Peter Capaldi's sublime portrayal of The Doctor has carried the show through some dodgy stories ever since he took over the role. But season 10 has given him a companion that's just as capable in the form of Pearl Mackie's Bill — to the point that it's a joy to watch them, even if not much actually happens in the episode they're in.
And really, not a lot happens in "Smile". In a way, the slower pace of the episode (which is mostly about an empty human colony occupied by sinister emoji-based robots who've been killing off the skeleton crew... until the last 10 minutes, where seemingly the entirety of the story actually happens) is very evocative of classic Doctor Who. Much of the episode, with Bill and the Doctor wandering around this vast, gorgeous colony setting (shot in the very real City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, a location so fabulously space-y enough it didn't need CG touch-ups), having little else to do than talk to each other and try and solve the mystery of its emptiness, feels like it would be the first episode of a multi-part old-school Doctor Who serial.
The slow pacing means that the vast majority of this episode hinges on Bill and the Doctor's burgeoning relationship together, and while it does fall back on some familiar Doctor/Companion tropes, Capaldi and Mackie's chemistry more than makes up for the fact that they're carrying the bulk of this episode on their own, save for an occasional Emojibot. Unlike Clara, who Capaldi's Doctor inherited, there's a real sense of he and Bill just getting to know each other in "Smile", and it's great. It helps that, unlike previous companions Amy and Clara, Bill doesn't have some mystery at the core of her being for the Doctor to need to solve; she's as normal a human as has ever stepped on the TARFIS.
So there's a shared sense of excitable wanderlust between Bill, desperate to see the wide world out there, and the Doctor, equally desperate to have someone new to show it all to. Their "mentor and student" style relationship might be a classic companion set-up, but after a few years of companions distinctly unlike that in modern Who, it's genuinely refreshing to watch unfold on the screen again.
But then we get to the last 10 minutes or so of "Smile", which decides it's had enough of just letting Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie talk to each other and that some story should probably happen. In this case, it is the reveal that the colonists the Doctor fears could be on their way to their deathtrap of a new home are actually already there, but in cryostasis. Sadly, a lot of the intrigue and mystery that made the first two-thirds of the episode interesting — well, at least an interesting background for Capaldi and Mackie to sparkle over — gets wrapped up too conveniently and too rapidly to have much impact.
Writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce — returning for a much better episode than his messy stinker in season eight, "In the Forest of the Night" — throws out some interesting ideas here, like the idea of grief as a virus being why the Emojibots turned from happiness-encouraging servants to grief-eradicating monsters, but the fact it all comes to a head by the Doctor essentially turning the robots on and off again (he even makes that same joke) and then leaving them and the awakened colonists to make amends among themselves makes you really wonder what the point of it all was in the first place.
At least we got a lot more time with the Doctor and Bill. I haven't felt this excited about a Doctor/Companion team in a very long time, and so I'm willing to forgive a middling story once in a while if it means seeing them get to know each other. Once in a while.
Assorted Musings (in Time and Space)
- Seriously though, how nice was it to have an episode that takes place in the future where the "set" wasn't a greenscreen and a bit of Wales? This episode looked gorgeous, and a lot of it was down to its fabulous location work.
- Speaking of classic Doctor Who, ending the story with the Doctor and Bill heading out of the TARDIS into the next one — in this case, Regency England (now featuring an elephant, I guess) — is a lovely callback to something the series used to do quite a lot in the old days. I wonder if it will make a comeback this season?
- We also got a very small hint of what is, presumably, going to be the overarching story for this season: The mysterious vault below Bill's university that the Doctor has exiled himself to Earth to guard. What (or who) could be inside, we haven't got a hint of yet, but maybe it has to do with Missy... or perhaps the Doctor's impending regeneration?
- The prologue of the episode shows us the lethality of the Emojibot's "keep smiling or die" premise, but you'd think that colonist could've explained "keep smiling or a swarm of nanomachines will rend all the flesh from your bones" first before telling the other poor colonist her mum and most of her friends were dead. Oh dear.