All right. Three weeks in and I’m already behind. This doesn’t bode well for timeliness, but I’m determined to complete the blog posts this season, even if they’re occasionally late and/or a bit shorter than normal. We’ve had an extended break between series 9 and 10, and coupled with the two-parter structure of series 9 which resulted in combined posts (and therefore fewer than normal for that season) I’m anxious to work a bit harder and get these right. The thesis is done, after all. No more excuses. Into Doctor Who. Let’s get to smiling.
Let’s switch things up a bit and start with the negatives. “Smile” starts out strong and ends in distinctly unsatisfying fashion. I imagine there are many potential reasons and theories out there, and I’d like to submit one of my own: it mixes too many metaphors. For anyone who’s seen Buffy and Angel, one of techniques you’ll recognize as a favorite of Joss Whedon’s is what we like to call the Metaphor of the Week. This isn’t quite the same thing as the Case of the Week (familiar from procedurals like cop and lawyer shows) or the Monster of the Week (which Doctor Who generally favors), though as a way to do episodic storytelling (as opposed to more serialized, arc-driven storytelling) they’re all close cousins. Doctor Who, which almost always has a Monster of the Week, occasionally does both and lets the monster symbolically stand in for some metaphorical purpose. But sometimes a Judoon is just a Judoon. When done well, monsters mixed with metaphors can create some of the most engaging and satisfying plots.
“Smile” actually has multiple metaphors going on this week, and more than a slight case of ADD. At the start, the story seems to focus on the apparent survival not just of human culture but of a very specific and recent manifestation of human culture. With the the colony’s smooth, white Apple-store surfaces (reminiscent of Apalapucia’s Two-Streams Facility), its cute robots who speak Emoji (apparently the most durable dialect of human language), and Bill’s delighted selfie-taking, this episode seems tailor-made to address the concerns of the millennial generation. Evoking the recent “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror, the smiley-face mood indicators act as a kind of social media that projects the mental state of the wearer, or at least the desired mental state. Honesty becomes dangerous. The projection of happiness, health, and contentment are everything. Welcome to the Facebook generation where your life depends on the appearance of normality. Even the Doctor’s pregnant pause before the conspicuous use of the word “woke” to describe the bravest and best who volunteered to prepare the way for the new era calls attention to its concerns.
The focus then narrows from the visible projection of inner emotions to specifically the transmission of grief. In a culture so strangely connected via media as ours you could certainly mine quite a lot of interesting ideas from the notion of “grief as plague.” I mean, all you need to do is be somewhat active on social media in today’s political climate to see the truth in there. But in “Smile,” the metaphor breaks down. Grief isn’t transmitted as a consequence of the technology. Instead of focusing on how grief (or any emotions) are transmitted from person to person, the story becomes about the taboo nature of grief itself. How an inhuman life-form can misunderstand the positive nature of grief and mourning, treating it as an evil itself rather than a perfectly healthy response to evil or loss. The metaphor is now about how those who experience sadness, and especially depression, are feared, misunderstood, and outcast. This is by no means unrelated to the current youth culture (see the current popularity of “13 Reasons Why” for its obvious relevance) but the connections remain hypothetical within the episode as written.
Which brings us to the end, in which neither metaphor — the cultural dominance of fake emotions via social media or the taboo nature of mental health issues — are addressed and instead swapped for a somewhat out of the blue metaphor about the culture clash and tenuous assimilation of an invading expedition of human colonists and an “indigenous” (yet also newly-emergent) artificially intelligent life form. The previous explorations of corporate and private grief and emotions become somewhat moot, as the Doctor wipes the robots’ memories and pushes the reset button. If you can take all of these ideas and distill them into a coherent and satisfying metaphor in 45 minutes, good luck to you. The first two at least have a plausible relationship. The final confrontation and narrowly-avoided war between the humans and robots feels like something of a distraction from the much more thorny (and therefore more interesting) territory of emotion and grief. We’ve done culture clash stories on Doctor Who before. We haven’t, to my memory, ever done a story about how a dominant culture doesn’t even understand itself, and it feels like a missed opportunity. Perhaps the episode even raised questions that were too big for it to answer.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce (in his second episode of Doctor Who) still suffers from an excess of ideas, although this is certainly preferable to the opposite alternative, and “Smile” does avoid much of the awkwardness of “In the Forest of the Night.” The central conceit of “smiling” works beautifully given the focus on Bill’s smile in the previous episode, and indeed makes me wonder whether Cottrell-Boyce, in writing the follow-up to “The Pilot,” chose to start with that aspect of Bill’s character and extrapolate outward. I said in my last review that Bill’s smile was connected with her honesty, and that bears up. The smiles of the colonists are fake, used for protection and pretense but not genuinely felt. Bill, on the other hand (as we know) smiles in the face of danger and the unknown. “Oh,” the Doctor says in genuine surprise, after just telling Bill that she’s in the “belly of the beast,” surrounded by dangerous nanobots. “You really are smiling, aren’t you?” My favorite line of the episode, and a strong contender for the all-time greats, is Bill’s completely unguarded, “Thanks for bringing me. This is a great day out.” What a beautiful, natural response. Cottrell-Boyce, successful writer that he is, has an ear for these lovely little moments, and “Smile” is peppered with them. Though I’m not sure the story really follows through on its most interesting ideas, it is more than watchable and builds on Moffat’s initial characterization of Bill, further giving Pearl Mackie opportunities to explore and define the character as she discovers her. As these first three episodes unfold — following the Davies pattern of present/future/past — the introduction of Bill to the Doctor and his world are really the main point, and in that “Smile” is good enough if not exactly great.