24 April 2017

Doctor Who Smile review


2017 Series Episode 2 - tx 22/04/17. Written by Frank Cottrell- Boyce. Directed by Lawrence Gough. Episode reviewed by Estelle Hargraves

Episode 2 continues the “jumping-on point” to Who that Steven Moffatt provided in The Pilot last week. That was all about setting the scene, introducing the basics of the characters and solving a present-day mystery which, in classic-Moffatt fashion, was all about making an everyday object (in this case, a puddle) mysterious and sinister. As the series continues, there appears to be the beginnings of a whistle stop tour of the classic elements of Doctor Who – in Smile, the Doctor gives not-quite-official-companion-yet Bill Potts the option of an adventure in the past or future and Bill shows just how eager she is to explore the unknown by immediately choosing the future, “to see if it’s happy.”
SPOILERS PAST THIS POINT AS THIS ROBOT IS CLEARLY TELLING THEM...


The pair are still very much in teacher and pupil mode. As established last week, the Doctor has been lecturing at St Luke’s University in Bristol for as long as anyone can remember, and Bill, a canteen worker with a hunger for more than the chips she serves up, is a mock student, sneaking into the Doctor’s lectures until he bestows official student status on her. She describes him as an awesome tutor, and I’m constantly expecting her to start calling him “The Professor”, Ace-style. The Doctor, meanwhile, is half-heartedly trying to protect her from harm, but in a manner which suggests that the way Bill reacts is all part of her final exam to gain official entry into the Tardis. Nardole, or “mum” as the Doctor calls him, is not so sure, reminding the Doctor that his first priority is a mysterious promise to guard a vault, which means no off-earth travelling. 

Ignoring this, the Doctor honours Bill’s request to visit the future, taking them to Gliese 581 D, a colony world 20 light years away from earth. The planet is bright and clean and full of thriving plant life, having been terraformed by tiny flying robots called Vardies, getting the place ready as the new outpost for the human race. Bill and the Doctor are greeted by the Vardies robot interfaces, looking as new and shiny as if they were i-robots just out of an Apple box, and who communicate by emoji, picking up the emotions of any people in their vicinity via a mood-communicator. We’ve already seen that these cute looking robots are more sinister than they look, acting as the thought police for the already-destroyed first batch of human “shepherds” – once you have gone to “two-tear” sadness you apparently can’t survive them, and the tiny Vardies will promptly turn you into plant food. Perhaps writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce has also been struck by how sinister-sounding “Blood and Bone” fertiliser really is.

In Doctor Who Magazine, Cottrell-Boyce explained his thinking for this episode, “It’s about Utopia. I’m really, really bored of Dystopia. I was already bored of it, and I think we’re living in Dystopia now, so it’s really, really time to start thinking about Utopia….We seem to have stopped thinking about what a good society would look like.” And it’s an interesting point. Of course, a happy society which works well for its inhabitants might be an interesting essay but it’s terribly dull from a dramatic point of view. So, with exceptions, future or extra-terrestrial societies tends to be depicted as either dystopian, or strange, or funny.  “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is one of the most imaginative and certainly the funniest portrayal of other societies that I know of, and so it makes sense to me that I feel like I’m constantly seeing echoes of it in Cottrell-Boyce’s work. His latest book “Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth” feels like it’s filling in the gaps to the Hitchhiker’s description of the Earth as “mostly harmless”, and in Smile, the emoji robots are in once sense the anti-Marvins, with their deadly insistence on happiness at all times, yet they look incredibly similar to the Marvin of the Hitchhiker’s film. The communications upgrade into the Doctor and Bill’s ears also had a touch of the babel fish about it.

But the key to this episode is, for me, seen in the name of the spaceship which brought the human settlers to this world – Erehwon - and the Puritan-like names of these far-distant humans.  These are apparently some of the last remnants of the human race, although not all – the doctor says he’s bumped into a few other ships on similar missions. Presumably this includes Spaceship UK of “The Beast Below”, Amy Pond’s introduction to the future. Actually, post-Brexit, Spaceship UK sounds all the more plausible, especially given that Scotland chose to go its own way on a different ship.

The people of “Smile” are called “Goodpeople”, and make their intentions clear by their names, like the Pilgrim Fathers setting out into the hopeful unknown. They all have positive and virtuous monikers – Steadfast, Praiseworthy, Hopeful and Sunshine. Their apparent escape of a nuclear catastrophe on earth has made them focus on optimism and ensure their new world has an emphasis on staying happy. The Vardies are supposed to provide this – keeping the settlers in good physical condition and in a permanently contented state. Perhaps in the midst of all the riots and bombs, however, someone forgot to programme the Vardies with Asimov’s Laws of Robotics to stop them slaughtering their human masters by a misunderstanding, or with enough data allow humans to feel sadness when appropriate. Maybe. But surely the person responsible for programming the lethal death face on the robots should have had second thoughts at least?

This leads into “Erehwon”, an echo of Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon” – a satirical depiction of Utopia in a novel from from 1872. Erewhon backwards is both “nowhere” and “now here”, perhaps reflected in the little boy, Praiseworthy, asking “Are we there yet?” in true kid fashion. In Butler’s “Erewhon”, ill people are treated as criminals, as are unhappy people here. And there are no machines in Erewhon, as the people believe them to be dangerous as they could also be subject to Darwin’s theory of evolution.  This was seen as a joke in 1872, and a satire on Darwinian theory. But Butler was deadly serious, and it’s astoundingly prescient of him to essentially predict the point at which artificial intelligence in machines turns into real intelligence, real consciousness, and a new life form. This is what the Doctor recognises has happened to the Vardies, just after realising that the rest of the human race is actually in cryogenic suspension on board the spaceship, not on a separate craft headed for the planet, and so blowing up the settlement wouldn’t be a good idea after all. Instead, he presses the reset button, using his tale of “The Magic Haddock” as inspiration. The “slave race” of the Vardies is now the master race of the planet and the human settlers will need to negotiate to share the world between them.

I like Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s writing of this episode - the developing of the Doctor and Bill’s relationship is nicely done, and Pearl Mackie as Bill continues to shine with a bright personality and even more distinctive silhouette than the Doctor. The threat posed by the Vardies is a little uneven though – with the settlers, death by flying robot is instantaneous and inescapable, but the Doctor and Bill escape with what seems like not too much difficulty. The fact that we only see a tiny number of settlers at the start and end of the programme also feels like we don’t know enough about them, and find it harder to develop an emotional attachment to their survival, apart from generally wanting the human race to continue. However, I thought this was a nice introduction to the future for Bill, and a welcome addition to thought-experiments of Utopias, what they might look like and what pitfalls we may face.

With regard to the series arc, we now know that the Doctor is (supposed to be) confined to Earth by a self-imposed oath, in order to guard some kind of vault. And if for some reason the vault is unguarded, the results could be horrendous. I’m going to stake my claim here that the reason the Doctor was given two portions of food is connected to this. The Doctor’s throwaway explanation that it’s probably because the robot sensed his two hearts is a useful way to communicate his alien-ness to Bill, but something smells fishy to me, and it’s not just the blue algae cube. Bill, as a canteen worker, also has a professional indignation that she’s been served less than the Doctor seeing as she’s happily doled out extra portions of chips to the girl she fancies at university. And talking of fish, I’m seeing references to it everywhere – algae that smells of fish, chips, magic haddocks and babel fish. I wonder if it means anything?

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