Story No. 291 :-)
Production Code Series 10, episode 2
Dates April 22, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce Directed by Lawrence Gough
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Doctor brings Bill to a planet colonised entirely by emoji robots.


Dangerous Utopia by Niall Jones 20/5/21

Doctor Who has always been suspicious of utopias; in stories such as Kinda and Orphan 55, apparently paradisal worlds turn out to be anything but, undermined either by outside forces, or by their own dark secrets. The utopia presented to viewers in Smile, however, is of a very different kind. The problem in Smile is that the utopia works, or at least functions as it was programmed to.

The presentation of the planet's utopianism as dangerous embodies Margaret Atwood's concept of the 'ustopia'. In her essay 'The Road to Ustopia', she describes making up the word 'by combining utopia and dystopia - the imagined perfect society and its opposite - because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other'. For Atwood, utopia and dystopia are not opposites but two sides of the same coin, as both are absolutist creations that allow neither dissent nor deviation. As well as challenging the morality of utopia, Atwood's concept of the 'ustopia' also questions its stability by implying that it contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

It might be said that utopian societies are too good to be true. This charge has been raised before in Doctor Who, but, prior to Smile, the only example that I can think of where a society has been simultaneously utopian and dystopian is in The Happiness Patrol. Parallels between Smile and The Happiness Patrol can be easily drawn, but the nature of the utopia in Smile is practical rather than ideological, and the reason for its dystopia is more innocent and therefore more disturbing.

On a distant planet in the future, the human race are setting up one of their first colonies. They are ably assisted by the Vardy, a race of microscopic robots who operate in swarms and communicate via Emojibots, who read emotions to ensure that the humans are kept happy. The Vardy construct buildings, pollinate crops and plant gardens. They then massacre the setup team. This massacre is not an uprising, however, nor a revolution. In fact, it is carried out without any malice at all: the Vardy sincerely believe that by massacring the humans they will make them happy. The system has worked, but in a perverse way.

Smile is a cautionary tale about how, in the words of the Doctor, 'granting all your wishes is never a good idea'. It's also about miscommunication. The humans who programmed the Vardy made a serious error by missing out one vital piece of information, but they made an even more fundamental error in assuming that the Vardy think like them. Like the magic haddock in a fable told by the Doctor, they respond to requests in a decidedly non-human manner. It's hard not to draw an analogy with algorithms here, how supposedly impartial technology embeds the biases and prejudices of its programmers and creates unforeseen - though foreseeable - problems.

For much of the episode, the Doctor and Bill are the only non-robot characters; arriving in a beautiful but empty city, they are forced to piece together the events that left it devoid of life. By limiting the number of characters, Frank Cottrell-Boyce foregrounds the relationship between the Doctor and Bill and emphasises Bill's reaction to being on an alien planet for the first time. As in The Pilot, their relationship is one of teacher and student, with Bill asking why the TARDIS's seats are so far away from the console and whether the Doctor's two hearts means that he has astronomically high blood pressure. As in The Pilot, Bill's questions are funny and incisive. They not only reflect the newness of her experiences, but also make the audience look at the world of Doctor Who in a new light.

Throughout the episode, the Doctor is presented as fallible, frequently jumping to the wrong conclusion and almost instigating a new catastrophe. Crucially, the Doctor's actions parallel those of the Vardy, as he plans a drastic course of action without knowing the whole story. This parallel implies that the Vardy are not villains. In fact, the episode not only has no villains, but rejects the concept of villainy entirely. Instead, it highlights the gulf between justifications and results and reveals how the best of intentions can lead to the worst of outcomes. The lack of evil motives in the episode makes an interesting change from the usual Doctor Who dynamic and allows the story to end on a hopeful note without it seeming contrived.

Cottrell-Boyce's refusal to see things in black-and-white terms informs the tone of the episode. Smile deftly mixes the light and the dark, humour and horror, to great effect. An early scene where a colonist fakes smiling in order to prevent the Vardy from killing her, despite the fact that her mother has just died, is chilling; however, a scene in the middle of the episode where the Doctor and Bill fake smiles to escape the Emojibots is very funny. Smile is an episode that embraces the full gamut of emotions, unlike the Emojibots, who are programmed to prize human happiness above all else.

Overall, Smile is a thoughtful and entertaining episode that takes a simple and visually striking concept - robots that speak emoji - and uses it to explore important questions.