[The Following Review Contains SPOILERS!]
When asked where she wanted to go on her first proper outing in The TARDIS, Bill didn’t hesitate in picking The Future over The Past. She wanted to see if humanity was happy in the future.
Within the blink of an eye, The Doctor and Bill were hundreds of years in the future and 20 light years away on one of Earth’s first colony worlds. It was here, The Doctor claimed, that the inhabitants were said to have discovered the ultimate secret of happiness.
Certainly the world does seem to be a virtual paradise. There’s fields full of wheat and exquisite gardens inside a magnificent city. There’s miniature robots that work at building and reshaping themselves into anything the colonists might need. Then there’s the helpful little servant robots that tend the gardens and cook for you… even if the food they offer you is fish-scented Jell-O.
There’s just one thing the colony seems to be missing, in fact: colonists – a fact that worries The Doctor and hints at a dark secret at the heart of this seemingly perfect world.
Smile suffers from a serious sense of deja vu, even ignoring that the classic Doctor Who series already tackled the idea of a world where feeling sad warranted execution in The Happiness Patrol. Perhaps this is merely a reflection on how dystopian fiction has come to dominate our media, but at this point I think it would be more shocking to encounter a utopia that honestly was everything it seemed to be.
There are a number of reasons why Smile works in spite of this. The script – by noted screenwriter and children’s fiction author Frank Cottrell-Boyce – is a major factor. Full of witty interplay between The Doctor and Bill, it also delivers the exposition for how the colony functions in a smooth and natural way. The Doctor is, as Bill says, a great tutor.
The performances of the core cast are another thing that help Smile move beyond a lackluster premise. Pearl Mackie proves to be a real treasure as Bill and any reservations I had about her after the first episode have vanished. Peter Capaldi is as fantastic as ever, but it’s doubly amusing to watch the most dour and scowl-faced of the Doctors being forced to smile in order to appease a homicidal robot.
Another point of note is the sets and props. The production design team have seriously stepped-up their game for Series 10. Every moment of this episode looks amazing, from the seemingly brighter TARDIS interior to the wheat fields and the colony city itself.
Smile manages to be a perfectly suspenseful Doctor Who story despite a fairly standard set-up and a pre-title sequence that gives away the game completely. It’s a bit of a step-down from last week’s premiere but we’d still be in good shape if the rest of Series Ten is of comparable quality.