Monday, 1 May 2017

WHO REVIEW: 10-2 - "Smile"

There's a very odd structure to this episode. I appreciate the more relaxed pace that we're looking to get with this season, and "Smile" in particular takes a very languid stroll through the story for the first half hour or so. It had the feel of a sixties or early seventies episode, particularly the choice to have only the Doctor and Bill for much of the runtime. This is how serials used to start - twenty-five minutes of investigating a new location, possibly with only the regulars, with the nature of the story only becoming apparent in time. On the other hand, "Smile" actually begins with a scene that lays out the central idea of the episode. There are killer mini-robots that tear you to bits if you can't convince them you're happy. The reasoning behind it isn't clear, but the basic idea is. Going in, we as an audience have a much better idea of what is going on than the Doctor and Bill. We just have to wait for them to catch up.

Fortunately, Capaldi and Mackie are more than capable of carrying the bulk of the episode on their own backs with no supporting cast. There's a very relaxed interaction between them, and one that feels earnt, as the Doctor and Bill have already known each other for some months by this point. These travels in time and space are merely the next big step in their friendship, and it's always fun to see a new companion's first outing to a future world or alien realm. It also helps that the visuals for this episode are so striking. The colony itself is filmed at the City of Arts and Sciences, a huge cultural centre in Valencia. It's a truly remarkable location, which, combined with the rolling crop fields for the outer parts of the colony, makes this episode visually unique. There's never been an episode of Doctor Who that looks quite like this.

Equally, the emoji "robots," that act as interfaces for the tiny, mechanical Vardies, are a striking visual hook for the episode. It makes the episode feel both old-fashioned and up-to-date. Depending on how our culture and language develop, in ten years this episode will either look remarkably prescient or hopelessly dated. Other than the emojibots, though, there's nothing new here. It's mixed up in fun new ways, but it's still highly derivative, with elements of The Happiness Patrol, The Ark in Space and sundry science fiction stories coming together to create what feels, at times, like a kid-friendly episode of Black Mirror. That's not to say it's not a well-written or enjoyable episode; some of the best stories are derivative. Still, there's something of a "best of" feel to this one.

Peter Capaldi is scarier when he's smiling broadly than when he's scowling furiously at people. Pearl Mackie is just a joy to watch in her interactions with him. "Smile" is a pretty great episode up until the last ten minutes or so, when we realise the Doctor has been astonishingly dense by not checking if there's anyone alive in the spacecraft. (And sorry to disappoint, those who thought the Doctor had finally gone full Malcolm Tucker, but he shouts "Pods!" not "Bollocks!") The crew wake up, quintupling the cast but proving to be mostly pointless. The celebrated appearance by Ralf Little turns out to be less than ten minutes of him playing an aggressively stupid person. It's a shame, because the final resolution is pretty sound. It even manages to make the much-maligned reset button a virtue. That little dip aside, "Smile" is a fairly strong episode.

Space/Time Co-ordinates: The planet visited in this episode is never named in dialogue, but tie-in material in both DWM and The Radio Times state it as Gliese 581d, a real exoplanet that is one of the first known super-earths within the its star's projected habitable zone. It is, as Bill's dialogue suggests, twenty light years away (20.4, to be precise).

The temporal setting of the episode is less clear. It is stated to be both thousands of years in the future, but also to be one of humanity's first colonies. The Earth has been evacuated, and the Doctor says he's "run into a number of ships over the years." This is indeed true, as the Doctor encountered evacuation ships holding the last hopes of humankind in The Ark (1966), Frontios (1984) and The Beast Below (2010). The latter episode was set some hundreds of years after the Starship UK's launch in the 29th century, when the Earth was evacuated due to solar flares. This is a reference to the 1975 story The Ark in Space, which saw the space station Nerva holding, again, the last hopes of humankind, ten thousand years after solar flares hit the Earth. Unfortunately, the "29th century" moment referred to the time the station was built, itself thousands of years before it was repurposed to become the Ark. The serial The Ark and its distant descendant Frontios both suggested solar flares had led to the abandonment of the Earth, but both stories were implied to be millions of years in the future.

There's no consistent future history of Doctor Who, but most stories suggest space colonisation beginning in the relatively near future, with humans reaching other star systems within the next couple of hundred years. The only story which suggests a later time for this is 1977's The Invisible Enemy, which suggests a "Great Breakout" occurred in the year 5000, with humanity "leapfrogging across the stars." An awful lot of stuff happens around AD 5000 in the Whoniverse, including World War V, but it's possible to fit all this together if you squint. However, there's no hint of either a United Earth or solar flares in the 5000 stories. That said, the images seen in the ship's encyclopaedia in "Smile" suggest a war was responsible for the evacuation, which would fit in rather nicely. Perhaps United Earth was a post-WWV movement that led to a new wave of colonisation, with flares hitting later and finally forcing humanity from the planet. Many millennia later, the Earth was recolonised, only to be abandoned again in the further future.

Best lines:

"Why are you Scottish?"

"I'm not Scottish, I'm just cross."

"Is there Scotland in Space?"

"They're all over the place, demanding independence from every planet they land on."

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