‘Hollow Linguistics’ – Doctor Who 10.2: Smile

Frank Cottrell-Boyce previous attempt at writing for this show was 2014’s In The Forest of the Night. To call that episode a misfire is perhaps the friendliest way to describe it. The lyrical dialogue and jittery tempo may have worked under different circumstances, unfortunately In the Forest of the Night fell on the wrong side of quirky.  Two and a half years on and now we have Boyce’s second attempt at a Doctor Who story. The end result is remarkably different from what we had before. 

Last week’s story ditched most of its plot and enemies in favour of providing characters with more time than usual to spread their wings. This week starts on similar footing; dedicating hefty portions of screen time so Bill and the Doctor can roam around the alien environment established at the top of this story. Nadrole (Matt Lucas) is phased out of this instalment within the opening pre-title moments. After dropping some exposition about the Doctor being under oath to guard the mysterious vault introduced last week (presumably a hint toward the series 10 story arc), Lucas’s ancillary side companion ambles out of the TARDIS, leaving Bill and the Doctor to their own devices. As nice as it may be to learn more about Nardole’s lingering presence in the show, taking him out of episode two feels like a wise move. His absence frees up time for the new primary companion to establish her own space within the show, flesh out her relationship with the Doctor and further etch her identity into the tenth series.

Once again, Bill’s personality shines throughout Smile. Perl Mackie’s portrayal of this new companion remains a joy to watch. She continues asking unique questions about the TARDIS’s functionality as well theorising on what the Doctor’s purpose is within the grander scheme of the Universe (he’s an intergalactic Law Enforcer, hence the reason for keeping the Police Box cloaking device). Chemistry between both Mackie and Capaldi remains jaunty and joyous to watch too. Both appear to enjoy working with one another, adding an element of warmth to their time on screen. Takes on each character go hand in hand, something this episode manages to showcase with further clarity than The Pilot did. Their quirky charms, awareness toward the surrounding environment’s functionality and astute inquisitiveness toward the narrative flow bounce off of one another with relative ease. 

In addition to serving up some breathing space for the protagonists to bond, the slow moving first half also allows additional room for Boyce to showcase the story’s surrounding environment. We learn how the planet’s food is supplied (fish-flavoured algae), the purpose behind the automated microbots, why humanity fled to the planet in the first place and the ways the colony’s mood indications function. Here’s a classic case of world-building similar to that sene in pre-2005 old school Doctor Who. Filming for Smile took place at the Museum of Arts & Science in Valencia. Spain’s clear blue skies as well as the pristine architecture creates a shimmering utopia for this week’s landscape. Here is a solid example of how filming on location can easily stand in as an effective location for one of humanity’s many futures. The Pilot’s Lawrence Gough returns for a second week running to direct. This time around we get to see him flex his visual muscles a touch more. Gough mixes a selection of subtle greens, clinical whites, sharp teal blues and warm yellow-browns depicting a clean-yet-vacant vista of tomorrow. Plenty of wide shots and brightly lit sets emphasizes the emptiness of this alleged utopia. With help from the director of photography and wider production team, Gough manages to visually manufacture a world that’s beautiful, distinct from previous Doctor Who stories and eerie all at the same time.     

Such leisurely pacing offers audiences the opportunity to soak up all this delicious and effective scenery on offer. One of the strongest aspects to the Steven Moffat era – particularly from series seven onward – has probably been the creative control given to cinematographer and directors. During earlier series, the narratives have been so rapid, little time is offered to fully appreciate the visuals or wider worlds surrounding each story. Smile is very much the opposite of this; providing audiences with an opportunity to indulge in the glorious optical paradises put on offer for our viewing pleasure. 

Pottering amidst the scenic beauty is the episode’s central baddies; the emojibots. Featured in various promotional shots for the latest series, the emojibots are essentially modelled off of a contemporary facet from modern society. Doctor Who is known for conceiving monsters from present day objects/imagery/ideas. It has been doing this in one form or another for its entire 54-year run. An enemy of this sort can be executed in two ways. On the one hand they can do this whilst exploring fears behind a particular object/image/idea. An example of this is the Autons; an army of shop window dummies controlled by a disembodied gestalt intelligence. They were conceptualised during a period in which plastic remained a rather “extraterrestrial” material in Britain. The concept of the Auton exploited the ubiquitous implementation and “invasion” of polymeric material within 1970s British society.  Another way of tapping into contemporary characteristics is to do so on a primarily visual level. From a superficial perspective, this is fine, however it does run the risk of dating the episode far faster than usual. Ideas last longer than images. It’s why using Big Brother/The Weakest Link/What not to wear sequences aged Bad World (2015) so rapidly. Society’s aesthetics shift far faster than the psychological elements. They are forgotten a lot quicker too.  

Out of the two approaches suggested above, it would appear the villains of Smile function as a combination of each. There’s a purely visual appeal to their emojicon appearance, yet there there appears to be a slightly deeper meaning behind their existence. The most common phobia held toward emojicons concerns the idea that they represent a breakdown in communication. There’s a school of thought, in the real world, that using emojis limits the use/meaning behind basic linguistics, that the more society loses grasp of semantic-based language. In a way, Smile does sort of dive into these fears of linguistic loss. During the episode, the emojibots don’t understand the world through traditional human language, instead they communicate purely through emotional responses. Their failure to grasp how to deal with negative emotions results in them murder those who are unhappy. Terminating their victims isn’t done out of callousness, but because they haven’t the vocabulary to know how to respond to sadness.

Character chemistry, visual exquisiteness, rich world-building and fascinating monster construction is what the first two acts of the episode focus on more than anything else. The plot doesn’t really get started until the Doctor discovers the colonists are already “living” in the seemingly-abandoned settlement; safely tucked away in cryostasis chambers. By this point he realises the microbots’ murderous actions and aren’t as malicious as once presumed. This is where the main story kicks into gear, transforming Smile into a game of “stop the humans and robots from going to war”.  The Doctor and Bill finally have a chance ot deal with the meat and veg of this week’s plot. They’ve had enough time to cement their chemistry and establish their personalities to one another; now it’s time to put their money where their mouths are and be the hero of this week’s script.  Except this doesn’t quite happen. Instead the Doctor figures out how to reboot the emojobot’s/microbot’s operating system, resolving the entire dilemma before any sort of dramatic tension has had time to play out. Who needs a story when you can magic it all away eh?

As mentioned above, the episode resembles a class-era Doctor Who story. Allowing the characters to saunter about rich environments is highly similar to stories found back when William Hartnell was still piloting the TARDIS. Only difference back then was that stories were given an average of 7×30-minute episodes to unfold in. Instead of having 3+ hours to establish and execute its plot, Smile only has 45 minutes to both world-build and dish out a story. This isn’t enough time, meaning after all its intricate setting up of the colony, there’s no time left to tell an actual story in.

If only this was split into a two-parter, Smile could’ve told an engaging story about robots trying to help humanity’s emotional needs with limited intel, while humans strived to wipe them out in a panicked frenzy. It could have been an inventive tale of misunderstanding ramifications brought about by information discrepancies. Unfortunately the script copped out and prematurely wrapped everything up before it had time to do anything interesting. Which is what makes Smile such a frustrating experience. There’s a lot of potential that’s flushed away during its final moments. It gives Bill & the Doctor all the time in the world to flesh out their relationship further, sets up a glorious looking world for events to unfold and establishes a fascinating baddie tapping into a very modern fear surrounding communicative breakdown. It has all the makings of a classic episode, one which decides to throw up its hands and scream “forget shout” during act three. 

A promising start let down by a rushed and empty climax. Such a shame, as it could have been far better.

Next time, Bill and the Doctor arrive in Regency era England where they investigate a series of disappearances linked to a giant snake living under the Thames…

Published by Amber Poppitt

I'm a writer from the UK with dreams of someday becoming a professional screenwriter. I also happen to be a huge film/TV/novel enthusiast with an undying obsession toward Doctor Who.

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