|The above face is not my Siskel/Ebert style ranking|
of the episode.
Right out of the gate, this episode is Doctor Who stew. The monsters of the week are robots who convey themselves via emojis in a world where people convey their emotions through emojis. For whatever reason, things go wrong in this world and any negative emotion is met with a cloud of nanomachines that strip a person's flesh from their bodies in an instant and kill them. The people here on this world are also colonists fleeing an evacuated Earth, so the killer emoji robot thing is a real problem for the survival of humanity. At this point, I know what I'm about. I'm a big Doctor Who nerd and I recognize all the parallels to past stories here. People fleeing an evacuated Earth evokes stories like The Ark In Space (or for an example made within the last 10 years, The Beast Below). A world where you have to be hap-hap-happy all the time or be killed evokes the 7th Doctor story, The Happiness Patrol (also instead of emoji robots that was Not-Mrs. Thatcher and Not-Bertie Basset killing the unhappy). The nanomachines stripping you down to bones is just the Vashta Nerada from the Library two-parter in the David Tennant years. Hell, the emoji robots and the Vardi nanomachines even work on the same "rules concerning involuntary human functions" concept that the Moffat era keeps using. This time it's "UH OH BETTER NOT FEEL SAD ABOUT EVERYONE YOU KNOW BEING DEAD OR THE ROBOTS WILL GET YOU" when grief and sadness are a natural human emotion we can't help but feel upon hearing bad things. What's more interesting is the structure of the episode itself. Discounting Nardole and the flashback of every sad person on the colony world getting killed, the Doctor and Bill are the only human players in the episode until 29 and a half minutes in. The first half of the episode is devoted to the Doctor and his new companion exploring an alien world, discovering new things while they both ponder and inquire about the nature of this planet and where all the people went. In other words, the rules of the story. What this does is make the story feel like a retro throwback to the William Hartnell era; a slow and deliberate buildup in which exploring becomes the main focus. It's wild, and it isn't even the only Hartnell-era throwback in this episode! We'll get to that, but on to our main players.
Bill's sci-fi savviness doesn't come up too much in this one, barring her not recognizing the Vardi as robots because of them being nanomachines and then identifiying the more traditional-looking emoji robots as robots. It feels like her main role in this one is "the new companion who asks questions we've never heard before". They did this a little bit with Clara, but Bill works well at doing it also. Questions like "why are the seats in the TARDIS so far away from the console?" or "if you have two hearts do you have really high blood pressure?". Her biggest standout is the continued wondering as to why the TARDIS is a police box, and her eventual conclusion that the "advice and assistance" wording on its front door is the Doctor to a T. It's nice and I like it. The Doctor himself works well also, and for me personally there's an interesting parallel. In my second-ever Capaldi era writeup on Into The Dalek, I hit upon the notion of Clara as not just a teacher to a Coal Hill class but to the Doctor as well. That take eventually evolved into Clara as a dark mirror of the Doctor in trying to emulate him, but resurfaced in Heaven Sent as the Doctor's internalization of Clara after her death. The Pilot has him taking on that role in Clara's absence and he's become a college professor and tutor to Bill. This is what their dynamic feels like in the outset of early 12/Bill adventures; a tutor and his student. We invoked The Happiness Patrol earlier, and note that 7th Doctor companion Ace used to call the Doctor "Professor". Hmm. The Doctor, in this one, is clever but gets it slightly wrong. He tries to blow everything up, as some of his past personas would delight in doing (looking at you, 2 and 7) but mucks it up in not realizing that he's in the colony ship and not just an advanced scout. He does eventually figure out why the Vardi killed everyone and how to fix it, but... we'll get to that.
Hey, as a quick aside before we get to the ending... it's that time again! Mirror imagery! There's a shot of the Doctor and Bill running from the Vardi where they're reflected in glass, and later in the engine room the Doctor sees an emoji bot's reflection in a gauge and that clues him in on the robot coming at him. Hooray for this gimmick continuing on forever! Okay, that resolution. It's not the greatest and a little head-scratching. So, the Vardi have become self-aware but also aren't self-aware enough to know that negative emotions are a usual human thing. That meant when a colonist died and people were sad, they cleared up the aberrations by removing those humans... and more humans were sad at those deaths and it all snowballed out into total extermination. Grief Syndrome made manifest. The Doctor's solution to this as the remaining colonists have guns out and are shooting emoji bots and Vardi alike is to, quote "kick over the chess board". That's very Doctorish and what I usually love about this show, but his solution is... mindwiping the robots so they don't remember anything. Then he introduces the humans as wanting to share space with their world... and just peaces out. It's just a strange note to go out on. Did he fix their capacity to understand that negative emotions are normal? Will humanity be able to coexist with the robots who killed half their family and friends? We don't know. I guess I should be happy for the ambiguity, but I'm mixed. It makes it feel like the Doctor simultaneously does and doesn't give a shit about saving these people, and it's weird. I do like the invocation of the Magic Haddock story (which I guess is a British version of the Monkey's Paw) but... I don't know. What is neat is the ending. We basically go directly into our next adventure in the past, and it's a cold winter in old London and the river Thames is frozen over and there's an elephant for some reason! This is the other major Hartnell invocation; the episodes tying together as a continuous string of adventures. Past... god, 1970 or so, Doctor Who never really did this aside from two-parters or big story arcs. Bringing it back is a surprise, but a welcome one. That's Smile. I don't think it will be remembered as a classic, but it will be remembered better than In The Forest Of The Night. I liked it fine on both watches, but I just wish the ending held up to better scrutiny myself. Oh well.
Next time: It's not 1990 and there probably aren't Ice Warriors.