Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 6 – Demons of the Punjab

“India’s a home to all of us. We didn’t change when a line was drawn.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Demons of the Punjab was another very strong historical episode, after Rosa had already showed us that this new Doctor Who can take on more than just schoolboy moments of British history. The partition of India is a powerful topic to take on, the year after its 70th anniversary; it was a tragic event that still reverberates today, but doesn’t get nearly enough coverage in Western drama.

Wisely, Vinay Patel’s script didn’t try to take on all the complex circumstances surrounding the partition, but boiled it down to a microcosm – two neighbouring families, one Hindu, one Muslim, about to be separated by the newly imposed border that split the Punjab down the middle. With the added complication of an impending marriage between them. Well, star-crossed lovers is a tried and tested theme for exploring unity amid division, and several centuries after Romeo and Juliet, it still works.

After all my earlier griping about Yaz’s lack of development, this ep followed on from Arachnids in the UK to showcase her family and put her front and centre. While her mum Najia got less screentime here, we were introduced to her Nani, Umbreen (an affecting portrayal from Leena Dhingra), who was the driver of the plot.

Said plot was never really about the titular ‘demons’, the Thijarians; though you could read the title to refer to the real ‘demons’ driving partition, the fanatics, the nationalists, and of course the British. But the aliens here were almost a red herring, and I wondered more than once if the ep might have worked better with no sci fi elements at all.

But however brave the show’s new direction might be, it hasn’t done a “pure historical” story since 1982’s Black Orchid. And the nicely realised Thijarians once again demonstrated this new Doctor’s fallibility, the week after she had conceded her actions were putting the Tsuranga patients in danger. Here, she worked on the, as it turned out, outdated assumption that the Thijarians were assassins, when they turned out to be nothing of the sort.

It did lead to what felt like a rather unbalanced narrative that this revelation came just over halfway through, and the aliens were largely forgotten after that. But then the story was never really about them, and where it truly shone was in the characterisation. Prem, Manish, younger Umbreen – all felt real, and sympathetic. The twist that the real division wasn’t between Hindu and Muslim, but between two Hindu brothers who’d grown apart, was heartbreakingly realised, with some beautiful visual moments from director Jamie Childs.

It was also very nicely played, with some heartfelt performances from Shane Zaza as Prem and Hamza Jeetooa as Manish. You could see the conflict in Manish, as tears welled up in his eyes even as he acceded to the killing of his brother. That one moment, more than anything else here, encapsulated the tragedy of the partition on a real, personal level.

It wasn’t a fast-moving episode, I’ll concede that, but the slower pace gave room for some terrific character-based scenes that fleshed out all these people, and gave some terrific dialogue. Prem’s passionate speech just before his wedding could have been didactic and moralising, but the conviction in Shane Zaza’s performance made it work brilliantly.

And the regulars got some great scenes too. Yes, Ryan was rather sidelined this week (I think this will always be a problem with so many companions), but Graham got that terrific scene with a contemplative Yaz where he explained his philosophy of enjoying the wonder of the moment you’re in rather than worrying about the future. Bradley Walsh was excellent again this week, both here and in his scenes with Prem. I don’t know how much of a fan Vinay Patel is, but this whole scene felt reminiscent of the Second Doctor’s contemplative scene with Victoria in Tomb of the Cybermen.

The Doctor herself got that terrific speech as she officiated at the wedding, and it’s really starting to feel as though Jodie Whittaker is making the part her own. Less Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi this week, she was her own Doctor; and that speech, with its eloquent restatement of the character’s core principles, was a truly affecting moment.

As with Rosa, the underlying tragic subplot of this historical story was the regulars’ foreknowledge. This time, they knew what was coming, and it couldn’t be changed however heartbreaking that was. To save Prem would rewrite Yaz’s history so she would never exist – kudos to Mandip Gill for showing that conflict in her performance. It paid off well in that uplifting final scene with her Nani in Sheffield (“it’s not as exotic as I thought it would be”).

While I’ve felt that the more sci fi episodes of this season have been slim at best, with Rosa and now Demons of the Punjab, the historical stories have been excellent. The expensive look and foreign locations help – this was, I gather, shot in Spain, but convinced as India thanks to some cinematic direction from Jamie Childs. I have heard a couple of objections from people that the actors could have tried harder to pull off actual Punjabi accents, but to be fair the script was actually in English, and even pointed out that, from Prem’s perspective and thanks to the TARDIS telepathic circuits, everyone was speaking Punjabi anyway. For me at least, it didn’t detract from the quality here.

The script may have been a little unbalanced in its weaving of the historical elements with the alien subplot, but this was a heartfelt, emotional episode that was genuinely affecting. And again, a terrific score from Segun Akinola, laced with Indian instrumentation throughout, and climaxing with that marvellous Indian style version of the closing theme. More like this, please.

One thought on “Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 6 – Demons of the Punjab”

  1. One unanswered question is whether Umbreen recognised Yaz, growing up, as the same young woman she had met at the time of her marriage to Prem. Aside from this perhaps explaining why Yaz was her favourite, it also poses the possibility that if Umbreen recognised that she and Yaz had an out-of-sequence encounter with each other, then she would have to keep her secrets so as not to disrupt Yaz’s personal history. If so, this is a highly commendable display of deductive intelligence on Umbreen’s part as she managed to work out on instinct basic rules of time travel that the Doctor normally has to exasperatedly explain to companions. Hopefully Umbreen will get to be reunited with the Doctor – I think the two would have a lot to discuss!

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