❉ “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.”
In classic Doctor Who, Smile would have been a great episode one.
Smile was a strange beast indeed. Its great asset was that it enabled you to revel in the performances of the regular cast. The unfortunate downside was that plot development was crammed into the last quarter of an hour.
It’s a joy to watch Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor and Pearl Mackie’s Bill as they continue to get to know each other. The dialogue popped and sparkled as they explored a fantastically, beautifully realised alien world – “You know what I like about humanity? Its optimism,” “I’m not Scottish, I’m just cross” and, best of all, Bill on the Doctor’s two hearts: “Does that mean you’ve got really high blood pressure?”
The actors clearly enjoy each other’s company and their enthusiasm for the material and working together is infectious. But…
The couple were wandering through a truly stunning setting, a human colony world that reminded me of those 1960s and 1970s films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972) and THX 1138 (1976) when the future was going to be a bright, pristine white (not the grubby, broken down one in nearly everything after the establishment of that mise en scene in Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979).) Handily, Spain has already built the future, as the location used was that country’s City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia. Even the deceptively cute emoji robots looked like they belonged in a 1960s utopian future; there was a suggestion of the Quarks and the Servo Robot about these short, shuffling automatons. And yet…
Complementing the setting, the ‘hard’ SF ideas were plentiful and novel – a communications device that downloaded itself into your ear, smiley-type symbols that relayed the wearer’s emotional state, insect-sized micro-robots that maintained the structure of the buildings and could detach themselves like a swarm of angry bees, and – the dramatic high-point of the episode, realised in grisly fashion – the revelation that most of the original colonists had been turned into calcium-rich fertiliser. The bar was raised even higher with the subsequent reveal that this mass cull had happened because the robots viewed anyone who exhibited a less than ecstatically happy emoji a threat to the colony: a classic case of destroying the world in order to save it, and a pleasingly intelligent extrapolation of how a machine mind might deal with such a situation. But…
And here’s the ‘but’. The main characters taking their time to explore a deserted environment enriched many an episode one of the classic series. The Daleks and The Ark in Space are arguably the two most notable examples (and in Smile the phrase ‘med-tech’ sounded like it was lifted from the dialogue of Robert Holmes’ screenplay as a tribute). A pound to a penny those stories were Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s model for his script. The trouble was, in a self-contained 45-minute story, well over half of Smile’s running time was devoted to entertaining banter and stunning spatial vistas. At ten to eight, I was checking my watch in anticipation of some story progression. During filming, I suspect director Lawrence Gough had been wondering about some too, because for all the visual inventiveness on display, my attention began to wander during Bill and the Doctor’s prolonged stroll.
Employing Ralf Little as a guest star seems rather bizarre as he only had to turn up for the last fifteen minutes and even then, he had very few lines, so I imagine it’s one of the easiest pay days he’s ever had. Little’s casting rather draws attention to the top-heavy nature of the script, though. That scene with the Doctor trying to defuse the nuclear generator could also have been pruned back and more room allowed for the denouement. Bill happily announcing that the Doctor’s rebooting of the robots amounted to “[turning them] off and on again” – with the aid of that old deus ex machina standby, the sonic screwdriver – only added to the feeling that the ending was rushed.
Another sign of indecently rapid story development may have been the awful amount of talking in the scene with the Shepherd (great name – borrowed from Firefly, I wonder?) lying in state, as the Doctor correctly hypothesised what had been going on. How about some show, not tell? For such an accomplished writer, it’s odd and intriguing that both Cottrell-Boyce’s scripts balance uneven narrative structure with wild, visually original ideas.
As a result, Smile will be remembered for those really creepy smiley robots and the dazzling colony city. And, for some of us, a timely David Bowie reference.
❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One every Saturday at 7.20pm. Click here for episodes and extra content.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.