It Finally Happened

I’ve been waiting expectantly for this day to come. Finally, the eleventh series of Doctor Who has a properly good episode. Unlike much of this series, Demons of the Punjab is not merely adequate or mediocre, and while it is not as sweepingly ambitious as Rosa, it also dodges many of the problems that plague that episode. At last, Jodie Whittaker stars as the Doctor in an episode that I can feel good about recommending.

And all it took was Chris Chibnall not getting a writing credit for the first time this series. Bless.

In Demons of the Punjab, Doctor Who steps into territory almost as fraught as the Jim Crow south; India/Pakistan in the middle of partition, when the nation known as India was split (by the British colonial government, naturally) along religious lines, into the Hindu-majority India and the Muslim-majority Pakistan, in an effort to avoid all-out civil war. It may have accomplished that end, but in the aftermath, there was such enormous violence and displacement inflicted on Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the border, it arguably qualifies as genocide.

The Doctor takes her companions into the middle of the Punjab on the eve of Partition, answering Yasmin’s request to learn more about her reticent Grandmother’s life. Yaz is left confused, though, when they emerge in the middle of Punjab farmland instead of the city of Lahore, and still more confused to learn that her grandmother is about to marry a Hindu man who is very much not the grandfather she knows. For anyone even passingly familiar with the history of the period, the shape of the story is easy to work out from the moment you realize that Partition is imminent, but the predictability doesn’t detract a bit from the story’s effectiveness or emotional resonance.

Indeed, the only real mystery of the episode is what what the hell a pair of alien assassins could possibly have to do with anything. Fortunately, the answer turns out to be ‘nothing actually’; they’re a bit of a red herring. They are not the cause of the impending violence, but rather, like the Doctor, like her companions, and indeed like the audience, they are merely there to bear witness.

The Good

With Chibnall out of the hot seat, the dialogue in this episode flows so much more smoothly. There is one scene of exposition in which the audience is essentially told what the aliens’ deal is, but even this feels so much more natural than other exposition dumps from this season. Vinay Patel’s script builds investment in the characters and conflict instantly, and even manages to develop an appropriate aura of mystery around the Thijarian assassins…and then manages to avoid it feeling like a disappointment when they turn out to not be up to very much at all.

There’s a tragic element to this episode that really makes it work. Not only is it a tale of neighbours turning against neighbours, brother inflicting violence against brother, but the violence of the Second World War looms ominously in the background, and a sense of inevitable violence infuses the whole piece. The Doctor is left helpless in the face of historical inevitability. And yet, the heart of the story is about love that transcends boundaries of race, religion, nationality. The journey to the past was not in vain; it has given Yasmin a better sense of where she comes from, and revealed to her that her grandmother has lived a much richer life than she’d realized, and endured pain that she still is unable to speak of. It’s a story, ultimately, about family, and it absolutely sings…especially in comparison to the dull monotone that has typified this season.

The Bad

These are more nitpicks than significant criticisms, but I still feel they’re important to point out.

Somehow, even in this episode that is entirely about her family history, Yas is still getting a bit lost. There’s a big chunk in the middle that she barely appears in! I really think they should have sent Ryan and Graham to the bleachers for this one.

The plot of this episode does not involve the Doctor or her companions actually doing anything; they’re there purely as witnesses to the story, despite a big alien red herring that gives them something to do. This is not actually a problem in this episode; indeed, I think it’s totally appropriate that they are there to serve at witnesses, and it dovetails nicely with the Thijarians’ thing. However, there’s been an awful lot of episodes this series where the Doctor doesn’t actually have a problem to solve, and none of them play it off as well as this one does. In isolation it’s fine, even good, but as part of a trend it’s frustrating.

Finally, I would like to have seen more acknowledgement within the episode of the role of the British colonial government in both enacting the partition and in helping to create the conditions on the ground that necessitated it. It’s a very complicated period of history and it’s not quite as simple as just ‘British Empire bad’, but…British Empire kinda bad, you guys. Whether it’s the definitive cause or not, it’s hard to imagine Partition and its associated violence playing out the way it did without more than a hundred years of British ‘divide and rule’ policies. The only reference to British colonial power in Demons of the Punjab is a cheeky reference to Lord Mountbatten, and this feels like a fairly glaring omission in a BBC production.

The Ugly

Actually, this episode mostly looked pretty good! The only exception was the scene in the TARDIS at the very beginning of the episode, which was shot in severe closeup that makes the space feel claustrophobic. I’ve noticed that there have only been a few scenes in the TARDIS since the new interior was revealed, and they’ve almost all been shot this way. I wonder, is it expensive to film in that set or something? Is there some technical reason why they can’t pull the camera out a little? Because otherwise I’m baffled by this choice.

1 thought on “It Finally Happened

  1. In defense of Kerblam!

    I find that I’m in the minority of people who completely love Kerblam!. I love slippery stories that stay away from clear morals or straight parallels, and I was delighted that the utterly predictable ending I was expecting never came (corporate is bad, AI is bad, crash the system but provide no solution for new, better social infrastructure and instead fly away! We only checked one of those boxes).
    I don’t feel that the ending undermines the social commentary: on the surface yes, the two corporate employees weren’t to blame, the angry radical in a low paying job did crazy things, but I found the actual ending deeply unsettling. He wasn’t wrong in his anger (though obviously trying to kill a ton of innocent people isn’t a moral tactic). Even worse was the surface level optimism of the ending. The employees get a short period of leave that feels generous to them but makes us shake our heads, and two corporate people with good intentions commit to change, but for what? They’re going to fail. Reform is tough enough under a functioning system, and this one is dysfunctional.

    Why? The systematic problems that were not solved by uncovering one radical leftist, not by two corporate people naively pledging to change the company. The automation is still there. The fact that there are laws in place that find it acceptable that only 10% of a company’s workforce is human and clearly doesn’t have the social infrastructure to support those who are unemployed (judging by how grateful to have a job and how desperate the employees were) shows a systemic failure. Reform is tricky enough in a functioning system, but in one that implies clear corporate corruption and possible monopolization? That is incredibly difficult to bring down.

    The AI, in a completely unforeseen turn of events, was a victim. However, given the degree of control, independence, and intelligence it possessed, alongside the accompanying society’s dependence on it, makes it still entirely plausible that the system turns on humans in the future. It’s at already survived one hijiaking and assasination attempt, so how long will it be before things just sour in its relationship with humans?

    (Personally I would LOVE to revisit the Kerblam system, and continue with the ramifications of what happened, similar to what happened with 9 and the Daleks/the transmitter place thing, 10 and the Ood, as well as 10 and his arrogant knockdown of Harriet Jones and the next golden age, opening up room for the Master to take over, though I’d like to go deeper. The automation could take things to the next level, or perhaps it could skip the “evil AI” trope and instead get hijacked again, but this time by something intelligent and malevolent that sees humans as a pollution, or else alternatively who had some personal motive to take over, or else there could be another societal collapse when lower corporate management inevitably fails to reform and we could see things from a rebel perspective.)

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