Our second outing of Season 10 opens in media res, or at least feels like it and I’ll admit I rewound the live TV just in case I’d blinked and missed a few vital seconds. I hadn’t. After a brief and pointed reminder from Nardole regarding the Doctor’s ‘Oath’ to protect whatever’s in that vault, we’re off on the customary companion’s first trip episode.
In the distant future, at the edge of the galaxy, the Doctor and Bill land near a gleaming white city surrounded by wheat fields, apparently abandoned except for robots. The Doctor and Bill are, at least, happier to find wheat on an alien world than the people in the “Alien: Covenant” trailer. But the happiness is short lived as they discover the macabre secret of the city: anyone who isn’t happy is killed by the Vardy (microbots who control the – for want of a better term – Emoji-Loompas). Resolving to destroy the city before more human colonists arrive, the Doctor sets out to blow up its power source, just as Bill discovers the humans aren’t due to arrive: they’re already there.
Much like Cottrell-Boyce’s previous episode “In The Forest Of The Night”, there’s an abundance of ambition and imagination at work here and, just like that episode, it’s not particularly well thought out and the ending is another massive cop out.
The visuals are lifted straight from “Tomorrowland”, thanks to some exotic location shooting in Valencia but the lush location aside, there’s a cheapness to the episode driven by the general lack of a supporting cast except for the very beginning and very end. Was it really worth flying Mina Anwar and Ralph Little out to Valencia for half a day’s work? Seems a bit of a waste, really.
It’s all a bit dull, really. Thankfully, Capaldi can make even the most ludicrous dialogue sound credible so he easily deals with leaden turns of phrase such as ‘grief as plague’ while he figures out why the Vardy have turned on their human creators.
It’s a shame the story – a clumsy mishmash of previous Who outings “The Happiness Patrol” and “The Ark In Space” with dashes of “Big Hero 6” and the aforementioned “Tomorrowland” – bogs the whole thing down because the quality of the visuals, and some of the dialogue nearly manage to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear. There are some marvellous moments of banter between Bill and the Doctor, notably about Scots in Space and there’s a sly shout out to David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ too but thanks to the sparse cast, there’s just too much tell and not enough show for the episodes ideas to really flourish and grow. The ending is perhaps one of the most narratively insulting “Doctor Who” has ever provided as this most derivative of episodes takes its final inspiration from “The IT Crowd”.
Capaldi and Pearl Mackie continue to knock it out of the park, though and Bill is proving herself to be the perfect companion for this Doctor. Hopefully we can chalk this up to an early stumble and the rest of the season will live up to the promise of “The Pilot”. Next week’s looking encouraging. Frost fairs and sinister Victoriana seems like fertile ground for a classic Who-dunnit. But this week, for an episode called “Smile” which dealt with the fatal consequences of unhappiness, its ultimate effect on this viewer was deeply ironic.