If the theme of robots becoming sentient seems familiar in “Smile”, the second episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, then look no further than the previous explorations of artificial intelligence in Steven Moffat’s work for the show. Writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, returning after the lukewarm reception to his last effort, “In the Forest of the Night”, provides his own spin on the idea of machines misinterpreting human behaviour, physiognomy, or biological construction.
Machine intelligences going rogue takes us right back to “The Empty Child”, the clockwork droids of “The Girl in the Fireplace”, or more recently the handbots of “The Girl Who Waited”. The classic series also gave us dystopian visions of future cities overrun by robots and machine consciousness, in “Paradise Towers” for example.
Cottrell-Boyce offers that the future of human colonisation in space will go hand in hand with our development of artificial intelligences. Although the premise of “Smile” is a long way off, current thinking is already turning to how we can design friendly AI, where the potential of installing them with emotional responses could lead to machines that have moral and ethical codes. MIT are already working on creations that could read human facial expressions using special software, employing six model emotional faces in response to human interaction. Those are Cottrell-Boyce’s emojibots by any other name.
The human-AI interaction in “Smile” touches on many themes in science fiction about how our own bodies have become technologised and moulded by mass communication. We’ve become aware of how we construct our selves within an era of electronic reproduction and replication. This cybernetic future sits alongside the setting for this episode. The nanobots, the Vardies, actually form part of the structure of the future city itself and cities change the way people live.
The setting for “Smile” is stunning and the episode benefits from the work of architects Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela and their work for Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences complex. You may have recognised some of the locations because director Brad Bird shot much of the imaginary city for Tomorrowland (2015) there. The future city is a core trope in science fiction, and many key authors and filmmakers have set their narratives in gleaming metropolises. The idea of humanity colonising planets is also familiar to Doctor Who, and in the conversation between The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) there’s a suggestion that this colony escaped the solar flares that ravaged the Earth, just as those in “The Ark in Space” and “The Beast Below” did.
Many colonial narratives in science fiction are concerned with what Gary Westfahl sees as “manifestations of otherness amidst human settlers, especially when they have brought from home, fears of, and prejudices toward, Others among themselves.” In some ways “Smile” plays into these narratives, particularly in its use of place as ‘other’ to depict an empty city devoid of human colonists because their nanobot ‘slaves’ have purged human grief from the face of utopia.
While the city is bright, white, clean, and its machines serve ethically produced food and measure your moods, the feeling in “Smile” is one of oppression. This is a city demarcated by control where the modernist architectural ideal is described by Vivian Sobchack as the use of “the negative and nihilistic value of emptiness.” That the humans have been reduced to compost in “Smile” touches on some of the themes in the dystopian science fiction cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Certainly, Soylent Green (1973) and Logan’s Run (1978) come to mind as particular examples of the theme of population control.
How ‘service’ nanobots might autonomously evolve, but then fail to distinguish human physical communication or read non-verbal human responses to personal crisis, is the essence of this story. However, the episode isn’t solely interested in this single idea of flawed interaction. It is more than generous in its exploration of the developing relationship between The Doctor and Bill Potts.
As they banter in the TARDIS prior to setting off into the distant future, retaining the pattern of contemporary-future-past stories that previous seasons have established to introduce a new companion, we learn a little bit more about why The Doctor is guarding the vault. It appears he swore an oath to remain on Earth and not to venture off-world unless it was an emergency.
Nardole (Matt Lucas) is swiftly sent off to make a cuppa and is thus conveniently removed from the story. Mind you, his little grumble about not being “a slave for any human” foreshadows the themes of the rest of the story and his own non-human, partly mechanical nature. Out of a desire of wanting to see if the future is happy, Bill plumps for fitting in a quick trip before the kettle boils.
The future, with its white, shining city, sat amidst miles of wheat fields, is not happy. Mina Anwar’s Goodthing (the names for human characters suggest something of their inner quality or emotional attributes as we hear of Hopeful, Sunshine and, later, Steadfast) meets a grinning Kezzia (Kiran L. Dadlani), only to be told “mum is dead”. She’s not the only one. Goodthing’s failure to make Kezzia understand that you have to keep smiling despite all the tears results in the nanobot Vardies reducing her to a pile of bones.
Treading through those same wheat fields, The Doctor and Bill arrive at the colony where supposedly “the settlers have cracked the secret of human happiness.” Well, they certainly have to crack a smile to survive. Before the empty colony begins to spark their interest, The Doctor expands on Nardole’s concern about his oath not to leave the planet: “a long time ago, a thing happened. As a result of the thing, I made a promise. As a result of the promise, I have to stay on Earth.” Bill worries that The Doctor might not get back in time to guard the vault and if feels as if the seeds of his downfall are right there in his nonchalant response of “it’s a worry, so best not to dwell on it.” He changes the subject with a bit of architectural appreciation.
Speculate away while director Lawrence Gough puts to good use those stunning locations in Valencia, and the camaraderie between The Doctor and Bill develops beautifully in the hands of Capaldi and Mackie. For a good half-hour, Cottrell-Boyce concentrates on this pair and structures it as a two-hander to cement their relationship. The mystery of humanity’s misplaced optimism gradually expands into the exploration of artificial intelligence and human emotion as the Vardies swarm overhead.
Those “worker bees of the Third Industrial Revolution” have mediated the transition of labour to robotics. Their evolution could create new social structures between man and machine as The Doctor points out to Bill when these flying robots don’t meet up to her expectations. Her remarks about not being able to offend a robot are met with a further bit of foreshadowing from The Doctor as he accuses the human attitude to robots as “typical wet brained chauvinism”.
It’s that human chauvinism, in not realising that the Vardies will evolve to try and deal with death and the grief and mourning associated with it, that is the root of the problem. “Smile” also encourages us to consider one of the big problems with instilling emotions into machines is the ethical question and moral implication of, as Kevin LaGrandeur pointed out, creating machines that suffer so they can feel emotions like guilt and sorrow.
It’s just as depressing for The Doctor to realise that it’s the emoji that’s survived as part of human language so far in the future. It’s a lovely little scene between The Doctor and Bill as they both work out what the function of the emoji badges is. Each of them is driven by a joyful, mutual curiosity, and its good to have that kind of relationship back in the show again. The mood feedback loop is another intriguing idea. Emojis affect our mood when we see them and subconsciously we do mimic their expressions. This taps into the current thinking that emojis might have some impact on cognition, the neural processes that shape the brain and the idea that we are moving from developing ‘individualist’ brains to using ‘communal’ brains.
“Why aren’t you loving this?” asks an enthusiastic Bill as The Doctor starts to question his surroundings. Everything is there but there are no human colonists to be found. His conjecture is that the colonists haven’t arrived yet and the Vardies and the emojibots were sent ahead to prepare the city. Along the way, Bill is stunned to discover The Doctor has two hearts as he casually waxes on about how the colony prepared ahead. I love the fact that he agrees with her his blood pressure must be “really high.” It’s all that concern he has.
His blood pressure must be sky high when he gets to the orchards and realises that the crops are being fertilised with human remains. While Bill contents herself with smelling plants twenty thousand light years from Earth, The Doctor worries where the human set-up team have got to. He discovers they have literally become the skeleton crew as their bones tumble out of a composting machine.
“The robots want you to be happy but they’ve got the wrong end of the stick,” muses The Doctor as the robots close in at the first sign of their unhappiness with the situation. The Vardies give chase as they run back to the TARDIS. Again, the interplay between Capaldi and Mackie is brilliant and as she enquires why he’s going back to the city and leaving her there, he explains: “there’s a giant smiley abattoir over there and I’m having this really childish impulse to blow it up.” Not that she stays put, as per the usual rules of being The Doctor’s companion. She naturally questions why it has to be him to take on this responsibility. Especially, when there might be a helpline or something. Immediately she understands The Doctor’s modus operandi. It’s effectively underscored by the moment where she runs her hand across the police box door sign, underlining ‘advice and assistance obtainable immediately.’ The Doctor is the helpline.
Her reasoning is that if The Doctor couldn’t leave her serving chips then by dint of this she will not leave him to simply pass by on his own. Their confidence in each other’s company grows and grows over the space of the first half hour and it’s really delightful. The difficulties with the episode only really crop up when Cottrell-Boyce tries to resolve everything in the last 10 minutes.
Once we get to The Doctor’s encounter with the boy looking for the rest of the colony, the twist that the colonists are actually in hibernation under the city in their original colony ship and are waking up, the episode has to hurriedly bundle together a somewhat unsatisfying ending. That’s a shame, as Lawrence Gough’s pacing and amazing use of locations allows the mystery to slowly develop as Capaldi and Mackie deliver a superb double act on their own.
When colonists start pitching up with guns, it seems to be the inevitable result of human beings dragging their violence and prejudices with them across the universe, as Bill notes when she watches a book of remembrance placed at the side of the first colonist to die on the planet. The images flash by and take us from examples of human creativity and ingenuity to those of war and destruction. The colonists are the presumably among the last of humankind that evacuated but unfortunately they have not left those violent tendencies behind.
There’s definitely a sense of the themes in “The Ark in Space” as The Doctor watches the hibernation chambers being activated and a tannoy voice welcomes these citizens to their new world. He realises that he’s got everything wrong as colonists start to appear and he has to hurriedly change his plans. Note the Erewhon logo on the hibernation chamber doors. This refers to the fictional country (a thinly disguised New Zealand) in Samuel Butler’s novel of 1872, also entitled Erewhon.
This was a satire of Victorian society and the narrative postulated that machines might develop consciousness and take humanity down a divergent evolutionary history. Butler’s novel was a rare exception to the pro-technological, utopian works of the nineteenth century and drew on his experiences as a sheep farmer in New Zealand. The story also inverted conventional morality: sickness is seen as a crime, crime is considered a mental illness and doubt and suspicion replace the technological optimism of utopia.
The colonists in Erewhon discover that anti-machinists have destroyed all the machines and banned their use. Butler was concerned that machines would acquire sentience and eventually reproduce. He, like the episode, saw the relationship between humans and machines as symbiotic. The machines enslave us as we enslave ourselves to them.
For Cottrell-Boyce, the Vardies have evolved to an extent that they now own the planet and humankind have lost control of it. When Bill asks what will happen now the colonist are awake, The Doctor can only confirm that they’ll discover their friends and families have been “mulched in the garden” and if they fail to be happy about that then the Vardies will erase them.
That The Doctor’s solution to the Vardy identification of “grief as plague” is to turn everything off and on again is a bit risible, and is presaged by a clunky info-dump of exposition just to underline the situation. We hardly get to know Steadfast (a sorely under-used Ralf Little) and the other colonists, so the climax offers a rather one-note human reaction to the evolution of their own technology. Cottrell-Boyce attempts to correct this with a fairy tale about a magic haddock that might be an homage to Pushkin’s Russian folk poem “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish”. It’s a poetic interpretation of that old adage of being careful about what you wish for, and a warning that utopia is in the end a fatal conceit. Especially when you now have to pay the new landlord the rent.
It’s not a completely satisfying ending, but it’s certainly a better episode than Cottrell-Boyce’s last outing. It ends a little too abruptly and neatly, and the next thing we know the TARDIS has landed on the frozen Thames and, unusually, we’re given the lead in to next week’s episode “Thin Ice”. However, the first half-hour of “Smile” is worth it just for the development of the relationship between The Doctor and Bill, the stunning location work, Gough’s direction, and Cottrell-Boyce’s determination to explore a lot of contemporary ideas in such a short time.