It’s hard to avoid the “damn with faint praise” opening of “well it’s better than In the Forest of the Night.” In a whole bunch of very obvious ways, after all, it is. The balance between the ridiculous and the dramatic is better struck. Cottrell-Boyce sets himself the non-trivial Ark in Space challenge of spending half the episode with nothing but the TARDIS crew wandering around an alien setting figuring out the rules, and he generally rises to the challenge. And there’s a sense that he’s figured out what the program can and can’t do well, and so is avoiding pitfalls like relying almost entirely on child actors or an outlandish visual spectacle that’s ultimately going to amount to throwing some traffic lights in the middle of a Welsh forest and pretending it’s good enough.
The “damn with faint praise” aspect, however, comes from the fact that you can’t actually put the bar much higher than “oh, hey, Cottrell-Boyce avoided fucking up this time.” The script still never soars. Worse, as with In the Forest of the Night, the moments where it tries to soar are generally its weak points. The script has an awkward habit of leering in and insisting that you find it clever, and these bits don’t often correspond to when it’s being clever. The repetition of the “skeleton crew” joke twice in rapid succession and the thickly laid on “can’t you call the police” line are the two most obvious examples. But equally frustrating are the things it doesn’t unpack - the declaration that the Vardies are a form of sentient life isn’t set up nearly well enough, and more broadly the resolution is full of ideas that are actually worth exploring, but that the script has left no time to explore because it wanted to be an ostentatious two-hander for a while.
Another way of looking at this, then, is that Cottrell-Boyce has retreated emphatically to Doctor Who standards. We’ve seen this story before, varyingly as New Earth, Planet of the Ood, Silence in the Library, The Girl Who Waited, and probably a few others I can’t be bothered to think of. And fine, we’ve clearly seen next week’s before as well, but Sarah Dollard can at least be trusted to find new angles on things. Cottrell-Boyce, on the other hand, ends up using the Doctor Who standards to carry the weight that his actual scripting can’t.
The most straightforwardly clear of these standards, of course, is the “new companion sees the future for the first time” template. And this is the clear point of spending more than half the episode as a two-hander - to give Bill a nice long stretch of time to settle in and define herself in the companion role. In this regard, Cottrell-Boyce has been given a rough brief. The last time another writer was handed a new companion’s second story it was Neil Cross doing The Rings of Akhaten, which actually shot quite late in the Series 7 block. Everyone prior had either been by the showrunner or during the Davies era where the showrunner did a full rewrite. Which means that Cottrell-Boyce is stuck writing Bill without really knowing her. To compare with Clara again, the equivalent stories for her were Hide and Cold War - later in the run ones that weren’t about Clara so much and where her characterization from Bells of Saint John and The Rings of Akhaten could cover her lack of depth somewhat. Here there’s no cover save for Pearl Mackie's basic charm and skill (which is admittedly considerable), and the problem is thrown into sharp relief by the degree to which this is the "Bill steps out" set piece. The most obvious clanger is our sci-fi knowledgeable companion not knowing what cryogenic storage looks like, but other than the shoehorned in “two hearts” scene it’s tough to find anything here where Bill isn’t being written as generic companion. Which, again, fine, that’s going to happen for some early episode or another, but why on Earth would you make it this one?
Which brings us back to avoiding the damning with faint praise. Because whatever the flaws of In the Forest of the Night, and it was unequivocally a hot mess, it was at least shooting for something that the show had never done before. And for all the technical smoothness of Smile, it’s a bog standard “companion’s second episode” story approached with ruthlessly workmanlike efficiency and basically nothing else. I’ve always preferred a noble failure to a cheap success, especially with Doctor Who. It may be better than In the Forest of the Night. But much like I’d rather rewatch The Time Monster than The Sea Devils, I’ll take Maebh Arden and her misfit classmates than the banal polish of this any day.
- It sure would have been nice to see the emojis premise go to someone who wasn’t a cynical curmudgeon prone to writing lines about “vacuous teens.” Yuck.
- For the most part the emoji badges were cut to too often and too pointlessly, being used to make explicit what was already perfectly clear, but a couple of them, most obviously the Peter Capaldi grumpy face emoji, were genuinely hysterical.
- So, um, why were the Vardies enraged that one of their Emojibots got blown up given that the Emojibots are explicitly not the actual robots but just interfaces they use? Not, to be clear, that I give a damn about the plot hole, but given that the only reason this was established was for a pretty pointless “now that’s what I call a robot” gag one does wonder what the point of that was.
- A somewhat stranger gap in the plotting is the utter incompetence of the colonists. Do they just not know how the Vardies are supposed to work? Is that why a dozen of them grab guns and try to shoot their entire city? I mean, you can see why the Doctor decides to fuck them over in the denouement, but eesh.
- The ending tease for Thin Ice is interesting inasmuch as it’s just not an approach towards an inter-story cliffhanger we’ve seen lately. It’s a very 1960s Doctor Who approach - something akin to the radiation meter creeping upwards at the end of An Unearthly Child or the Macra claw on the time scanner in The Moonbase. The use of an elephant, which recalls the opening of The Ark, only increases that sense. I wish I could say it worked, but alas it just exacerbated the chaotic jumble of the episode’s resolution.
- Right, OK, let’s pick at the resolution a bit. I already groused about a minor plot hole, but it’s worth pointing out why this rankles, which is that the resolution just seems to have no idea what to do. It’s exploding with ideas, many of them quite interesting, but there’s a sense of Cottrell-Boyce just throwing new ideas into the script in a desperate hope that they’ll add up to something. Slave races! Indigenous populations! The ultimate survival of the human race (which is a bit of an odd assertion given that a few scenes earlier it was reiterated that these aren’t the only human colonists, but hey)! It quickly stops being clear what the Vardies are actually supposed to be a metaphor for, instead plunging headlong into Baker and Martin concept vomit. Only somehow I suspect the emoji jokes aren’t going to age quite as well as the lurid 70s thrill of The Claws of Axos.
- Man, what’s with me and Pertwee comparisons today?
- Another way of looking at this is that the oversignification that comes from Cottrell-Boyce’s unchecked spew of liberal glurge gets interesting in places. For the most part I like Cottrell-Boyce’s inclination to cram in politics like it’s the Cartmel era, even as I find his politics banal as hell. But for every “oppressed underclass as indigenous population” there’s something like the kind of cringey rent joke at the end. Or the episode’s worst conceit, the idea of the Doctor as a policeman.
- One political implication I’m particularly amused by is the apparent moral necessity of blowing things up. As I noted on social media this week, Doctor Who’s ethics are historically “don’t punch Nazis, but definitely blow them up, and possibly blow up their entire planet as well.”
- Apparently Cottrell-Boyce got the idea for this by asking a scientist what he thought the biggest threat to humanity was and getting the answer AI. Reports suggest that this scientist was robotics professor Andrew Vardy, hence the robot names, but I can only assume he’s got Kit Pedler reincarnated on a computer somewhere and just forwarded the question along to him.
- Of course, the end result of Cottrell-Boyce talking to a bunch of scientists is that he came up with the “machines becoming lethal by dint of doing what they’re made for” idea that’s been Moffat’s default setting for twelve years now.
- Jane groused about Lawrence Gough’s direction last week. He does better this week for the most part - there are some lovely wide shots and uses of reflections here. But he’s kind of let down by the set design, which alternates between being flat and, in the engine room, weirdly contrived. Still, the Emojibots are a nice design.
- American viewers got the second episode of Class tonight. This is the same link as last week, as they were released together in the UK, but here was my review of that. US reviewers seem pretty happy with Class, but then again, so was I at this point, and I stand by thinking this episode was pretty interesting.
- Right, that’ll do for this week. Podcast Thursday with Daniel Harper. Proverbs of Hell tomorrow morning. If you like this shit, please consider backing the Patreon. Thanks.
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- The Pilot