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Monday, 24 April 2017

Doctor Who S36E2: Smile

Doctor Who
Series 36, Episode 2

You know, I came here all prepared to rag on Steven Moffat for using another 'there's some kind of monster and everyone has to control a natural impulse in order to avoid detection' because it's a plot shenanigan he seems to particularly love (and not for entirely inexplicable reasons, either -- it's a good horror trope, it just doesn't work so great when used all the time), but actually, Moffat didn't write this episode.

This episode was actually written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, whose last episode -- and only other writing credit for Doctor Who -- was 'In the Forest of the Night,' an episode that earned from me the stunning accolade of 'not the worst in the series, but also not the best,' but which also drew some of my ire for its weird 'there's nothing wrong with the mentally ill, they're just special and people are jealous' message.

Taken in that context, this episode takes on something of a new light: Is the 'you have to smile or you'll die' theme just Cottrell-Boyce's variation on the Moffat 'control a natural impulse' story, or is he trying to craft some grand metaphor for why mentally ill people need to stop taking their medication, or some rubbish like that? My inclination is to say that it's the former, and that Cottrell-Boyce just isn't a very original or clever writer.


Anyway, this episode follows the Doctor and Bill as they arrive on a colony planet for humanity, only to discover that the set-up team have been murdered by their own nanite servants (and the emoji-using robots that are the nanites' interface, and god, 'emoji-using robots' is such a disgustingly twee and kids-appeal-as-imagined-by-a-fifty-year-old-television-commissioner concept that both Moffat and Cottrell-Boyce are off the hook for that one, as I cannot imagine it being anything other than an order handed down from the the benevolent overlords of the BBC). The reason is, apparently, that the nanites -- called the Vardy -- have been programmed to make sure everyone is happy, and have interpreted this as 'eliminating unhappiness.' To evade them, the Doctor and Bill must keep their mood up as they work their way towards the colony ship's engine, planning to blow up the colony -- only to discover in short order that the colonists are already on-planet.

A few people have been comparing this episode to Black Mirror, and those people are wrong, because this episode has not a single hint of the social satire or wit that Black Mirror is known for. It could have: The potential is there in the concept, certainly, but nothing is ever made of it -- it's just a story about killer robots that like happy people.

Which is fine, to be honest. Doctor Who, especially under Moffat, has had a poor track record with social commentary.

Bill and the Doctor.

In fact, 'fine' could describe most of this episode. Killer nanites attacking people with shiny happy robots? Eh, it's fine. I've seen it before, but it's fine. The twist being that the Vardy are now a sapient species, and the Doctor has to make them live in peace with aggressive humans? Sure, fine. We had a whole two-parter about it back in the Matt Smith era, but it's a very Doctor Who ish concept, so I'll live. A control-a-natural-impulse-to-survive plotline? It's getting a bit stale, and Cottrell-Boyce can't pull it off the way that Moffat sometimes can, so nothing ever really comes of it, but sure, why not, it's fine.

Much like how 'In the Forest of the Night' was remarkable only in some of the weird messages it tried to foist off on its audience, 'Smile' is remarkable only insofar as it is completely unmemorable. It's not good. It's not bad. It's not anything: It is God's perfect middle-of-the-road episode. You could pick it up, transplant it into any show on television, regardless of genre, and it would fit in just fine, because there's basically nothing here.

I've watched it twice now, once as a casual viewer and once in order to write this review, and already the details are fading from my mind. It is a complete non-entity of an episode. Some would argue that that's worse than just a bad episode, that apathy is a more toxic reaction than hate -- and much like the people comparing this episode to Black Mirror, those people are wrong. Having seen the depths that Doctor Who can plumb on a bad day, I will take apathy.

What nice robots.

Next week will apparently take us to a frozen Victorian London with elephants walking around, which sounds absurd until you realise that there was a period of time where the Thames was frozen, and one thing we know for a fact is that several people saw elephants walking on the surface of the Thames -- so this is actually pure history. The evil monster apparently lurking underneath the ice less so.

Actually, that just reminds me, it would be nice to have an entirely sans-alien-or-advanced-technology episode of Doctor Who. Just the TARDIS landing in the past, and the Doctor and his companion having to deal with. The 'the past is an alien world' style of storytelling.

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