While Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s first bite of the Doctor Who cherry (season 8’s In the Forest of the Night) was not, generally, well received I quite liked it. It looked great and while the story didn’t live up to the visuals I’m always happy to see the show experimenting with new writers and different kinds of storytelling. At the very least the odd failed experiment makes sure the show doesn’t become overly formulaic.
Cottrell-Boyce’s second script for the show is much more traditionally Doctor Who. The Doctor and companion land somewhere, discover all isn’t as it should be and after surviving the initial danger resolve to put things right. The basic structure is pretty much page one of the big book of Doctor Who plot-lines probably just beneath “Base under siege”. There is definitely nothing wrong with keeping it simple.
With one of the driving forces of the plot being the need to appear happy in order to survive there will be those who draw comparisons to the 1988 story The Happiness Patrol. However, that is where the similarities between those two stories end. If this story has an ancestor then it is The Ark in Space. Like that story the action at the beginning is carried only by the Doctor and companions. This allows the audience to keep getting to know Bill and see her relationship with the Doctor develop.
Two stories in and The Doctor and Bill are already leaping up my list of favourite TARDIS teams. There is such an easy going rapport between Capaldi and Mackie. Bill asks so many questions that aren’t unreasonable to ask but the series has never actually thought to address. Just by virtue of asking things like how the Doctor can blow things up and get away with it Bill feels real and like a breath of fresh air. I really hope that this is something that continues to develop.
Another advantage of having just the two of them for most of the story is that it gives the stunning location (The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia) an extra sense of scale and allows the beautiful architecture take on an sinister edge.
Unfortunately the wheels come off a bit in the final third where it turns out that the ship at the centre of the city is actually full of humans in stasis. This fact is revealed in a rather inexplicable way with the exact child the Doctor saw an image of earlier wandering the ship at just the right moment. It’s a clunky transition and the episode never really finds its feet again after that.
The first two thirds of the story are that favourite Moffat era staple of benevolent technology gone rogue due to a misunderstanding. Once the crew wake up it suddenly takes and abrupt swerve down a different path. It becomes a story of the Doctor trying to avert the destruction of either the humans or the Vardy with a side order of humans treating servitors as slaves. It feels like an entirely different episode. The action flares up really quickly and gets resolved just as fast. This may have been better off as a two part story with the second episode telling that story in greater detail and allowing more time to get to know the colonists outside of going “Oh look, it’s Ralf Little.”.
Smile has a really strong opening but unfortunately doesn’t quite stick the landing as well as it could have. It is still a good episode overall thanks to Capaldi and Mackie being so engaging and a really great choice of location which gives it an individual look. Despite the faults I still came away smiling and not under duress.