On this week’s episode of Doctor Who, The Doctor and Bill travel into the future to a human colony built and run by robots. Their prime directive? Maintain happiness, even if they have to kill the inhabitants to do so.
In the classic Doctor Who episode, “Robot,” Tom Baker’s Doctor says, “The trouble with computers, of course, is that they’re very sophisticated idiots. They do exactly what you tell them at amazing speed. Even if you order them to kill you. So if you do happen to change your mind, it’s very difficult to stop them from obeying the original order…but not impossible.”
While “Smile” is a very different episode, it does call back to the literal-mindedness of machines and how the best intentions could go awry. In this case, as seen in a horrifying opening sequence, the robots here, known as the Vardies, are assigned to maintain happiness for the colonists. Every individual has their own mood button to assess their emotions. To these robots though, that means all happiness, all the time. If someone’s feeling down, then remove the sadness by eliminating the person.
It is this scenario The Doctor and Bill arrive in, banter in full swing. They explore the now empty city, learning that the Vardies come in two forms. There are the now-infamous “emoji” robots, much to The Doctor’s chagrin, and the deadlier nanobots that make up the walls of the city. As they explore, Bill and Doctor are studies in contrast. Bill, finding herself on another world in the future, is pure infectious enthusiasm. The Doctor is cautious and analyzing everything. If those differing personalities, plus the tutor/student relationship, that makes them a joy to watch.
Once The Doctor and Bill discover the Vardies’ massacre of the colonists, they attempt to blow up the city. But the spaceship in the middle of it all is actually still filled with hibernating people, who begin to wake up. Those the Vardies killed were the advance crew. One of the elders died of natural causes and the grief from her family and friends was completely foreign to the robots. They saw grief as an enemy, leading to the death of the mourners, and the death of those affected by the loss of loved ones. It’s a literal call for happiness, no matter the circumstance, that leads to their demise.
When one of the awakened colonists shoots at the Vardies and they move to defend themselves, The Doctor further realizes they have evolved to become a self-aware species. So what’s there left to do, but turn the Vardies off and on again! By hitting the reset button and wiping out the robots’ protocols and memories, he offers a path forward for the humans and the new species.
With that, the TARDIS lands back on Earth. But the Thames is frozen and there’s an elephant nearby. Just business as usual on Doctor Who!
– The writers are already struggling to shoehorn Matt Lucas into the show. Nardole’s only role so far is to make a quip and remind us about the mystery of the vault. I hope he winds up with more to do than that.
– Bill picking apart the TARDIS set’s design flaws is fantastic. She’s right. There’s no reason for chairs to be that far away from the console. It’s like driving a car from the backseat!
– Bill: “It speaks emoji!” The Doctor: “…of course it does.” Grumpy Doctor is the best Doctor.
– The Doctor’s two hearts equals really high blood pressure? Sounds about right.
– Bill: “Is there Scotland in space?” The Doctor: “They’re all over the place, demanding independence from every planet that they land on.”