A quick jaunt into the future heralds the beginning of trying to get home again, in Doctor Who’s second episode “Smile”.
Back in the early days of Classical Who, one of the running jokes was that the Doctor wasn’t too good at steering the TARDIS–or that perhaps the navigation systems weren’t quite right, since he never seemed to be able to take it quite where it wanted to go. The most prolonged of these “adventures are what happen while you’re trying to get somewhere else” was with Tegan, who came aboard at the end of the Fourth Doctor’s term and spent a good couple of years with the Fifth Doctor, trying to get to Heathrow Airport for her first day of work.
Bill: “Where’s the steering wheel”
The Doctor: “Well you don’t steer the TARDIS. You negotiate with it.”
With the revelation at the beginning of this week’s episode that the Doctor has “made a promise” not to leave Earth, the setup is now in place. Nardole is already upset the TARDIS is outside on the grounds of the University, so the Doctor is going to move back into his office in time for the kettle to boil…but in between he and Bill are going to take just a little jaunt into the future…
As I guessed from the trailer, the plot of this almost ridiculously quotable episode is a Moffat standard horror. The “emojibots” as the BBC billed them, are measuring your levels of happiness, and your involuntary emotions–especially that of grief–are somehow seen as a viral infection. The result is that their microbot assistants–which are actually when the entire building is made of–swarm up and you are killed. Much like “Blink” by the end of it the Doctor and Bill are frantically telling those around them to “Smile!”
Bill: “So where is everyone? Don’t tell me we’ve gone halfway around the universe and they’ve all gone out.”
Bill, once again, is an absolute treasure. This episode is in many ways your standard “second adventure” episode, comparable to Nine and Rose going to “The End of the World”, or Clara being taken into space in “The Rings of Akhaten”, or Amy and Eleven far in the future in “The Beast Below”. In all these episodes, the companion is trying to find their footing in this strange new world of jumping about through Time and Space, as well as trying to understand this human looking man who enjoys throwing himself headlong into danger. But unlike those earlier episodes, Bill’s sense of practicality shines through. “Are there seatbelts?”, “How much does it cost?” indeed. (And her response to him having two hearts was delightful.)
The fact that this world is, as far as we can tell, unpopulated when Bill and the Doctor arrive gives us an opportunity to have the two actors work completely one on one for the greater part of 45 minutes. Nadole, who I’m sure will turn out to be of some use before the season is over, has been left behind to put the kettle on, and the guest stars are mostly relegated to the beginning and end of the episode. We already know Capaldi can hold up an episode solo, but Pearl Mackie goes toe-to-toe with him this week and never once falters. Her enthusiasm for the adventuring is especially keen–and her refusal to stay behind in the TARDIS, or by the map, or wherever the Doctor tries to stash her to keep her safe is kind of the best.
Bill: “Tell me what you’re thinking about.”
The Doctor: “A magic haddock.”
There’s a nice callback this week to “The Ark In Space”, the second outing serial of the Fourth Doctor with Sarah Jane and Harry. Much like this week, the ship in question turns out to be an Ark, filled with a nice cross-section of humanity fleeing Earth as society crumbles in the face of war and famine and so on. In that serial, one of the colonists becomes infected with an alien parasite, which drives him to try to kill the other colonists. In that one the only infection is grief–it turns out that one of the early bird colonists died from old age, and the ensuing sadness went against the emojibot’s programming, and so they eliminated it–and the people feeling it. (Which also calls back to the Seventh Doctor adventure “The Happiness Patrol.”)
The Doctor’s first impulse is to blow up the station, so the colonists will not be killed when they arrive. But by the middle of the hour he’s realized himself to be wrong. The emojibots have actually gained sentience beyond their programming and should be considered the indigenous lifeform on the planet upon which the colonists have arrived. of course, being the Doctor, he thinks he can just lecture the colonists into being willing to negotiate with these things. No one should be surprised that instead they all reach for their guns. Bill’s probably going to try to stop the Doctor next time he suggests a lecture as the best plan option.
The Doctor: “You know why I always win at chess? I have a secret move. I kick over the board.”
Just as it looks like the show has written itself into a corner, with no practical solution that most end in a massacre, our deus ex machina presents itself in the form of the reboot. Yes, the Doctor turns the emojibots–and their microbot assistants–all off and then back on again. This erases their programming to kill any unhappy humans. Therefore the unhappy colonists, who were all too willing to kill the emojibots (and uselessly fire at the microbots) upon learning of the early bird colonists fate, are suddenly in the position of having to negotiate their right to live there at all.
Perhaps the £ symbols in the bots eyes when the Doctor suggests they start negotiating terms of rent were a bit much, but I laughed anyway. Let’s hope the wet brains and the dry brains learn to live together in harmony, and that no one goes around giving the emojibot infected blankets.
Bill: “It wasn’t snowing when we left.”
…except with the jaunt to the future over, Bill and the Doctor are not home in time for tea. Instead the Doctor has accidentally landed them on the frozen Thames. In the snow. With an elephant wandering on by. How many adventures will he and Bill have before he gets them back to the present where they just left? And how cross is Nardole going to be when he realizes the Doctor is breaking his promise? We’ll find out next week.