Frank Cottrell-Boyce's previous contribution "In the Forest of the Night" was a very hard story to evaluate - a fresh, imaginative science-fantasy that somehow completely failed to work as a Doctor Who story. However, Cottrell-Boyce is simply too good a writer for his work to be dismissed and I am very glad that he was given a second go. Although it deals with such contemporary scientific thinking such as swarm robotics (a leading proponent gives his name to the Vardy, the nanobots of the story) "Smile" is a very old-fashioned Doctor Who story - more than half of the story consists of the regulars walking around the colony making discoveries, very similar to the first episode of The Ark in Space. This means we have the odd situation where two name guest stars (Mina Anwar and Ralf Little) are there to basically only set up and resolve the plot respectively. But Cottrell-Boyce have never been one for taking the obvious route, even in a story as archetypal as this one and using the regulars as the only point of view characters is a very effective way of changing the Vardy from an inexplicable threat to a life form with rights. It must be said that the ending is a bit rushed and the conclusion has all the mechanics of a rabbit-from-a-hat ending, but is handled very well and works better when the story is viewed as a whole. We therefore have the very interesting situation of having a very human story with no real supporting characters; seemingly a defect, but actually working in the story’s favour.
As a consequence (again) we have a rather small supporting cast, but as said before, that is deliberate and is an inevitable consequence of, perhaps, the greatest triumph of the story; one of the best interactions between Doctor and companion that the programme has ever had. It is a real joy having the Doctor just show his friend the wonders of the Universe and the performances by the regulars have a sense of warmth and fun which indicates that the combination of the Doctor and Bill will be a truly winning one. Bill’s genuine sense of wonder is infectious and never descends into annoying naivety, such is the power of Pearl Mackie’s performance.
Lawrence Gough makes everything look marvellous, helped in no small way by the stunning location filming at the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències in Valencia, with Gough using wide shots to beautiful effect. The nature of the Vardy is excellently handled - their initial break off from the structure of the city is easily overlooked, so that the second time is hugely surprising. The emoji bots are an instantly memorable creation, both very much a 2017 concept and timeless, both cute and terrifying. The effects work complements the amazing locations and cinematographer Ashley Rowe effectively contrasts the city location with the ship location.
"Smile" shows just what a good writer can do with basic concepts and what an excellent one can do when playing with what lesser writers would regard are core foundations in scriptwriting. It seems that we are in for a lot of fun in the future.
NEXT: "Thin Ice"