‘Doctor Who’ Regeneration Review: A Lecture For A Massacre In ‘Smile’

The Doctor Who Regeneration Review is a weekly column cataloging all the times Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor nearly regenerates, or dies, in the latest episode of BBC America’s popular science fiction show. Since this is the Scottish “cross” character’s final season — a fact the showrunners have enjoyed teasing in the promos — we decided to tease back. Most items are serious, some silly, and all measured with the Doctor’s ?.

As successful as Steven Moffat’s attempt to re-reboot the series with “The Pilot” was, the longtime Doctor Who writer and executive producer couldn’t escape the more formulaic aspects of his tenure, including the promise of a new story arc shrouded in mystery, but designed to string together all 12 episodes. The vault guarded by the Doctor, his “oath” regarding its protection and never leaving Earth for new adventures, Nardole’s (Matt Lucas) incessant reminders about said promise — all of this popped up in the premiere.

In “Smile,” these same elements reappear when Nardole briefly visits the T.A.R.D.I.S., or in conversations between the Doctor and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). Episode writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Moffat offer viewers just enough to understand, as Bill does, that her host isn’t supposed to travel anywhere. As for the more prescient Doctor Who fans in the audience, however, they know “the thing” he alludes to while explaining his oath is the death of River Song (Alex Kingston) during the 2015 Christmas special. Or, at least that’s what he might be referring to.

Whatever the case may be, the Doctor isn’t supposed to leave the planet — let alone travel in time off-world. Yet that’s precisely what he and Bill do in “Smile,” thereby putting them in the middle of a human-robot massacre communicated largely through emoji. ?

“The utopia of vacuous teens” (?)

“Does it speak? Will we understand it?” Bill asks when they first encounter one of the cute, bipedal robots. “It depends upon what aspect of your language has survived over so many thousands of years,” the Doctor-as-professor responds. When the robot, which serves as an interface of sorts, responds with a smiling face, Bill exclaims, “It speaks emoji!” Cue Capaldi’s get-off-my-lawn Doctor: “Of course it does.” Previous versions of the character have initiated their own regenerations, partial and otherwise, for various reasons. So we were surprised this typically angry one simply didn’t press the reset button right then and there.

“Don’t even try without smiling” (???)

Then again, it’s a good thing the Doctor didn’t go through with it, as the crisis posed by the emoji-speaking robots and the massive clouds of nanobots they represented was still unfolding. During the cold open, two distraught colonizers were stripped to their bones by the cloud when they misinterpreted their sadness as a problem in need of a solution. “They were designed to make you happy,” the Doctor later explains to Bill while facing down the robots in a series of corridors. Ever the problem solver, the Time Lord finally realizes what happened to everyone in the colony and works out what they must do in order to survive. In other words, he and Bill have to smile their way past the robots in order to avoid being turned into compost.

“I could do with a hand here” (????)

Bill and the Doctor escape their first dangerous encounter with the emoji-bots, but since this is Doctor Who, you know the title character can’t resist jumping back in. Not because he wants to save the day, per se, but because — as his new mood indicator reveals with the ? symbol — he’s curious. As a result, the Doctor decides to blow up the original colony spacecraft and thereby wipe out the malfunctioning robots. While trying to overload the ship’s engine, one of the emoji-bots sneaks up behind him. He manages to knock it off the catwalk with a large wrench, but not before the bugger tries to take the Doctor down with him.

“What is the opposite of a massacre?” (???)

Once Bill and the Doctor realize that the ship is also carrying the cryogenically frozen colonists, the latter decides to try a new tactic: lecturing the human travelers. “Like every slave class in history, [the robots] are beginning to have ideas of their own,” he tells a group of recently awakened passengers. “They wanted to eliminate unhappiness, but to a robot that meant eliminating unhappy people.” Unfortunately for the Doctor’s professorial recourse, however, these humans have guns — which makes them gun-wielding, confused people just finding out about the murder of their friends and family. “I don’t care why!” an angry colonist passing out weapons tells the Doctor, whose stubborn lecturing almost gets him shot.

“This is your new house. Isn’t it lovely?” (?????)

In the penultimate scene, the Doctor and Bill find themselves caught between a bunch of angry, gun-toting humans and their robot assistants turned assailants. It’s not a great position to be in, and when Bill’s attempts to calm a grieving child fail, the humans fire the first shot. The Doctor finally figures out the robots have become a self-aware, sentient species, though his somewhat gleeful realization occurs as the colonists continue firing and the nanobot clouds begin consuming them. It’s a rather morbid sequence — especially since a stray rifle shot or a few million angry robots could have easily killed him.

New episodes of Doctor Who air Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on BBC America.