Doctor Who: Tenaciously Average, Relentlessly Dull, Irritatingly Standard
You know, I didn’t think a lot about last week’s season premiere, The Pilot, in the time between that episode and this one. I mean, that probably is a good sign – with episodes I hate, I find myself washing dishes three days later and quietly fuming over some tiny plot-hole that I’ve just realized exists. But I ended up half-forgetting that the show had even come back, with the episode’s inconsequential plot and relative alrightness being neatly filed away in my head, not to be thought of again. Coming into Smile, the second episode of the season, I couldn’t help but hope for something a little more memorable, even if it was more flawed; something I could actually get my teeth into and enjoy reviewing.
And….nope. In a word. Look, as episodes of the Moffat era go, Smile was adequate; it followed the Doctor and Bill as they headed off to a far-flung colony of Earth, only to find it devoid of humans, thanks to a cluster of robots meant to help their human charges who actually, obviously, killed them off. “Technology gone wrong” is sort of a banner theme for a lot of standalone DW episodes, especially in the last few years, and while I think that they can produce some interesting stories, when you set a story around something as sterile as machinery, you’ve really got to lean hard on the human aspect to keep it from drifting into terrifically uncompelling television.
But I digress; let’s talk about some of the things I did like about the episode. I’m still simply adoring Bill, and Pearl Mackie is killing it with her second outing – bright, buzzy, and optimistic with just a touch of melancholy, she’s charming as hell and made this talk-heavy episode at least passable when she was on-screen. The look of the Earth colony, too, was really special, feeling at a least a little different to most of the generic, interchangeable futures we see in DW.
And…oh, shit, that’s it, I’m out of good things to say already. Not that the rest of the episode was tremendously awful, but all of veered between boring, face-squinchingly odd, and trite as hell. As I mentioned, it was a talky episode, which is fine when you’ve got a great grip on the characters and their chemistry but fell a little flat here, especially when so much of the talking focused on artless exposition instead of character development. Murray Gold really, really needs to move on now, as his score for this episode just proved distractingly twee, twinkling giddily all over these fifty minutes like a four-year-old jabbing her fairy princess wand into your eye. And then, of course, there was that story to contend with.
I feel like story is something that often takes a backseat in TV these days. Character is where it’s at. I’m watching Mad Men for the first time at the moment, and barely anything actually happens week to week but the characters are so bloody compelling and nuanced that I barely notice. I love stories that focused on deep, fascinating characters, even if it sometimes comes at the expense of the plot – see also, Rings of Akhaten, Clara’s second episode and an analogue to this one, where the whole thing revolves around a big, dramatic, character-building speech that renders everything else in the episode forgettable by comparison. Smile seemed to want to do a talky, dense character piece while also telling this convoluted sci-fi story, and neither side of the coin really worked.
There were odd lines in there that legitimately made no sense – “What’s the opposite of a genocide? A lecture!” – not to mention an ending that relied on the Doctor to wave the sonic screwdriver around to save the day. Every time it felt as though the episode had reached a natural climax, it wheezed in another breath to make a run-up for an even bigger plot point, and managed to muddle any message it might have had about the state of modern technology into near-uselessness. The episode closes out a confusing coda as the Doctor sort of resets the spooky robots who apparently were developing some kind of conciousness in an act that seems too callous for him, and then they dash off with a hand-wave about the humans having to not remind them of their previous deeds.
This episode was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the man behind the atrocious In the Forest of the Shite (too easy, really), and that episode’s habit of cramming too much plot and too little story into an episode. It sucks, and I hope we don’t see him writing for the show again soon. He doesn’t suit it. And, as with his previous episode, this was distinctly lacking a really solid human element to the story, something that I always looked to Doctor Who to provide. For an episode that was meant to centre around the power of grief, it was pretty emotionless, with the actual humanity of the episode feeling hurried in at the last minute to provide some stakes.
But, more than anything, this episode wasn’t memorable. It wasn’t dreck – despite my criticisms here, nothing about it rendered it bad enough to really hate. But it wasn’t even passably good, either, and I really hope this isn’t setting up a standard for the rest of the season. Yes, we’re only two episodes in, but both episodes have been throwaway bits of nothing with little to define them as actually worth remembering (aside from, of course, Bill). With the tantalising promise of the always-thrilling Missy (not to mention The Master) returning to our screens, I can only hope the rest of season ten does a better job making an actual impression that Smile did.
But do I spy another episode shot by sidling over to the Victorian sets again? I’ll have you yet, Moffat, even if you did spring for an elephant.