When you have one of the more curmudgeonly Doctors, what do you do? Pair him with a companion who asks a lot of unusual questions and watch the sparks fly. Her barrage of questions is not just for comedic effect, though. She has a unique perspective that allows her to see the world in a different light which offers the Doctor a fresh insight into problems and their solutions.
In “Smile,” the Doctor and Bill find themselves in the future on a planet that has recently begun terraforming by a colony of human survivors after they left Earth. The spectacular colony (filmed in The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain) is abandoned except for the Vardy, which are nanobots that run the city. Like a sentient, mechanical coral reef, the walls of the city are made up of the robots which can break off to perform their daily functions and even repair themselves. The Vardy can merge together to form an interface that looks more like a traditional robot (with an emoji face) to interact with humans.
In a plot reminiscent of “The Happiness Patrol,” the Vardy seek to make a society free from pain, but they get a few things wrong. They give the citizens buttons to wear that change to reflect their mood. The Vardy view sadness as a virus, and when people begin to feel sad, they remove it the only way they know how: by killing the host to prevent it from spreading to anyone else. Personally, I am not much of a fan of emojis or the other shorthand symbols in the internet slang vernacular; however, I did find their use in this episode fascinating. Great sci-fi takes our everyday world out of the mundane and into the fantastical to tell us something about ourselves, and “Smile” did that with memes. A little background on just what exactly a meme is—the term was coined by Richard Dawkins (who has a personal connection with Doctor Who in that he not only appeared in a cameo on the show but he was also married to Lalla Ward who played my favorite classic companion, Romana), and it means an idea that spreads from one person to another. By taking some of the more iconic symbols from the digital age and using them to literally spread ideas and emotions among a civilization, it opens up a discussion on how shared ideas can affect us and the world we live in.