Doctor Who Review: Smile

This review contains spoilers.

This is not going to be a Moffat-rant. Surprisingly enough, I actually didn’t hate Smile; partly, I suspect, because it wasn’t actually written by Stephen Moffat (it springs from the pen of Frank Cottrell-Boyce), but mostly because it feels very much like Davies-era Who. Bill and the Doctor rock up in the future, on the first colony of Earth, Erehwon. The Doctor rhapsodises about the optimism that built this shining white city, the garden-of-Eden promise of a brand-new planet; but where are all the people?

After some investigation, it turns out that the skeleton crew who were to prepare the city in advance of the colonists’ arrival have been turned into fertiliser by the Vardies, the robots built to keep the humans happy. The Vardies communicate through emojis, hence the episode’s title; they’ve killed the humans because they identified grief as the enemy of happiness and decided to eradicate it. Which is a bit of a bummer for all concerned.

And now, the real colonists are waking up from their long cryo-sleep, ready to walk into a city that will kill them.

So, as I said, it’s a pretty standard findy-outy episode, recycling old Who tropes – sinister robots who just want to help, a utopian dream gone horribly wrong, an inexplicably deserted city – and combining them with some convincing extrapolation (the multi-purpose nano-robots are orders of magnitude more plausible than anything that usually makes its way into Doctor Who) to make a plot that actually makes a surprising amount of sense and doesn’t rely on The World Being Saved By Love. The ending, which has the Doctor realising that the Vardies are now a sentient species, resetting their memories so they don’t remember the colonists so won’t try to kill them, and negotiating peace between the two factions, feels similarly like classic Who: a balance between the moral imperative of pacifism and the Doctor’s particular brand of gung-ho problem-solving.

I do have some Thoughts on the episode, though, which I think are more about inherent biases than the rampant misogyny that characterises some of Steven Moffat’s episodes. See, the premise of Smile, and in particular its ending, is that the Vardies aren’t evil; they’re just different (much like the puddle of oil in The Pilot). In other words, it’s a story about competing cultures, about profound cultural difference and how that can manifest.

This is a laudable project, of course: stories in which genuine difference is celebrated, or at least presented as something we can live with, are rare in SF novels, let alone genre television. I just think it’s rather muddily executed.

In particular, Smile specifically refers tp the culture clash involved in colonialism: the Doctor refers to the Vardies as the “indigenous species”, with the humans as colonists. And there’s an interesting little reflection, perhaps, on the idea that difference is socially constructed as the Vardies’ cultural difference was literally constructed, built into them, by humans. But that particular metaphorical construction becomes problematic in conjunction with the Doctor’s mind-wipe of the Vardies – and only the Vardies – at the end of the episode. Sure, the Vardies get to earn rent from their human creators, seemingly reversing the dynamics of colonialist exploitation. But this seeming reversal is only achieved by a much more problematic forcible erasure of the Vardies’ racial memory.

Sure, the Vardies won’t kill any more humans. But the humans have reason to kill the Vardies too, yet they get to keep the memory of their grudge. If the Doctor can talk the humans out of genocide, why can’t he do the same for the Vardies? Or, if mind-wipe is necessary, why can’t he mind-wipe the humans, too? Or, why does the story have to end with the humans living in the Vardies’ city?

And there’s the rub. The episode can’t, or won’t, get away from the fact that the Vardies were built by humans. Despite the Doctor’s protestations to the contrary, the narrative refuses to budge from the idea that the city belongs to the humans, and not to the sentient Vardies. It’s split, awkwardly, between superficially declaiming a post-colonialist happy ending and structurally re-enacting colonialist atrocity.

This split is performed, it seems to me, by an interesting little bit of self-inconsistency at the level of the plot. If the Vardies aren’t evil, only different – if they think they’re doing good by murdering people – why do they use an obviously evil emoji? The writer wants us to see cultural difference; the story, which has so much more inertia, tells us to see evil. There’s a salutary lesson about unconscious bias in there.

Next week, the Frost Fair on the Thames! I’m looking forward to it.

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