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.
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.
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.
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.