In the second episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, Bill takes her first proper trip in the TARDIS and discovers an uncertain future. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.
Trigger Warning: For continued discussion of grief and death, body horror
For those of us who are longtime science fiction fans—probably like Bill herself, actually!—this is probably a familiar story. There’s even a familiar link with the previous episode: entities who are trying to do what they think is best, but whose actions are perceived as monstrous by other people. There’s an interesting twist, though, within the nature of the antagonists in “Smile.” What happens when something non-living becomes living? What agency does that creature have? How responsible are they for their actions prior to them become self-aware?
This is a complicated episode that’s born from a concept that we’ve seen before, both in Doctor Who and in the science fiction genre as a whole. But it was easy for me to put aside that familiarity. We’ve seen stories about messed up human colonies; we’ve seen stories about technology gone awry; we’ve seen stories about tiny murderers; but through the lens of Twelve and Bill, this felt new. Exciting. Thrilling. And that lens matters so much to “Smile,” because I don’t think it would have been quite as compelling without their interactions.
And I don’t want that to seem too harsh, because I did enjoy the bright, well-lit creepiness of this episode, which avoided the expected tropes that come with horrifying situations. Seriously, I love sunny thrillers, y’all, because I’m so used to scary stories happening in the dark. This one doesn’t! And I don’t think it should have, either. This had to be a representation of a human utopia, a place constructed to provide the ideal setting for humans who had escaped a dying Earth. Thus, everything is brightness; cleanliness; smooth lines and expert design. Look at the gigantic pools! The way the building is constructed to allow in as much natural light as possible! All of that is worldbuilding and character building, since it creates the utopia/colony and it’s standards while also demonstrating what the Vardi are programmed to do. They were supposed to provide the ultimate experience in happiness for the human colonists who were in stasis.
Again, not a new idea, but WOW, THIS WAS FUCKED UP. The Vardi eventually came to literally interpret the directive they were given, and in doing so, they saw any sign of unhappiness as something to be exterminated. Unhappiness—or in this case, grief—can spread from human to human. Actually, let me back up a little from what I said earlier. That felt new and exciting on its own, especially since this episode examines what grief means to a community. Part of the reason the Vardi killed people so quickly is because each death, starting with the unnamed matriarch that Bill finds, has ramifications. Death almost always does, even if the world keeps spinning. Someone grieves. Someone misses the person who is now gone. And in this case, we watch it happen in the opening of the episode when Kezzia is told the truth. Grief and unhappiness spread instantly, and she didn’t stand a chance, and that’s why this situation is so precarious. Look what happens after the colonists start to wake up! Their instant reaction isn’t to listen to the Doctor or Bill; it’s to arm themselves. They want revenge, not understanding. Even then, it would still be inevitable; grief is an undeniable part of the human experience.
But then “Smile” goes in one hell of a direction. This was already a complicated, upsetting situation. Seriously, the way the Vardi killed was so violent!!! But near the end of this episode, the Doctor realizes things have gotten worse. Why? Well, because the Vardi, over time, stop being programmed bots. They become sentient. They begin to protect themselves, demonstrating that they are a living force. And the Doctor can’t just allow the humans to exterminate another life, can he? But the colonists also deserve to NOT DIE FOR FEELING EMOTIONS.
It’s through this that we get one of those classic moral dilemmas that I do enjoy from Doctor Who, but as I said earlier, seeing this through Bill’s eyes made this a real treat. This is her first complete trip as a companion! It’s full of the joy of that sort of experience, and I was absolutely thrilled by her exuberance as she explored the colony. It was so infectious! However, this is also her chance to get a sense of how the Doctor operates, particularly his constant ability to find others who are in need. This is important because we get to see Bill try to help, too. It’s already part of her nature; the first episode of this series established through Heather that Bill had a knack for finding people who needed help, too.
So what does she choose to do? Sometimes, she might clash with the Doctor. (There’s that bit where he tells her not to be so judgmental.) And she might not always understand what he’s doing. (Which is… pretty common for everyone?) Yet she comes around to the realization that the Vardi cannot be destroyed, and it’s pretty cool to see her reach that point, to want to convince the humans to do things differently. Her perspective changes, and once it does, she changes, too. I feel like every companion has to have a moment like this, where their views are tested, and this one works as at least one of Bill’s.
So! I had a good time watching this, and the acting was stellar from Capaldi and Mackie. What’s up with Nardole at the beginning, by the way? Seriously, WHY DOES THE DOCTOR HAVE TO GUARD THAT VAULT.
The video for “Smile” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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