By Anthony Casperson
(MAJOR SPOILERS for Doctor Who season 10 episode 2 follow)
With the episode title of “Smile” I wondered what a recent episode about everyone’s favorite Gallifreyan would entail. The penchant for the unexpected, and then twisting it further, that the BBC’s show tends toward aided this wonder.
At first, the cutesy, emoji-emulating faces of robot creations, called Vardies (pictured above), that appear in the first few moments of the episode made that initial wonder wane. But as the human characters’ emotions grew less cheerful, a destructive face of the Vardies appeared. And as one who has previously written about the monstrous actions of a rogue smiley face, I was rehooked.
Ultimately (and the fullness of the spoilers happen over the next few paragraphs), the Vardies had been programmed to do everything they could to keep the colonists happy. They and a few humans were to set up this colony before the rest arrived. But with the death of a respected leader, grief overcame some of the people.
Reading grief as the enemy of happiness, the Vardies sought to overcome this enemy, meaning killing off the people who were not happy. (And re-purposing them as fertilizer for the plants.) This, in turn, created more and more grief as the prep team was systematically eradicated in a matter of days.
In a place where happiness is the only parameter, anything short of complete smiles must be put down swiftly.
The Doctor and his companion, Bill, discover the colony after this has happened and endeavor to uncover this secret. Attempting to escape the same fate, the pair even put on fake smiles to try and fool the emotional readers.
But how will everyone else who comes to this colony fare if the Doctor and Bill just leave it? So, the Doctor ends up reprogramming and rebooting the Vardies to cease the pursuit of happiness above all else. They “forget” about the directive to make the colonists happy and thus enable peace between themselves and the human colonists who have begun waking up.
Happiness isn’t the problem here. It’s the forced application of happiness, even to the detriment of the original intent, that’s the problem. But the difficult part of this is the problem of pursuing happiness above all else is not just left in the pages of a TV script.
When we make happiness the sole parameter through which we judge the fullness of life, we leave out much of the spectrum of human experience. Failures can lead us to greater accomplishments. Dark times can lead us to grow closer to God. And I still believe that there’s a wisdom that can only be found in the depths.
Without these experiences, we can’t fully grow into the human beings that God made us to be. Even though we would never want to go through the difficult parts of life, the parts that steal the smiles from our faces, without those events and experiences we could never be the people we are because of them.
And to force happiness onto others risks injuring them further. Saying to someone who’s feeling depressed that they should be happy and smile because, at least, they are alive won’t make the depressed person any happier. It might just make them more depressed that they can’t even do what “normal” people do, smiling through the pain. They might even wonder if that life is worth it and end it all.
The pursuit of happiness above all else can lead to incredibly detrimental circumstances in people’s lives. We need to be “reprogrammed” from thinking that everybody just needs to be happy. Peace can be brought about in our lives even in the darkest of places.
Wholeness, completeness, the biblical definition of peace, can only be brought about when we follow God’s leading in our lives. And sometimes (often times?) that leading is into dark valleys with dangers all around. But the point is that we cling close to the God who loves, protects, and leads. He alone is able to bring that peace.
Our primary goal should be to grow in our relationship with God and do what he calls us to do. Happiness may come as a result of that, but slapping a smiley face on destruction doesn’t stop the devastation.