It struck me the moment Smile ended that it was a strong contender for the least enjoyable episode of Capaldi era Doctor Who. I'd like to definitively state that it's the worst but with things like Robot of Sherwood, Time Heist, and the Zygon two-parter out there it's not a statement you make lightly. It's a shame that an actor of his calibre has been so consistently wasted. But he has been. We just need to accept it and move on, I suppose.
The central problem of this episode was that it was dull. That's a word I used to describe the previous episode. Perhaps there's a theme developing (hopefully not an intentional one). What made Smile dull was that it centred on ideas that have been done on the show before, and often. An empty colony city. Nanotechnology that's become hostile to humanity. A companion finding out that Earth will ultimately be evacuated and destroyed, making them Sad. Slavery being A Very Bad Thing™. It's all well-trod ground for Doctor Who.
Not that that has to be a problem. All of those things are worth repeating, but only there's something new to say or a new idea or concept to link them in with. It's not enough to dash off the same checklist of arbitrary points as has been dashed off every other time the topics have been tackled. Or, if that's not possible1, then at least avoid piling so many well worn subjects into one episode. Space them out a bit and tackle them across the series. So much familiarity makes for very boring viewing with nothing new being said. Most importantly, don't explore these things in a script that seemingly goes out of its way to keep viewers unengaged.
Nobody mentioned this to Frank Cottrell-Boyce or Steven Moffat, the men responsible for, respectively, writing and polishing2 this script. The basic plot was that a ship had been sent to terraform a planet and-or setup a base of operations for a human colony but the robots servants went rogue and started killing the advance crew that had tagged along. We were shown the robots going rogue in the pre-credits sequence so were never in any doubt they were the reason the base was deserted, yet it took a while for the Doctor and Bill to discover this for themselves before sending further time investigating the whys and wherefores of what had happened. Which meant the first forty minutes dragged as the pair ponderously gained all the information they needed, most of which the audience had known all along. Particularly annoying when it was obvious the creepy emoji-faced robots were behind everything, because who else was it going to be?
Mentioning the emoji-faced robots is a nice segue into the broader ways in which this episode felt like a failure. The bright white utopian cityscape looked the part but once inside the Doctor and Bill went from airy, open rooms to green-lit corridors to brown greenhouses seemingly within seconds of one another. It didn't feel like they were walking through one place. The original Earth spacecraft at the centre of the city felt out of place too but that was intentional, and frankly it should have been even more different than it was so it's a location that fails in a different way. The emoji-bots were neither comically non-threatening nor surprisingly sinister and moved with all the grace of oft forgotten 80's companion Kamelion. They were only ever going to work as one of those two extremes, the middle ground approach doomed them from the start. The interplay between the Doctor and Bill had its moments but overall didn't feel as good as it did in The Pilot. And as good as they appeared to be together last week asking them to carry over half an hour of the episode with no supporting cast seemed like a big ask in Bill's second ever story.
Lastly, there was that problematic resolution. It was technobabble heavy and came down to the Doctor pushing a button. That's never ideal but it doesn't have to be a problem. If the stakes are clear and sufficient tension has been introduced then it's an acceptable way of tying up a filler episode (and this was clearly a filler episode). But the stakes weren't clear here and the only tension came from Murray Gold's blaring soundtrack. On top of that the Doctor knowingly wiped the recent memories of an entire technology-based species and "restored their factory settings." That's a pretty oppressive approach. With more time or emotional engagement it could have been played in an almost Genesis of the Daleks "Do I have the right?" fashion but that would have fallen flat with a species we don't know as vicious killers and with the build-up of the first forty-five minutes. A negotiation sequence, which could have happened mostly off-screen, would have been an improvement3.
Considering the miniscule supporting cast4 and reliance on location filming I suspect this was one of the season's cheaper episodes. If it was then this was the wrong slot for it. The Doctor and Bill shouldn't be alone for that long unless they have something substantial to talk about, and getting-to-know-one-another chat doesn't qualify there. Not having the budget on screen to gawp at just one week into a new series isn't a good idea either.
I enjoyed two things in Smile. The reference to the door the Doctor's agreed to stay on Earth to guard and the final moments where they arrived on a frozen Thames and were confronted by an elephant. Those were minor things and not enough to balance out the bulk of the story being boring twaddle that never really got going and featured some of the least ambitious locations, sets, and designs of the past twelve years. It felt rushed, and that's a worry when it's episode two of a twelve episode run.
1 Not that that would ever be the case but whatever.
2 At least, Moffat is alleged to do this. There's not much indication that he does, at least not to the extent of his predecessor. You could see this as Moffat giving the writers he commissions more freedom. You could see it as a lack of desire to have an increased sense of unity across any given series. Or maybe just plain laziness.
3 Even if you adhere to the Capaldi's Doctor is a harsher Doctor school of thought wiping memories and setting back the evolution of an entire species seems savage for any Doctor5.