Tuesday, 2 May 2017
Doctor Who: Smile (Episode Review)
So, this one took a little longer than expected to produce. Yes, while we're doing them slightly out of order here, each episode will be reviewed one at a time, judging their best qualities and greatest failings. Especially those which look set to plummet to the bottom of the barrel. The writer of this latest episode was the same man who brought us In the Forest of the Night a couple of seasons back, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and it shows. Oh sweet lord in heaven does it show.
The tale here is set far into humanity's future, tying into a time when humanity was forced to abandon the Earth. It's an event the show has tied back to a number of times, starting with the Ark in Space all the way back in Tom Baker's tenure, but it's mostly used to help justify the importance of keeping the few remaining colonies alive. Well, this one is going wrong. Very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that the very systems and servants intended to keep the population alive are murdering them simply for being unhappy. As the Doctor and Bill arrive, the last of them have been killed off, leaving the two time travelers to explore the seemingly abandoned facilities.
Despite the negative qualities of this story - and dear lord will that part be lengthy - there are some good ideas on hand here. The visuals in particular prove to be oddly fitting for this era and tie in well with the 70s aesthetic of the Ark in Space; far better than you might ever imagine. Clinically clean, sterile and retaining a few odd art deco traces to its design, it manages to retain traces of the science fiction elements without turning into full on camp. Better yet, when it does veer away from this into the dingier elements of the setting, the story gives it the impression of something intended to be kept out of sight. The grim and gungy industrial innards of something which is supposed to remain iPod white to any and all visitors, where you would end up placing a few blue collar workers to keep things running. It's simplistic in places, but it's a far better blend of modern and classic ideas than what we often get with the show.
Capaldi himself has also shown a few nice shifts in terms of his character here, and he does seem like a changed man in the wake of Clara's lost. Much of the bitter rage which once fueled his character has slowly dissipated, leaving him with more of the energy, scatter-brained enthusiasm and excitement his predecessor was known for. While such a change might seem strange at first glance, there's enough of the old figure left here to still show he's the same person, and Capaldi's skills as an actor helps him sell just about any scene he's in. It's important to note as this is far more of a character shift than we have seen with any incarnation of the Doctor - save perhaps for Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy's early runs - and could have been very much at odds with his old self. Instead, it's a quietly interesting twist and something which makes the new Doctor-companion dynamic have an edge we have not seen before.
Bill also remains a solid companion and, despite there being little to really see in the place initially, we are given a good impression of just how enthralled she is by the world. The things the series has so often taken for granted, and the more outlandish ideas such as food cubes and humanoid robots are fun moments within the episode, leading to some entertaining back-and-forth between her and the Doctor. Especially when it comes to the subject of how humanity has advanced and why some of the more perfect ideas she praises might not be quite the fixes her species' needs. This is tied closely into a few good moments which helps to remind audiences of just why the Doctor needs a companion so badly and how dangerous his life can be, how it can be equally amazing and horrifying at any moment. To give credit where it is due, many of the early bits do handle this extremely well, and it's enough to serve as a solid re-introduction to events without veering into outright repetition.
Finally, and most promisingly, the visual direction of this story is superb. Often opting for many of the more unconventional and odd shots other directors might avoid, it helps to give this sense of strange disconnection surrounding events. It's that right balance of other-worldliness and conventional cinematography which tells you that there is something very off and very different about this place, and keeps you on edge. While a lesser director might have pulled a full Battlefield Earth and turned the camera on its side for every shot, Lawrence Gough delivers the sort of thing which makes you feel as if there's something odd or entirely unique about the show's visuals. The sort of one where you'll know it's always there but without you completely putting your finger on it.
So, what's bad about this whole thing then? Simply put - The story. It manages to be both completely banal to the point of being cliched while at the same time unconventional for the sheer sake of it. Quite the accomplishment given either one of these could have sunk an episode, but to double down like this is practically unheard of.
The story structure ideas and presentation are all completely off, starting with an opening scene which destroys all investment of the viewer. You might have noticed that the synopsis of this review gives away what should be a big twist. Well, guess what, the episode does exactly the same thing, spelling out what's wrong, what's getting people killed and how to avoid it. This could have led to a solid Columbo style tale if handled well, but the episode botches it by just carrying on as normal, leaving you sitting there going "Look, I already know this, hurry up and get there already!"
The story itself really is just the typical "cancer within Eden" story we've seen so many times before. The sort where it shows a paradise where everything seems perfect but there's a deep dark secret there, and a threat to kill everyone. You can probably think of a good five hundred stories which match up with this. Now, think about what makes them uniquely stand out - usually the threat or the situation - and then think about how well that would hold up if you remove it. Well, if you can do that you're left with Smile.
The episode itself is built upon gimmicks to try and keep your interest. It's a by-the-numbers Doctor Who tale which is as generic as can be, splicing in other science fiction tropes to try and keep things going, but this once again only doubles down on the flaws. You end up with cliche after cliche being piled atop of one another, until the only originality of the tale stems from an idea which is rapidly going to date this story within just a few years: The emojis. What do they add to the tale? Nothing. Not a bloody thing.
This could have been a chance for the show to pull a full scale Black Mirror style plot (something it briefly attempts before backtracking as fast as it can) or even a good idea on how language could evolve. Perhaps turning them into something akin of hieroglyphics or using them to define a person's state in everyday life beyond mere electronics. It would have been difficult but certainly not impossible to do, but instead the whole thing really is just used as an excuse to show them off. It's really a "What are the kids into these days?" moment where it's slapped onto an otherwise unremarkable story to try and give it some life. The threat itself is at least somewhat interesting, at least in how it is presented, but that's pushed into the background almost as soon as it's introduced.
The episode also tries to hold your interest via a surprise twist, but this actually makes things worse. It tries to abruptly shift gears and turn itself into an Asimov robot story in the last act, rushing through events and opening up plot holes big enough to lose the TARDIS in. In fact, the final execution and resolution is so rushed that it sets up far more problems than what it actually resolves, until you're effectively counting down until the robots pull a Cylon uprising on anyone within the city. Yes, this isn't going to be spoiled here, but
Overall, it's a simple plot filled with holes, a simple threat which doesn't manage to be threatening, and a simple solution which doesn't resolve anything. The only thing of real value which could be brought up here might be to show new writers how even the easiest of ideas can be badly, terribly, botched if given to the wrong person.
You're just going to forget about this one within a year or two. There's so little actual impact here, so little substance, that you're just going to be left wondering "Wait, which one was that?" Until someone brings up emoji robots and you're left trying to remember if it was actually good or not. It's fluff, almost filler, and most of what it could offer to make things exciting was topped by Thin Ice in the following week. Skip it, ignore it, wait for a few of the fun conversations to show up on Youtube.