Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Doctor Who Season 10, Episode 2: Smile

This week's Doctor Who follows the traditional "New Companion Second Episode Template" as Twelve offers Bill the choice between visiting the past or the future (see picks future, but the way).

Pearl Mackie continues to be a delight as Bill, and is just the breath of fresh air the show needed. Her chemistry with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor is amazing, and it's a cryin' shame they'll only have one season together.

Bill feels like a fully realized, actual person, much more so than the Doctor's previous several companions. As I said last week, it's refreshing to have a companion who's just a normal, everyday human, and not the Most Important Person In The Universe, or some sort of mystery that needs to be solved. That's why I'm terrified that showrunner Steven Moffat won't be able to leave well enough alone, and will somehow screw up Bill before the season's done.

Overall I enjoyed the episode quite a bit, mostly due to the charming banter between the Doctor and Bill. To be honest I'd have been perfectly happy just watching the two of them farting around in the TARDIS or wandering the future city for forty five minutes. It's too bad the mediocre and derivative plot had to intrude halfway through the episode to spoil their day out.

Amazingly, Smile was written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, whose only previous contribution to Doctor Who was the execrable In The Forest Of The Night, one of the worst episodes of one of the show's worst seasons ever. 

That episode, if you can call it that, featured "science" that would have made Ed Wood blush. A massive solar flare is heading for Earth, so the world's trees take it upon themselves to grow and cover the entire planet (overnight, mind you), generating an enormous oxygen "air bag" that will absorb the brunt of the cosmic firestorm and save us all. Jesus wept.

Fortunately Cottrell-Boyce upped his game here, and wrote a much better episode this time out. In fact it feels very much like classic Doctor Who, back when the Doctor and his companion du jour would spend an entire episode exploring an alien ship or city.

I guess I'm not smart enough to get the point of this episode. The residents of a future colony have to constantly smile, or they'll be disintegrated by sentient robots whose job is to enforce happiness. So I guess this is a commentary on social media? The way we're all obsessed with "Likes," page views, swiping right and all that? Is that it? Did I get it right?

The "Technology Taking Its Programming Literally With Disastrous Results" plot isn't a bad one, but the problem is it's been done all too many times before. Moffat is particularly fond of this plot, as he used it in The Empty Child, The Girl In The Fireplace and even last week's The Pilot!

Lastly, I'd just like to say that the world seen in this episode one in which you have to constantly smile or die— would be my all-time absolute worst nightmare.

See, I don't smile a lot. It's not because I'm angry, sad or upset it's just that when I'm not thinking about anything in particular, my face goes into this default, expressionless mode, which other people read as a frown, I guess. You've heard of Resting Bitch Face? I have Resting Murder Face.

The worst part of this is that people are constantly telling me to smile. I've had complete strangers come up to me and say, "Smile! It can't be that bad!" It drives me nuts, and even though I'm not angry, hearing that eight or twelve times per day makes me so. 

You may not think this sounds like much of a problem, but try living with it for several decades straight and get back with me. People need to mind their own goddamned business. Would you go up to an overweight stranger and tell them they should lay off the bon bons? Tell a guy with nine kids to keep it in his pants? Of course not! So don't worry about what my face is doing.

Honestly, If I had to walk around with a fake smile pasted on my face like the colonists in this episode or else die, I'd have to think it over.


The Plot:
The Doctor and Bill hang out in the TARDIS, as witty banter ensues. Nardole knocks on the door and the Doctor lets him in. Nardole seems miffed that Bill's in the TARDIS (jealousy?) and the Doctor tells him to go make some tea. Nardole reminds him of his oath to guard the vault, and that he's not supposed to go off-world unless it's an emergency. The Doctor lies, assuring him he won't leave, and rushes him out of the TARDIS.

The Doctor then asks Bill the standard new companion question: Past or Future? She picks the future for her first trip in time, because she wants to know if turns out "happy."

Meanwhile in the future, on the planet Gliese 581d, a woman named Kezzia walks through a vast wheat field toward a beautiful white city. She's followed by a small, humanoid robot and a cloud of black nanites called "Vardies." Inside the building, she's met by a nervously smiling woman named Goodthing, who tells Kezzia their mother and several other family members are all dead. Despite this bad news, Goodthing pleads with Kezzia to smile. Kezzia's understandably upset, which the small robot beside her senses. It's face, which displays an emoji of a smiling face, changes to a frown, then a deadly face with skulls for eyes. Suddenly a Vardie swarm swoops down and envelops Kezzia. When it flies off, there's nothing left of her but a pile of bones.

Sometime later the TARDIS lands on Gliese, which the Doctor explains is one of the first Earth colonies. He and Bill explore the futuristic city, but are puzzled as to why it seems empty. The Doctor notices swarms of Vardies buzzing around, along with the small humanoid robots, which Bill dubs Emojobots. The Doctor says the Emojibots must serve as  an interface between humans and Vardies. 

An Emojibot hands each of them a disk, which they place on their chests like a pin. The disks immediately move to their backs, and begin displaying emojis. The Doctor theorizes that the badges are meant to display the wearer's emotional state— a mood indicator.

Bill's fascinated by the city and everything in it, but the Doctor's unnerved by the fact that there're no colonists around. He says even if the colony ship hasn't yet arrived, there should be a skeleton crew of humans to help set up the city. They wander into a greenhouse, and the Doctor makes a grisly discovery— the Vardies killed the humans and are using them as fertilizer.

The Doctor somehow works out that the Emojibots were sent ahead to Gliese to build the city for the colonists, and are programmed to make them happy. Somewhere along the line they began taking their programming literally, and when the skeleton crew became unhappy for some reason, the Emojibots eliminated them.

The Doctor and Bill paste big happy smiles on their faces and exit the city as quickly as possible, and make their way back to the TARDIS. He tells Bill to stay there, while he tries to figure out how to stop the Emojibots so they don't kill all the colonists when they arrive. Bill says nothing doing (of course) and returns to the city with the Doctor.

The Doctor realizes that the entire city is formed out of trillions of Vardies, who make up the walls, floors and everything. They find a section of the city that isn't made of Vardies, and realize it's the remains of the spaceship that brought the skeleton crew here. The Doctor finds the engine room and rigs it to blow, which will destroy the Emojibots (and leave a big heap of nothing for the colonists when they arrive!). The Emojibots detect the intruders, and head toward the engine room to stop them.

Bill wanders off and finds a chamber with a long-dead old woman lying on a slab. There's an electronic book at her feet, and Bill flips through it, seeing it's the history of Earth. She's troubled when she gets to the future, and sees it's not pleasant. She then wanders into a room filled with thousands of hibernation pods, each with a human inside. The colonists aren't arriving, they're already here!

Bill fills in the Doctor, and he realizes he was wrong about the colony. He immediately has to undo the damage he did to the engines to keep them from blowing and save what's left of humanity. Bill thinks he's saved the day, but he reminds her that when the colonists wake up, they're not going to be happy that their new home is a death trap, which will cause the Emojibots to massacre them. The colonists begin waking up, wondering what's going on. When they find out, they head to the armory and gear up for war.

Meanwhile the Doctor tries to figure out what happened to the Emojibots so he can reverse it. Bill shows him the old lady's tomb, and the Doctor finally understands. She was one of the skeleton crew, who died of natural causes. This caused grief among the rest of the crew. The Emojibots were programmed to maintain happiness, and when they sensed grief, they decided it had to be eliminated, as their literal thinking became deadly.

The Doctor tries to explain all this to the awakening colonists, but they're too worked up to listen, and attack the Emojibots. The Vardies then spring into action, stripping the flesh off the bones of one of the colonists. Suddenly the Vardies and Emojibots both stop. The colonists wonder what happened, and the Doctor reveals he hit the reset button on the Emojobots. Well. That was... anticlimactic.

Before he leaves, the Doctor explains the situation to the colonists. He says the city belongs to the Vardies now, as it's literally made of them, and they're now the indigenous life form on Gliese. He tells the colonists they need to figure out how to live with the Vardies quickly, and suggests they start smiling.

The Doctor and Bill take off in the TARDIS. When Bill asks where they're going, the Doctor says he's returned them to Earth at the exact moment they left. He throws open the doors and they see they're in 1840 London, as a real live elephant walks toward them across the frozen Thames.

• This week we find out what's up with the vault the Doctor was fiddling with in The Pilot. We don't find out what's in it, but we sort of learn why the Doctor's guarding it. He tells Bill, "
A long time ago, a thing happened. As a result of the thing, I made a promise. As a result of the promise, I have to stay on Earth."

I'm assuming the mystery of what's inside the vault and why the Doctor promised to guard it will slowly unfold over the next ten episodes. And against all logic, reason and the rules of good screenwriting, I'm confident it'll have something to do with Bill.

One cool thing about the Doctor's oath— according to Nardole, he's not supposed to go off-world and leave the vault unguarded. The Doctor does so anyway of course, using time travel as a technicality. He can leave the planet for as long as he wants (years even!) as long as he returns at the exact moment he left. Timey Whimey!

• Funny how, out of all the incredible things she saw in this episode, the thing that amazed her most is the most mundane— the fact that the Doctor has two hearts.

Somehow I think this is going to be tied in with the vault and the photo on the Doctor's desk last week, and Bill will turn out to have something to do with Susan Foreman. Either it's Susan in the vault, or Bill's Susan's daughter or something like that. Moffat won't be able to help himself.

• The Doctor reminds Nardole that he's over two thousand years old in this episode, and doesn't need a mother hen clucking over him.

Some online fans are claiming this is a mistake, as the the events of Heaven Sent mean the Doctor's really 4.5 BILLION years old. Eh, I don't think so.

In that episode, the Doctor was teleported into some kind of other-dimensional prison. He wandered through a maze-like structure for days, until he found his way back to the transporter room and was killed. The prison then reset itself back to the moment the Doctor first appeared. 

This sequence of events happened over and over for four billion years. But because the prison constantly rewound itself, each time the Doctor stepped out of the transporter was the first for him, if that makes any sense.

That's the way I interpreted the episode at least. And the Doctor seems to agree with me!

• The colony planet in the episode is called Gliese 581d. Believe it or not, this is an actual world (probably), in the Gliese 581 planetary system, twenty light years from Earth! It was discovered in 2007 by the European Southern Observatory telescope in La Silla, Chile. Why there's a European Southern Observatory in South America, I have no idea.

Computer climate simulations have indicated there may be surface water and a habitable surface on Gliese 581d. Kudos to the writers for using an actual (probably) planet in the episode!

• Impressed by the futuristic city in this episode? Wondering how the cheapskates at the BBC could possibly afford to build such a massive set? 

Eh, it wasn't a set. It's a real place! The Doctor Who cast and crew went on the road and filmed the episode at the City Of Arts And Sciences in Valencia, Spain.

• The plot of this week's story— "Be Happy Or Die"— is a familiar one. It's pretty much identical to the 1988 Seventh Doctor episode The Happiness Patrol. In that episode, the Doctor and Ace travel to a futuristic city run by dictator Helen A (who was a thinly-disguised satire of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher). She made it illegal to be unhappy, and anyone who violated the law was put to death.

I guess the writers were hoping we'd forgotten about that episode?

The similarities don't stop there. The Seventh Doctor and his companion Ace had a teacher/student relationship, just like the Twelfth Doctor and Bill do. And Ace's favorite catchphrase was "Wicked!," which Bill just happens to utter this week. Coincidence? Homage? Outright self-theft?

• Another case of borrowing from what's gone before: at one point, Bill asks why, if the Doctor's an alien, he has a Scottish accent. 

This echoes the first appearance of Rose Tyler in 2005's Rose, in which she asked the Ninth Doctor why he sounded like he was from the north (his reply: "Lots of planets have a north!"). 

Also in 2010's The Beast Below, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond counter the Starship UK, which contains the British survivors of a future evacuated Earth. The Doctor tells Amy, who was Scottish, that Scotland refused to be a part of the ship and built their own.

• Early in the episode the Doctor assumes the city's empty because the colonists haven't yet arrived. He then decides to blow up the city to save the colonists from the Emojibots.

The Doctor was completely wrong about this of course, as it turns out the colonists were already there. But let's suppose he was right and they hadn't yet arrived. 

What would have happened if the colonists had arrived and found the Doctor had blown up their city? What the hell would they have done then? Live in their ship until they could figure out how to build adobe huts? Seems like he didn't really think his plan through. Lucky for the colonists he was wrong and didn't blow up the city after all.

• The colony ship is called the Erehwon. It doesn't take a cryptographer to see that's "Nowhere" backwards. Oy.

This may also be a reference to Erewhon, a satirical novel written in 1872 by author Samuel Butler. The story's about a utopia that turns out to be a nightmare, and even features machines that become self aware. Sounds familiar, eh?

• Supposedly the Vardies are named after Professor Andrew Vardy, of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. His area of research is swarm robotics, which I guess is a thing. Frank Cottrell-Boyce, writer of this episode, collaborated with Vardy several years ago on an unrelated story.

• At one point Bill finds a dead old woman on a slab, with an electronic book at her feet. Bill activates the iPad-like book, which displays a slideshow of Earth's history.

The images she sees look amazingly like the opening titles of The Big Bang Theory. Seriously. All that was missing was the Barenaked Ladies theme.

To be fair here, this may have been less of an homage or ripoff, and more a case of there only being so many ways to illustrate a multimedia demonstration of Earth's past.

There are a couple of Easter eggs among the images Bill sees in the book. The first is a photo of the Embracing Couple, a pair of perfectly preserved people who died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. I'm betting this had to be a reference to 2008 episode The Fires Of Pompeii.

The second is a brief image of Vincent Van Gogh, who was featured in the episode Vincent And The Doctor.
• All through the episode the Doctor keeps talking about a magic haddock, which no one else understands. Finally at the end of the episode he explains himself and tells a story to the colonists, saying, 
"Once, long ago, a fisherman caught a magic haddock. The haddock offered the fisherman three wishes in return for its life. The fisherman said, 'I’d like my son to come home from the war and 100 pieces of gold.' The problem is magic haddock, like robots, don’t think like people. The fisherman’s son came home from the war in a coffin and the King sent 100 gold pieces in recognition of his heroic death. The fisherman had one wish left. What do you think he wished for? Some people say he should have wished for an infinite series of wishes... In fact, the fisherman wished that he hadn’t made the first two wishes."
His Magic Haddock story is pretty much identical to The Monkey's Paw, which was written by W.W. Jacobs in 1902. It tells the story of a petrified monkey's hand that grants wishes, but in the most hellish way possible. 

In the story, an old man wishes for enough money to pay off his house. The next day the man's son is killed in a factory accident. The factory owner gives a goodwill payment to the old man, which is the exact amount he needs. 

A week later the old man's grief-stricken wife demands he use his second wish to return their son to them. He reluctantly does so, and they immediately hear a moaning and scratching at their door. The old man realizes it's the half-rotted corpse of their dead son trying to get in, and uses his last wish to undo the second.

I looked around the internet and there doesn't seem to be any story called The Magic Haddock. I'm betting the writer just came up with a new name for the old story, as The Monkey's Paw is pretty well known and would be a spoiler for the rest of the episode's plot.

• The Doctor saves the day by rebooting the Emojibots, to reset them to their factory settings. In other words, "he turned them off and on again." Cue sad trombone. It's a terrible, anticlimactic copout of an ending, one which makes the Doctor look like an idiot. Surely someone as smart as him should have known to do this five minutes after he met the Emojibots (this is actually the second time he screws up in the episode, as earlier he mistakenly assumed the colonists hadn't arrived yet, and almost blew them up along with the city!).

Additionally, the Doctor's reset solution doesn't make much sense. The Emojibots have become a new self-aware species, and are so dedicated to preserving happiness that they literally kill anyone experiencing sadness. The Doctor then "resets" them, essentially wiping their memories. He says the Vardies are now the indigenous population, as the built the city and it belongs to them, and tells the colonists they'd better figure out a way to live with them.

Hang on— if he wiped their memories, then shouldn't they have lost their sentience as well? Shouldn't they just be plain old robots with factory settings now? So what's the problem? Why can't the colonists just move into the city as planned?

By the way, there's no way to watch reset scene without thinking of Roy, the beleaguered computer tech who constantly told his coworkers to turn their computers off and on again in The IT Crowd

• This Week's Best Lines:
Bill: (noticing the seats in the TARDIS) "Oh, that’s a mistake."
The Doctor: "What is?"

Bill: "You can’t reach the controls from the seats. What’s the point in that? Or do you have stretchy arms, like Mr. Fantastic?"
The Doctor: "Oh, I stand, like this."
Bill: "You never thought of bringing the seats a bit closer?"
The Doctor: "No, not so far, no."
Bill: "
Where’s the steering wheel?"

The Doctor: "Well, you don’t steer the TARDIS, you negotiate with it. The still point between where you want to go, and where you need to be, that’s where she takes you."

Bill: (grilling the Doctor about the TARDIS) "How much did it cost?"

The Doctor: "Ah. No idea. Stole it."
Bill: "Seriously?"

The Doctor: "Yep."
Bill: "Why?"

The Doctor: "Well, actually, because I felt like it."
Bill: "What if I steal it from you?"
The Doctor: "On you go, then."
Bill: "I don’t know how it works."
The Doctor: "Well, neither did I."

Bill: (still grilling the Doctor about the TARDIS) "Why a phone box?"

The Doctor: "I told you."
Bill: "Yeah, I get that it’s a cloaking device. But why keep it that shape? Why do you like it?"

The Doctor: "Who said I like it?"
Bill: "You kept it."

Bill: "One question— little fella said you made an oath. You’re not supposed to leave the planet."

The Doctor: "OK, I suppose I owe you an explanation. A long time ago, a thing happened. As a result of the thing, I made a promise. As a result of the promise, I have to stay on Earth."
Bill: "Guarding a vault?"

The Doctor: "Guarding a vault.
Bill: "Well, you’re not guarding the vault right now."
The Doctor: "Yes, I am. I have a time machine, I can be back before we left."
Bill: "But what if you get lost, or stuck, or something?"

The Doctor: "I’ve thought about that."
Bill: "And?"

The Doctor: "Well, it would be a worry, so best not to dwell on it."

Bill: (seeing the Vardies) "These are robots? These are disappointing robots."
The Doctor: "That’s a very offensive remark. Don’t make personal remarks like that."
Bill: "You can’t offend a machine."
The Doctor: "Typical wet brain chauvinism."

(I get the feeling that if we ever do create sentient robots, this will be a real conversation)

The Doctor: "Welcome to the future. Emojis, wearable communications, we’re in the utopia of vacuous teens."

The Doctor: "I’m not that fond of fish, except socially, which can complicate a meal like this."

Bill: "Why are you Scottish?"

The Doctor: "I’m not Scottish, I’m just cross."
Bill: "Is there Scotland in space?"

The Doctor: "They’re all over the place, demanding independence from every planet they land on."

The Doctor: "Why are you here?"

Bill: "Because I figured out why you keep your box as a phone box."
The Doctor: "I told you, it’s stuck."
Bill: (indicating the sign on the front of the TARDIS) "Advice And Assistance Obtainable Immediately.' You like that."

The Doctor: "No, I don’t."
Bill: "See, this is the point. You don’t call the helpline because you ARE the helpline."
The Doctor: "Don’t sentimentalise me. I don’t just fly around helping people out."
Bill: "What are you doing right now?"
The Doctor: "I happened to be passing by, so I’m mucking in."
Bill: "You’ve never passed by in your life."

Bill: "I really am on a spaceship."
The Doctor: "Yes. Which we’re about to blow up."
Bill: "How are you allowed to do that? Like, how are you allowed to blow something up and not get into trouble? I mean, blow something up, get into trouble, that is a standard sequence!"

Bill: "Where are we going?"

The Doctor: "No idea. But if I look purposeful, they'll think I've got a plan. If they think I've got a plan, at least they won't try to think of one themselves."

The Doctor: "Do you know why I always win at chess? I have a secret move. I kick over the board."

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