This week’s episode of Doctor Who was an improvement over last week’s episode, and last week’s episode wasn’t even remotely bad. While “Smile” almost indicates a very ominous tone via the title (see: shows like Jessica Jones), this week’s episode manages to be a solid example of science fiction’s ability to play with assumptions and tell a good story like the best Who episodes.
Spoilers ahead for the second episode of Doctor Who’s tenth series.
Opening in a field on another planet, we have an astronaut fertilizing the fields, followed by a small robot with a smiley face. The woman is calling back to the facility in the distance, but is being told emphatically to not return. They are being very cagey about why, so our astronaut farmer returns. Upon returning, she is told that multiple people in the facility are now dead, but is told by someone with a smile on their face. They insist that she too must smile. Instead, she becomes manic, at which point, her helper machine grabs her as small insects descend off the walls and eat her flesh.
Picking up after the events of the previous episode, we find Bill still getting used to the idea of the TARDIS and asking more of her trademark logic questions. It’s a mix of the obvious and the things no one really thinks about, and thankfully this banter doesn’t linger any longer than it needs to. The two are interrupted by Nardole, who arrives to scold The Doctor for taking the TARDIS out of his office, indicating that he made a promise not to go offworld save for emergencies. The Doctor blows him off, telling him they’re heading back up, sending Nardole on his way. Naturally, this is a time machine, so The Doctor still offers to take Bill somewhere and simply return to the same point in time. Given the option of the past or the future, Bill opts to go to the future, to see “if it’s there.”
This is pretty much the only MacGuffin tease we’re getting this episode, so let’s quickly address that. We now know that the vault is meant to be guarded by The Doctor, but it seems Nardole’s role is to make sure he actually does what he promised. There isn’t any indication as to who this promise was made to, but whoever it was clearly knew about The Doctor’s propensity for wandering off. Nardole doesn’t appear for the rest of the episode, so that’s all on this until extra thoughts.
Naturally, the TARDIS lands in the fields outside the complex from the intro. Entering the complex, the two marvel at the design of the facility. The Doctor speaks to Bill about how he’s always impressed with the optimism of humanity, in both their innovation and design. The are automatically given the ability to hear all throughout the facility as well. Meanwhile, the smiley robots observe their entrance, with one approaching them and handing yellow discs. The disks measure the wearer’s emotions and mount to their back. Bill and The Doctor accept these and continue to be shown around the facility by the “emojibots,” named for the way the robots communicate. Both Bill and The Doctor seem impressed, but can’t help but question where the actual people are. Eventually The Doctor comes to the conclusion that the bots must have been sent ahead of the human colonists, presumably to set up the facility for them to live in.
For a while, that satisfies, but The Doctor’s reasoning gets the best of him and realizes that there should at least be a skeleton crew to maintain things. Continuing to explore leads to the discovery of the literal skeletons of the that crew. Realizing the situation, Bill and The Doctor escape by discovering that the emojibots react violently to any emotion that isn’t happiness-so they literally smile their way out. Back on the outside, Bill prepares to leave, but The Doctor resolves to back into the facility and destroy it so the incoming colonists won’t fall into the same trap. Bill isn’t so keen on the idea, thinking they can call for help from someone else, before realizing they’re flying around in a police box.
Back inside, The Doctor sets about preparing to blow up the facility, revealing to Bill that it is completely made of microbots called Vardies. The emojibots are the interfaces for managing the Vardies. They’ll need to find the part of the building made up of the ship the Vardies arrived on in order to accomplish their goals. Locating a remnant of the hull, they sneak into the actual ship, triggering the emojibots. Bill quickly guides The Doctor to the engine of the ship, and manages to just as quickly sabotage it to explode, with only one emojibot encounter. If this sounds a little too simple, that’s because it is-we still have one last plot twist.
There isn’t a colonist ship incoming, it’s already there and our heroes just set it to blow up. Bill discovers a boy wandering the ship, and more of the colonists are set to follow. The Doctor stops his explosion plan, but now they must find a way to stop the Vardies from killing the rest of the colonists. Bill locates a corpse within the ship, kept with a database of human history; including the history of the base. Through this, they realize that this woman’s normal and natural death introduced grief into the colony, which interfered with the robot’s abilities to keep people happy.
That’s right-people built these things without teaching them that sometimes humans are just sad.
The boy escapes into the larger facility to search for his mother, who is of course the victim from the opening, but The Doctor manages to catch the rest of the colonists waking up and tries to explain the situation: the Vardies are still trying to keep people happy, but by eliminating sadness. Naturally, the humans armor up instead and attack the emojibots. One bot is shot, causing the others to react in a way that The Doctor recognizes as emotion. Picking up the damaged bot, The Doctor sends a signal through the machines to make them forget their original purpose, eliminating the threat. However, it now means that humans will need to co-habitate with the machines instead of control them. Leaving the people to their own devices, Bill and The Doctor leave to return to the set moment in time they left, only for the show to bring back one of my particularly favorite devices: introducing the next episode in a brief teaser as the TARDIS lands on a frozen river, in front of an elephant.
In all fairness, this episode is pretty light all around, relying on the still-new dynamic of The Doctor and Bill to fill the gaps. I feel they managed to nail that in a way that elevates the pretty basic episode. As I said in the beginning, the fact that this episode has stakes, but not in the way even the trailers indicated, manages to keep things interesting enough. I’m also a fan of the emojibots as a whole, so much as it’s a pretty solid visual and a good joke at modern day’s expense.
Most importantly, this makes a good companion to “The Pilot,” and now between the two I feel we have a good grasp on the kind of character Bill is, and what the show is going to expect for her. And it is awesome. It has been so very long since we’ve had a companion who is basically a random hitchhiker on the TARDIS, and her wanderlust is such a breath of fresh air while being a way better fit with Capaldi’s presence than Clara was, despite great work from Jenna Coleman at the time. Honestly, I think a part of why I’m jiving so much with Bill is she feels like the first proper millennial companion. She still has genuine optimism, even in spite of a life that clearly didn’t deal her the hand she expected. It’s all in her choice to go to the future. She’s less curious to see if we have flying cars as much as to find out if its even there. That kind of thing resonates with me. All in all, I think we’re off to the races now, and I’m hoping we keep seeing some solid work this season.
- Nardole isn’t in this episode much, and I’m certain it’s not robot Nardole. Are we just not going to explain that one?
- At the end, it’s indicated that the robots are going to charge the humans to stay at the colony. This cracked me up. Even when you speak emoji, you also speak money.
- I really hope that we keep getting episode teasers at the end. That’s always fun.
- Still don’t care about what’s in the vault. I doubt we’ll find out anytime soon anyway.
- That said, if I was to take a guess as to who The Doctor’s vow was to, those pictures on his desk last episode might be a good hint.