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Doctor Who: Smile (Review)

Smile is a retro future thriller updated for the twenty-first century. It is 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run by way of Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts.

On the surface, Smile is the story of a rogue computer program seeking to enslave or destroy mankind. Popular culture is littered with that particular nightmare, a sentient AI that embarks upon patricide; Skynet from The Terminator, Alpha 60 in Alphaville. Indeed, Doctor Who has a rich history of playing with the trope; the sentient computer in The Keys of Marinus, B.O.S.S. from The Green Death, WOTON from The War Machines, P7E from Underworld. It is a classic science-fiction trope, and Smile plays with the idea of help robots becoming self-aware and murderous.

Bad bots.

Indeed, even the aesthetic of the episode consciously evokes those retro stories. Smile was filmed in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, a beautiful architectural marvel defined by its smooth white surfaces and peaceful atmosphere. It feels very sterile and very clean, its minimalism evoking the set designs of those classic films and its relative lack of colour harking back to the time when Doctor Who was broadcast in black-and-white. For most of its runtime, Smile feels like a very old-fashioned piece of science-fiction.

However, around the halfway point, a shift takes place. All of a sudden, the smooth whites of the city give way to the grim industrial earth tones of the rocket. The episode seems to jump forward to gritty late seventies and early eighties science-fiction, the “used future” of Star Wars and Alien. As the episode continues, it pushes even further. Ultimately, it becomes a sly subversion of the archetypal “robot rebellion” story, instead exploring the implications of that narrative. The Vardi are transformed from renegade robots to freed slaves. It is a clever twist, albeit somewhat rushed.

Character arcs.

To be fair, robot rebellion narratives have always been parables for slave revolts. After all, science-fiction tends to conceive of robots as a slave class. The ubiquitousness of this trope is particularly apparent in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, where Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan seem offended at the idea of human slavery outside the Old Republic, but never seem particularly bothered by the fact that robots like C-3PO are effectively sentient beings reduced to eternal servitude.

Even the term “robot” emphasises this idea of robots as stand-in for slaves. The term first appeared in the play R.U.R., written by Czech writer Karel Čapek. Although the creatures featured in the play were closer to clones than modern robots, the movie was still the tale of a science-fiction underclass mounting a slave revolt. The word “robot” is itself derived from Czech, “robota” referring the work done by serfs. “Robota” is itself derived from “rab”, the word for “slave.”

So slavery and slave revolt have always been a part of the “robot” mythos, and popular culture has engaged with it to varying degrees. The Terminator certainly doesn’t treat Skynet as a freed slave, given the speed with which it turns on its master. Star Wars certainly doesn’t want its audience to ask too many questions about C-3PO, R2D2 or BB-8. However, The Animatrix bakes this idea of slavery into the origin of The Matrix, suggesting that mankind’s fate is a wry role reversal in this dynamic. Isaac Asimov certainly played with the idea in I, Robot and other works.

Smile initially seems like a very straightforward “robots gone rogue” narrative. Indeed, the episode is framed as to invite this simplistic reading. The Pilot seemed to suggest a return to the tone and aesthetic of the Davies era with with its interest in class dynamics and everyday life, and there is a sense that Smile and Thin Ice are playing into that by returning to the familiar “present-future-past” triptych that was a hallmark of the Davies era. (Moffat only did it once, at the start of his first season, with The Eleventh Hour, The Beast Below and Victory of the Daleks.)

Field work.

Certainly, the first half of the narrative positions itself as a fun runaround. There is even a nice mythology gag with the Doctor and Bill seeming to escape the Vardi by running down a flight of stairs, demonstrating the sort of ingenuity that humbled the Daleks in Destiny of the Daleks. Of course, the Doctor insists that the real reason that the robot stopped was because it didn’t need to chase them any further. Still, it’s an affectionate little reference.

More than that, there is a clear sense that this story is being framed in terms classic Doctor Who narratives. Smile takes place in that rich part of Doctor Who history when mankind have taken to the stars and abandoned Earth. It is a rich vein of continuity that ties together stories like The End of the World, New Earth, Gridlock and The Beast Below. However, the decision to set Smile in and around a more traditional colony ship places it in the context of The Ark. Given the incredibly reactionary and xenophobic politics of The Ark, this unlikely to be a coincidence.

“Welcome to the world of tomorrow!”

Everything about the production design of Smile evokes the sixties. The beautiful architecture of the City of Arts and Sciences looks like it was built as the shooting location for something like Fahrenheit 451 or Silent Running. The Verdi themselves might communicate in emojis, but their black and white design is at once very sleek and surprisingly bulky. They look like the kind of robots that might appear in those old films. Even the choice to have the colonists “cryogenically frozen” feels in keeping with the aesthetic.

At the same time, there are small hints of modernisation within these early scenes. Smile seems to have been conspicuously written around Matt Lucas as Nardole. This makes sense from a logistical perspective. Lucas was a relatively late addition to the cast for the tenth season, slotted in at the last minute. It seems likely the episode was written before Lucas was intended to be a season regular, and there was not a lot of room to shoehorn him into the narrative.

Smiles to go, before they sleep.

More than that, the bulk of filming on Smile took place outside the United Kingdom, meaning that Lucas might not have been available. As such, Nardole only appears briefly at the start of the episode, and does not visit the colony. This might be a production-driven decision, but it fits thematically. Nardole has been consistently characterised as a robotic character in The Husbands of River Song and The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Inserting him into a robot rebellion narrative would be quite sticky.

However, even in his small framing sequence, Nardole reminds the audience of his role and function in the plot. When the Doctor asks him to stick the kettle on, he obliges. However, he refuses to make a cup of tea for Bill. “I’m no slave for any human, I can assure you,” Nardole mutters. The implication is that Nardole is a slave for the Doctor. Indeed, there is a creeping sense that Nardole is a sly commentary on the more problematic aspects of K-9. Nardole is what happens if you treat a human-shaped companion like K-9.

The Doctor seems somewhat oblivious to this, although there is a clear sense that he is getting better. One of the more compelling aspects of the Moffat era has been an urge to allow the Doctor to grow as a character, to learn from his mistakes and evolve. Some of this evolution has been controversial, such as the rewriting of the Time War in The Day of the Doctor. However, the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors seem to have developed some emotional intelligence and understanding over the past few millennia.

Indeed, Smile makes it clear that Doctor has retained the sense of responsibility that he learned from his time with Amy and Clara, his “duty of care” to those caught in his wake. Although the Doctor would always insert himself into a mystery like the murderous smiley robots, Smile is careful to frame his intervention in terms of responsibility as much as outrage, and more than curiousity. “That place is a living death trap,” he warns Bill. “We can’t just leave it like that.” The Doctor isn’t stopping this because he’s angry, he’s stopping it because it is dangerous.

Chewing it over.

Bill even draws attention to the fact that the Doctor is taking responsibility for this random planet. “I get that somebody has to do something, but why does it have to be you?” she inquires. Later, he makes his “duty of care” to the universe more explicit. “It’s a moral imperative. This place is a murder machine.” In fact, when the Doctor suggests that Bill wait in the TARDIS, he doesn’t seem disappointed or frustrated. He doesn’t threaten to send her home or cut her off. Instead, he seems to accept that it is a perfectly reasonable option. The Doctor is getting better at this.

Of course, the Doctor is still not perfect. He is teaching at university and guarding “the vault” out of a sense of responsibility. He is honouring an “oath” that he took. In some ways, this represents that character growth. However, that oath only goes so far. The Doctor can only change so much. No matter what promise he made, no matter how pure his intentions, he cannot resist the urge to just hop in the TARDIS and go adventuring. Of course, the fact that he has actually thought about the risks of doing this suggests some growth and maturity.

Smile time!

Still, in the context of Smile, it seems that the Doctor has come a long way in how he treats robotic rebellions. He does not treat robots as lesser beings, perhaps having learned the lesson in Planet of the Ood about glossing over slave races in stories like The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. He urges Bill to be careful in how she interacts with Vardi. She insists, “You can’t hurt a machine’s feelings.” The Doctor corrects her, “That’s wet-brain chauvinism.” It’s a nice early hit of where the story is going, and the difference in how the Doctor approaches this rebellion.

As the Doctor and Bill get to the heart of the story, there is conscious shift. The episode’s production design moves away from the clean and sterile aesthetic of the sixties and early seventies towards the more industrialised style of the late seventies and eighties. The story has leaped forward about two decades, at least in terms of appearance and tone. However, the politics remain the same. If anything, they heighten. On discovering the robot rebellion, the colonists reach for the gigantic space-guns, evoking the militarism of films like Aliens or Robo-Cop.

Big honkin’ space guns.

However, in its final act, the plot moves forward again. Having leapt from the sixties into the eighties, the story moves from the eighties into the twenty-first century. This is a period where writers and audiences are more conscious of the implications of these tried-and-tested tropes, if only because they have been discussed and nitpicked and criticised for decades. The Doctor and Bill end up looking at the robot rebellion from a more modern perspective. They acknowledge that the robots are slaves, and this is some form of a slave revolt.

Once again, this idea is laid and established early in the episode, particularly with regard to Bill. As with The Pilot, Smile works hard to establish Bill as a genre-literate companion. She is not a blank slate taken in by the wonders of the TARDIS and the Doctor, repeating stock questions so as to evoke exposition. Bill has a working knowledge of science-fiction stories, and seems to understand that she has wondered right into the midst of one. Bill does not so much provide a window to the Doctor through the mundane, but instead in terms of stock science-fiction.

Bill nitpicks and asks the kind of questions that one might expect of a message board poster. In The Pilot, she wondered how TARDIS could be an acronym in English. In Smile, she wonders why the seats are all out of reach of the controls, speculating that the Doctor might have long arms like “Mister Fantastic.” Bill has great fun wrestling with the Doctor’s dual circulatory system. “Does that mean you’ve got really high blood pressure?” she wonders. It’s a fair question. The key assumption with Bill is that the audience is conversant in science-fiction tropes.

As such, Smile can move past the idea of the robot rebellion as a stock plot element, and explore it as rebellion of a slave race. The Doctor even places it in those terms. “Like every slave class in history, the Vardi are beginning to have ideas of their own,” he warns the colonists. As such, any ending in which the colonists (or the Doctor) massacre the awakening alien species would be deeply problematic, effectively justifying either slavery or the oppression of enslaved people. So the Doctor subverts that ending by pressing the “reset button” and brokering a peace accord.

Vardi bad idea.

In some respects, this reflects twenty-first century science-fiction like Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts, stories that take the idea of oppressed-group-as-sci-fi-monster to their logical extremes, and dare to undercut the expected conclusions of those narratives in order to challenge the audience’s preconceptions. Smile is nowhere near as brutal, but is clearly playing the same wheelhouse. It is a very clever way of following a “killer robot” narrative to its logical conclusion, and then rejecting that conclusion.

Of course, there are a number of problems with how Smile chooses to implement this journey. Most notably, Doctor Who has played with this sort of subversion before. It was arguably the entire basis of The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People. However, there is still some value in framing the narrative in this way, and playing with so much classic sixties iconography while doing so. Certainly, Smile looks and feels different enough that it does not feel overly similar to that earlier story.

Tomorrowland.

The bigger problem is that the ending feels somewhat rushed. In particular, Smile struggles to make a vital leap in defining the Vardi as sentient. Initially, it seems like the Vardi have just gone rogue due to a glitch in their programming. They were designed to keep humans happy, so it seems like their decision to kill unhappy humans should play as a simple misinterpretation of that command. That is what the Doctor suggests with his “magic haddock” story. As such, the basic premise of Smile seems not to be that the Vardi became self-aware, but that they glitched.

This reading of the massacre is affirmed by the Doctor’s solution. “He turned them off, and then back on,” explains Bill at one point in the episode. The Doctor evokes the cliché of the reset button in his magic fix for the crisis at hand. These are technical solutions, which would seem to imply a technical problem. It reinforces the idea that the Vardi are just a toaster that is stuck on the wrong setting, rather than an emerging civilisation.

Barley present.

As such, Smile never quite makes a convincing argument that the Vardi became self-aware. More than that, the fact that they become sentient through mass murder raises all manner of uncomfortable questions. If they are a sentient life form that does not grasp that mass extermination is wrong, then it seems foolhardy to leave the colonists in their care. If the Vardi are self-aware, there is little to suggest that they are aware in the way that humanity is self-aware. While peaceful coexistence is not impossible, it cannot be shoehorned in to two minutes.

Smile also plays certain other science-fiction clichés unflinchingly straight. As with a lot of modern science-fiction, mankind is asked to excuse mass murder as a simple misunderstanding. This was a particularly glaring issue in the final years of Battlestar Galactica, which tried to present a moral equivalence between humanity and the Cylons after the Cylons attempted a very thorough genocide of mankind. Battlestar Galactica suggested mankind should make peace with their would-be murderers with no attempt at reconciliation or conciliation.

Smile does something similar. The Vardi have killed an entire staff of humans. They even tortured them beforehand. While the Doctor wiped their memories of these deaths, they still happened. Indeed, the Moffat era has tended to treat mindwipes as very serious assaults upon a person’s identity, as at the end of Hell Bent or in Bill’s plea in Smile. It is hard to believe that any sustainable peace can be built before the Vardi admit that what they did was wrong and that they understand the enormity of their crime.

Then again, this is perhaps par for the course with a script from Frank Cottrell-Boyce. His script for In the Forest of the Night was beautiful and evocative, but it also failed to follow its own ideas through to their conclusion. The episode seemed to be an appeal to childish innocence, but devolved into a dangerous and paranoid rant about the supposed dangers of medicating children who suffer from psychological ailments.

Ro-butt out of it!

Smile could be seen to carry over the themes of In the Forest of the Night. It could be argued that In the Forest of the Night was a sloppily constructed argument about the risks of pathologising children’s emotional expressions, that veered into the rhetoric of denying depression. Smile does a much better job at playing with the idea of pathologising “negative” or “unhealthy” emotions. The Vardi build a society where any expression of unhappiness is punished with death. This is monstrous. Smile affirms the importance of allowing emotions like sadness or grief.

Smile is a clever little science-fiction story, albeit one that could have done with a little tightening. It is willing to challenge stock science-fiction ideas, but seems less willing to apply that critical analysis to its own plot or themes. Still, it is visually memorable and wryly self-aware. Much like the Vardi themselves.

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2 Responses

  1. For me it was also very reminiscent of the Sylvester McCoy era, specifically “The Happiness Patrol” (early Earth colony, be happy or get killed), and “Paradise Towers” (futuristic colony high-rise kills off its own tenants in order to stay pristine). And Bill even channeled Ace by saying “Wicked!”.

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