ASSESSING STRESS #2: “Smile”

Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things. And we still are here, through lightning, thunder, rain, pernicious timezones and computer crashes, to discuss “Smile”, the second episode of the new series of Doctor Who!

This week, Scarves, Scribbles & Tibère are joined by an oh so prestigious guest, Janine Rivers, from the blog The Diary of Janine Rivers (https://janinerivers.wordpress.com/ ), aka the founder of Doctor Who Fan-Fiction.com (http://doctorwhofanfic.weebly.com/ ), aka the person that convinced Tibère to get into this whole thinkpiece business, aka the spiritual mother of DoWntime.

1) General Thoughts

😀 TIBERE: So, some context first – how did we all approach the episode here?  With what kind of expectations? Personally,I expected to love it. I’m maybe not as big a fan of “Forest” as the other people here – at the same time, that would be really hard, because you are basically in front of the Forest Lovers Associate (which kind of sounds like a weird experimental reggae band that would play in a shed somewhere in Gloucestershire or whatever) – but it’s still a lovely episode, and one that is absolutely integral to the themes of series 8 and Capaldi’s era in general. It gets slagged very unfairly for embodying a very silly, camp, experimental and thematically-heavy view of Doctor Who, but I love it for these exact reasons. Really, if you’re not ready to accept the fact that Who can and should be anything, just stop pretending you’re a fan. Enjoy the ride, in all its wonky weirdness! That’s what it’s about. And this got really incoherent really fast. I don’t know why, it happens. Anyway – I expected to like it, and, cup of tea in hand, I watched it, and I did love it. More than “Forest”, actually – it feels a little cleaner, a little more efficient in the way it conveys its points, even if I’m not sure it’s as dense a thematic nexus – although, time will tell, jury is still out on this one.

:O SCARVES: Very tired after a long night shift at work. I rewatched it again after sleeping. I actually came in very hopeful and excited, as I’ve always had a soft spot for “In the Forest”, and felt it got unfairly slagged off by fandom. I got the sense this was going to be a bit “safer” than that story – FCB’s comments about writing a more traditionally Doctor Who-ish story suggests he was aware of the criticisms “In the Forest” recieved, but I found the emojibots encouraging from that perspective – like he wasn’t completely scared off of putting things into the story that would go against “conventional” wisdom for what should be in a Doctor Who story. And I was intrigued by the themes – Cottrell Boyce’s desire to do a story about a Utopia instead of a dystopia, as dystopias are all over modern Sci-Fi and Dystopias are comparitively rare, sounded fascinating.

🙂 SCRIBBLES: Interesting you mention work, I’ve been stuck on working a shift in food service which is delaying my ability to see the new episodes. In this case, that adds to the meaning. Bill brings a sense of service work into the show already, but in retrospect, that’s what Smile is all about, too. I was very excited for the episode, In the Forest of the Night is a personal favorite, the emojibots looked adorable, and the locations stunning. I think it was possibly the episode I was most excited and anxious toward in expectations (“Lie of the Land” is just anxious at the moment). And new Doctor Who is an amazing thing to come home to, it always is.

😉 JANINE: I didn’t work.  But that’s the joy of self-employment.  Had a bit of a rough night, though, which involved a disappointing curry and I shan’t elaborate on that for your sake.  I’ve had a bit of an intimate relationship with “Smile”, though, which has taken me back about nine months.  I went to the City of Arts and Sciences last year and loved it, and then obviously as time went on I found out that the episode was dealing with a lot of themes which I’m really into – utopianism, communication, that sort of thing.  But like you two, I adored “In the Forest of the Night”, so much so that I’m pretty sure I’m now famous purely for being that one person who likes “In the Forest of the Night” way, way more than they should.  I’m also a big fan of “God on Trial” (Boyce’s BBC film, 2008), so I generally go into one of his stories with fantastic amounts of anticipation.  Of course, I did have a genuine, nagging fear that this would just end up being utterly shit and that everyone else would think I’m even more mad than they already did.

😛 SCRIBBLES: They’re just mad not to realize how brilliant his weird and off-kilter vision is with Doctor Who. He’s made for it, really. Doctor Who is a space for doing weird things like that above all else.

TIBERE: His brand of weird things is especially well-suited to the Capaldi era, too. I mean – when you look at it, both his episodes are these sort of thematic meditations where characters traverse a space while pondering its meaning. It’s as Capaldi as it gets: “Heaven Sent” is basically that exact same approach, just turned up to eleven. And “Nightvisiting”, if we’re getting into Class (no, Janine, please, don’t kill me, I beg of you), is also built on a model that resembles it.

🙂 JANINE: “Nightvisiting” is alright, really.

😡 SCARVES: And this episode, of course, nicks “Heaven Sent’s” fairy story repurposed into the Doctor’s plan” for the resolution.

😀 SCRIBBLES: Speaking of traversing weird liminal spaces with characters pondering, oh,  what an ear for character he has. Building these weird and wonderful spaces that are at once totally unusual, I can see what alienates some viewers from his stuff, but also totally fitting to what the characters need experience and in-touch with the dominant aesthetic I like to see from Doctor Who, a sense of wonder at the impossible. He’s both rather cynical in terms of our society and optimistic with humanity in a really natural way for this series.

:-/ JANINE: And that was the problem with the reception to “Forest”.  People didn’t bother doing their research.  It’s about William Blake, for God’s sake, and people seriously went in criticising it through lenses of science and logic.  What the hell is that about?  It’s an hour’s walk through the subconscious.  That’s just not the place for logic.

TIBERE: It’s like looking at “Smile” through an apolitical prism. Like … Yeah. Whoever doing that is watching it wrong. And yes, I do think you can watch something wrong – send the hatemail my way.

o.O SCARVES: In fairness, you can see why most people don’t approach an episode of Doctor Who expecting to watch it as a piece of Marxist theory or Blakean riffing.

O.o JANINE: Oh, I understand that not everyone knows how to come at an episode, but when you literally name your episode “In the Forest of the Night”, or use the word “utopia” in the first ten minutes… that’s more instructive than you’re going to get from any other TV show.  And interestingly, if a news article or a science documentary doesn’t make sense, you don’t tend to hear people complaining that they expect “too much” of their viewers.  So why is it that people are embarrassed to say they don’t understand science, but when it’s fiction – which does operate to its own fixed logic a lot of the time – it’s somehow on the writer to explain things in layman’s terms?

SCARVES: Agreed. Heck, even if most people don’t have an intimate knowledge of Marx or Blake, they should probably realise that there’s no monolithic way to watch Doctor Who, and that trying to treat it as realist or Hard Sci Fi, isn’t the best way to go about watching most episodes.

>:-| JANINE: I blame Hollywood.  Well, not quite, but I blame people for expecting Hollywood.  People want Doctor Who to be like Interstellar.  Well, Doctor Who doesn’t have that sort of timeframe to work with, so it goes with the best bit of Interstellar (the four-dimensional character work – which I’m fairly certain Doctor Who did first, anyway) and disregards what’s non-essential (the hard science-fiction).  If people want to see better special effects or hard science-fiction, why aren’t they volunteering to pay a larger license fee?  Money doesn’t grow on trees.  Even if the trees are sentient, and pop up overnight.

😛 SCRIBBLES: Frankly, Forest even is in-tune with certain scientific concepts in closer ways than certain episodes I could think of that are far more well-regarded. Yes, it’s wondrous rubbish. But it is based on real mechanisms for change in the world. “Catastrophe is the metabolism of the universe” could have been taken from one of the earth science lectures I was in at the time it came out.

SCARVES: “Catastrophe is the metabolism of the universe” remains one of my favourite lines in any Doctor Who episode.

: ? TIBERE: One of Moffat’s too, as I recall. Next question: did you like it? I liked it. A lot. Little pacing issues here and there, sure, but overall, I find really little to dislike. Sure, it’s weird, allegorical Who, and I don’t necessarily want every episode to look and feel like that, but it’s great when it happens. And the reception seems pretty warm, too – really, series 10 seems to be repackaging a lot of stuff people threw a fit about in forms that are much easier to swallow. I can dig that.

££D SCARVES: Overall impressions were that it was a solid episode, the bits where it was a Doctor/ Bill two hander were especially lovely, but it lost momentum in the last fifteen minutes when introducing the rest of the cast. There was nothing really bad in the episode, but it never quite took off and became something special. The themes and ideas animating it were fascinating, though.

:/ SCRIBBLES: I enjoyed the build, but was thrown by the ending segment, too, and it doesn’t help that my access to the episode faltered at the climax and was delayed for several minutes. But I’ve only just started a rewatch and I can already see the way the capitalist satire filters through the whole thing now, which makes it feel a lot more organic to the whole package. Number one success of this episode, though, was the emojibots, which achieve exactly what they’re supposed to and make you want to buy dozens.

😀 JANINE: Why are you even asking me that question, Tibere?  Of course I liked it.  It was absolutely marvelous.  A few structural criticisms, like how the action in the first half was played (nothing wrong with the intentions, but there wasn’t any real tension there – possibly down to other aspects of the production, though), but as with “Forest”, those really aren’t substantial enough to dampen my enjoyment.  I’d say this is one of my favourite episodes of the revival, actually.

2) The Doctor & Bill

TIBERE: The two-hander format they work with in the first half of the episode is really quite lovely, and does wonders for the characters. There’s something new and challenging to their relationship, I feel – like, yes, a first trip when the companion has to learn a new and important lesson about the Doctor, the universe and the way it all works is not a new thing (hi, “The Beast Below“, stay there a bit, we’re gonna talk about you later!), but here … You almost get this impression that the whole episode is a bit of a lesson, actually – something the Doctor is teaching Bill. She processes information about him and learns organically from it, she asks questions … She’s getting enlightened through good ol’ Platonic dialectics, really. And you still get that teaching motif with the Doctor saying he’s gonna save people by “lecturing” them, and with him telling this story of a Magical Haddock to Bill and the colonists.

JANINE: It feels like a long time since we’ve seen a Doctor and companion milling about, trying new things, and a companion being in awe of the universe as well as, crucially, enjoying it.  This felt very “Akhaten” in how it set out a structure and let the Doctor and Bill explore it as people on holiday, as opposed to chess-pieces in some interstellar game, forced to move from set-piece to set-piece (which was much more what “The Pilot” became towards the end, though I still really, really loved it).

SCRIBBLES: I’m quite fascinated by how Classic Who their relationship feels. It’s been ages since we really had the mentor/student dynamic with the Doctor and companion. Ace, maybe, though he wasn’t exactly teaching her academics? If we’re talking academic teaching, Adric? I genuinely do get some Susan done right vibes, I’m not surprised they referenced her in Bill’s introduction. There’s some aspects of her character I’m curious to see more payoff on, particularly her family situation, but so far Bill is a joy in her enthusiasm and logical, inquisitive approach. It’s very fitting that her first trip was built around questioning the scifi premises of the world and unravelling the logic of both it and of the Doctor. Just like Amy’s first trip emphasized speaking out about trauma and Clara’s the power of stories, this emphasized what Bill’s about.

TIBERE: Speaking of Ace, can we appreciate the “wicked” Bill throws at one point? I feel like the “wicked” doesn’t get enough love. Makes sense to have parallels between the two, really – teacher/student relationship, gay stuff (even if, as Rona Munro said, Ace got her lesbian subtext killed), both get to be written by said Rona Munro …

SCARVES: As everyone says, the two hander Doctor/ companion format that plays out for most of the episode is lovely, and is a great way to get the audience more invested in their relationship (which has been a major part of both of the first two episodes – get the audience to become really attached to this particular Doctor/ Companion pairing: a smart move). It works nicely as a sort of initiation for Bill, in an understated way – unlike in “The Pilot” she doesn’t get much plot driving or episode resolving to do, but instead takes time learning about the Doctor, and the rules of his world/ lifestyle – I particularly like the way the episode integrates the “phone box you can call for help” into the episode’s character threads. The twelfth Doctor’s insistence that Bill shouldn’t sentimentalise him is a nice echo of his insistence that he’s “not a hero” from “Robot of Sherwood”, too. I also liked the way the episode handled the concept (described by Moffat) of their relationship being the Doctor as the man who understands the universe, and Bill as the one who feels it – that lovely moment where the Doctor casually recites his encounters with previous evacuations from Earth, while Bill is in tears contemplating the disaster that caused said evacuations being the best example.

JANINE: It’s an unusual ‘initiation’, though – because an initiation usually involves the mentor putting the pupil through a series of tests.  “Akhaten” is in many ways more of an initiation because Clara has to pass certain tests to earn her place – sacrificing the ring, an item of sentimental value because the Doctor has told her too, then using her own intuition to sacrifice the leaf.  Here, the Doctor doesn’t put Bill through the same sort of rigorous initiation – he tries to keep her out of trouble, out of those difficult situations.  So I suppose it’s the audience who become the mentor, the audience who judge whether Bill deserves to stay on the TARDIS.

TIBERE: There’s a meta aspect to it, in a way – like, Clara had an uphill battle in front of her, had to carve this new space for a companion to occupy (this position of equality towards the Doctor), and I guess you could also make a case for her to be the first LGBT companion of the New Series (I mean, it’s totally the case, but it’s never acknowledged openly). Bill fits a bit more naturally in all this – the Doctor has learned his lesson, too, he is a lot more open, accepting, respects his companion’s agency more. You definitely can see the character progression from series 8 (and 7B, in all its awkwardness …) to series 10.

JANINE: Yes, I think you’re right.  The Doctor had already decided to take Clara with him, but on his terms rather than hers.  Her initiation was all about reaffirming her own identity – “This is who I am” as opposed to “This is who I am to you”.  If that makes sense.

! SCRIBBLES: Interestingly, Bill is reminding me quite a bit of Tanya in Class, if anything. Gayer, though. She’s defined by an ability to approach things on an intellectual/genre-savvy level. Bill would work in something like “Nightvisiting” tremendously well because she is a character who knows what questions to ask, how to navigate a genre world from an inquisitive genre perspective. She’s even got the dead parent, I suppose. But it’s a strong meta approach that allows for a lot of really interesting moments where the show’s encouraging viewers to be inquisitive and look at the premises of the genre with, perhaps not skepticism, but healthy curiosity. Fresh eyes.

TIBERE: Her thinking to photograph the map, and realizing that the Doctor had sort of tricked her in doing this petty job, totally showcases this kind of savvy approach she brings. And it’s wonderful. Now that you talk about it, I think it could be really interesting to see how Class fits and what it brings to the Capaldi era as a whole – but that’s a debate for another day. Oh, yeah, and last point – Nardole. He only gets one scene, but it’s a good one. Very fun – and it manages to be wonderfully relevant to the plot: he says he’s no human’s slave, and guess what the resolution of the plot is?

3) The episode as a first trip

JANINE: I love first-trip-into-the-future stories.  Does anyone else?  I’d go as far as saying they’re my favourite flavour of Who.  Both “Gridlockand “The Beast Beloware stories which frequently make it into my Top Ten, and though others don’t quite, I do have enormous amounts of respect for “The End of the World“, “Planet of the Ood, and “The Rings of Akhaten.  So I think an interesting point to start off with before we start taking this episode in isolation is: what makes a first trip story good?  Why does the first adventure into the future work so well when it’s often alien planet or future stories later on that end up being a season’s weak link?

TIBERE: “Gridlock” is a serious candidate for my favourite Tennant episode. Actually, scratch that, it is. I’m a bit colder on “The Beast Below“, tho.

JANINE: It’s my favourite Tennant episode too.  Those Tennant/Smith years for me are where the new series dips – I enjoy them, but they’re not really my favourite style of storytelling.  “Gridlockand “The Beast Below, though – I think those are Ten and Eleven at their best, respectively.

TIBERE: Yeah, I basically agree with everything you said. I do quite enjoy Smith, in his first two series at least, though – comparatively more than Tennant, who never quite clicked for me. But to answer to your question – I think there’s a lot of extra effort that needs to go into those stories. You want something that has a level of meaning, an environment that both feels alien, that throws you and the companion off balance, and that has thematic relevance and meaning relating to this companion. Akhaten is not just a beautifully crafted planet, it’s also Oswaldland – a place of story, and music, and song, and infinitely complicated and abstract emotions.

SCARVES: I suppose the “first trip to an alien planet” stories work well, at least in part, because those are almost always great “companion as audience identification figure” stories – their excitement for a new planet really can be mapped onto the viewers’ very nicely. And they tend to put a lot of effort into characterising the companion – “The Beast Below” and “The Rings of Ahkaten” are both big Amy and Clara stories, respectively, giving them a chance to show they can match the Doctor and be the people who resolve the plot. And then there’s the sense of the show discovering itself again with a new Doctor/ companion pairing, that ties in nicely to the themes of discovery and the human race crossing new boundaries in far future stories – the themes and place in the new Doctor/ Companion era mesh together really nicely.

SCRIBBLES: I loved how this episode opened with a little nod to it not really being her first trip in the TARDIS, but that it’s still important to establish a first trip like that, which both she and us viewers are enthusiastic for. Like I said above, it’s interesting how much this episode’s plot is oriented to who she is. Most first trip stories are. “Gridlock“’s the only future one I can think of that isn’t actively built around establishing who the character is and how their thought process impacts their interactions with adventures. I think this is really setting up a lot about who Bill is and how she interacts with the world, curious and smiling. “The Beast Below” is my personal favorite still, but this was solid stuff.

JANINE: I’d agree there.  And I’d say it’s a chance for the companion to make sense of his or her experience of the world, to understand it in the context of the wider universe.  It’s like how “The Beast Belowis so far removed from Amy’s world, yet so uncomfortably close to it – it’s a future which really seems to treasure British traditions, that’s painfully patriotic, and that still relies on a bloody monarch to get things done.  So the story manages to be two things: Amy having her mind opened by seeing how much more there is to the universe, but also Amy being able to ground that experience in what she already knows, using her own time as a point of comparison.  It’s the same for Martha in “Gridlock – it’s billions, literally billions of years in the future, and there are cat people and patches that can potentially transform your whole identity – and yet it’s still a story about pollution, drug use, capitalism, congestion, corruption, and the inherent weaknesses of democracy (RTD’s good old ‘empty heaven’ approach to government).  So I suppose what I want to ask is, does “Smilesucceed on that front?  Does it manage to give Bill a taste of how different the universe is and say something about the world she comes from?  Is it a relevant, or indeed useful, experience for her?  I’d say it does, even if the emphasis maybe isn’t on her.

TIBERE: It really makes sense for Moffat to go with what is functionally a “Beast Below” sequel for his last series, too. He opens as he closes – circular storytelling will always be his great love as a writer.

SCRIBBLES: I think it’s interesting how it differs, though, really. “The Beast Below” really is about foregrounding buried trauma as a core concern to who Amy is and what her stories explore, mapping the questions of women’s agency into a political revolutionary landscape. “Smile” actually rather subdues any elements of trauma or grief on the whole, at the very least for Bill. There’s the lovely shot of her single tear, and the death of the boy’s mum is in a way akin to her own experiences, but her past with her mum isn’t really brought up after being a big emotional core in “The Pilot“. Instead, it seems what’s most important to “Smile” and to Bill is how she interacts with the world by poking here, asking there.

JANINE: Oh, so much.  I think this episode just did a damn fine job of showing why someone would travel with the Doctor.  You can’t really make a first adventure too traumatic, or your companion’s just going to walk straight back out again and tell the Doctor to f*** off (*cough* Peacepoint).  I think Boyce did an admirable job here of finding the balance between letting Bill enjoy herself (which she clearly does, on several occasions) and forcing her to deal with the inherent trauma of travelling with the Doctor – in this case, what if going with the Doctor and seeing the future confirms all her worst fears about it?  Bill seems like someone with a real reason to travel with the Doctor, with an enthusiasm for a good bit of sci-fi, but best of all, with a genuine investment in the human race.

SCARVES: On the topic of new things for Bill to enjoy – I liked another brief exploration of vegetarian themes to follow up on last week’s “does your bacon sandwich love you back?” discussion, with algae based jelly food apparently being a norm in the far future, and the Doctor expressing his unease at the concept of eating fish (as he has some friends who are fish, too, which makes these things awkward).

TIBERE: I’m disappointed that they didn’t mention Jim the Fish (although, maybe he and the magic haddock are one and the same?). Anyway – more food (pun!) for your animal rights thinkpiece!

JANINE: I don’t think it would be too out there to suggest that utopias and vegetarianism have something in common.  Both are regarded by the cynical masses of viewers as unachievable, but persevere on the logic that one day we might be able to work together to change these very basic things about the world.

SCRIBBLES: Doctor Who’s long aligned itself with suggesting vegetarianism is an ideal, too. I think it’s interesting how in touch with several current political and ethical questions the episode is. I adore the little comment about “Who’s collecting the data?” Aligning the emojibots’ cataloguing of emotion with data mining by corporate interests to target ads and products is utterly fascinating.

TIBERE: Not to forget Bill asking whether this is a male utopia.

JANINE: Well, of course, there are lesbian utopias, there are genderless utopias.  Perhaps Britain in 2017 isn’t a nice place to be for a lesbian woman of colour called Bill, someone who exists on the periphery of gender norms.  Maybe her ideal utopia would be a single-gender society.  One gender by default.  No patriarchy to keep half the population in check, no sexism because there’s no one to be sexist to, no confusion of sexuality because there’s no room for manoeuvre (no homophobia, in other words, because there’s only one sexuality).  Or maybe… maybe that’s just the easy way out.

SCARVES: Which, in its own way, was the theme of last week – contrasting Bill and Heather’s desire to run to their need to stay.

TIBERE: And you get the same kind of themes, too – both constate that escapism is necessary, and that running away from dire circumstances is necessary, but both end up saying that if you run away, you should do it with care and caution. Because the colonists’ attempt is almost a disaster, just like Heather’s, who lost herself and her individuality.

SCRIBBLES: Both the show and Bill herself are tremendously socially aware right now. Again, the safe space discussion we had last time, but the way a marginalized perspective is being brought to the forefront in general is very rich and valuable, particularly in the present moment.

TIBERE: But to answer that question more directly, I’d say yes. It makes Bill much more aware of her environment, at the very least, I would say – like, to get back to the safe space thing, and series 10 as a reaction to the conservative revolution (… god, typing this goddamn oxymoron made me throw up in my mouth a little) of 2016 … It has  Bill, by being exposed to a future that has been ravaged by that kind of issues, can realize what is wrong with the world she lives in and maybe work towards fixing these problems, while getting a healthy dose of escapism. I think that’s what these first trip stories are all about, really: a balance of pure escapism, and of danger and dread – dangers that are connected to the companion and the series. Trauma and hidden secrets for Amy, the ambivalence of storytelling for Clara, and the dangers of a reactionary world for Bill. It showcases the wonders of the universe and shows you why you need these wonders.

JANINE: See, there’s so much going on under the surface.  I don’t know why people are saying Bill did nothing here.  Rose spent her first trip talking to a twig.  I’d say Bill’s still one up.

SCARVES: There was certainly no point where she was imperiled and waiting for the Doctor to rescue her – she’s actively engaging with and exploring the world (Heck, she discovered the old woman who started the chain of grief).

TIBERE: She kept affirming her agency, too, refusing to obey him when he told her to stay in the TARDIS. Follows nicely on the final moments of “The Pilot”.

JANINE: But, Moffat does end up going full RTD on this one, diverging from his usual approach of using the first trip story as the main character beat.  As you’ve said, there are lots of isolated moments of agency, but I wouldn’t say there’s a significant beat there, because Bill gets hers in “The Pilot(like Rose did in her own ‘pilot’) and, like Rose (or, heck, Martha), gets to spend this episode taking in the scenery and helping out where she can.

SCARVES: Yeah, this episode doesn’t have an equivalent to Amy and Clara saving the day in “The Beast Below” and “The Rings of Ahkaten”, but those episodes both followed series openers where the Doctor was the main agent in the driving of the plot. Whereas, as we discussed last week, “The Pilot” was incredibly Bill-centric, and had her at the heart of the plot resolution.

TIBERE: I’d agree, yeah. I wouldn’t say it’s a flaw of the episode, though, really – Bill was introduced really well in the premiere, she doesn’t need another beat.

SCRIBBLES: The key beat in this episode is, of course, her going back for him, having worked out what the TARDIS means to him and working out the core ethos of these stories. This was basically a “how to be a Doctor Who character” for her. You can’t just walk away, you can’t just let children cry, you can’t just leave the Doctor to blow up the human race. And I’d say her saving the day is supposed to be her discovery of the dead woman, the crucial bit of information. It’s a shame she doesn’t get to explain it, but it does happen.

4) Utopia & Politics

JANINE: If you’re going to start anywhere to dissect a utopian narrative, it’s got to be colonialism.  Evil, terrible colonialism, one of the worst inventions of the human race, but utterly necessary to remember for this sort of story.  Weren’t all the oldest utopian stories products of colonialism?  Escaping the world we live in to build a better one somewhere else?  The oldest utopia – so old I’m pretty sure it’s the etymological root of the word itself – is Thomas More’s.  And what a crap utopia it is!  Hierarchy, slavery, dreadful sexual ethics, a fundamental misunderstanding (and thus, persecution) of atheism, restrictive roles for women, and questionable human rights (well, that’s implicit in the slavery).  It’s horrible.  But it’s so easy to see the logic behind it – a man obviously inspired and ultimately blinded by colonial ‘heroes’, thinking that making another England on a new island is going to solve the problems of our own.  Now, what you’d expect is that Boyce would reconceptualise utopia, and I suppose you could say he does – but he first replicates More’s utopia so that he can pick it apart.  There’s food sexism (ish), there are slave robots, there’s a hierarchy of explorers (the ‘better’ ones having to start the colonisation process), and it ends in a massacre.  I guess you could say the first message of this episode is “Don’t use Thomas More as a template for a perfect society, unless you want genocide”.

TIBERE: There’s something really interesting about comparing classical utopias to this one, though – is that they generally are closed spaces. More’s Utopia is an island. Another of the early ones is Thélème’s Abbey in the works of François Rabelais (Pantagruel, Gargantua …) – who I’d argue is more progressive, mostly because Rabelais rocks (got to be the French thing …): and that’s also a close space, a perfect school where people come to receive the teachings of the Enlightenment. It’s very complicated to imagine an utopia in a modern world, of constant communication between everyone, of constant connections between everything. You can’t create your own perfect bubble if you can’t split from the world. It’s interesting that “Smile” plays on the internet language, on emojis – because I guess you could argue that internet is the closest thing we get to an utopia this days. Dreams of e-democracies and all.

JANINE: I can see that connection, I think, though more than any, “Smileis blatantly ripping off Erewhon by Samuel Butler (the earliest technological utopia, if I’ve got my facts straight).  I think there were even a couple of interwoven references, and the whole slightly satirical feel of it was much more in line with Butler’s utopia than More’s.  It was a riot.  As well as that obvious comparison, there’s a clear structural lift from Butler to Boyce, with the discovery > exploration > awful truth > resolution structure of the journey (to put it very, very simply).  I had this little suspicion the whole way through that he was channeling Butler, and then then the Vardies came to achieve consciousness and identify as a species I might have called out “I WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG!”.

SCARVES: This is, of course, a planet where they initially don’t seem to be expecting invaders – the Doctor notes the door to the ship being left unlocked as a sign that the colonists were expecting to live in peace – so there’s perhaps a sense that this is still an “enclosed space” Utopia. But of course, they also own guns – a sign that they are less idealistically pacifist than the open door suggests. You can argue that this hints at a slightly reactionary ideology on the part of the colonists – they expect to live in peace with their “own kind”, but keep guns, possibly to defend themselves from alien threats – an attitude that also leads to the accidental creation of a slave class to take advantage of. Like all the best utopian stories, this episode hints at the cracks beneath the perfect veneer.

JANINE: I’m reminded of “LOST”, and how the Americans just wanted “peaceful coexistence” with the Others, which they set out to achieve through electromagnetic weaponry, guns, and taking captives.

SCRIBBLES: For me, it’s interesting that it’s less colonialism, and more service work. Framing the working class as the indigenous people to the working environment, if that makes sense. The first thing the emojibots do is offer the Doctor and Bill a free gift to track customer satisfaction and then tick off hunger for Bill, they’re designed to fullfill the consumerist dream. So the inversion that comes at the end with that, with the emojibots and little nanobot pals becoming masters of their own means of production and the futuristic factory overseer humans having to accede to their demands is cheeky and fascinating.

JANINE: But I suppose what makes that obviously postcolonial is that the hierarchy and power struggles inherently create a kind of slavery, and slavery and colonialism are inseparable.  But this is more interesting than ‘slavery is bad, don’t have slaves’.  The emojibots aren’t explicitly ‘slaves’ until the final act, after all – it’s all about being shrewd enough to spot inequalities where they quietly persist.  People want it to be obvious, but y’know, slavery and oppression aren’t always obvious, chains aren’t always material, evil doesn’t always cackle at the top of its voice, and the oppressed don’t always cry out for help.

SCARVES: That is another thing I loved about this story – that it was willing to question the role of AI droids in traditional sci-fi, and point out the way AI characters in Sci Fi stories are almost always basically slaves to the human characters. I’ve been reading too much about the droids in Star Wars recently.

TIBERE: I mean, the very origin of those droids, from a textual standpoint, is in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, where the characters that became R2D2 and C3PO are poor peasants.

SCRIBBLES: What’s more, the subtle chains Janine mentions are the same ones Bill has and that the Doctor has offered her a way out of. The food service scene is particularly interesting because of how quickly she takes to being served the way she at the beginning of the last episode was serving others.

JANINE: I think, to my mind, ‘utopia’ is almost always egalitarian, and egalitarian at a point where past conflicts have necessarily been forgotten.  It’s not a world just created, but one settled in long enough for new attitudes, new values, to have been accepted as the norm.  Like, in William Morris’s News From Nowhere, the narrator arrives so far into the timeline that only old men remember “The Old Way”.  Boyce is able to achieve something to that effect with a convenient but entirely justifiable (and classically sci-fi) ‘reset button’.  Conflicts are literally forgotten, and an egalitarian society is on the horizon (provided, of course, the principles of colonialism are abandoned, and capitalism can be unlearned).

TIBERE: At this level, the pound sign in the eyes of the droid is just brilliant. Like, it’s both a very funny gag, a mean to communicate that the low class is seizing the riches and powers, but it also creates a level of concern for the future – is money still going to rule this society? Is it possible to grow past it?

SCRIBBLES: The elated, almost diabolical grin on its face is my new favorite thing. You go, emojibot. Seize the means of production, lead your world, be adorable.

JANINE: Oh, me too.  They’re thoroughly scheming but you can’t blame them.  And I admire Boyce for resisting the temptation of a perfect communist utopia that’s wholly untouched by capitalism.

TIBERE: Because, at the end of the day … Well, Boyce said he didn’t want to write about dystopia, and, yeah, he didn’t, but he did sort of write about the failings, and the possible fall, of an utopia. Which is actually a pretty fresh and compelling angle, when you think about it. And the answer he finds, when asked to think about the reasons that could make an utopia crumble, is a resounding “CAPITALIIIIIIIIIIIISM”. Which is probably why I love the story, really – it’s incredibly political, in ways you’re not really used to see in Who. It’s a much more successful attempt at a political narrative than the Zygon two-parter of last series, that’s for sure. And boy, the symbolism in this … Like, the central conceit is bloody perfect. The humans flee Earth, try to create a better future, but the robots they have carried with them to create this new society are capitalist products, with a programming that carries and continues this ideological trend. That’s why some of the criticisms of the ending I’ve seen – saying it doesn’t respect the grief and feelings of the colonists enough, ring hollow to me: the problem with the robot is literally that they are chained to a human programming that restrains them and forces them to follow a dying ideology. They see happiness as a thing that can be produced, and whose means of production can be rationalized. If you’re not a productive member of society, if you don’t fit, well, they are going to grind you up, literally, turn your bones into paste they will use to grow food (if I wanted to do a huge thematic deep-dive, I could almost interpret that as a commentary on capitalism re-branding itself to fit an eco-friendly, “nice” ethos, but that’s probably a step too far). Hell, even the design of the city and the robots has a bit of this – this white, immaculate perfection looks like an Utopia branded and sold by Apple. Especially when compared with the very human messiness of the colony ship.

SCARVES: As a chain fast food employee, I’m reminded of the way employees are persistently told we have to come to work with “a can do attitude and a smile on your face”, or of my manager literally looking over the shoulders of employees as they fill out customer satisfaction surveys and asking them to give positive responses to the questions so that the store doesn’t fail the survey. It’s not even a case of the manager in question being an irredeemable jerk – the pressure placed on the store from above demands that they get perfect employee satisfaction, without giving them the means to provide said satisfaction, so the store is forced to pretend to be doing better than it is, rather than work to correct any genuinely acknowledged issues. There’s an inherent lack of human decency built into the system of a capitalist workplace.

TIBERE: Like, that’s the brilliance of the story. It’s really not about the emotions, even if I saw some people make that case. Even the title – it’s not so much a noun, but rather a command: “Smile!”. The Vardies and Emojibots don’t really care about happiness, they don’t understand it anyway – they care about the appearance of happiness, above all things. Big, empty smiles, without meaning. The signifier is more important than the meaning. The emotions are treated as problems that can be solved easily if you just smile a bit more, or maybe buy the right miracle cure. It’s like in the Tom Waits song, “Step Right’Up”.

JANINE: You’re right, this was so damn political, and I think you guys and others who have had to put up with those sorts of industries are probably a lot more in tune with that than I am, in my cosy little office/tuition room all day.

TIBERE: I’m a parasite profiting from my parents’ hard work, don’t worry.

JANINE: So the bit that ended up grabbing me was that montage of Earth’s history – I nearly had to look away.  We know it’s solar flares, of course, but the fast flickering images and the ambiguity of it – I mean, it could have been a nuclear war.  Of all the weeks to have this story, it’s on the brink of the next cold war and coinciding with Trump’s decision to basically not communicate with anyone.  It’s like “Sleep No Moreand its radicalisation tones casually accompanying news footage of one of the largest terror attacks this side of 9/11.

SCRIBBLES: I definitely got nuclear war out of it, and factionalization of the earth driving nationalism and war and refugees and more. It was a fast montage, but it felt loaded. And the ambiguity is even more terrifying.

TIBERE: It feels like some absolutely terrific set-up for the mid-series three-parter, too.

JANINE: Again, Boyce returns to his favourite theme of environmentalism.  In some ways it’s more striking there than “In the Forest of the Night, because that story is so abstract and any connection with the real world seems kind of jarring, out-of-place. There are definitely questions here as to what our relationship with nature should be. Boyce’s agrarian utopia seems, well, sustainable, and even achievable, but with definite strings attached for the human race (and you’ve got to assume that Boyce believes that a greener world is achievable – that’s the motto of Greenpeace, if I recall correctly, and Boyce is a very green man – not literally, though).  You can’t just leave your planet and show up somewhere else, ready to take over as the dominant species, even if you have good intentions.

SCRIBBLES: Even the Vardies are sort of treated as robotic bees, if anything, pollinating the crops. There’s even something utopian and environmentalist about the horrific bone-crushing sequence, used as mineral fertilizer making the most of waste organic matter. The human race are in many ways the greatest danger to this environmentalist utopia themselves over the course of the episode, so it’s fascinating that the resolution is them having to learn to live within its confines and accept not being in control of everything, namely of nature but also of production of excess for our own comfort.

TIBERE: Like, Boyce is clever enough to never rely entirely on a single meaning. He does count on you to put two and two together, once you have seen the final scenes of the episode, and realize these scenes have an anticapitalist message, but you can interpret them in different ways – how is this garden different from a carnivorous plant? The Doctor says the city is a “trap”, a lure – in a way, a carnivorous lifeform of its own.

JANINE: Oh, no wonder everyone got so thrown off – he’s such an eclectic writer; where, say, Peter Harness or Steven Moffat cycle through genres, Boyce cycles through philosophies.

SCARVES: Which suits the more contemplative tone of his stories – really – hopping between genres suits Moffat’s frenetic pacing, but discussion of multiple philosophies works nicely with Boyce’s steadily paced, low on plot episodes.

JANINE: Now, moving on slightly, there’s another advantage Boyce has here.  Because believe it or not, I can be very critical of utopian fiction. I do like it when it’s trying, when it’s going to lengths to justify itself, because a utopia is inevitably going to be a political statement, so rather than painting an ideal society and marvelling at how pretty it is, you’ve got to throw yourself in and try to explain how it came about in the first place.  William Morris does that with considerable detail in News From Nowhere, and heck, that’s probably the best utopian novel to date (or at least, it satisfies my socialist tastes).  Boyce obviously has the advantage here of just being able to point “The Beast Belowand say “This is how it happened”, which removes a significant chunk of exposition that you normally need in a utopian narrative.  Which is integral to this story’s success, because if he’d decided to tackle that civilization’s history from scratch, he’d have completely overdone the exposition.

TIBERE: Interesting detail, though – everyone in Boyce’s utopia is a POC. I mean, I guess it does play on the ideas of The Beast Below, and having different starships for different countries (maybe what we saw was starship India?), but it’s also interesting to see how he manages both to nail his representation goals (including Mina Anwar of SJA in a small part, too, which is very much appreciated – even if she maaaybe could have benefitted from more screentime – I want my Gita, dammit) (also I guess that means Clyde & Rani totally got together in the end, which is very good news indeed) while providing a critique of the more global aspects of capitalism.

SCRIBBLES: Well, aside from Ralf Little. Interesting that the main figure of the militaristic impulses and entitlement of humanity is the only white man aside from the Doctor, given Nardole’s mostly out of the picture.

JANINE: If I’m right about Boyce being a Butler fanboy, then Ralf Little is this episode’s Chowbok.  I think.

TIBERE: I did not understand that reference.

JANINE: Boyce probably didn’t either.  I’m not even sure I did.  It just sort of happened.

boyce.png

Frank Cottrell Boyce, a very green man.

5) Communication & Emojis

SCARVES: I do love the idea of emojis potentially being an enduring part of human language, becoming a sort of future hieroglyphics. I liked the Doctor’s thinking face being his setting on the pin for about 90% of the episode – his constant scrutinising of the world being the only reason he cannot be satisfied by his initial (far happier) explanation for the lack of humans in a human colony.

SCRIBBLES: How great a device were the emoji pins? A really excellent way of showing Bill and the Doctor’s demeanors and helping Bill explore how the Doctor approaches the world. This episode was very much about Bill watching and learning from him more than it was her taking control itself, and that was sort of a window to it. The whole emoji pins and robots concept is also a great satire on the sort of data mining thing I was talking about earlier, linking to online communication quite directly and how that information gets turned into a flawed attempt to identify consumer needs and fill them. In a way, Bill getting taken to the algae stuff because she was thinking she was hungry is like those targeted Google ads you get, and both have somewhat ominous and malicious undercurrents.

TIBERE: Allowed for some stellar moments of directing, too. The way Lawrence Gough, who really is a treasure, navigates from the faces to the pins, to the reflections of the pins in the mirror of the city … Lovely. Just, lovely.

JANINE: Agreed on the emojis all round, and it’s a shame that so many people were dreading it.  I think emojis are fascinating – you’ve got to open your mind and get past the academic snobbery of favouring ‘traditional’ language.  Emojis are fascinating to me.  They’re perfect for the theme of communication (which I’d argue is the most prevalent theme in Series 10 so far, and indeed in both of Boyce’s eps – any tension at all in In the Forest of the Nightarises through lack of communication), ideogrammatically (or maybe, picturegrammatically) serving as what should be a universal language.  And come on, the Emoji Movie is out this year.  It’s time we dealt with this subject conclusively.

SCRIBBLES: Can we deal with it by burning every copy of The Emoji Movie? 😈

TIBERE: Yeah, but like, Janine, “Smile” can’t compete, it doesn’t have Patrick Stewart playing a literal piece of shit.

JANINE: How do you know?  Maybe it was just a non-speaking role.

TIBERE: Oh god. Patrick Stewart is actually the one that plays the Emojibots. He’s inside the costume and all.

JANINE: I think emojis are severely misunderstood.  And in less of an appreciative sense, we know that they are directly misinterpreted.  It’s an issue of communication.  Sometimes that misinterpretation occurs across a cultural barrier, other times they’re displayed wrong, miscommunicated by the technology itself.  I remember explaining emojis to my dad.  He didn’t see the Face With Tears of Joy as a laughing face at all – he thought it was crying hysterically.  Apparently he’d been really worried about me.  The emojibots seem to misunderstand the emoji not because they mistake it for having a different meaning, but because of the subtle nuances in their culture’s understand of the meaning.  Robots see happiness in a different, more functional way than humans do.

TIBERE: All the more fitting in a story that’s about a giant miscommunication, really. The robots are forced into a role where they have to interpret humanity’s desires and emotions, but they are not able to perceive it beyond a simple, superficial appearance. It’s a problem of looks versus meaning, really. Which is a theme that pop backs in the episode from time to time – I don’t know, Bill’s comments about “disappointing robots”, for instance.

SCRIBBLES: Which the Doctor even calls offensive. It’s sort of our first hint at the actual injustice and slavery going on.

SCARVES: Yep. The emojibots are only a threat because the humans create a system where they talk and understand on different level to one another: the function they fulfill within the colonists’ society means they are unable to process the humans’ actual needs, and the humans are unable to recognise the robots’ need to fulfill the humans’ perceived needs. It’s the same misunderstanding at the heart of the Rick and Morty episode “Meseeks and Destroy”. Which is exploring the very similar themes, and has an incredibly similar conflict.

JANINE: Though, picking up on what we said earlier, I think the emojibots are also threatening because they… maybe embody the prescriptive function of language.  They’re like the Smilers from “The Beast Belowin that respect, because explicitly they served the descriptive function of delivering statements to citizens like “I’m happy with you” or “I’m cross with you”, but implicitly what they were really saying was prescriptive: “You should continue behaving how you are”, or “You ought to stop behaving in that way”.  That’s the terrible, tyrannical abuse of the smiley – as an instruction, and then inevitably, as a threat.  The changing of the emojibots’ faces is virtually indistinguishable from the rotation of the Smilers’ – both, really, were issuing sanctions for undesirable behaviour.  It’s just that the Smilers were focused on political actions, whereas the emojibots are focused on emotional expressions, because “The Beast Below”’s utopia is obsessed with crushing political rebellion to maintain the status quo, whilst “Smile”’s is fixated with the emotional states of its citizens.

TIBERE: Their big faces are both an empathetic mirror and an instrument of authority. Or rather, they are an instrument of authority disguised as an empathetic mirror. Which kind of defines capitalism, in a way – it’s built as a narrative that includes hundred of individual stories, it comforts you by saying you can succeed if you work hard enough, look at all those rag to riches stories, but, in the end, it doesn’t really care. What matters is the products, not the persons. And really, that weird ambivalence is also at the core of one of the key features of a capitalist society: publicity, commercials. Those aim at creating an ethos, an appearance (of joy, of beauty, of power, whatever), but, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the function: making you buy stuff you might or might not need. Really, that’s the story of “Smile”: an utopia whose ideology is eaten alive by the need for efficiency, until it’s nothing but an empty shell. A skeleton, like those of the crew. A smile devoid of meaning.

SCRIBBLES: The emojibots are sort of attempting to communicate through something more pure affective concept, in a way, aren’t they, to get closer to that than language can by using more representative pictograms. And the basic problem is, defining a meaning creates that feedback loop the Doctor mentions, creating it. Furthermore, the emojis trying to capture a more feeling-based communication creates an innately vaguer system, which can easily be misconstrued like you’ve noted.

JANINE: But that’s what makes emojis almost superior to the written word, what makes emojibots almost superior to humans.  The sign has a relevance to the idea it represents.  “Chair” obviously doesn’t sound ‘like’ a chair, but it is understood to represent one.  A chair emoji (do we have chair emojis?) represents a chair.  It’s an efficient, direct, literal and logical approach to language.  Maybe that’s why we’re scared of it.  Language is evolving and we can’t stop it.

TIBERE: It’s a tension that’s really relevant to Who, too – like, most of the Capaldi run has been defined by a need for communication. Tense, messy, difficult communication that is nevertheless required to reach a higher understanding a progress towards a goal.

SCARVES: And you don’t even like “The Zygon Inversion” 😉

TIBERE: No, because, at the end of the day, that episode doesn’t really stage an exchange, it just has one person lecturing another from a smug position of authority, without having to relate or challenge his preconceptions. But anyway -you definitely get the appeal of this utopia – there’s something beautifully simple about the emojibots, about a worldview that pure and innocent. It’s maybe what the Capaldi era is leading to, at the end of the day? A sort of transcendence, beyond words? Would fit the whole spiritual subtext that is there since series 8, with all the underworld symbolism and the talks of heaven and hell.

SCARVES: That would fit into “Hell is just Heaven for bad people” – from a certain perspective there’s no clear difference between the two, beyond the way they are communicated: both go beyond traditional forms of human language, because they’re not things we can concieve of in a normal way.

JANINE: So in which case, do the emojibots save the day?  Or to put it another one, does emoji save the day?  In the end they don’t replace the spoken language, they don’t make it redundant, but they create what you could describe as an equivalence between the written and spoken word.  They fill the role of emotional resonance and tone – of the non-verbal signals given in spoken communication.  However much you try, you can’t quite communicate the content of a thumbs-up within a written message.  Except now you can, because there’s a thumbs-up emoji.  I don’t think their purpose in the colony is so much to replace spoken language as to create a universal form of non-verbal communication, and that’s what will stop the misunderstanding of spoken language.

SCRIBBLES: It’s certainly possible. The boy seems to be the episode’s idealized figure in terms of interaction with the emojibots, I think, and he seems to be conversing quite fluently with them, the Doctor even appreciatively acknowledging that as how humans need to go about integrating with this world. Perhaps emoji is their utopian future.

JANINE: Which does address some of our own doubts about the emoji.  For all Boyce says they’re the product of “vacuous teens”, the fact that the emojibots are killing people because of their facial expressions does seem to channel, say, the absurdity of arresting someone for using an emoji of a police officer next to an emoji of a handgun.  Or maybe it isn’t absurd.  But those are the concerns which Boyce plays with.  And that’s why I love this episode… purely for existing.  I love it for upsetting people.  Are you embarrassed by the emoji robots?  Fuck off and watch Britain’s Got Talent on the other side, then I’m sure you’ll find a far more satisfying validation of your opinions.  Doctor Who doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum; it exists to comment on the world around it.  Emojis aren’t a gimmick – they’re a real linguistic development, so real and complex that they’ve divided linguists across the entire world.  They’re not making us dumber, they’re making us think.  And God dammit, if there’s a linguistics essay on it, there should be a Doctor Who story on it.

SCARVES: *Applauds*

TIBERE: “Applauds some more”

SCRIBBLES: So tell me, Janine, how did you like” …Ish?” 😛 [BF audio]

JANINE: Oh, “Ishis one of my absolute favourites.  As I said some way above, I think language-based monsters are the most terrifying, because language is essentially limitless and that gives those monsters a kind of omnipotence, but not an “I WILL DESTROY ALL THINGS MWOHAHAHA” Morbius-style omnipotence, more one that requires actively engaging with the processes of language, defining things in and out of existence, that sort of thing.  It’s an area of philosophy that interests me, even if most of them talk total rubbish, and even if it is about who can play with language in the best way to prove a point.  In a slightly twisted way I think Wittgenstein likening the use of language to games is a very on-point observation.

TIBERE: Nobody can agree with that. (See what I did there?)

SCRIBBLES: Ah, Nobody No-One. Language based monsters are so suited to Doctor Who. This one’s just nice for an episode because of how visual it is. Imagine an audio about emojis! Impossible.

JANINE: They’ve done an audio about Weeping Angels.  Nothing’s impossible for Big Finish…

SCRIBBLES: WE LOVE STORIES

TIBERE: AND YOUR MONEY

JANINE: Okay, a finishing thought for this section then.  Is the Doctor’s name an emoji?  It’s been called unpronounceable before.  It at least has similar linguistic qualities.  I feel like the Doctor’s name maybe would be more like, say, the Tetragrammaton (the unpronounceable Hebrew name of God), because he has that sort of unspoken power over his own universe, that no one existing within the Doctor Who narrative would dare try and speak it.

SCRIBBLES: It’s probably the squinty thinking emoji he had on the whole time.

6) Final Thoughts

TIBERE: Before getting into our concluding thoughts, just a quick enquiry – how do you think this episode can be compared to “The Happiness Patrol”? Lots of people did it, kind of obviously.

JANINE: I think it’s a great idea to compare them.  I don’t think it’s a great idea to set “The Happiness Patrolas an ideal.  Now, don’t get me wrong, “The Happiness Patrolis probably my favourite episode of the classic series.  But that’s the point – it’s already pretty flawless.  There’s nothing all that worthwhile about a remake of “The Happiness Patrol(whereas a revision of something like “Genesis of the Daleksor “Black Orchidwould capture my interest a lot more, even if I can see the issues entailed with attempting either one) when it got everything right the first time around.  So where this starts off as a contemporary take on “The Happiness Patrol, it evolves to explore its own themes, to propose its own vision, and I’m okay with that.  It nods to “The Happiness Patrolin the same way it nods to “The Beast Belowor “Ark in Space, which is to say, sensibly.

TIBERE: I think there’s a rich backdrop of metatextual references to Who in this episode, really – it’s part of the appeal of the Capaldi era in general, this intricate web of meaningful connections; but I think it works well to create its own, compelling, hyper-political take on the series. And I love it.

SCARVES: Some people would argue that you need to get rid of the go cart to make “The Happiness Patrol” flawless. Those people are fools. Fools I say! But both stories explore the theme of happiness, and societal pressure to maintain it at all times (or our cultural inability to respond to unfiltered grief – heck, in this society, grief literally becomes a deadly plague that is wiped out by the apparatus built into the society).

TIBERE: Some people say you should remove the Kandyman. Like … What? Just … What? He’s perfect. He’s my sugar daddy. Literally.

SCRIBBLES: The Kandyman is objectively the best part, including the production value. Marrying the macabre to the camp to the joyful to the political, that’s the strength.

TIBERE: But to get back on the “how I feel about the episode” – I absolutely love it. I think it’s a great high-concept piece, that won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, but which explores new ground for Who in really clever and creative ways. In a way, it reminds me a little bit of “Into the Dalek”, one of my absolute favourites – a second story that chooses to lose itself, and the viewers, in a complex forest of symbols, and builds into something truly odd, and therefore, truly special. Because really, the odd, the camp, the wonky and the uncanny are a fundamental part of Who, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

SCRIBBLES: I’m not sure yet how I feel, but I think Smile left me a lot to think about, and I will enjoy pondering it for a long time to come. It engages with rich ideas other shows wouldn’t dream of, or even other corners of Doctor Who! Everything about it can be read as a piece of a commentary so much greater, and it’ll be well worth digesting over the next week and beyond. Certainly I think the emojibots should go down as one of the most memorable and adorable Doctor Who monsters. I’ll be shocked if Funko Pops and the like don’t go crazy with the merchandise, which is hilarious for emerging from a satire on consumerist society.

SCARVES: Agreed. While it’s not a favourite, “Smile” is an addition to series ten than the run would feel poorer without. The season’s already shaping up promisingly, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

SCRIBBLES: The world would feel poorer without it, I think. If Doctor Who can’t exist to give us thoughtful contemplative stories about emojis killing people, what’s the point? That’s a basic joy that only Doctor Who can bring to the world.

TIBERE: Exactly. It feels … Just so damn at home in the weird conceptual space of Who. There’s really nothing like this mix of high-concept, ideologically-charged storytelling and almost naive escapism. It may not be the best episode ever, but it’s hard to find one that portrays the greatness of Who better.

JANINE: I adore it.  It’s an episode of Doctor Who that I’m at home in.  I particularly enjoyed the setting – I went to Valencia last year to check it out and it’s become one of my favourite cities in the world, so I’ll be heading back later this year too.  The fact that they didn’t do that much with the setting only goes to show what a fine and futuristic bit of architecture it is.  Nice science museum too.  But then, I’ve got a weakness for science museums.  Though before you all die to the sound of me wittering on about molecular models the size of a whole room (yes, they really have those), I’d better wrap up my thoughts on this episode by saying that the setting is just a microcosm for the whole thing.  It’s a whole subject that’s familiar to me, it deals with themes that fascinate me, and it has a political agenda that largely impresses me.  It’s not perfect, but it makes the effort to address what a lot of shows wouldn’t; heck, what a lot of Doctor Who episodes wouldn’t, and I can accept that.  It reminds me of that War Doctor quote: at least Boyce occasionally failed at doing the right thing, rather than succeeding in doing the wrong.  In a time of hopelessness, he reached out and told a story of somewhere better.

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2 thoughts on “ASSESSING STRESS #2: “Smile”

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Series 10 – The Diary of Janine Rivers

  2. Pingback: ASSESSING STRESS #12: “The Doctor Falls” and series 10 wrap-up | DoWntime

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