Smile, Doctor Who, and Lessons of Curiosity and Courage

Last night Kalie and I went to see Smile.  I wasn’t planning on blogging this weekend and I certainly wasn’t planning on writing a piece on the Smile movie as I don’t write about horror often.  However, as the movie unfolded I found myself thinking of Doctor Who.  This, in and of itself, isn’t surprising as I’m almost always thinking about Doctor Who.  However, I began to see a tie between the Doctor and the horrifying film unfolding before us.  Specifically, I found myself thinking of “Mummy on the Orient Express” (S8E8).  As these connections grew in my mind I could feel the piece developing alongside them…which was nice as there was no way I could have went to bed after I got home because THIS WAS THE SCARIEST MOVIE I’VE SEEN IN AGES and I needed time and distractions to decompress before bed.  So I started writing and here we are!  In an unexpected twist, Smile helped me see how the Doctor’s curiosity makes them such a remarkable hero.

This piece has basic plot spoilers for Smile so read on based on your comfort with such things :).

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Dr. Rose Cotter works with a patient. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Smile

Written and directed by Parker Finn, Smile follows Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), a therapist in Mount Pleasant Hospital’s Emergency Psychiatric Unit who sees a patient, Laura Weaver (Caitlin Stasey), brutally commit suicide in front of her.  Before she dies, Laura tells Rose that something is following her, something only she can see.  Laura, a PhD candidate, witnessed one of her professors commit suicide the week before and this creature has been following her ever since, taking the shape of strangers, loved ones, even relatives she lost years ago, and wearing a smile dripping with menace.  Laura tells Rose it’s going to kill her and no one believes its real.  After her patient’s death, Rose talks to two police officers (one being her ex, Joel (Kyle Gallner)), and explains what she believed happened.  However, alone in her home that night trying to shake the horror of what she witnessed and waiting for her fiancé Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) to come home, Rose sees Laura smiling at her through the darkness, wearing the same macabre grin she had on her face before she died.  Soon she is seeing this grisly smile everywhere and everyone – her fiancé, her therapist Dr. Madeline Northcott (Robin Weigert), her sister Holly (Gillian Zinser), and her boss Dr. Morgan Desai (Kal Penn) – believes it’s simply the effects of the traumatic event she experienced. 

It…uh, this movie was a lot.  It was so well done!  But it left me pretty shaken.  I can’t remember the last time I screamed “FUCK!” more often or more loudly at the movies.  I also jumped in my seat so often and with such force I could’ve been in one of those mechanical bull riding scenes from Urban Cowboy.  As horror films go, Smile is MESSED UP and it’s FUCKING CREEPY and it stays with you after the credits roll.  It even had Kalie jumping in her seat!  Hardly anything does that!  Kalie is a horror expert!

For a solid 2/3s of the film, I was in a state of perpetual anxiety.  I was on the edge of my seat.  I was jumping at everything.  I was holding my breath until it would explode out of me in a stream of profanity as I tried to manage the latest jolt of terror coursing through me.  But then I began thinking about the Doctor and my Analytical Part perked up as my brain was divided between the part overflowing with anxiety around the narrative and my Analytical Part overlaying Doctor Who – specifically “Mummy on the Orient Express” but really all the Doctors fit this mold – with what was happening on screen.  In this, I began to experience the movie in two ways at once and it lead me to realize something quite important about the Doctor I’d never seen with such clarity before.

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The Doctor plays his Yamaha SGV-800 guitar to an enamored crowd in 1138. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

What makes the Doctor so unique as a character?  What are the Doctor’s key personality traits?  Above all else, the Doctor is kind – just that, just kind.  Peter Capaldi cites kindness as the core of the Doctor and the show, speaking at the 2017 BFI & Radio Times Television Festival, “The essence of Doctor Who is kindness; that is what really is underneath all of this.  This is a person who moves through time and space and history, and all kinds of situations, and reacts to them, ultimately – despite the way the different versions of him may appear – he reacts with kindness.”[1]  Alongside their kindness is their intelligence.  The Doctor is clever and the Doctor is kind, as David Tennant explained on The Late, Late Show with James Cordon.  He says the Doctor is “celebrated because he’s clever, because he’s clever and kind.  And that’s such wonderful things for a character to represent.”[2]

What I realized watching Smile though is how important their curiosity is to making the Doctor who they are.  Their curiosity is certainly a foundational part of their courage.  Watching this horrific entity terrorize Rose, I began to realize how different the Doctor’s approach to dealing with it would be.  Then I began to realize how naturally, instinctively (or at least habitually…I don’t know enough about our fear responses to know if it was instinct or not) Rose responds to this creature.  And then I began to realize something that sets the Doctor apart from all of us human beings, alongside their kindness and intelligence, is their curiosity.  In many ways, it was their curiosity which led them to steal that faulty Type 40 TARDIS and first run away from Gallifrey to explore the universe.  They wanted to see everything space and time had to offer!  They wanted to explore it all.  And this curiosity leads them to interact with the monstrous, scary, and threatening in a way we wouldn’t.  The Doctor’s curiosity is a source of courage we humans don’t usually tap.

Ok, so the following paragraph will contain spoilers for how this creature operates in Smile.  If you’d like to know none of that, you can skip to the next paragraph and move below the picture of Laura crying to read on.  If you’ve seen Smile or don’t mind spoilers or will never see it because it’s SUPER CREEPY and you just want to know what’s going on here, read on :D.

When Laura committed suicide in front of Rose, she passed this creature to her.  It attached itself to Laura when she saw her professor bludgeon himself to death.  He got it seeing a woman commit suicide while at a conference and she picked it up seeing a man kill himself at a gas station.  The chain of suicides goes back through twenty different people before it arrives to Rose.  However, through Joel’s research, Rose learns one man – Robert Talley (Rob Morgan) – broke the chain.  He murdered someone and then the witness to the murder committed suicide and the pattern resumes.  Speaking with Rob in prison, she tells him a patient of hers is reporting seeing this smiling monster and he tells Rose, “I researched anything and everything I could about this thing.  There’s been other chains in the past, found one that was in Brazil a few years ago.  A man there escaped that chain…by killing his neighbor and passing it to his neighbor’s wife.  Your patient is going to die unless she kills someone.  That’s the only way you can get rid of it.  The only way.  She has to make sure there’s a witness for it to pass to ‘cause this thing needs trauma to spread.  That’s what gives it power – trauma.  Your patient has to make it count.  Tell her to use some kinda weapon.  Make the biggest mess she can.”  In her fear Rose slips, “I can’t kill someone!” before gasping and catching herself.  Robert becomes hysterical, screaming for her to leave before it can be passed back to him.

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Laura tries to explain to Rose what’s happening to her. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Smile

Rose’s reaction, like Laura’s before her, is one of frantic fear whenever this malevolent smiling entity appears.  Before she commits suicide, Laura tells Rose, ““It looks like people!  It looks like different people!  Sometimes it pretends to be someone that I know, sometimes it’s a random stranger, sometimes…sometimes…it looks like my grandfather who died in front of me when I was seven.  But it’s all the same thing.  It’s…it’s like…it’s, it’s like it wears people’s faces like, like masks!”  Rose asks, “What happens when you do see it?”  Laura replies, “It’s smiling at me.  But not a friendly smile, it’s the worst smile I’ve ever seen in my life and whenever I see it I just get this…godawful feeling like something really terrible is gonna happen.  I’ve never felt scared like I do when I see it.”  And who wouldn’t be horrified if they saw something like this grinning back at them??

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Laura wearing the creature’s smile. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Smile

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Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Smile

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Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Smile

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Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Smile

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I hope this string of every creepy smile we saw in the trailer helped drive home the point because, to do this, I had to find all these AND THEN put them in my WordPress image gallery where I will see them until I write another post with enough pictures to bury them :8. Do you see the sacrifices I make for you, dear reader? Because GAH! / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Smile

This creature doesn’t just smile at her.  It crawls in her head and torments her in a wide variety of ways.  Home by herself one night, Rose is startled when the burglar alarm goes off.  She deactivates it as the phone rings and Rose answers, tentatively, fear evident in her voice.

Rose – “…hello?”

Operator – “This is First Line Security, may I have your name and the passcode?”

Rose – “Uh, Rose Cotter, um ‘Acapulco.’”

Operator – “And we’ve detected a door alarm.”

Rose – “Yeah uh, uh the, the backdoor of my house is open.”

Operator – “Are you alone in the house, ma’am?”

Rose – “Yes.”

Operator – “Are you sure?”

Rose – “…what?”

Operator – “Are you sure you haven’t let something inside, Rose?”

Rose – “…..”

Operator – “Look behind you.”

FUCK ME.  I was NOT OK with this scene!  And if it messed with my head I can only imagine how horrible it would be if it was real!  Rose slowly turns, terrified, and the phone rings again.  It’s really First Line Security this time.  The first call was the entity tormenting her. 

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Rose sees the smiling entity yet again. / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Smile

Yet through this all, Rose isn’t passive.  She doesn’t give up.  She seeks all the information she can about this creature to try and figure out a way to stop it.  She speaks to Professor Gabriel Muñoz (Felix Melendez Jr.)’s wife, Victoria (Judy Reyes), about what her husband experienced before he killed himself in front of Laura.  She and Joel research as many links in the suicide chain as they can and go to the prison where Robert Talley is being held to talk to him about how he escaped it.  But whenever it appears before her, Rose screams.  She runs.  She panics and pleads.  Rose reacts as we all would…but that’s not how the Doctor would react. 

The Doctor’s curiosity would drive them toward the creature, not away from it.  The Doctor would want to talk to it, understand it, learn everything about it to figure out what it wants and what it needs.  This takes a sort of courage I don’t think I have (if how I reacted to the movie is any indication XD) and it’s born in part from seeking to protect innocents from whatever being is before them.  But it’s also born from the Doctor’s general desire to know

In “Mummy on the Orient Express,” the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrive on the Orient Express, a train designed to look exactly like the original, only it travels through space.  Shortly after they arrive, they hear a passenger died mysteriously, claiming to see a mummy no one else could see right before her heart gave out.  After the Doctor assure Clara, “old ladies die all the time, it’s practically in their job description” and, as she was the only one who saw the mummy it most likely means it isn’t real, they go to their compartments for the night.

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The Doctor and Clara onboard the Orient Express. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

But in his cabin, the Doctor clearly isn’t comfortable with that take as he lays in his bunk talking to himself, “It’s nothing – nothing.  Definitely sure, 99% sure.  Really?  99%?  That’s quite high.  Is that the figure you’re sticking with?  Ok, ok, 75.  Well that stumbled quite a bit, it just lost 24%.”  Rising from the bed he begins talking to himself, “Because you know what this sounds like, don’t you?  No, do tell me.  A mummy that only the victim can see!  I was being rhetorical.  I know exactly what this sounds like!”  And just like that he’s off to investigate.  His curiosity drives him.  The Doctor can’t just accept the easy, plausible, logical explanation.  He needs to understand it for himself.  When Laura explained to Rose what she was seeing, Rose said, “I know that what you’re experiencing feels incredibly real.  Sometimes when we get emotionally overwhelmed or experience intense trauma our minds…”  Laura frantically cuts her off, “You’re not listening to me!  Oh my God I’m going to fucking die and no one will listen to me!”  The Doctor, on the other hand, immediately begins to explore the possibility the mummy is real.

It resembles the legends of the Foretold, an ancient mummy who appears to people sixty-six seconds before they die.  While the legends say some people have survived it’s encounter, the monster itself is believed to be immortal, unstoppable, and unkillable.  A flickering of the lights indicate its arrival and each time it begins hunting a passenger onboard, the Doctor encourages them to stay focused, calm, and to tell him everything they can.

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The Foretold reaches for its next victim as the clock counts down from sixty-six seconds. / Photo Credit – Doctor Who

When the Foretold appears before Professor Moorhouse (Christopher Villiers), who’s spent his life studying alien legends and mythology, the Doctor tells him, “Listen to me!  You can see this thing, we can’t.  Tell us what you can see.  Even the smallest detail might help us save the next one.”  Shocked at his wording Moorhouse asks, “The next one?  You mean…you can’t save me?”  Somewhat offhandedly the Doctor says, “Well that is implied, isn’t it?  Yes, this is probably the end for you but make it count!  Details, please.”

The Doctor seeks all the information he can get from the creature itself.  He doesn’t scream.  He doesn’t run.  He doesn’t panic or plead.  All the other researchers on the Orient Express are searching for data on the Foretold in every way they can but the Doctor looks to engage the creature directly anyway he can.  When it comes for the passenger Maisie Pitt (Daisy Beaumont), the Doctor scans all her grief, trauma, and resentment so he can zap it into his own mind.  This way the Foretold, drawn by Maisie’s grief and trauma, turns to pursue him.

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The Doctor tries to engage the Foretold. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

Seeing the Foretold the Doctor runs toward it and says, “Hello.  I’m so pleased to finally see you.  I’m the Doctor and I will be your victim this evening.  Are you my mummy?”  As the creatures reaches towards him he says, “But you can’t hurt me until my time is up, I think, so are there magic words?  Is there a way to stop you in your tracks?  [turning to Maisie] Oh, you really didn’t like your gran, did you?  [turning back to the mummy] There’s something visible under the bandages. [to Maisie] Oh, by the way, you weren’t being paranoid, she really did poison your pony.  [back to the mummy] Markings like the ones on the scroll! [to Maisie as he runs towards the scroll] Oh, and your father, sorry. [to the mummy] A tattered piece of cloth attached to leather that you would kill for.  That doesn’t sound like a scroll, that sounds like a flag!  And if that sounds like a flag and if this is a flag then that means that you are a soldier, wounded in war, thousands of years ago.  But they’ve worked on you, haven’t they son?  They filled you full of kit, state of the art phase camouflage, personal teleporter.”  Watching the sixty-six seconds count down, Perkins alerts the Doctor, “Ten seconds.”  The Doctor continues, “And all that tech inside you, it just won’t let you die, will it?  It won’t let the war end, it just won’t let you stop until the war is over.”  As the Foretold reaches for the Doctor’s head with the last second ticking away, the Doctor shouts, “We surrender!”  It pauses and steps back.  Everyone can see it then.  It salutes the Doctor.  The Doctor tells it, “You’re relieved, soldier” and then it disintegrates.  There’s a little bit of cleaning up and the Doctor gets all the survivors home safely.

See why I kept thinking of the Doctor in general and this episode in particular as I watched Smile?  During the movie I saw Laura and then Rose do what anyone would do in their situation, panic and run from this demonically smiling monstrosity.  But the Doctor runs towards such entities.  The Doctor tries to communicate with them.  The Doctor seeks to understand and, in that understanding, give them what they want or need so the threat they pose to others will stop.  And if there’s nothing the entity wants or if it refuses to stop, then the Doctor will stop it.  The Doctor doesn’t flee from this creature due as much to his desire to protect those on the Orient Express as to his curiosity about what this really is.

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The Thirteenth Doctor tries to speak to one of the Kasaavin. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

This trait isn’t unique to the Twelfth Doctor either.  To cite but a few examples, when the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) first meets the Kasaavin on Earth in 2020, she fires a barrage of questions until it decides to answer, “Who are you? What are you doing to the people on this planet?  Why are you changing their DNA?  And why spies?  Why are you only attacking spies?  What are you, exactly, except for reluctant to talk?  How many are you, in your race or species or whatever you are?  Where are you from?”  When the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) ends up face to face with a crew member inexplicably murdering the others on a ship in the 42nd century, he’s curious, asking it, “Come on.  Let’s see you.  I want to know what you really are.”  Similarly, when he encounters a mysterious malevolent force on the planet Midnight he admits, “All right, I’m interested.  Yes, I can’t help it.  Because whatever’s inside her, it’s brand new, and that’s fascinating.”

The Doctor’s curiosity is a beautiful thing and it’s an important part of what makes them such a remarkable hero.  Their curiosity drove them out into the universe to explore all of space and time.  It’s also what leads them to greet every creature they meet with empathy and openness.  They are curious; they want to see and understand everything.  In this curiosity, the Doctor is drawn towards what we would naturally flee from.  From this curiosity grows courage, a courage to understand, and in this understanding the Doctor saves the day in a way few other heroes can.  It’s a curiosity I admire.  It’s a curiosity, on my best days, I wish I could emulate.  Still, curiosity-born courage or not, if I’m ever in a situation where a mysterious being I can’t fully understand is smiling at me, I’d prefer said being to have a smile born of kindness and a blue box which travels through all of space and time.

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Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

If you’re interested in reading a little more about the intersection between Doctor Who and scary stuff, you can read The Monsters and the Doctor: Reframing that Which Scares Us, to look at how the Doctor approaches the monstrous, or you can read The Abject Horror of Doctor Who’s Confession Dial for a look at how Doctor Who led me to contemplate my deepest fears.

[1] “Peter Capaldi had this to say to the cyberbullies targeting a Doctor Who fan,” RadioTimes, Published April 11, 2017.  Accessed May 1, 2021.

[2] “Jodie Whittaker and David Tennant: Doctors Stick Together.” The Late, Late Show with James Corden, season 2020, episode 783, June 18, 2020.

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