Since its reinvention 12 years ago, Doctor Who, to me, has a particular pattern to the way it introduces new companions for the Doctor. The first adventure between Doctor and companion tends to be a knock about race against the clock that allows the writer to establish the relationship between the two: see Rose, Smith and Jones, The Runaway Bride etc. Though in fairness to The Runaway Bride, Donna Noble did undergo a soft reboot herself before resurfacing in Partners in Crime, becoming a much less abrasive foil to Tennant’s wide-eyed cock-er-nee Doctor.
The second episode inevitably sees the Companion quickly learn a facet of the Doctor’s personality that will make them wary at first, but ultimately, they’ll realise he’s just a big lug head who needs a bit of human interaction to make him decent. Perhaps the best example of this is, to return to season 4, is The Fires of Pompeii which dealt with The Doctor’s decree of never altering history regardless of how cold that made him appear. Having kick-started the volcano that destroys Pompeii, The Doctor is convinced by Donna to save at least one family in the chaos. The suggestion is that had Donna not been there, then The Doctor would have turned his back on the city and come across as a bit of a bastard. This same episode would be used to explain why the Twelfth Doctor looks like the very man he saved in Pompeii. Making the deduction last season, The Doctor reasoned that this was a subconscious reminder that his fundamental characteristic is that he is The Doctor and he saves people. I personally like to write reminders to myself on my phone, but we all have our ways of doing things.
And so here we are with Smile, an episode that allows Bill to understand The Doctor’s self-imposed purpose in life: to save people. Landing on a planet under some form of terraforming, the duo quickly discovers that the original settlers – those sent to set up the planet for everyone else – have all been murdered by their robotic handymen, the Vardi. Resembling a cross between an emoji keyboard and the big screen interpretation of Marvin the Paranoid Android, the Vardi had been entrusted to ensure everyone was happy, but when they witness grief for the first time they set about trying to rid the commune of this ‘virus.’ This, of course, has a domino effect; human being just don’t like being killed when they’re already feeling quite sad.
Having established there’s something wrong, The Doctor does what he’s entrusted himself to do and leaps in feet first to help. What’s interesting here is that Bill, initially, isn’t that keen to do same and questions whether they should just call the police. We’ve come to accept that The Doctor’s companions are drawn to danger and fuelled by curiosity, so it makes a nice change to see one that’s willing to have a long hard think before charging in blindly. As shown in last week’s episode, Pearl Mackie as Bill is shaping up to be one of the classic companions. After Amy Pond and Clara Oswald, it just feels good to have a companion who is consumed with excitement about what they’re doing, rather than seeming indifferent to the wonders of the universe. It’s not that Bill shouldn’t be The Doctor’s equal, it’s just nice to have her be a little in awe of who she’s travelling with. It’s for reasons like this that make me further believe Moffat is going all Russell T. Davies on us; stripping the show of his convoluted timey wimey theatrics in order to prove that you don’t need the universe to be constantly in danger in order to provide spectacle.
That said, Smile may have provided an opportunity for Bill to learn some more about the Doctor and for us to learn more about her, but as storylines go it was very pedestrian. The final act seemed to run out of steam so quickly that we were left with the Doctor literally turning things on and off again to make everything better. Despite great performances by Mackie and Capaldi, something didn’t gel right here. It actually felt that behind the scenes, conversations were had in order to get around the thorny issue of the Doctor leaving one of the last groups of human in the universe with the very robots that killed their friends and family. As if, maybe, writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce had to be forced into crowbarring in an explanation. Whatever the reasoning, it just didn’t work for me.
So, whilst Smile felt like a bit of a letdown in comparison to last week’s caper, it managed to get by on the strength of its leads and, whilst further setting up the big reveal of The Vault, shows that season 10/36 is showing some promise.