Doctor Who: Smile
(1 episode, s10e02, 2017)
The importance of understanding emotion.
Bill prepares for her first proper trip in the TARDIS, musing about how the seats are too far from the console and how difficult it seems to drive it. She’s impressed that the Doctor stole the TARDIS instead of buying it, and their back-and-forth is interrupted by Nardole who chastizes the Doctor for considering a trip off-world. The Doctor dismisses him by requesting to put the kettle on for tea.
Between the vault and the Doctor’s office, before the kettle boils, the Doctor takes a trip to the future.
On a planet with vast expanses of wheat, colonists are waging a battle with their robots. If the robots detect emotions other than happiness, they murder the colonists with a wave of tiny drones. Sometime later, the Doctor and Bill arrive and take a self-guided tour of one of Earth’s first off-world colonies. They are fitted with translation devices while the emoji-bots stalk them from the windows above. One of the emoji-bots meets the travelers and offers them badges that reflect the wearer’s emotions. The emotions are not visible to the wearer and are worn on the back to facilitate transparency.
The robot serves Bill a meal of processed algae as she notes how skeptical the Doctor is about the empty city. She’s also amazed by the Doctor’s dual hearts, which he mentions during an excited monologue about how the city was built. He later finds a necklace on the ground and his theory changes regarding the residents of the colony. He verifies it by locating the source of a greenhouse’s calcium-based fertilizer.
The Doctor’s shift in mood is noted by the emoji-bots and they chase the travelers before the Doctor tells Bill to smile. The robots are programmed to ensure the happiness of the colonists and they have done so to a fault. The Doctor and Bill evade the robots and return to the TARDIS. The Doctor plans to leave Bill at the TARDIS while he destroys the death trap that is the city, but she is swayed otherwise by the sign on the TARDIS door: “Advice and assistance obtainable immediately.”
The Doctor is the universe’s helpline.
Bill returns to the Doctor’s side and he explains that the killer insect drones – the Vardy – are the literal bones and flesh of the buildings around them. At its core lies the original ship that the colonists arrived in, just like the Vikings who lived in their ships until they built their cities. As the travelers enter the ship, the Erehwon, the emoji-bots go on alert.
The Doctor navigates to the ship’s engine room with Bill’s help and a good old-fashioned deck plan. As the Doctor enters the engine room, the emoji-bots enter murder mode. Bill remembers that she can photograph the deck plan with her phone before following the Doctor’s path. She moves through stacks of artifacts and finds a room holding the remains of a recently-deceased elderly woman and a digital book filled with images of Earth’s history. She deduces that the colonists were the last humans evacuating from Earth.
Bill decides to rendezvous with the Doctor but finds a human boy. Meanwhile, the Doctor is ambushed by an emoji-bot. The Doctor meets up with Bill and the boy and he decides to disarm his makeshift bomb because the ship is a cryogenic colony ship filled with survivors from Earth. They meet Steadfast, one of the first to awaken, and the Doctor orders him to remain on the ship until told otherwise.
Bill takes the Doctor to the elderly woman whom the Time Lord identifies as a shepherd for this flock. She was the first to die, passing from natural causes, but the grief of her death passed through the colony like a virus. The Vardy identified grief as the enemy of happiness and started a cascade of death to stem the tide. Using the necklace, the Doctor recognizes that the grief cycle will continue, so he assembles the colonists to tell them the story.
The boy has left the ship and the colonists decide to wage war on the Vardy. When they fire on an emoji-bot, it experiences rage, and the Vardy attack the colonists. The Doctor realizes that the Vardy have become self-aware and stuns everyone in the city, effectively resetting the city into a symbiotic relationship where the humans are tenants in the Vardy’s new home.
Bill and the Doctor leave in the TARDIS as she muses about his role as an intergalactic policeman. The Doctor presumes that he can return them to the exact moment that they left, but they materialize in the wrong time as an elephant walks up the frozen Thames.
What starts as a monster-of-the-week story ends up with a Doctor Who twist as the supposed enemy ends up on top because it is simply misunderstood. Couple that with the theme of a new companion’s first real trip in the TARDIS and you have a winner.
The origin of this story makes me laugh: Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat don’t understand emojis, so they often had trouble understanding texts from Jenna Coleman (who uses a lot of them in her communication). Thus was born a story about miscommunication based around emotions.
The story’s moral, of course, orbits the concepts of miscommunication and toxic positivity and emphasizes the need to read and understand emotions in relationships. The Vardy only understand black and white when it comes to emotions – grief is the enemy of happiness – but humanity exists in shades of grey that are wide open to interpretation and analysis. We can make a lot of headway together by simply talking things through with transparency.
Following on from the wave of comic characters that exist in Doctor Who canon from The Return of Doctor Mysterio, Bill lets us know that Mister Fantastic of Marvel’s first family (The Fantastic Four) is another superhero in this continuity.
The show also returns to classic tropes with human colony ships (The Ark and The Beast Below, for example) and cryogenic suspension (The Ark in Space, for example). It’s also the second time that we’ve seen a human colony where unhappiness was a death sentence (The Happiness Patrol was the first).
I enjoyed the story of The Magic Haddock, which is a story about being careful about what you wish for. That in-universe parable is made up of two different stories: The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish is the source of the wishes in the haddock story, and The Monkey’s Paw is about an artifact that grants wishes at a deadly expense.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the colony planet was never named. It’s a literal “nowhere” colonized by people who traveled on a ship called Erewhon (“nowhere” spelled backward). (The planet is later called Gliese 581d and Earth 2.7 in different prose stories, but it is not identified in the course of this televised story.)
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Thin Ice
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.