“Doctor Who” returned last week for its 10th season in the modern era, and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) wasn’t sure he wanted to bring along another companion, but in walked the clever Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). After their unplanned adventure against some sentient alien engine fluid (long story, read our recap), the Doctor was prepared to wipe her memory, but in the end he couldn’t bring himself to. The universe just isn’t complete without a companion to share it with, so off they go for their second adventure in episode two, “Smile,” in which they travel to a planet where emojis can kill.
Smile, Though Your Heart is Aching
I couldn’t help but remember the classic song “Smile,” which could certainly have been an inspiration for this entire episode: “Smile though your heart is aching / Smile even though it’s breaking / When there are clouds in the sky /
You’ll get by / If you smile.” Now imagine those lyrics taken to their most sinister sci-fi extreme. A human colony is built on the planet Gliese 581 D with the help of robots programmed to keep the humans happy. They keep track of your mental state with mood-detecting emoji badges that display your emotional condition — one wonders if the eggplant means the same thing in the future as it does now. It’s a clever system for a utopia, but if the humans get too sad the robots solve the problem — by killing the humans. So yes, smile though your heart is aching, or else you’ll be vaporized and your bones will be used as calcium fertilizer for the crops. The cascading grief could lead to the annihilation of the human race.
The Doctor intends to destroy the colony before the actual colonists arrive, but it’s never that simple on “Doctor Who.” First, the Doctor and Bill discover that the colonists have been there all along in stasis pods, so destroying the city is out of the question. And then, after the colonists wake up and kill one of the robots, the apparent rage in another robot leads the Doctor to a startling realization: they’re self-aware. “I made the mistake of not recognizing your status as an emergent new life form,” he says to one of the robots. He prevents all-out war by simply resetting the machines — “He turned it off and on again,” Bill helpfully explains. The robots retain their abilities, but they no longer remember the previous conflict, and they hopefully have lost their imperative to keep everyone happy — or else. However, now that they know the robots are sentient they must treat them as such, so the reboot-truce has an unexpected consequence. What was once a human colony populated by robot servants is now a robot colony populated by human tenants. So the Doctor has used clever diplomacy to save one species and discover a new one. That’s the beauty of “Doctor Who” — he looks for solutions based on empathy and problem-solving rather than confrontation and violence.
You Can’t Cure Sadness — And Shouldn’t Try
The episode’s story represents a literal manifestation of an important theme. In pursuing a perfect world where machines cater to perfect human happiness, the colonists made the fatal error of not acknowledging grief as a necessary part of their existence. They didn’t even program the robots to recognize such sadness, so when one human died of natural causes the robots treated the mourners as problems to be solved. In that way, “Smile” is reminiscent of Pixar’s “Inside Out,” whose central theme was that joy is not a goal in and of itself. Sometimes we need our sadness. It bonds us. It reminds us of what is important to us. It’s not an error to be fixed.
Bill Understands the Doctor Better: He’s the Universe’s Policeman
The Dotcor’s TARDIS is designed to change its appearance to blend into its surroundings, but it got stuck as a police phone box. However, Bill doesn’t think a simple technical malfunction is the only reason the Doctor leaves the TARDIS in that form: “Advice and assistance obtainable immediately,” Bill reads on the door of the time machine. “You like that. You don’t call the helpline because you are the helpline.” But the Doctor warns her, “Don’t sentimentalize me.” They’re both right. The Doctor feels the urge to save the day, but he’s not so innocent. He has seen and done terrible things during more than 2,000 years of life. In fact, that’s one of the reasons he needs a companion: to keep him grounded, to give him a human perspective lest his power go to his head. He’s an immortal alien, but companions keep him human, even when he loses companions to tragedy. That’s another benefit of sadness: it reminds us there are consequences to our actions.
But Seriously, What’s in the Vault?
Before the Doctor and Bill left for the planet of the emojis, we got more hints about the Doctor’s current purpose on Earth. His other companion, Nardole (Matt Lucas) reminds him, “Your oath, sir. You’re not supposed to go off-world unless it’s an emergency.” When Bill confronts the Doctor about this he reveals everything — okay, not really. “A long time ago a thing happened,” says the Doctor. “As a result of the thing, I made a promise. As a result of the promise, I have to stay on Earth guarding a vault.” The Doctor is going to have to get back to that vault soon, but when he and Bill return from their adventure the TARDIS doesn’t take them back to the university. It takes them to the past, to a frozen River Thames in London — and there’s an elephant. What could possibly go wrong?
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