The Doctor and Bill are back for another adventure! And this week’s episode is bound to make you smile — whether you want to or not — as everyone’s favorite Time Lord and his latest companion go back to the future to one of Earth’s first colonies.
The destination comes courtesy of Bill’s request to see if the future is happy. Though as any longtime viewer of the show could tell her, this will hardly be the case. But for now, it seems like she’ll get her wish as this colony is said to have cracked the secret of happiness. And as we quickly learn upon disembarkation, a lot of it has to do with wide, open spaces and micro robots (a.k.a. Vardies) that primarily communicate through their more robot-resembling interfaces, using EMOJIS!
Part of this communication system also involves the Doctor and Bill sticking electronic emoji-displaying patches on themselves, which then lets everyone else know how they’re doing. Practical as ever, Bill asks an important question in regards to this: What if you fancy someone?!
However, that would require there being someone to fancy. And as the Doctor quickly deduces, the robots were sent ahead to prepare the planet for humans. He and Bill just arrived early. But they amend that theory once they visit the plant nursery and find out that humans were here all along. They’re just dead and being used as fertilizer.
So they manage to beat a hasty getaway — smiling the entire time to appease the interfaces by seeming happy — but once they get to the TARDIS, the Doctor heads back (running like a penguin with its arse on fire), to blow up the city in order to save the potential colony ship full of unwitting victims on its way. He’s soon joined by Bill and they enter the spaceship that brought those first people to this planet. As the Doctor notes, the door isn’t locked because they’d come in peace. Sigh. Poor Future Humans.
Inside, the Doctor takes off for the engine room, with some guidance from Bill, thanks to a found map and the aural upgrade they got upon arrival. When she leaves to join him she gets sidetracked by the discovery of an older woman’s dead body, and a book that seems to contain the entire history of the human race.
As Bill tearfully goes through the flashing images, she begins to question why the colonists came here, and whether they were the last people. The Doctor reassures her somewhat, telling her the Earth was evacuated and that he’s bumped into a few human colonies over the years. He then asks her to come join him. It’s harder than he’d expected to blow this place up. Bill leaves to join him, only to run into a plot twist an actual human kid.
When the Doctor meets the kid, he realizes they’re in the colony ship! The pods are the surviving population of Earth and he nearly blew it up!
As more colonists wake up, the Doctor and Bill figure out what went wrong with the robots. Turns out the Vardies had been programmed to guarantee human satisfaction. But when that same older woman had died, probably from old age, it had caused the small population to grieve. And being the smart little microbots they are, the Vardies had classified grief as the opposite of happiness, thus deciding it eradicate it. This led to a massacre as everyone left was mourning yet another person who’d died.
The Doctor figures this is the same fate awaiting the newly woken colonists. So he proposes a lecture…
Only it backfires. None of the colonists want to know why the robots are acting this way. They just want to avenge their loved ones. Thankfully the Doctor figures out what went wrong: The Vardies have become their own species. So he essentially reboots their interfaces and wipes their memories. But the humans still want revenge so the Doctor explains that the Vardies are the “indigenous” inhabitants of this planet; they came here first and built everything themselves. So it’s actually their city, and the humans owe rent. When the humans complain, he suggests they “smile.”
Having solved that problem, the Doctor and Bill head back to her time, to just before Nardole’s finished making their tea. Only they’ve overshot that time by a lot and ended up in the past. Oh boy. Nardole is not going to be happy — especially since the Doctor has taken a mysterious oath to stay on Earth and guard the vault. And despite Bill’s questioning, we’re no closer to finding out what this promise entails. (Though shout out to commenter AMM who theorized that this might have something to do with Bill’s mum, or at least Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter.)
However, we do get more of the Doctor and Bill’s dynamic this week, which is turning into a real delight. Second episodes are meant to set up, if not cement, the dynamic between the Doctor and his companions, and this week definitely does that. We see that while the Doctor does want to keep Bill safe, she’s smart and capable enough to go off and do some of her own mystery-solving (Why the TARDIS is stuck as a police box) and negotiating (convincing the boy not to cry).
And I’m sure this bears no repeating, but her reactions to facts we know about him (two hearts, stolen TARDIS) are refreshing while displaying the makings of a solid bond as can be seen in the fond look the Doctor gives Bill at the beginning of the episode when they’re discussing why the seats are so far from the console. And as usual, Bill’s Whovian observational comedy is on point. (Side note, I love that the Doctor acknowledged that you don’t “steer”
Idris the TARDIS, you “negotiate” with her.)
But our newest companion proves especially winning in the middle of the episode. Mackie infuses her gratitude for witnessing the technological marvels of the future (“I’m smelling home, 20 light years away from home”) with a real, heartfelt earnestness, as she thanks the Doctor and later, conveys the teary-eyed shock of slowly realizing that maybe the future isn’t as happy as she’d hoped.
This last point, in particular, is interesting as the episode celebrates the best and worst about humankind. When they first arrive on the planet, the Doctor is delighting in humanity’s optimism. After all, there’s no bigger champion of humans than him. (And Bill’s company is clearly enough to make anyone Team Human.)
But as we’ve seen in previous episodes, our species doesn’t always deserve it, as we do tend to give into our worse natures. And like previous outings, season 4’s “Midnight” and season 5’s “Beast Below,” season 10’s “Smile” offers more proof of that, as these newly awakened humans aren’t willing to listen to the Doctor’s words about figuring out why the Vardies are behaving the way they are. They’re simply too angry — and granted, probably full of grief themselves — to think clearly, deciding to turn to guns to avenge their dead friends and family instead of solving this long-term issue. Though this attitude, combined with some of the more violent images showcased in the dead woman’s book of history, make it easy to see how humankind wound up having to evacuate the Earth. (It doesn’t hurt that the episode also happens to air on Earth Day.)
But this isn’t the only comparisons to be drawn to “Midnight” and “Beast Below.”
In terms of the former, multiple scenes in “Smile” require the Doctor and Bill to channel an uneasy cheeriness, something they both do. But Capaldi not only sells his unease but really ratchets up the tension, in a scene that sees him trying to bypass an interface bot by himself — not unlike David Tennant’s own terror-filled (and tension-laced) performance as his fellow passengers decided to kick him off the tour ship. And as for the latter, not only was it Amy’s second adventure with the Doctor (a parallel to Bill’s) but it also featured a ship full of evacuating humans having to figure out how to live with the creature helping them survive. Hopefully, for their sakes, these humans treat the Vardies better than their British cousins did the space whales.
But general themes and references aside, the episode did feel a bit rushed towards the end, what with the colony ship having been there the entire time. But while this did leave the resolution feeling a bit unresolved — What will this rent system look like? Are the humans even prepared to pay? — it also allowed for at least a half an hour of the Doctor and Bill hanging out and exploring a city together, and honestly, that’s more than enough to “smile” at.