The second episode is often the hardest.
Many seasons of Doctor Who have come racing out of the blocks with a strong opening episode that have emphatically put forward a change in approach, before a second instalment that slipped back into the familiar formula for very standard results.
Look at ‘The Eleventh Hour’ into ‘The Beast Below’, or ‘Deep Breath into ‘Into the Dalek’. Creating momentum is one thing, while maintaining it is another.
It’s a pleasant surprise, therefore, that ‘Smile’ is a true sequel to ‘The Pilot’, unique to this incarnation of the series, as opposed to a familiar episode that could have been parachuted in from any other season with a lick of paint.
Most obviously, it begins immediately after that opening episode, throwing Bill back into the fire with barely a chance to catch her breath after her first scrap with a monster.
Yet the continuity extends a long way beyond mere timing. Like ‘The Pilot’, ‘Smile’ deals with a classic Doctor Who set-up and executes it in a way that makes everything about character, as opposed to plot.
In fact, there’s barely any actual plot to speak of. While the typical standalone episode is hyperactive, racing along to establish an intricate plot just as it has to knock it all down within 45 minutes, ‘Smile’ is comparatively relaxed and mellow. It only behaves like a regular episode, jeopardy and all, for about 15 minutes at the end.
And, truth be told, those first 30 minutes are where most of the pleasures of ‘Smile’ come from, as it sedately sets about adding meat to the bones of the Doctor-Bill relationship. The episode wouldn’t work at all if that relationship wasn’t compelling, but, thankfully, Doctor Who is onto something special with this new pairing.
There’s a kind of alchemy to Doctor-companion teams – some click, and some don’t, and it’s never wholly clear, on a critical level, why that is. That natural, somewhat lucky chemistry is on display throughout ‘Smile’.
Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie have a dynamic that just works, as they spark and bounce off each other. Perhaps it’s due to the way in which the Doctor and Bill always seem to be surprising each other – he with revelations of the heroism that’s hidden behind the ‘mad man in a box’ persona, her with cutting insights about the contradictions of the Doctor’s life that no-one ever thought to ask before.
Capaldi’s performance feels invigorated by this new challenge as a new side of the Twelfth Doctor is emerging, while Mackie’s delightful enthusiasm for the pure fun of space travel continues to make Bill one of the most purely likeable companions we’ve had in a while.
Together, they’re a team that are more than compelling enough to hold the screen for about 30 minutes with minimal intrusion from the plot.
Another element of the continuation of the back-to-basics approach in ‘Smile’ is the way in which it freely explores notions of the Doctor’s heroism that are often just left implicit by the show.
With Capaldi’s Doctor, the intent seemed to be putting the Doctor into more of an anti-hero role in which we were uncertain of his morality, and that worked for a time. As Season 10 is showing, however, it’s more rewarding to see the Doctor’s classic attributes examined and celebrated as opposed to deconstructed.
The Doctor of ‘Smile’ is the archetypal hero – smart enough to figure out the mystery behind the humans’ disappearance, and compassionate enough to work out a solution that bypasses any need for violence, while his claims that he’s just ‘passing through’ look thinner by the minute.
It’s the classical take on the character that the trailers, with their ‘Time for Heroes’ slogan, promised, and it’s a shrewd new angle that reflects the evolved nature of this unusual incarnation of the Doctor, who’s earned his way back to the aspects we know and love best about him.
It would be unfair to dismiss the actual plot of ‘Smile’ as disposable, as it’s meatier than one might expect.
The emojibots, admittedly, aren’t much of a physical threat. Are they meant to be scary? It’s unclear, to be honest – they’re so aggressively docile in their cute little design that any time they start waddling at the Doctor and Bill with their angry skull faces, it’s hard to really feel scared.
A scene where a bot is grabbing onto the Doctor’s leg, trying to pull him off the platform, is reminiscent of a cute little dog yapping at his owner’s heels as it demands a walk. While it makes a good marketing slogan, I would be lying if I said that ‘Smile’ makes emojis scary.
Going beyond the shallow, however, and there’s actually some interesting ideas to the antagonists here and the overall plotline of the missing colonists. The caustic satire that many predicted from this story never materialises, and instead ‘Smile’ swerves into a thoughtful exploration of emotion, and how it’s interpreted by machine and human alike.
The idea that happiness became a weapon in the hands of robots who saw it as an absolute necessity is a clever answer to the mystery that requires a good solution from all the build-up, illustrating the benefits of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s very humanistic take on sci-fi which always brings it back to the simple emotion of it all.
While the shift into a more action-oriented conclusion is somewhat clumsy, complete with the abrupt introduction of a list of guest stars (including The Royle Family’s Ralf Little) who scarcely have time for names, let alone any real characterisation, ‘Smile’ completes its thematic exploration of the difficulties in creating utopia with its final twist.
The conclusion of the Doctor brokering a deal that recognises both the robots and humans as separate species, free to negotiate and co-exist with each other while recognising their different forms of expression, isn’t unalike his conclusion of ‘In the Forest of the Night’.
Yet while that episode struggled by failing to define an antagonist, meaning the ‘the bad guys were good all along!’ had no weight or meaning where it came, ‘Smile’ puts the effort in establishing the motivations and personalities of its villains to make the twist work.
Instead of a meaningless cop-out, the Doctor’s solution feels like a satisfying way out of a conundrum that could seemingly only end in violence, exhibiting his powers of finding peace where it seems impossible once more.
Admittedly, there are some real pacing problems that hamper all of this. Some of that’s mentioned above – the guest cast are universally wasted, and the shift towards attacking robots and lasers firing everywhere doesn’t feel true to an episode that’s much more emotional than physical in its storytelling.
It’s a shame that the thematic neatness of the Doctor’s solution doesn’t quite have the time to breathe, either. We get that he’s created a new civilisation, and that works for the story quite nicely, but we don’t really get to see the fruits of the Doctor’s labour before he zips off into time and space once more.
It’s easy to feel, therefore, like the conclusion is a cop-out, because the thoughtfulness of the plot twist can only come across as contrivance, initially, when crammed into such a short space of time.
Yet ‘Smile’ works, at least for me. It’s an episode rife with things to pick at and things that could have gone better, and in that respect, it’s not as sturdy as ‘The Pilot’, but what it needs to get right, it gets very right.
The Doctor and Bill’s relationship gets the time it needs to develop and deepen, and every step of that change is entertaining to watch and communicated with panache by actors who seem to genuinely love working alongside each other.
And in a legion of grim and gritty sci-fi dystopias, a story set in a genuinely beautiful location that aims to portray the establishment of a civilisation wherein man and machine co-exist in harmony, respecting their differences and their common goals alike is something that deserves to be praised.
‘Smile’ isn’t one of the best episodes of Doctor Who, but it does have something in common with then: it shows that there’s always hope somewhere, even if it’s the last place you’d expect.
Next up, then – frozen London, Regency era, snake monster. And from the looks of it, Bill still isn’t getting a chance to catch her breath before the next bout of peril begins…
Aired at 7.20pm on Saturday 22 April 2017 on BBC One.
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