On a planet far out in space, a human colony has been established on which to be unhappy is punishable by death. The basis of that colony’s power is a lifeform with face-changing servitors, whose sentience everyone has overlooked or ignored until now, and which can be peacefully coexisted with if only everyone would treat it with respect. And as the hibernating human colonists wake up, they are about to discover this threat they’ve unknowingly brought with them to their new home.
OK, so that joke doesn’t quite work two stories in a row. “Smile” vividly recalls quite a few stories in Doctor Who history, probably unintentionally since it’s Frank Cottrell-Boyce and not Moffat writing this installment, but who knows? It hangs together a bit better than “In the Forest of the Night,” and in fact exemplifies an approach to Doctor Who that doesn’t happen much lately: the Doctor and his companion wander into a mysterious situation on a distant planet and, with no one around to explain, have to work out what’s going on before things get out of control. For all that I’m not a big fan of 60s Who in general and the First Doctor in particular, this structure was a hallmark of that era of the show and I’m glad to see it happening here.
Capaldi and Mackie carry the majority of the episode all by themselves, and they do it beautifully. Bill is still taking to this companion stuff like a fish to water, shifting from enthusiastic tourist to clever partner-in-crime, full of bravery and compassion, never bland or boring or frivolous or foolish. Their initial five minutes in the TARDIS — talking about how the Doctor stole his ship, and how it chooses a destination that’s somewhere between “where you want to go and where you need to be” — are as entertaining as the entire rest of the episode. Nardole’s a bit less ridiculous this time out, and a bit grumpier about his apparent responsibility to hold the Doctor to that mysterious promise to stay on Earth and guard the vault. And Capaldi himself is much more interesting this week than last, breathing life into bits about future Earth culture and amorous algae emperors, full of counterintuitive glee about “a grief tsunami.”
The gleaming white building in the middle of a wheatfield populated by adorable squat robots is one of the best-looking alien worlds we’ve seen since “The Girl Who Waited,” another story that seems to have contributed some DNA to this one. The emoji faces and mood discs are an idea that could have been terribly cheesy yet somehow seem perfectly appropriate a few scenes in. And though the few supporting characters do seem to suffer largely because they’ve been scripted to withhold or ignore useful information until the last possible second, generally they’re plausible and sympathetic.
If there’s anything wrong with “Smile,” it’s with the central sci-fi conceit. It’s a little tough to swallow a team of service robots that can understand verbal commands but can reply only with emojis (even the phone you might be reading this on can speak to you if you want it to) and is too dim to comprehend that if its job is to keep humans happy, killing them just for being unable to maintain a positive attitude is the opposite of doing its job. It’s even tougher to swallow the idea that these knuckleheads have evolved into a sentient silicon-based lifeform given their obvious limited intelligence. Why do they need the mood discs if they can read moods from human faces? (Is it so they can still check the mood of a human whose back is turned?) Who programmed them to independently learn the complex problem of human happiness, but couldn’t prepare them to go out into the wheatfields alone to get the pollination done? This is a farcically stupid machine race, such a clear and present danger to the organic life around it that it’s hard to blame the humans when they get trigger-happy. This is not even a slave revolt: it’s just the honest mistakes of a machine acting with the best intentions and lacking even the basic safeguards imagined by Isaac Asimov in the mid-20th century.
But perhaps the Three Laws of Robotics are the wrong thing to expect from a story that was likely influenced less by Asimov than by Samuel Butler, author of the 1872 satirical novel with which the colony ship Erewhon shares its name. I haven’t read the novel myself, but Cottrell-Boyce clearly has, or at least the parts that (according to Wikipedia) deal with “the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection.” Erewhon, Butler’s fictional country, is remarkable for “the absence of machines […] due to the widely shared perception by the Erewhonians that they are potentially dangerous.” Frank Herbert has obviously read Erewhon as well, having named the anti-AI crusade in Dune after Butler. “Smile” doesn’t necessarily regard intelligent machines as incompatible with humans, but to call it a cautionary tale seems like an understatement.
This is of course the second episode in a row concerned with technology that is both incredibly powerful and colossally dumb, causing enormous harm through a misguided and clueless desire to help. This premise ought to be threadbare by now since its emergence in “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances,” but still seems to have a bit of life in it and continues to be slightly more interesting than antagonists who are evil and murderous “just because.” We get enough of the latter in real life.