“Smile”, like “The Pilot” before it, represents a return to a classic approach to this season of Doctor Who, and just like the premiere episode, this instalment is refreshingly fun, engaging and tremendously enjoyable. Its structure in many ways is a modern interpretation of the archetypal Doctor Who story; the Doctor and his companion arrive at a otherworldly locale, wander around for a bit, then get sucked into a conflict due either to the Doctor’s curiosity or his fierce moral conviction, often a mixture of both, before narrowly emerging victorious and possibly forever altering the society they’re visiting.
After a great opening scene in the TARDIS where we get treated to watching the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) figuring each other out as they make plans for their first trip in the TARDIS, the travelers journey to the future to an Earth colony that appears to be devoid of human inhabitants. There they encounter two types of robots, the swarming bee-like micro robots known as the Vardies, and more conventional emoji-faced robots devoted to keeping people happy, at all costs. Where are all the people, and will solving this mystery place the Doctor and Bill in peril? The answer to the second question is; of course, this is Doctor Who.
“Smile,” is written by Frank Cotrell-Boyce, whose previous script for the series, 2014’s “In the Forest of the Night,” wound up being divisive among fans for its overt fairy-tale tone. And even though I regard that story more warmly than its critics, I would have to say that “Smile” is much more successful and entertaining than his earlier one. Part of that is because of the new approach to this season of stories, hinted at in the first episode and continued with here. There seems to be an active attempt, after two seasons of experimentation with the boundaries and structure of Doctor Who, to return to a classical approach that recalls the best aspects of the show. There’s a sense of fun and adventure that has renewed the series, re-invigorating everyone involved. As this is the final season for both Capaldi and show-runner Steven Moffat, one can’t help feeling that they want their last batch of adventures to be classic, old-fashioned Doctor Who. And all their collaborators seems to have embraced that approach, and I wonder if what we’re going to see is each writer and director’s most archetypal Doctor Who story. With the rumour that incoming show-runner Chris Chibnall is looking at new writers and a new approach to crafting the show, this could be the last hurrah for more than few familiar faces who might be looking to craft their final word.
This isn’t to say that “Smile” feels dated at all. The opening scene, where the Doctor tries to impress Bill by explaining the TARDIS console room, is fresh and funny and witty, with Pearl Mackie again showing herself to be a delightful and engaging presence. Bill is always asking the most interesting questions, always excited and eager to learn, and never stupid. You can see her surprising Capaldi’s Doctor with her different angle on things, and as he is delighted, so are we. Similarly, Capaldi’s Doctor has come alive in a new way. I had always loved his performance as the Doctor, with all his rough edges and soulful complications. The actor’s complete lack of fear in often being almost hard to like was great to watch, even as his ability to communicate vulnerability ensured his Doctor would never cross the line from being complex into actually unlikable. And now that his Doctor is far more at peace with himself and able to access joy more readily, Capaldi gives us a classical Doctor who has earned his wacky, hilariously funny, overtly heroic outlook. The combination of this version of the Capaldi Doctor and the effervescent Bill results in an unbeatable team for us to follow.
Even the brief inclusion of Matt Lucas‘ Nardole is an improvement over last week’s episode, as it clarifies what the character’s role will be beyond fussy third wheel. Nardole’s scene represents the biggest nod to the overarching mystery of the series so far, namely the Doctor’s vow to remain on Earth and guard the mysterious vault and its contents. The episode manages to solidify that mystery without actually giving us any additional information, really. But it does clarify Nardole’s presence a bit more in that he seems to represent some kind of minder/jailer of the Doctor. He’s a good-natured one, a friendly one, but in this episode his role was to remind the Doctor of his vow, which the Doctor promises to keep in mind…..just before he scarpers off-world with Bill. I much preferred this use of Nardole, and Lucas continues to be a funny presence in the show.
As for the narrative of “Smile,” it’s classical, old-school approach works especially well in it’s first act, which slows things down and keeps things mysterious and compelling as the Doctor and Bill try to piece together the mystery of the colony on Gliese 581d. The design of the setting is wonderful, reflecting a clean, bright and streamlined aesthetic that screams futuristic. Director Lawrence Gough (who also helmed last week’s ep) again shows how well he handles the slowed pace of the opening minutes. He keep things full of energy and threat even as the actual incident happening is simply Bill and the Doctor exploring the colony. He knows how to let all the nice character moments have enough time and space land without feeling as if the momentum of the show stops dead. Then when the action kicks in, things remain clear and well-defined even as the jeopardy grows, and he handles several reversals with drama and impact. I think that things do get away from him in the climax just a bit as the episode does does drift into the breakneck pace that often has occurred in the new series. I’ve got no problem with a quick pace, especially in a climax, but Doctor Who is sometimes guilty of whipping past moments and explanations that actually deserve a little more time, and that happens ever so slightly here.
As the script starts to reveal the reality of what’s going on and what things means, Cotrell-Boyce does something unexpected by having the Doctor’s understanding of the threat and situation change throughout the story, a rare moment of the Doctor nearly being wrong. Along the way, Bill continues to steal the show with well-placed observations that subtly draw out information from the Doctor and that help resolve the threat without being obvious.
The story is a cracking adventure that, for long-time fans, will recall the classic series in its structure and approach, and one could easily see Sylvester McCoy or Peter Davison or even William Hartnell in this story. But with its approach to the Doctor/Bill relationship, as well as the thematic concerns about technology devoted to making people “happy” vs. that technology masking a society from encroaching danger, it always feels modern and up-to-the-minute. With “Smile”, Doctor Who‘s 10th series again gives us a hugely enjoyable story with a renewed spirit of adventure. 8.5/10