Smile.



TV Yesterday, for the first time in a hundred and thirty five years, the National Grid was able to deliver enough power to consumers without utilising any electricity generated by coal. Tonight, I almost passed a similar rubicon and didn't watch Doctor Who live on I think the only occasion since 2005, having decided that life was too short for me to wait for the potential extra time to play out in the FA Cup semi-final between some teams.  Any later than scheduled and I would have iPlayered Doctor Who tomorrow night and this review would have been a day late.  In the event, one team beat the other by a couple of goals so Smile was broadcast at the correct TX so I'm not watching American Gigolo as would have been the otherwise plan and sit writing this instead.  You lucky personages.

During the Moffat era, second episodes of seasons have tended to be the climactic movement of an opening story, the idea being that what would traditionally be a finale is being front loaded at the top to attract viewers.  Smile takes the approach of The Beast Below and Into The Dalek of a stand alone set in the future with a few side references to whatever the ongoing storyline of the series is.  In this case, that's the box/vault/thingy and the Doctor's promise to protect it of which we discovered a little more this week, that the Doctor has promised to protect the box/vault/thingy in a kind of self inflicted exile and really shouldn't be leaving Earth.  Again we shrug and hope that this is more exciting and mysterious than it currently seems.  Plastic Rory guarded the Pandorica for two thousand years and it's impossible to beat that sort of heroism (even if he tried to undermine it himself by using his heroism as a form of point scoring in an argument with the very person he was protecting).

Smile is inferior to both those episodes.  Indeed it's the weakest of the second episodes since the show returned, an astonishingly lifeless, boring effort which like Frank Cottrell-Boyce's previous entry in the franchise only just manages to keep watchable thanks to some stunning visuals and likeable performances from the regulars.  In The Forest of the Night has its fans, and it's apparently very popular with children.  But in what had already been a generally horrible season thanks to a miscalculation in the characterisation of the Doctor, it just felt like another example of the show losing its way and having the same writer at the top end of Capaldi's final season doesn't pay off.  It's not as awful as ITFotN, just horrifyingly simplistic in a way which would even embarrass the writers of the usually far more imaginative Doctor Who Adventures comic strips.

Now, there is something to be said for stories which have the Doctor escorting his companions around a new locale revealing their wonders of this new world.  The Ark In Space gives us one of the Time Lords best moments when he's describing humanity, "They're indomitable!" and the first episode of that story is a clear influence here.  Target Books had several publishing successes with exactly this format.  The Colony city Gilese 581 D is an architectural design marvel, a brilliant white Utopian space, exactly the place the inhabitants of the rocket in the episode Utopia might have ended up if the Master hadn't become involved.  Shot at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, if there's one thing you can't fault about the episode, it's the production design and location choices, redolent of Elysium, the Aeon Flux movie and the Festival Hall at Liverpool's International Garden Festival in 1984.  It's impossible not to be impressed when Capaldi's holding forth against this backdrop.

It's also fair to say that the banter between the Doctor and Bill is always entertaining, his exposition endlessly counterpointed by her fixation on other details, like how many hearts he has or why a police box, questions which have been pondered in the past but with great whimsical vigour here.  Capaldi seems more at ease with Mackie than he ever did with Coleman, where there always seemed to be a professional detachment and I appreciate that one of the reasons the episode seems so empty otherwise is because, like The Beast Below, it's allowing time for the characters to bond and the audience to understand the dynamic, which in this case is teacher and pupil more than simply best friends.  We're seeing another facet of the Fourteenth Doctor in this series, much more benevolent and easy going if a little bit generic in the early Eighth Doctor BBC Books range, oh err, what do we do with this, kind of way.

But the rest?  Damn.  The Black Mirror for kids concept of a society in which a robot executes if you don't smile enough was accomplished very successfully during the McCoy era and perhaps the sun-blessed production design was an attempt to obscure that we're essentially watching The Happiness Patrol. sans its noirish lighting. for the social media generation.  But unlike Graeme Curry's political satire (which was definitely not about Thatcher, obvs), the commentary here is rather more confused and with a vague whiff of a older writer trying to say something about how Twitter or Facebook effect people's mood and something emoji without being entirely sure what the social implications of all of this is.  Patronising lines like "Emojis, selfies and wearable communications.  We're in  he Utopia of vacuous teens." don't help much either.

In the parish circular, the Boyce says liked that the use of the emoji has become a kind of universal language for communicating mood, that it's quite touching, which is precisely what they were originally designed for.  It's also true that like hugs, they're an excellent way for a person to hide their true feelings.  Even if you're feeling shit but not wanting to communicate such, bunging in a smiley face masks how we're actually doing.  But in the episode they have the more sinister application of demonstrating exactly how a person is feeling, but only on a very superficial level.  You might be terrified inside but turn the frown upside down, Mrs Brown, and the emoji disc reflects that instead.  The writer likes the idea of emojis but isn't sure how to communicate that within the internal logic of the script.  It's a writer experiencing the anxieties of Douglas Adams's technology rules in script form.

The problem is there's no great depth to any of this.  For all the enjoyable bantz, there's nothing much for us to become invested in amongst the characters or story.  Although there's a brief glance toward Bill realising that they have the fate of humanity in their hands and how the Doctor's motivated by his need to help, the episode coasts on the kind of astonishingly generic, run of the mill jeopardy which turns up in the less skillful spin-off media.  Casting Ralph Little as the lead human was presumable an attempt to shorthand some sympathies, but I don't remember his name even being mentioned on-screen and his entire character exists to simply blunder in and do something stupid with guns.  Mina Anwar's cameo at the beginning of the episode is gut wrenching but once she's gone there's no one for us to latch on to, someone we care about for the Doctor and Bill to save.  The small boy isn't on screen long enough.

Much of this is a casualty of the Moffat approved structure of old school episodes one and four bonded together with the running around of episode two and three tossed out.  But just having the first and last instalments of The Ark In Space misses the opportunity to meet the characters who're going to be threatened in the concluding moments, become involved in their stories.  Which admittedly would have been difficult given the obvious aim of the episode, as I said, to present the new dynamic and adding third wheel to those moments would have diluted their effect but these are more fundamental issues to do with choosing this story as the containment force field.  There's a version of the episode were the Doctor re-engineering the robots and having them co-habit with the humans is the start of the story not the whole thing,

Including the ending, which is just rubbish in a way which simply can't be masked by having Capaldi read us a bedtime story.  JNT roasted Davison's sonic because of its potential to create precisely the kind of story resolution we enjoy here and along with similar efforts in the likes of New Earth shows a mediocre lack of imagination.  One of the side effects of my anti-anxiety tablets is I have a tendency to nod off if I'm sat in one place for too long, and I'll admit to my eyes closing a couple times during the episode and after the show ended I wondered if I'd missed something spectacular.  Having gone back just now and had a glance on the iPlayer, I've discover that no I didn't.  It really is one of those stories where the Doctor and his companion walk through a lot of corridors, stumble into an explanation as to what's occurring then solve it by turning something off and on again which is frankly embarrassing when you consider this is the same show which almost ten years ago this week gave us Gridlock.

Once again this week Twitter's filled with people saying how much they enjoyed the episode and good for them.  But I just miss the version of the show which had emotional and structurally  complexity week in and out which perhaps isn't as child friendly as smiley robots and killer swarms, but at least meant you felt like you'd had a meal rather than just skipped breakfast. You were thrilled at the end rather than simply, ah, ok.  Judging by the cliffhanger, tonight's instalment could simply be anomalous and Sarah Dollard script might offer something more akin to drama than whatever this was.  But so far there's nothing in here which feels like appointment television and if it was any other show I'd be iPlayering it, assuming I remembered to even watch it at all.  Perhaps a rubicon has been passed after all.



[On rewatch: Having seen the episode a second time, I think I still agree with huge tracts of the above and also with a lot of the people who's opinion usually chime with mine who seemed to love it to bits.  Thematically it is a bit confusing, the secondary characters are nothing burgers and the conclusion is rushed and unimpressive.  But it's very enjoyable indeed in places because of Capaldi and Mackie, because some of the dialogue and character work is superb and because of the locations.  That's why I'll disagree with the drowsy Saturday night version of myself about it being boring.  It's never boring.  That's unfair.  They're such overwhelming compelling company that it can't be.  Like the best companions, Pearl is always acting even when she doesn't have dialogue, her entire body communicating the space between the lines.  Background business like taking photographs make her incredibly human.

As was the charge that it lacks depth.  Not every Doctor Who episode, even in the RTD years had a lot of depth and such episodes grow on you.  The Long Game isn't something you'd sit down to watch on purpose but as part of the series, it's pleasant enough and like Smile have moments which are simply about showing what life could be like in the future.  I do keep forgetting, perhaps because of how spin-off media tends to be much more densely written. that the television version is often about the visuals more than story, and that it's illegitimate to smack a fifty-three year old franchise around the four act structures for repeating itself.  It's a very rare modern Who story which has no traces of something happening the background.  I've often been an apologist for such thing.  Not sure what I forgot about that this time.

Smile was designed to have a particular function within the ongoing story of these two characters and not much else and that's fine.  I mean it's not much more than fine and I still think that even this kind of episode should strive to leave the viewer thrilled but I also have to acknowledge that isn't always going to be the case.  You might also wonder if, like The Beast Below, the reason the conclusion bleeds into the next episode, as well as a homage to the Hartnell years, is because the production team suspected that the ending wasn't quite as bigley as it could have been.  There's a version of Smile which ends on a quip from the Doctor or Bill.  How much better to leave the viewer with the image of an elephant on the frozen Thames, which is fascinating even if you know how it could be and when the next episode is set?]

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