Capaldi’s forced smile is the terrifying midpoint between Tom Baker and Malcolm Tucker and justifies this glossy but rather hollow episode on its own.
There’s a fair amount of confidence in following Bill’s (admittedly hugely promising) introduction with what is essentially a two hander, but the greatest strengths of this episode are again down to the interplay between Bill and the Doctor, and Bill’s delightful reaction to finding herself in a sci-fi afficionado’s paradise. Once again when she finds something she doesn’t understand, she smiles. It’s a delightful trait (that for some reason reminds me of an xkcd cartoon).
The episode is visually superlative – the cornfields, the architecture, the little cubes or algae – and direction is again Lawrence Gough. There’s more lovely Murray Gold music too.
The script is by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, author of series 8’s arboreal failure, and I’m always pleased to see a writer get a second chance. This is generally very strong: the Vardy are certainly convincingly horrific, and the pacing of the story is excellent (especially the first 15 minutes), but the themes seem a little under-developed.
The emoji robots are a neat idea, and I like the prospect of an exploration of the pressure we feel to be happy – and the misery it brings. I have had unpleasant brushes with anxiety recently, and have found Acceptance and Commitment Therapy useful, which highlights the problem of resisting painful feelings – the resistance increases the suffering (Russ Harris calls is ‘The Happiness Trap‘). Thus any expectations we feel to be happy, to enjoy all the myriad opportunities of life and any success we may enjoy, can actually prove counterproductive. The sense that there’s an injustice or an ingratitude in failing to respond to our blessings with an endorphin rush not only mischaracterises mental illness but may exacerbate it.
Anyway, while it’s not clear by what mechanism the mood badges work, it’s clear they respond to a fake smile rather than true feeling, so the story fails to engage with this concept. And as the colonists awake, the story veers rather awkwardly into the conflict between immigrants and indigenous people. A rather worthy theme seems rapidly to be emerging in this series about being misguided rather than evil.
The colony does, however, bear strong similarities to The Ark in Space.
While the performances of Capaldi and Mackie are once again a joy, there is little time for the colonists to sell either their understanding of the threat, or their response. It was certainly insufficient for the performances we got.
Matt Lucas does well to get a credit in the titles, despite only appearing (briefly) before them – but though I’ve generally liked Nardole’s post-Husbands contributions, putting him on the bench seems a good choice while the new companion beds in.
There also seems to be something of a return to the template of the RTD era – with an introductory episode in the present day, a future episode, then a period episode – judging by the trailer for Saturday’s Thin Ice.