Doctor Who: “Smile” has too many ideas and not much to say about any of them

True to Doctor Who tradition, the second episode of season ten sees the Doctor and Bill Potts traveling far into the future. Usually these far future trips are less plot-focused and more character-driven, often with a commentary about the human condition, and “Smile” is definitely in all of those neighborhoods. If last week’s “The Pilot” was about introducing the show to new viewers and putting the new companion through some of her madcap adventuring paces, “Smile” (like “The End of the World,” “New Earth,” “The Beast Below” and others) is about testing the companion’s limits and challenging her (and the viewer’s) expectations about the future. Unfortunately, not every episode of this type can be a classic like “The End of the World” or “The Beast Below,” and “Smile” isn’t great, mostly because it gets a bit bogged down in being a sort of vaguely anti-technology polemic against emoji.

**Spoilers below.**

Our first glimpse of Gliese 581d is of vast wheat fields and blue skies over a beautiful, albeit stark, white building. It’s not a particularly unique setting for a Doctor Who episode, and it’s the sort of bland sci-fi futurist imagery that just screams dystopia. It’s fine. It is a kind of dystopia, as we’re soon to find out, inhabited by emoji-faced robots, swarms of murderous microbots (Vardies) and a ship full of refugees from a future Earth crisis. The Doctor and Bill arrive right after the robots have murdered the first wave of human colonists who were responsible for preparing the planet to receive the rest of the refugees, who have been kept in stasis. After making a macabre discovery in a greenhouse, the Doctor and Bill have to piece together what happened to the original people before a bunch of very confused robots kill them all.

The emotional core of the episode is Bill coming to terms with a future for humanity that isn’t what she expected or hoped, and Pearl Mackie continues to play Bill with such expressive sensitivity (balanced by heaps of cleverness) that this emotional journey mostly works. There’s some incoherence in the middle as Bill throws herself into uncovering the truth about what’s happened on Gliese, but for the most part it’s easy enough to understand Bill’s feelings. Her sadness and distress as she learns about the future history of Earth are relatable enough, though the episode would have benefited from spending a little more time on Bill’s feelings, just in general. Mackie is such a beautifully emotive actor that it’s a shame to force her to cycle so quickly between feelings-having and doing cleverly competent companion stuff without allowing the feelings to breathe.

One could make the argument that this was intentional and thematically consistent in this episode, what with the enforced cheerfulness that Bill is forced to perform for the emoji-bots, but it’s an episode that is, frankly, full of mixed messaging and missed opportunities for thematic resonance. It touches on several theoretically interesting ideas—the alleged shallowness and limitations of emoji-based communications, the potential for miscommunication when using emoji, and the gendered (and age-dependent) enforcement of public happiness—without managing to have much to say about any of them. As uncomfortable as it is to see an older white man constantly reminding a young woman to “Smile!” the episode has remarkably little to say about the phenomenon, which seems like a huge missed opportunity, and I would love to see this idea tackled by a capable female writer with some awareness of the discourse surrounding this particular patriarchal expectation for women and children.

When it comes to being critical of emoji, the episode is a little more capable, but it relies on a straw man conception of what emoji are, how they are used and what they might be used for in the future. Rather than making any kind of insightful point, there’s an underlying tone of a middle-aged man grumbling about kids these days. Similarly, the warning tone the episode takes towards human reliance on automated technology in general suggests a, frankly, boring Neo-Luddite alarmism about the dangers of artificial intelligence and the hubris of human ingenuity. This messaging becomes even more muddled when combined with the seemingly agrarian aspirations of the Gliese settlers, which is strongly at odds with the warlike, violent humans that are awoken by the end of the episode, whose first instincts are to defend themselves with force against the confused robots that killed their friends.

There are a whole slew of popular sci-fi concepts and tropes in play here, but “Smile” would have been a stronger episode if it decided to focus on one or two and commit to exploring a strong central thesis. It’s not a terrible episode, and Bill continues to charm (she’s the most promising new companion since Donna, in my opinion), but it’s definitely a case of an episode trying to do both too much and too little, with a lazy premise and overall lack of cogent vision.

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