With Bill’s introduction out of the way, we can get into the real Allons-y of the season. “Smile” was a pretty good episode, though not without its problems. It had an interesting plot that was well-resolved, with some good laughs along the way. It also raised some questions, for the episode and for the season in general.
Let me start by saying that I do like Bill, and I understand that, for her to fit the Young Woman of Modern Earth companion mold, she was always going to have to be a Millennial. But she is walking a very fine line with it and sometimes she stumbles onto the stereotypical side of it, which I believe is down to the writing more than her performance. She’s psyched about emojis of the future, the first thing she does in the first human space colony is snap a selfie. If she’d used the word hashtag unironically, I probably would have punched my TV. To me, it smells like middle-aged, white, male writers saying “We gotta make her one of the cool kids. What is that word my granddaughter’s always using incorrectly? Oh yeah, thirsty! Let’s make her that!” Settle down boys. You can make her real without making her a caricature.
Still, as I said, I like Bill. She’s practical about the TARDIS (I’ve always wondered why the seats are so far from the controls). She’s the first companion in a while not to be completely pumped to race off after the Doctor into danger, addressing the sensible alternative theory many of us might have, that perhaps there’s someone we might call to deal with these things? I liked her hot take on why he does what he does. She got his number awfully quick and her logic of why to follow him back into the colony made a lot of sense. I also enjoy her appreciation for every new experience. It’s a nice take on a role that can often get too jaded too quickly.
Overall, I liked this plot. The Doctor’s explanation about why the colonists left Earth was a little too much science and not enough fiction, entirely too believable for my tastes, given the state of the world these days. The emoji-bots were the perfect blend of cute and creepy and struck a good balance between villain and misunderstood emergent species. And when we finally got around to the reasoning for grief as plague, I felt that was pretty brilliant. As enjoyable as the story was, there were some problems with its execution.
As clever as it is to use robots to set up a space colony prior your arrival, I didn’t totally buy that explanation as soon as it was given. Now, of course, this is because I’ve seen TV before and it can be frustrating to watch shows where characters act as if they haven’t, but this is the Doctor. He has absolutely seen TV before, he’s likely seen all the TV there is. His assumption was a glaring oversight that quickly almost blew up an entire city. I have an even harder time with the idea that he didn’t scan for life before plotting to blow up the colony, especially considering we later learn the robots are considered life forms. Likewise, I began to wonder when he was going to get around to reprogramming the robots far before it occurred to him to do so. I expect this lack of consideration for life is down to the absence of a caring companion in his life for so long, but that connection could have been drawn for me a little better. A scene back at the university with Nardole, scolding about “how he gets without a human” would have been nice. Meanwhile, Capaldi’s performance remains spot on. The way he delivered the line about blowing up a “big smiley abbatoir” is at once something that could be said by any of the doctors and could only have been said by him. And thumbs up to the coordination between what was shown on the Doctor’s emoji badge and what was shown on his face. For me, those were the biggest laughs of the episode.
The Doctor’s self-imposed exile is intriguing. The most famous Earth exile in Doctor Who history is when the Time Lords banished him there in his 3rd incarnation (when adventures with UNIT and the Brigadier were the order of the day and a good way to keep the budget under control). With the Time Lords not around to slap his hand, it seems that the Doctor has done this to himself (he says he took an oath, but not for whom). But of course, he doesn’t really want to follow through with it and having a time machine gives him a pretty good loophole. The vault they’re meant to be guarding has my attention. Clearly it’s important, but not so important that he can’t run off to play, leaving Nardole in charge, under the pretense of returning before he left. He well knows he can’t actually cross his own time stream like that, nor does he always have the precise control of the TARDIS to return exactly when he means to. The faster he talks, the more sure I am something else is going on. If I were a betting woman, I’d say the vault is going to be a season-long mystery leading up to the finale. (Again: I’ve seen TV before.) I’m really enjoying Nardole, and Matt Lucas’ comic relief leaves me hoping that the Doctor won’t keep his off-planetary excursions secret from him for long. However, if you piece together the Doctor’s secrecy and the fact that the closing moments seem to thrust our heroes straight into their next adventure, it looks like we might not be getting back to Nardole as soon as I’d hope. Still, a trip into the past with Bill and the Doctor looks like a lot of fun. See you next week!