Doctor Who episode 845: Smile (22/4/2017)
‘You’ve never passed by in your life.’ It’s probably a coincidence that the second story of the rebooted series features a long sequence of the Doctor and Bill exploring a deserted city where they get cornered by robot people, per The Daleks. Or that there are weird overtones of The Masters of Luxor, as Bill is presented with food and wonders whether it might be poisoned. It’s rooted in old school Doctor Who storytelling, occasionally revived, where the TARDIS arrives in a world which is itself a mystery to be unpicked.
This might well be driven by a desire to put Capaldi and Mackie on screen together with minimal distractions – unusual, when every previous companion’s sophomore story since The End of the World has seen them taken to a busy, colourful destination. By way of contrast, this colony is a blank slate, plain grey and white. It doesn’t even have a name. It’s an empty stage that Capaldi and Mackie fill with their performances – the Doctor is suspicious, Bill is enthusiastic (reflected by their Emoji badges), both curious in their own idiosyncratic ways.
I love this, there’s an ease to this dynamic, shorn of any hint of jealousy either way, that we haven’t had since Donna left. I like that Bill isn’t trying to be the Doctor; her motivations are very different from Clara’s – she helps because she understands that’s what the Doctor does, he doesn’t just pass by. That she perceives this after she reads the public notice on the TARDIS is a great moment. And the 12th Doctor literally becoming a tutor is so in keeping with all those blackboard lectures in Series Eight it feels like Capaldi has come into the role he was meant to play.
On the whole, I think this is a vast improvement over Cottrell-Boyce’s first Doctor Who episode (In the Forest of the Night). There are some superficial similarities to The Happiness Patrol (a world where sadness equals death), but this is really a Moffat “broken button” story with ‘grief as plague’ (a phrase that unavoidably recalls Dr Constantine’s description of ‘physical injuries as plague’ in The Empty Child), and a soupcon of the Mechonoids (although the Emojibots are much cuter). It falls apart a bit in the last act, when the clean lines of the colony are exchanged for the bric-a-brac of the sleeper ship, and underdeveloped colonist characters provide some unnecessary last-minute complication (the threat of the waking sleepers being killed off en masse was enough jeopardy). But this is a strong follow-up to The Pilot. The Hartnell Years overtones continue with the cliffhanger into the next episode – as the Doctor fails to get Bill home, and they meet an elephant on the frozen Thames.
Next Time: Thin Ice