Now that The Pilot is out of the way, Series 10 gets stuck into our first full adventure with the very enjoyable Bill as the companion, as she and the Doctor visit one of Earth’s first colonies in the future. All seems fine and utopian, complete with adorable robots who speak in emojis, until The Doctor ponders, ‘Where are the colonists?’
After his well-intentioned but muddled debut with Series 8’s In The Forest Of The Night, the return of Frank Cotrell-Boyce wasn’t high on my list of reasons to tune in. Thankfully, I can say Smile learnt from a couple of his previous mistakes, even if conceptually, it’s the same basic gist of retelling a fairytale as sci-fi (in this case, The Magic Haddock, as the story alludes to several times). What immediately allows it to work better is the emphasis on ambience and environment over plotting: the episode allows you time to really get to know and explore the colony and its features, making you feel like you’re along with the Doctor and Bill. It’s arguably one of the most immersive episodes in a very long time, and full props to the production team as the sets and robots look first rate.
Of course, the chemistry between Mackie and Capaldi helps sweeten the deal, as they have a great camaraderie, between tutor-pupil and friends, that makes them a joy to watch. Seeing them get to know one another better and adventuring was so enjoyable that I found myself getting annoyed when the plot started to kick back in. There’s a better sense of mystery than either last week’s episode or Forest, and director Lawrence Gough does well at creating a cheerily-sinister atmosphere, but it all goes into a very familiar pattern when humans are brought in, and the resolution feels underexplained and a little rushed.
This is doubly a shame, as there are some really compelling ideas concerning the pros and cons of human idealism and desire to find solutions for everything, including emotion and the concept of ‘happiness’, and even a little bit of subversion concerning the Doctor’s usual methods for dealing with these types of scenarios. However, the shift from immersive style to a set structure in the last third backfired. Not as badly as Forest and its borderline-magical nonsense about trees and solar flares, but Boyce chose a simpler solution when the story would’ve benefited from something more ambiguous and thoughtful.
Smile feels like a step up from last weeks in that it isn’t saddled with as much setup, and it genuinely made me feel like I was on an adventure with the TARDIS team. It’s stylish and walks the line of tense yet amusing very well. On the other hand, its last act took the easy narrative route and left me with less emotional impact, as well as questions, than I had hoped for. It a story loaded with powerful ideas and imaginative concepts that might’ve worked better as a novel, rather than a 45 minute bit of television.
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