This review is spoiler-free. Come back after the episode’s broadcast for additional, spoilery viewing notes.
Back in 2014, writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce gave us one of the most divisive episodes of the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who. Wherever you fall on Season 8’s In The Forest Of The Night (and you can look back at our 10/10 review if you want to know our thoughts), there’s no denying that it’s a very different and adventurous episode for this particular show.
Frank’s follow-up, Smile, is no less daring, even though it’s a companion piece to last week’s textbook re-pilot. The Doctor gives Bill a choice of whether she’d like to go to the past or the future on her first “proper” TARDIS trip and, as a sci-fi fan, she naturally picks the future. But in a spectacular city on a distant planet called Gliese 581 D, they find a human colony with no humans in it.
On the one hand, this gives them a lot of time to get to know each other, as Matt Lucas’ Nardole stays at home. If you liked the chemistry between Capaldi and Pearl Mackie in Episode 1, there’s a really effective exercise of their emerging dynamic as they investigate the deserted city. On the other hand, their investigation leads them to the truth about the emojibots that apparently populate the place.
For starters, it has to be said that Smile offers the single best visualisation of the future that Doctor Who has offered in its 54 years. The show has employed overseas location shooting several times over the years, but has largely used deserts and other unpopulated areas to double for alien planets, rather than using some of our own planet’s mad, futuristic architecture to stand in for alien civilisations.
That all changes here and the use of the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia is marvellous. For once, the location really fulfils the promise of the ambitious script and director Lawrence Gough makes the most of getting out of Cardiff for the exterior shots. Although the interiors are more recognisably in Doctor Who’s budget range, there’s a seamless vision at work here and there’s no overstating how visually impressive it is.
The emojibots are a design masterstroke too, simultaneously cute and sinister with their silent expressions of happiness, consternation and worse. They might be smiling, but we quickly find out that there’s no negotiating with this apparently user-friendly interface. With guest stars making themselves unusually scarce, there’s more emphasis on the two leads on their first trip out together, which makes for the longest and most enjoyable part of the episode.
Alas, when some other faces do show up, it’s as part of a slightly rushed conclusion to an episode that takes its sweet time getting to where it needs to go. As with In The Forest Of The Night, there’s more going on than meets the eye, but this lacks the graceful simplicity of that previous fantasy-inflected adventure when it comes to checkout time.
Smile is a gorgeous yet straightforward story, punching slightly above its weight on account of its gobsmacking production value. For those who weren’t so enchanted by Cottrell-Boyce’s previous effort, this is both funnier and scarier, but its testament to the man’s unique perspective that the more conventional of his two Doctor Who scripts to date still offers an off-kilter take on the formula.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
Now that we’re in spoiler territory, let’s talk about the guest cast. The always-delightful Mina Anwar feels wasted on a cameo in the pre-titles sequence, after her terrific supporting turn as Rani’s mum in The Sarah Jane Adventures – she’s someone we’ve wanted to see on the show for a while, but she deserves better. Ralf Little’s character similarly suffers for a lack of screentime as the de facto antagonist, but that’s not the only problem at the end of the episode…
Although we’re not complaining about the extra time spent with the mighty pairing of Capaldi and Mackie, there’s not a lot of time in which to resolve the story. The magic haddock story, the memory wipe and the explicit use of the term “reset button” all feel like things the show has done before, better, in an episode that was otherwise well on its way to being something more special. We did like the final gag with the emojibot getting pound signs in its eyes at the prospect of taking rent from the colonists, though.
Bill is as inquisitive as ever and Cottrell-Boyce picks up what Steven Moffat started last week, in having her interrogate the things about Doctor Who we take for granted without ever once coming across as arch or nit-picky. This week – the cost of a TARDIS, Scots in space and the Doctor’s reluctant status as a space policeman. We love Bill, a bit.
Nardole’s only appearance this week is to tee up the Doctor’s confinement to Earth, protecting the vault. We now know that he took an oath to stay on the planet and guard whoever, or whatever, is inside it. Using this thread to establish St. Luke’s University as a home base for the Doctor should give us some more interesting contemporary adventures later in the series.
And finally, we’ll forgive the rushed ending anything for that brilliant cliffhanger, setting up next week’s episode. We haven’t had nearly enough of these “Oh boy” Quantum Leap-style endings in the 21st century episodic format, and the emergence of an elephant on the frozen Thames is a perfect kiss off to remind viewers to tune in next week…
Photo: BBC / Simon Ridgway