I suspect. Also Moffat, if the Doctor has to ignore your main plot line to have adventures, you may want to reconsider it.

Liam Morrell said...

I quite liked this one and thought it was a massive improvement on itfotn. I think it was mainly due to really liking Bill. I liked the whole concept of happiness as plague but the emojibots are too clunky. Also shouldn't The Doctor have thought to reprogramme them in the first place? I would still give it a 7/10 I think.

Mica said...

What bothered me the most is that the colonizers were supposedly the last of the man kind. But we know that at that time the Earth population is already scattered all over the universes. Good Lord, the second episode of the new Who was about the Earth dying and we already knew the human beings were all over the places.
All the story about destroying the colonizers would destroy the human race was so absurd.
I also didn't like the way the colonizers reacted. I mean, ok, all their loved one were dead, but...they didn't even try to think about what was happening and what they should do, they only wanted to kill and destroy.

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David Pirtle said...

Your review reminds me of something that I remember bugging me consistently throughout most of the 10th series. Most of the episodes seemed to rest on Capaldi and Mackie's very good charisma, with relatively few strong guest characters or memorable villains. I don't think your criticism of the Moffat era being more about ideas than characters was ever truer than this year.