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Recap / Doctor Who S36 E2 "Smile"

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Smile like you mean it. We're not joking.
Click here to see the Radio Times magazine poster for this episode: 

"They're expecting the new garden of Eden. What they are not expecting is to be the fertiliser!"
The Doctor

The One With… emojis.

Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce.

Having won the Doctor over, Bill gets to enjoy her first official trip on the TARDIS of her choosing. He gives Bill her pick of the past or future, and Bill decides her interests lie more towards the future. The two land on an upstart human colony... but no humans are to be found. The only notable inhabitants are machines that communicate with ideograms and smileys — simply put, emojis — who give them devices that display their current emotional states. However, there is a dark side to these machines, responsible for the killings of the skeleton crew prior to the duo's arrival, subjecting them to a twisted ironic fate.

As the Doctor and Bill try to uncover what went wrong, they learn the true origins of the fledgling colony and receive a nasty reminder not to take things at face value. The Doctor is hurt by the fact many people were lost and families have been broken, and Bill discovers that the future isn't so neat or pretty after all. However, if they don't learn to grin and bear it, the colony's nanomachines will be murderously cross!

Compare to the Seventh Doctor adventure "The Happiness Patrol" with a similar premise.


  • After the End: The episode takes place after Earth gets bombarded with solar flares, as seen in "The Ark in Space" and "The Beast Below".
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The Vardy only want to help humans be happy, unfortunately when encountering grief (caused by the natural death of a loved one) for the first time they don't understand it, eventually deciding that it is the enemy of happiness. Their programming causes them to come to the conclusion that grief is a transmissible disease (because it "spreads" when people come in contact with each other). So to make sure everyone keeps being happy they simply kill anyone who is sad. In their minds, they are protecting the colonists from a plague.
  • Anachronism Stew: Between the Shining City being built for the colonists, and the Used Future spaceship it's built around.
  • Ankle Drag: When the Doctor knocks an Emojibot off the platform, it grabs his ankle. He uses a steam hose to get it off.
  • Are We There Yet?: An appropriate question in a spaceship with no windows. Naturally, it's a child who asks.
  • Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?:
    Bill: You're thinking. Tell me what you're thinking about.
    The Doctor: A magic haddock.
    Bill: Obviously...
  • Artistic Licence - Space: The Gliese 581 system doesn't have two yellow suns, just one red one.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The Doctor appears to blow up the city anyway, but he just short-circuited everything (the entire city being made of nanomachines) to wipe their memory.
  • Big Bad: The Vardy. They're responsible for all the deaths that occurred, but not out of malice but out of simply fulfilling their purpose. Unusually when dealing with an out of control AI, the Doctor chooses to reprogramme them rather than destroy them.
  • Binary Suns: The only alien feature visible in the planet's sky.
  • Blatant Lies:
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Vardy think differently from humans. They're not being malicious, they just literally don't understand them.
  • Brick Joke: In the first scene, Bill asks the Doctor if the TARDIS has a steering wheel. At the end, when it turns out the TARDIS, instead of returning to present-day Bristol, has landed in 1814 London, the Doctor comments that maybe she's right and the TARDIS does need a steering wheel.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Bill works out why the Doctor prefers the police box look.
    Bill: You don't call the helpline because you are the helpline.
  • Cliffhanger: The Doctor tells Bill they've landed back in his office, the moment after they left. Bill opens the door and comments that it's snowing, at which point the Doctor steps outside, and deduces that they're in London, standing on the frozen River Thames... and then an elephant walks up.
  • Comm Links: The nanomachines turn your ears into these. It's an upgrade to hear at a distance.
  • The Computer Is Your Friend: Happiness is mandatory, citizen. Failure to smile will be rectified with immediate death and subsequent recycling.
  • Continuity Nod:
  • Crapsaccharine World: The city is beautiful and inhabited by friendly-looking and helpful robots, and food is plentiful. Too bad that the fertilizer is humans, and if you show unhappiness the robots turn you into skeletons and grind that into said fertilizer.
  • Cute Machines: The emojibots, at least on the surface — though they return to this after the Doctor reboots them, with one even making a cute visual joke about money.
  • Cutting the Knot: The Doctor claims the reason he always wins at chess is that he knocks over the board. (The Fourth did this on-screen once, while playing a game of chess with K9 and losing.)
  • Destructive Saviour: The Doctor says that he feels an urge to blow the place up in order to save the colonists planning to live in it.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The Doctor isn't happy about being compared to a policeman, but as Bill points out, that's what he does — respond to a crisis, restore the peace via force or negotiation, then leave. He even has a police box, heck, he lives in one.
  • Dystopian Edict: No unhappiness is allowed by the Emojibots, who treat it as a virus that needs to be eliminated.
  • Embarrassing Browser History: The Doctor tells Bill to stay away from his browser history.
  • Eternal English: The Doctor is skeptical of a robot from Earth's far future sharing a language with 21st century Bill, even if both are speaking "English". It turns out that the robots speak emoji, which Bill understands, but is still not English.
  • Exact Words: The robots were programmed to make sure the colonists were kept happy and their needs met. Computers can only follow instructions they have been given, and they follow those instructions exactly. They don't have morals or emotions. When the A.I. observed sadness "spreading" from person to person, it assumed it was dealing with a plague that contradicted its prime programming ("keep people happy"), so it started killing people to stop what it perceived as a disease from spreading. All because the A.I. hadn't been given instructions in how to react in that situation.
  • Expressive Accessory: The emoji badges display their wearers' feelings.
  • Fad Super: The story gives us killer robots with Emoji faces and a white, Apple Store-esque design.
  • False Utopia: Gliese 581d seems perfect, but later the Doctor and Bill discover the colonists are missing...
    Bill: What's Utopia?
    The Doctor: An imaginary perfect place.
    Bill: This isn't imaginary.
    The Doctor: I bet it isn't perfect either.
  • Felony Misdemeanour: If you're unhappy, the Vardy kill you.
  • Food Pills: Cubes of blue gelatin, reminiscent of "The Wheel in Space". They smell like fish.
  • Foreshadowing: When they first enter the deserted city, Bill asks if everyone is still in bed. It turns out the colonists are still in suspended animation.
  • Getting Smilies Painted on Your Soul: Kind of invoked: the only way to avoid being targeted by the Vardy is to act happy by forcing oneself to smile, the act of which has a physical effect on the person's mood. However, humans are so bad at this that it doesn't last long.
  • Ghost City: All the people in the city have been killed by the Vardy. It turns out, however, that most of the people are still in suspended animation.
  • Good Old Ways: The Doctor can't help snarking away at his companion's generation. "Emojis. Wearable communications. We're in the utopia of vacuous teens." He's quite happy to find the map in the factory with No OSHA Compliance beneath.
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: The emojibots target anyone who's not smiling.
  • Have You Tried Rebooting?: The Doctor gets the Vardy to stop attacking and to forget their directive to eradicate unhappiness by turning them off and then on again.
  • Hive Mind: The robots — that is, the emojibots — are all interfaces for the Vardy, which are synchronized.
  • Human Resources: The mineral fertiliser is made of ground human bones.
  • Humans Are Morons: When the Doctor explains to the awakened settlers that the Vardy have become a self-aware species, thought they were helping by killing the skeleton crew, how important it is for them to get along, and how bad an idea it would be to fight an enemy that is literally also the battleground, the response is "but they killed our people". You can tell our favorite Time Lord is trying very hard not to facepalm.
  • Human Popsicle: The people on the colony ship are in cryogenic suspended animation.
  • Idea Bulb: This is the emoji used to signify an idea, for both humans and robots.
  • Identity Amnesia: The Doctor does this to the Vardi, causing them to forget their conflict with the colonists.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: While the Doctor is convincing the colonists not to go outside, the young boy is already wandering around in the city. Will he be skeletonized and turned into fertilizer? Of course not! But it is a near thing.
  • In Harm's Way: The Doctor takes Bill back to the TARDIS before he goes to blow up the city. She quickly works out that playing it safe is not the job of a companion.
  • Insistent Terminology: The Doctor says the emojibots aren't robots, they're just the interface. The Vardy are the actual robots.
  • In the Future, We Still Have Roombas: Bill is disappointed by the swarm of nanomachines, but their human interface is more appealing to her. Justified as they were specifically designed this way.
  • Kill It with Water: A variation, the Doctor uses steam to knock an emojibot off a ledge.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Bill yet again questions some easy-to-miss oddities. Like why the seats in the TARDIS are so far away from the console, and why the Doctor inexplicably sounds Scottish. The Doctor retorts that he likes to stand and that he's not Scottish, he's "cross".
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: The Vardy forget everything about the colonists when the Doctor resets their memories.
  • Layman's Terms:
    The Doctor: I re-initialised the entire command structure, retaining all programmed abilities but deleting the supplementary preference architecture.
    Bill: He turned it off and on again.
  • Literal Genie: Why the A.I. was killing people to prevent the spread of "sadness" which it perceived as a plague due to how it "spread". Just a reminder, computers don't have emotions or morals, they simply follow the instructions they are given exactly.
  • Mind Virus: Grief is treated as one by the Vardy, hence why they kill people who show it. They think they're containing a disease.
  • Mirror Scare: While the Doctor is trying to destroy the ship, he sees an Emojibot behind him in the gauge.
  • Motifs: Continuing from "The Pilot"...
    • Mothers: The young boy just wants his mother...
    • Hidden threats: The Emojibots look friendly enough, and the Vardy are the walls of the colony!
    • "Villains" who aren't evil: The Vardy are just following their programming, and making sure no one's unhappy.
    • Exploitation: The humans programmed the Vardy to be their servants, not suspecting they might develop sentience.
    • Imprisonment/Release: The Doctor frees the Vardy of their programming, which ends the threat. Beforehand, the colonists are "freed" from their long sleep.
    • Swarming creatures: The Vardy nanobots.
    • Promises: The Doctor tells Bill a little bit more about the promise he made to protect the Vault.
    • Unusual books: A high-tech book chronicles the history of mankind as well as the generations of people who inhabited/will inhabit the colony. Bill learns from it that the reason these colonies have been established is because terrible things have rendered Earth uninhabitable for humanity.
  • Mouth of Sauron: When Bill sees the Emojibots, the Doctor says they are just the interface, as the actual robots are the Vardy.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: The Vardy are named after Andrew Vardy, whose work in swarm robotics helped inspire them.
  • Nanomachines: Not only are the Vardy a swarm of tiny machines, the city is actually built out of them. Bill is disappointed by them.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: By tracking down the ship so he can use its reactor as a bomb, the Doctor nearly kills all the colonists kept in suspended animation. Though he manages to avoid that, by entering the ship in the first place, the ship triggers the reanimation sequence and now a whole lot of colonists are about to find people they know are dead, and the Vardy are going to try to fix that.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Lampshaded; Bill wonders if they should eat the food cubes, but the Doctor points out that the cutlery is human.
  • Non-Answer: Bill wants to know why the Doctor has promised not to leave Earth. His explanation is extremely vague.
    The Doctor: Okay, I suppose I owe you an explanation. 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.
  • Noodle Incident: The Doctor once met an algae emperor, who fancied him.
  • No OSHA Compliance: The reactor control module is suspended over a large pit with four catwalks and no guardrails.
  • No Seat Belts: Well if you have to stand while piloting, there's not much point.
  • Obliviously Evil: The Vardy think they're helping by turning grieving humans into fertilizer.
  • Oh, Crap!: The Doctor decides to blow up the city by overclocking the ship's engine, so that the robots can't hurt the ship full of colonists when it arrives. Then he sees the little boy who was the first out of cryosleep, and realizes that this is the ship full of colonists. Then, for a second Oh, Crap!, he realizes that not only are the colonists here, but entering the ship has woken them up, which means they're all about to walk straight into a city full of murderous robots.
  • Ominous Walk:
    Bill: If he's chasing us, he's moving very slowly.
    The Doctor: Do you know what it means when something chases you very slowly?
    Bill: What?
    The Doctor: It means there's a reason that they don't have to run.
  • One to Million to One: The Vardy have come together to form a city.
  • One-Word Title: "Smile".
  • Photographic Memory: The Doctor memorizes the map of the ship, but hides this so Bill remains behind to direct him.
  • Psychometry: A possible version; when the Doctor picks up a skull there's a Flashback Cut to the victim dying. It's unclear whether the Doctor is experiencing a mental image or it's just letting us know who the skull belonged to.
  • Race Against the Clock: Subverted. The Doctor sets an explosion to happen and tells Bill they need to run... but when it's discovered there are other people on the ship he just unjams the pressure release valve and reconnects the hoses.
  • Reset Button: Not 100%, but the Vardy getting restarted acts as this because their grief=disease=kill idea is gone. The dead humans stay dead and the Vardy are now considered the indigenous lifeform of this planet.
  • Self-Destruct Mechanism: Averted. The Doctor has to improvise with the ship's pipes. Then he has to turn it off when he finds out there are people on the ship.
  • Shoo the Dog: The Doctor tells Bill to go back to the TARDIS to be safe and later tricks her into remaining behind with the map, allegedly so she can direct him though he has already memorized the map.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Bill asks the Doctor if he can stretch his arms like Mr Fantastic.
    • The episode concept bears similarities to the Black Mirror episodes "Nosedive", with the smiling, and "Hated in the Nation", with the electric nanomachines that swarm people like crazy if they fail to smile.
    • The colonists' spaceship is named Erewhon, after the 19th century novel satirizing Victorian values set in a fictional country where technology is seen as evil.
    • When encountering the Used Future look of the Erewhon, the Doctor refers to the music hall song "Any Old Iron".
  • Slave Liberation: As the Doctor puts it: "You brought the Vardy here, microbots to make your life so easy. But like every slave class in history, the Vardy are beginning to have ideas of their own."
  • Sleeper Starship: The colonists travelled to the planet in suspended animation, with most of them remaining in their sleeper pods after the ship arrived while an advance team set up the colony for them to inhabit.
  • Spiritual Successor:
    • Thematically similar to the Seventh Doctor serial "The Happiness Patrol".
    • This episode is also part of a loose arc on the mass exodus and destruction of life on Earth due to intense solar flare activity, which started as far back as the First Doctor. Stories part of the arc include "The Ark", "The Ark in Space" and "The Beast Below".
  • Stepford Smiler: The Vardy encourage this amongst the inhabitants by killing anyone who can't pretend to be happy.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: The Doctor tries to blow up the ship in order to destroy the Vardy. He stops it in time when he discovers there are people on the ship.
  • The Swarm: The Vardy micromachines look like a swarm instead of a more familiar humanoid robots.
  • Swiss-Cheese Security: The door to the spacecraft opens just by pushing a button. The Doctor muses that they really were expecting a peaceful utopia.
  • Symbol Face: The titular Emojibots are humanoid service robots whose faces consist of LED displays that show various emojis to indicate their moods and intentions. Throughout the episode, the Doctor and Bill use these emojis to gauge how good of a job they're doing at pretending to be happy so that the Emojibots don't attack them.
  • Take That!: The Doctor makes a dig about Scotland "demanding independence from every planet they land on", though unlike last time a referendum campaign isn't in progress, but the prospect of one is likely.
  • Tempting Fate:
    • Bill says she wants to see if the future is happy. In her defence, this is only her second adventure with the Doctor.
    • The Doctor says that blowing up the ship will be easy, but finds it more difficult than he anticipated. He has no excuse.
    • At the end of the episode the Doctor says they've landed right back where they started. As usual, the TARDIS has other ideas.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Much to the Doctor's frustration, the reaction of the colonists on finding out what the Vardy did to the other people is to grab guns.
  • True Companions: Bill shows she has what it takes to be a Companion, leaving the sanctuary of the TARDIS to risk her life alongside the Doctor. "You couldn't even leave me serving chips, so I'm not going to leave you."
  • Turned Against Their Masters: The Vardy have apparently done this, but in reality it is due to misunderstood programming. They thought they were helping their "masters" by killing them.
  • Uncanny Valley: In-Universe — Bill is a bit unsettled when the human-appearing Doctor mentions having two hearts.
  • Understatement: "We're having a little tiny Vardy problem."
  • The Unsmile: What the Doctor does, once he realises what's going on. He's not good at smiling even when he feels happy, after all.
  • Violence is the Only Option: Averted; the Doctor's first response is to regard the city as a Death Trap for the approaching colony ship and blow it up, only to discover that the colonists are already there. He then has to dissuade the colonists from attacking the Vardy in turn. The conflict is resolved via negotiation (and a mind wipe).
  • Visual Pun: The skeleton crew gets skeletonized.
  • Wait Here: The Doctor tries to make Bill wait behind by telling her she needs to direct him from the map. When after a while she photographs it, she works out the Doctor had already memorized it.
  • Waxing Lyrical: The Doctor tells an emojibot "I'm happy. I hope you're happy too".
  • We Need a Distraction:
    • The Doctor tells Nardole to put the kettle on, planning to use his time machine to be back before he returns.
    • The Doctor tells Bill to stay by the map and guide him through the spaceship, only for her to realise that he's already memorised it and is just keeping her out of harm's way.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Vardy think they are acting as programmed, they want to keep people happy so try to eliminate grief... by killing people who are unhappy.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The Doctor realises a bit late into the game that the Vardy aren't just aware, they're alive. Even beforehand he was abreast of organic/robot equality rights, critical of "wetbrains" being dismissive towards "drybrains" having feelings.
  • Wing Ding Eyes: The Emojibots have emojis for eyes. Just to complete the gag, they light up with pound symbols and a "cha-ching" sound effect when the Doctor offers to negotiate rent.
  • Wrench Whack: The Doctor realises a robot is walking up behind him, and hits it with the large wrench he's using to adjust the engine.