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.
- The Pilot
April 23, 2017 @ 5:33 pm
Ok the thing that stood out for me was that last week, Bill was calling out mind-wipes as bad, and now the Doctor wide wipes an entire species? Was there really no way of talking things out?
April 23, 2017 @ 9:43 pm
I’m hoping this is an ongoing concern for the season but suspect it’s an unfortunate coincidence.
April 24, 2017 @ 2:34 am
I nearly had a spasm when I thought he might have removed their sentience. But of course not. Wouldn’t it be interesting to return to this planet to see how things work out? Are the Vardies still guilty of the murders if they can’t remember them? What if they learn what happened? Were they guilty in the first place, or only poorly programmed, or insane? Do they still want to make humans happy? etc etc etc
April 23, 2017 @ 5:44 pm
It might be because I never saw any Classic Who, but I really enjoyed the bit, where they just explore the place – not quite psychogeography, but close enough for my tastes.
The second half rushes the conclusion to the story about emotions and grief and tries to substitute it with an even more rushed story about oppression and colonisation. Like you said, the oversignification could probably lead to some interesting stuff, but I think I’d prefer one story properly developed.
Overall, I liked the lightness of the beginning of this season, but I think I’m ready for something weirder and more substantial now, although I suspect that might not start until the three-parter in the middle (with next week’s episode completing the opening present/future/past triptych, and then Bartlett’s episode will be the equivalent of the monster two-parter). Oh well. At least we have Sarah Dollard next.
April 23, 2017 @ 5:52 pm
I seemed to recall that you really liked In The Forest of the Night in your review — did something change? When?
April 23, 2017 @ 5:54 pm
Wait, didn’t you like “In the Forest of the Night”? You put it ahead of everything that season except Kill the Moon and Listen (and maybe the finale?)
April 23, 2017 @ 7:18 pm
It had already fallen to 9th place for me by my end of 2014 review. The two and a half years since then haven’t particularly bolstered or diminished its standing in my eyes, though I’m somewhat more willing to resent it for not being the Blake story I want than I was in 2014.
April 23, 2017 @ 6:05 pm
I’m a little surprised at how In Forest of the Night seems to have gone way down in your estimation since in aired? At the time you gave it a 10/10, a ‘Good lord, though, this is brilliant’ and praised its good politics – a review which doesn’t seem to match up with how you seem to be positioning it now?
It’s interesting, because all of the other articles I’ve seen about Smile so far have talked about Forest being unfairly maligned at the time, and people now having come round on it…
But yeah…. Smile… some really lovely touches and it looked gorgeous, but also some oddly poor writing at times. Loved the slower paced two-hander stuff generally – and Mackie is great, but the resolution didn’t really know what it was, did it?
There could have been a fascinating inversion of resolution to Cold Blood if they’d left the human colonists in an extended hibernation until such point that they were able to live with the new species….
April 23, 2017 @ 7:18 pm
You seem to have me confused with someone who gives ratings out of ten. 😛
April 23, 2017 @ 7:27 pm
Gosh… so I have.
Although in my defense you made the same mistake yourself at the time…
“If it had left that edge to things even as it went for its happy utopian resolution, it would have supplanted The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang as my all-time favorite Doctor Who story. Instead, it’s a 10/10, but with a touch of “respect instead of love” for me.”
April 23, 2017 @ 7:32 pm
Well fair enough. As I said above, it fell to a B by the end of the year.
April 23, 2017 @ 6:07 pm
All true, especially how the ending kind of came out of nowhere and nothing in the second half had time to breathe (and there was no moment when The Doctor rolled his eyes as humans try to solve a problem with firepower. Unforgivable!). But I wonder if we’ve all just seen too much Who at this point to really enjoy a competent trad story like this one. I watched this with my own kids, and they absolutely lost their minds — my 13 year old declared this his Favourite Story of All Time, and I can see why. Everyone should get a first crack at seeing ‘The Ark in Space.’
April 23, 2017 @ 6:10 pm
An entire about-face on your opinions of The Forest of the Night, which you originally said “Good lord, though, this is brilliant” and lauded as “transcendent” but now seem to have come round to the consensus that it’s a “hot mess”.
You wrote your original review before checking any reviews and were genuinely enamoured with it. I’m very interested in when you changed your mind on this and what influence the consensus has on your liking of a story.
April 23, 2017 @ 6:10 pm
(Oh, and on the chance that the “But KIDS like it!” argument seems lazy, and maybe it is, I see this season so far as a corrective for season 9, which tried to do bold new things like the cringe-inducing political allegory of the Zygon stories, and only started to work for me really in the last three episodes of the series. Maybe it is time to go back to basics after all.)
April 23, 2017 @ 6:13 pm
I’m kinda surprised that nobody but me seems to be bringing up Happiness Patrol.
Overall, the story might probably be passable if it was a mystery and did not reveal robots killing the unhappy people at the start.
April 23, 2017 @ 6:34 pm
You’re probably right, although I’d be sad to see that scene go – it was the first in Doctor Who to thoroughly and properly creep me out in a long while.
April 24, 2017 @ 2:35 am
Vague echoes of “It’s a Good Life.”
April 24, 2017 @ 3:05 am
I thought the exact same thing — Happiness Patrol but without the Candyman or the punk rock aesthetics.
April 24, 2017 @ 8:33 am
I thought about it too, but the happiness thing is such a throwaway element in an episode named after it. Without sufficient social or thematic context, the grief tsunami is just an engineering glitch dressed up as something a bit more interesting. There’s no “there are no other colours without the blues” moment to pay it off.
April 24, 2017 @ 9:55 am
In the parallel-universe version of this story which actually explored and developed the theme of emotions, there’s a line about how the only thing that smiles all the time is a skull. The episode laid visual foundations for that, but never paid it off.
April 24, 2017 @ 3:21 pm
I’d also hoped for a scene where the Doctor hides his emotions from Bill (or vice versa) with the badges the only clue to the audience that they were doing so. Some dramatic potential to be had there, I think.
April 25, 2017 @ 9:16 am
What a stupid thing to say. Sadness sucks. I has negative health impact, it lowers your productivity, it lowers your quality of life, hell it IS low quality of life. No need to fetishize it. I don’t need sadness in my life any more than I need some fractured ribs here and there so I could appreciate ribs that aren’t fractured better.
Helen A was dumb because she took “Beating will continue until morale improves” approach. It didn’t work, naturally. Bots here were dumb because they mistook sadness for contagion. But, it’s like if you had villain combat famine by rounding up and exterminating starving people and resolve the plot with teaching the tyrant value of hunger.
April 25, 2017 @ 5:35 pm
I think you’re wildly misreading the episode’s intent (the episode doesn’t fetishize sadness, Helen A fetishizes happiness), but in any case the reason I brought it up was because that line served as a kind of distillation of the story’s themes. “Smile” had no comparable payoff.
April 25, 2017 @ 6:15 pm
Coming on a bit strong here, ViolentBeetle, don’t you think?
Roderick T. Long
April 30, 2017 @ 4:00 am
I hear that “sad is happy for deep people/”
April 25, 2017 @ 12:34 am
The Happiness Patrol or, for that matter, the old tabletop game “Paranoia”.
April 23, 2017 @ 8:03 pm
I wonder if the line about Bill smiling when she doesn’t understand something had been written when this episode was commissioned. The emoji language should’ve been a breeze for her, at least until the garden scene.
April 23, 2017 @ 8:16 pm
It was difficult at first to read exactly what Cottrell-Boyce wanted us to pick up on. The clunky pre-credits sequence didn’t help but luckily we discovered that our canny descendants, despite their illiterate robots will have a healthy regard for 19th century literature and name their space ark ‘Erewhon’. Why, it’s as if they knew!
Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, published in 1872. It’s title (‘Nowhere’ backwards…nearly) refers to a fictitious country which at first appears to be a Utopia. This is an early satirical work akin to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ which is arguably the progenitor not only of the Science Fiction form but a template for ‘Doctor Who’ itself. (I wish I could link this cleverly to The Mind Robber and The Land of Fiction) In Erewhon. Butler was the first to write about the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection. A premise he dismissed as having satirical intent being himself a fan of Darwin’s work.
So with this heavy handed clue, Cottrell-Boyce tips us the wink as to his intentions. William Blake last time Samuel Butler now. No lightweight romp this. We’re talking SERIOUS ISSUES which will make Bill cry when she reads a book (or at least watches a video in it) later. This lack of subtlety in Boyce’s writing really lets him down, he hammers home his left-leaning concepts as though he’s just discovered the Sci-Fi genre as a medium for social commentary. While this naivety worked in his favour in ‘Forest’ here it just comes over as preachy.
Like the Emojibots as surrogate Daleks threat, this is a surrogate episode, oddly feeling, despite its nods to modernity, like it was written by someone who hadn’t watched Doctor Who since 1975 let alone read any good Science Fiction.
Not much development of the series arc to get our teeth into either. “There was a thing that happened and because of that thing I have to do a thing” sounds like Moffat on auto-pilot at a script meeting. I am intrigued about the Doctor’s relationship with Nardole though. Why does he refer to him as ‘mum’ under his breath? I’m still going with the vault being a cocoon for a regenerated Susan. Back next week for the Ice Fair then. Elephants on the frozen Thames, Capaldi in Regency costume. I’m in!.
April 24, 2017 @ 7:14 pm
I am intrigued about the Doctor’s relationship with Nardole though. Why does he refer to him as ‘mum’ under his breath?
I think that’s just basic grumpy sarcasm- with Nardle bustling around reminding him of things he promised not to do, despite the fact he really wants to do them, he feels like he’s being mothered.
(There’s probably a whole essay on gender politics in the fact that calling someone “dad” in that context doesn’t have the same implications, regardless of the person’s gender.)
April 27, 2017 @ 5:40 pm
I am intrigued about the Doctor’s relationship with Nardole though. Why does he refer to him as ‘mum’ under his breath?
Because “mum” is the mean parent, making you be home for supper and eat your vegetables, and not go running off all over the place to play with your friends.
It’s an insult to Nardol, who is only doing exactly what the Doctor needs him to be doing. Like Clara was for a while, he’s being the Doctor’s conscience, reminding him of duty. Clara eventually gave up on this role, at least to the extent that she played it for a wile. It’s a thankless task.
April 23, 2017 @ 8:29 pm
As with last week I’m broadly with you on this one too.
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.
Second in a row, too. What made Empty Child incredibly fresh was that it was a one-off departure from standard Who villainy. But it’s very much a dessert, not a main course. This is compounded by the tendency to cast comedy actors in villainous roles when there actually are some.
Which leads me to another problem it shares with The Pilot – and with big chunks of series 8: the lack of substantial roles beyond the regulars. Constable Habib was wasted and Ralf Little was pretty awful. I’m getting the vibe that they consider series 9’s soft-reboot of the Capaldi Doctor to have failed and are returning to the style of his first episodes. Since I loathed a lot of series 8 and enjoyed almost all of series 9, you can imagine I’m not best pleased.
I like Pearl but I got irritated by Bill’s constant questions throughout. I get that they want to define her by her inquisitiveness and that the Educating Rita dynamic is a good fit for Capaldi’s Doctor, but, as David Brent would put it, “GBH of the ears!”.
(Props to FCB for at least getting something a bit fresh out of that tired old AI-gains-sentience cliche, though)
April 23, 2017 @ 8:44 pm
… this does remind me though that The Thin Blue Line was on round about the same time as the TV Movie and I recall thinking at the time that Mina Anwar would have been a good pick for a companion had Paul McGann get a series. She had a good feel for the sweet spot on that ol’ spunk vs. charm axis.
April 24, 2017 @ 6:55 am
Oh, THAT’S where I’d seen Goodthing before. Of course. Should have thought to check after the episode finished, but whenever I think of the opening I get caught up in the implications of an episode about colonisation featuring a South Asian family who have to help build an entire city and its agricultural support so that Ralf Little can wake up and take charge once it’s ready.
April 23, 2017 @ 8:42 pm
The pound signs bit at the end reminds me of something Jack said about modern science fiction finding the end of capitalism inconceivable, or thereabouts. Here something capitalism-ish is made into the fundamental definition of life itself.
Since the biggest logical problem with the resolution (and with the idea that AI as a straightforward concept [rather than one integrated into the way it interacts with society] is a threat to humanity) is that there’s nowhere for the robots to get any new motivations from, (like evolved creatures get motivations from what helps them survive and reproduce,) this may illustrate how “voids of thought” get automatically filled with the background concept noise of society. Erm, I think.
April 23, 2017 @ 8:52 pm
I’ll probably have to give this story another viewing before making a full judgement – my TV sound failed right at the beginning of the episode, so I had a silent first half! Still, that gave the unforseen opportunity to see how effective facial expressions, body language (and emojis) are at telling what’s going on.
Actually, they’re not bad. I’m mainly putting this down to the fact that Capaldi and Mackie are good actors who have a knack of making you want to watch them. I do feel it’s a shame that we won’t get to carry them forward into the next Doctor Who era – they deserve more of a chance to develop together.
Story-wise, this isn’t anything particularly new and I have an intuition that the emojis won’t date well. Also, an issue the story smoothed over too easily at the end was that it wouldn’t be that simple to have the colonists making the fresh start after knowing that friends and family had died – basically because of a misunderstanding of what negative emotions are. A child who had lost his mother in this way wouldn’t seem so normal and well-adjusted in the immediate aftermath. There’s a bigger problem here than the story allows for.
As for the question about what the greatest threat to humanity is, I would say it was this – us.
April 23, 2017 @ 10:57 pm
Were you able to use captions or subtitles, whatever you call them?
April 24, 2017 @ 7:36 pm
I could have put subtitles on, but I was so busy cursing and trying to fix the sound I didn’t bother! As I say, this episode will get a second viewing at some point.
April 23, 2017 @ 9:28 pm
I too was slightly surprised by the sharp turn at the end away from the core (and, to me at least, interesting) story about what happens to people who don’t understand grief and respond to it massively inappropriately (hmmm, a certain current US President comes to mind), and why forgiveness is the most powerful weapon in the universe, even as one thirsts for revenge, and into something about colonialism that I didn’t understand?
I did like some of the routines though – the one about photographing the map was quite funny and both of them played it well.
April 23, 2017 @ 11:27 pm
I’m one of the few who still likes In the Forest of the Night quite a bit, but I didn’t like this anywhere near as much I’m afraid. Something about the pacing seemed way off – I remember being extremely surprised during the engine scene that we still had 20 minutes to go.
About the “vacuous teens” line (because it’s an example of just how muddled the episode is): from interviews with Cottrell-Boyce I don’t get the impression that he’s a curmudgeon at all. He’s mainly a children’s author after all, and spends a lot of time in schools and often praises kids for being more astute than adults. I think the episode is generally pretty optimistic and pleased by the fact that emojis have survived this far into the future. However, it seems that Cottrell-Boyce realised some of the audience wouldn’t agree, came up with the “vacuous teens” line, obviously couldn’t give it to Bill and so in the absence of anyone else had to give it to the Doctor. Which means that, what, the Doctor is suddenly the sort of person who shames teenagers and moans about the sanctity of language? Yuck indeed.
It reminded me of that quote from Harry Styles the other week about hipsters having no right to devalue the music teenage girls like: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.vox.com/platform/amp/culture/2017/4/18/15339890/harry-styles-solo-music-one-direction-fans You don’t want to be in a situation where Harry Styles is more ‘woke’ than the Doctor.
April 24, 2017 @ 12:20 am
I would like to say that Michael Crichton’s “Prey” had me clammy and nervous for an entire day after I read it, because deadly swarms of tiny creatures are my greatest fear. “Prey” is not known as one of Crichton’s better works.
This episode had basically the same monster (which is also basically the same monster as “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”), and yet, wasn’t scared.
It just … didn’t work, did it?
April 24, 2017 @ 2:49 am
So that’s why there’s always loads of copies of that book in op shops!
April 24, 2017 @ 2:48 am
I enjoyed this review almost as much as I did the episode itself. 🙂 I was really surprised how much fun I had watching it – the most fun in years. More than anything it reminded me of the Cartmel era, when stories often didn’t quite work, but were always fresh and interesting. It’s a fair cop that the SF ideas aren’t fully developed (not to mention that malfunctioning robots are to Steven Moffat what the base under siege was to Peter Bryant), but as with the overstuffing of the Cartmel stories, I prefer too much to too little. (One idea which they missed: having a mood emoji stuck to your back means that you have the ultimate lack of privacy – there’s a metaphor: our voluntary self-exposure on the Internet.)
I now have a mental picture of Kit Pedler as Toby Jones’ computerised character from that Captain America movie.
April 24, 2017 @ 3:41 am
Lots of interesting but unrealized ideas here. Colony nanobots who interact through emotion and who have achieved sentience could have made for a really interesting story, but I’m annoyed that they decided to embody those emotions purely through the emojibots. The whole city should have changed as the Vardies emoted; at the very least, change the lighting to match their mood.
And it was baffling to see the Doctor set about blowing the city up instead of trying to understand what happened, especially given where the story was going. Unless the point is that he’s a policeman and that’s bad?
April 24, 2017 @ 2:32 pm
I felt like the episode had this curious tension in how it was crafted – slow and rushed at the same time. Like Cottrell-Boyce wanted to take time doing a good bit of exploration story to let Pearl Mackie show off her character a little and ease into the story. But then the details of the story and the nature of the Vardi became so rushed by being squeezed into the back half of the show.
Those city-wide transformations would have been fascinating to see, it’s true. But it’s also true that they might have been too expensive to depict.
There was plenty in the episode to speculate about the nature of the Vardi, and I wrote a lot of that in my own piece about it. So piggybacking again.
Side note – my mother actually knows Andrew Vardy. She used to work as the head of the faculty association at the university where he works, and spoke to him during his interview process. Connected us through email a few days ago. It was pretty cool.
April 24, 2017 @ 7:14 am
I had fun with this, but you can definitely see FCB desperately trying to tape the whole thing together as it falls apart, all the while adding extraneous pieces.
My favourite moment had to be the remark about the Algae Emperor, where Gold presses the EMOTIONS button so hard on Capaldi’s delivery it swallows the rest of the scene, but elevates that moment to the point that all I want out of life is Twelve/Algae Emperor fan art.
I also quite liked the Murder emoji faces, and that the skull symbols in the eyes appear to be the same ones used in The Wicked + The Divine to represent death and Persephone.
April 24, 2017 @ 8:26 am
I really liked the Hartnellian vibe of just having the TARDIS team wander around a space and figuring out how it works. The whole visual design of the place suggests the sun-bleached skeleton of a leviathan, and in those early stages it almost felt like the Doctor and Bill were unknowingly conducting an autopsy of an entire society.
And, y’know, that was good enough for me! I kind of wish the episode had been a bit braver and pushed through to the end without developing a plot. The Doctor and Bill learn of the sad fate of the colonists and move on to their next destination. It could have been gripping, in the same way that reading about the Terra Nova expedition is compelling to us today.
If anything really bothered me about the episode, it was the lack of the characters’ personal investment in what was going on beyond emotions of the moment (nervousness around the emojibots, etc.). A plotless episode would have been great if the point was to reveal something about these characters by how they reacted to it. Bill seems wildly optimistic about the place, which seems to set up a situation where she learns some awful, sobering truth about it – but the “grief tsunami” doesn’t work: It’s just a glitch, not a moral failing of the system itself.
I don’t need every episode of Doctor Who to be melodramatic or even necessarily to have a looming moral conflict – but it would be nice if stories could leave a mark on the characters experiencing them. I can’t see any sense in which these events have changed the Doctor or Bill or their relationship together. The secondary characters are too flat for us to care about what happens to them. We don’t even see anything to change or inflect how we view the universe of the show. So right out of the gate, it feels lightweight. Disposable. Unnecessary. I prefer it when Doctor Who is the kind of show that insists on being watched.
April 24, 2017 @ 1:35 pm
It struck me that there’s something more to the whole malfunctioning-robots-every-five-minutes thing than just a lack of other ideas. In, say, The Robots of Death or Voyage of the Damned, the robots are hostile because they have been programmed to be hostile: they are autonomous killing machines (coming soon to a battlefield, followed with I imagine terrifying rapidity to an urban environment, near you). But in Smile, as in The Pilot, Empty Child, Girl in the Fireplace, and I’ve probably forgotten more, the intelligent machines are doing what they were told to do, like Mickey Mouse’s broomsticks. It’s a specific nightmare about the unintended, unforeseen consequences of new technology. Which is probably obvious but has only just occurred to me.
April 24, 2017 @ 4:21 pm
It…kind of is, yeah (sorry). It is an interesting phenomenon, though (not that I thought this story did anything very interesting with it).
That idea of machines doing things you don’t want because they’re simply doing what you tell them is an old one, much older than the real existence of the kind of machines that can be instructed, rather than just designed. You see it in the legend of the Golem, for starters (robots being, like space-flight technology, an idea that cropped up in proto-science-fiction centuries before the generally recognised existence of the genre, let alone their emergence into science fact).
I think it is key that the machines in question generally are ones that follow instructions, because this stuff is so much to do with language, and with the unreliability of transmitting meaning and intention from thoughts to words, or from one type of linguistic system to another. It centres on the problem of boiling down desires and intentions into some fixed linguistic form that then becomes a powerful causative force in itself. That ties it in with an array of social phenomena and cultural ideas stretching far beyond the impact of technology, such as the perennial tension between the letter and the spirit of a law. “Intention isn’t magic” may be an expression generally used of artistic production, but it’s a reality that has far more practical impact in other fields of communication.
One of the best moments of this generally frustrating story was when it linked the robot problem with the fable about wishes coming true in a way you didn’t want, which made the connection with that wider field of ideas.
Among the many interesting things the story could have done but didn’t would have been tying such ideas in more closely with its prominent use of a non-traditional language system (emojis), or making a link with current social phenomena resembling the story’s robot problem. Take for instance the perverse incentives created by the culture of performance targets in public services, and the underlying McKinseyite notions of quantifiability, or the phenomenon of institutional mission creep. Even the hackneyed robots-as-slaves idea, so disjointedly introduced when the story abruptly jumps tracks towards the end, could have been made more meaningful if connected with real social phenomena such as work-to-rule as a form of industrial action, or the use of perversely literal obedience under a cloak of pretended stupidity as a method of subversion by actual slaves.
April 24, 2017 @ 4:27 pm
Of course, this is why your comparison to bases under siege is a sound one. As with them, or with once-defeated horrors on the brink of a return, or any other era-defining default enemy, it reflects the anxiety of the age. Out of control machines are the default monster of the anthropocene extinction.
April 24, 2017 @ 4:59 pm
Although in the current international political mood, once-defeated horrors on the brink of a return are looking a lot zeitgeistier again too…
April 24, 2017 @ 6:52 pm
Well, that was a very boring episode for me. It felt like there was barely any plot at all. Maybe I would’ve enjoyed the slow exploration if there were some new, intriguing ideas at play or some interesting dramatic moments between the Doctor and Bill. But there just weren’t.
I am genuinely baffled by the pre-credits scene. Why, why would anyone give us the answer to the mystery before introducing the mystery itself? If FCB really wanted to have it, he could’ve included it as a video message in the book Bill was reading. Being where it is, it just drained the episode of any tension and mystery for me.
This story could’ve been so much more. That’s the real shame here. There were enough good ideas, they just never went anywhere. Oh well. Next week looks much better.
April 24, 2017 @ 7:51 pm
I’m in agreement with those who are talking about the frustration of ideas left unrealised by this story. I think this may actually be down to the format of the series itself – the norm is now thirteen forty-five minute episodes, with one or two double-partners thrown in. I don’t generally have a problem with that, but there are stories that deserve more time to breathe.
April 24, 2017 @ 8:12 pm
I’ve never bought this argument. I think forty-five minutes requires discipline, though: you have to actually know what your idea is and to focus on it. It’s a format that’s a lot less forgiving of Baker and Martin-style “throw everything in” writing.
Plenty of writers have made forty-five minute stories with depth and nuance, though. The difference is that those writers knew what their stories were about and made sure to present a unified package. And that’s what Cottrell-Boyce fails miserably at – in the last act, it’s clear he’s got no idea what the point of the story he just told was. Unsurprisingly, given that, he can’t figure out what bits need emphasis.
April 24, 2017 @ 9:25 pm
I agree with Phil – if the format works for other writers and not for you, it’s not the format that’s the problem.
April 24, 2017 @ 8:24 pm
I’ve decided that the basic moral of this story is that workers are entitled to the fruits of their labor, and I’m fairly pleased the Doctor decided that the exploiting rentier class, i.e. the human colonists, could get a bit of a taste of their own medicine.
So, I liked it.
April 26, 2017 @ 7:56 am
I thought it was terribly muddled, and not especially satisfying as drama (although the beautiful production values and the extent to which Capaldi and Mackie are very, very watchable both helped a lot) – but huge amounts to think about.
Things I’m surprised more people haven’t pointed out:
there’s something almost darkly comic about the humans whom trees sought to protect in Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s first script becoming, in the form of their eventual descendants, fertiliser for new trees on a new world in his second script – a different kind of mirror: the cycle of life…
The imagery that leapt out most to me, oddly, was that of fish.
Last week we had a sentient puddle. Next week there’s a huge sea creature living under the frozen Thames. This week there’s much less aquatic life in evidence, but the story actually continues the ongoing Moffat-era motif of fish in several ways. I can’t remember where now, but Moffat has said that “fish” is a go-to word for him because he thinks that both the word and the creatures are odd and somehow amusing. The word, incidentally, is the one that George Bernard Shaw picked as illustrating just how weird the English language is – he “mis-spelt” it ghoti to demonstrate just how strange our spelling can be [‘gh’ pronounced ‘f’ as in ‘enough’, ‘o’ pronounced ‘i’ as in ‘women’, ‘ti’ pronounced ‘sh’ as in ‘nation’].
But I digress. The point is that the Moffat era has used fish as its go-to animal, whereas RTD was much more free with using cats, rhinos, wasps, flies, etc. There’s the “fish fingers” which become such a recurring motif. There’s 11 saying “we’re checking all the water in this area. There’s an escaped fish”. There’s that bit in one of the minisodes where the Queen gets turned into a fish. There’s River Song saying “do try the fish” just after talking about genocidal war criminals. There’s the fish as a source of beauty, fascination and oddness in A Christmas Carol. There’s Jim the Fish, a constant running gag. There’s the puffer fish in the pre-titles sequence of Listen. There’s “Fish People? … Fish. But people.” as a gag in The Caretaker. There’s Clara Oswald in a mercurial mood saying that she invented fish so she wouldn’t have to be alone whilst swimming. There’s the Doctor asking Simeon if he has a fish named Colin. There’s that goldfish in The God Complex, a key part of the weird imagery of the episode. There’s the incredibly left-field twist of “eels?” in The Girl Who Died. And so on, and so on. I suspect there are some examples I’ve forgotten, too. The point I’m making is that fish are often associated, in most of these instances, as something a bit … mercurial. Beautiful and charming but also somehow odd. Rather like the Doctor, in that respect.
Fast forward to Smile and we have all manner of fish imagery. First there’s the fact that the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències in Valencia – the building where they filmed the episode – is designed as the skeleton of a whale, and you can see that once you get the head-on shot toward the episode’s end: again, this is fish as something alien, something at an odd angle to ourselves. There’s the pools of water in which the Doctor and Bill are reflected as they walk along. There’s the algae jelly which the Doctor and Bill are served – which apparently smells of fish, and is the first alien food Bill eats. The Doctor says that he only likes fish “socially” (Jim?) which complicates these sorts of meals, suggesting he refuses to eat fish; he further runs with the idea of fish as sentient beings in talking about the lovelorn emperor made of algae, which we would normally think of as being “less alive” or “less sentient” than a fish. There is the Magic Haddock which grants wishes, key to the whole story’s thrust – a strange, eerie figure which gives you whatever you want but doesn’t think like humans do. Throughout, water and fish imagery are used to convey mercurial qualities like the Doctor’s, just as the puddle last week reflected him in various ways – and I have to wonder how this will develop once he meets the creature below the Thames in Thin Ice. There is something both “earthly” and “unearthly” about them, of this planet yet deeply bizarre, in that balance of the uncanny where familiar meets strange, and that seems a compelling fit for both the Doctor and the little we know of the creature in Sarah Dollard’s episode.
(ETA: yes, I know a whale isn’t a fish. The building still looks like one.)
April 27, 2017 @ 3:24 am
If FCB really wanted to have it, he could’ve included it as a video message in the book Bill was reading. Being where it is, it just drained the episode of any tension and mystery for me…
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