Doctor Who #1001: Demons of the Punjab

"Tread softly, you're treading on your own history."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Nov.11 2018.

IN THIS ONE... Yaz investigates the mysteries surrounding her grandmother's life during the India-Pakistan Partition.

REVIEW: If nothing else, Chris Chibnall is giving us diversity voices this series, first with Malorie Blackman, and now with Vinay Patel, who has managed to write the best episode yet this year. Hate to say it, but I'm happy Chibnall is done with his initial series building and is letting, for the next few episodes, other people get their hands on the characters. A script as good as Demons of the Punjab kind of exposes his weaknesses as a Doctor Who writer. The big difference is that the Doctor isn't an exposition machine, even though we're dealing with historical events again, and the episode does a good job of explaining where and when we are, who the participants are, and what's at stake. Demons offered nothing that felt like a blackboard moment the way the past the past five episodes did. I loved the more subtle approach, and hey! Yaz and Graham even got a scene together! Chibnall was never interested in that!

In an effort to give Yaz a proper story, the team goes to 1947 India, the day before Partition, i.e. when the country is split into pieces, its Muslim population meant to go to the newly-created Pakistan. I don't know if the Brits are better versed in this piece of history, but I knew virtually nothing about it. On that basis alone, it's interesting and "educational". Some parts of the Punjab do look like the Spanish locations used, but the border region is much flatter, but the music adds a lot to our sense of place. Extra points for rearranging the Doctor Who theme in that style, wow. Unlike Rosa's similar "prevent history from being interfered with", the stakes here are personal. Yaz has been told a story by her grandmother, one that comes with a mystery she want's to solve. When the facts don't seem to fit the story, there's reason to be concerned, especially when aliens show up. The episode has things in common with Father's Day, but I only mention it so we can compare the two Doctors from those episodes. When his companion got involved in her own family history, he called her a stupid ape. But though Doc13 somewhat regrets putting Yaz's timeline at risk, her remonstrations are for herself, for being "too nice" (a request from Doc12, if you will). And she herself gets intimately involved in the situation, but then, Time has changed since the old days (see Theories). Like Rosa, this is a story about historical inevitability, and like Rosa, it's also about hope for the future (in this case, a hope manifest in the rich life Yaz's grandmother is known to have had). And that hope lies in our capacity to LEARN from history.

The episode aired on Remembrance Day, and because it wasn't overtly about the WWI Armistice (as some showrunners might have insisted be done), it really snuck up on me. But there it is. Aliens who remember the dead, Prem's memories of WWII, Umbreen's tokens, shots of red poppies... But it's more than that. Here is a story where two peoples come together in a union, a Muslim and a Hindu, love and marriage as a treaty of sorts. The theme of Remembrance Day is "Lest we forget", and having fought side-by-side with Muslims and Hindu alike, Prem is disappointed to see neighbor pit against neighbor, a man from his own regiment part of the mob chasing people into Pakistan, indeed his own radicalized brother committing hate crimes (it is literally brother against brother). Consider also the Thejarians, an ancient race of assassins who, after losing their planet (will we ever know what did it?), turned their death cult to other concerns, but are treated as enemies by the Doctor on reputation alone. People are misidentifying the enemy in both cases. And the demons of the title are those Prem must face alone, not his alien observers. Unfortunately, the world had already forgotten the lesson of the Great War, so Prem fought in another. They've also forgotten the lesson since, because two years after the end of WWII, he loses his life in unnecessary action. His speech about ordinary people losing their minds reminds us that we have ONCE AGAIN forgotten. That we still need to remember that our differences ARE NOT more important than what united us. And yet, hatred still comes at us from all sides.

In addition, the episode is a strong love story. Umbreen's intense desire to marry Prem, after having waited long enough, even if no one seems to be on her side - including History! - is as romantic as her using a Hindu tradition in her wedding (and that it's HER idea). Later, Prem will do something similar, accidentally creating the broken watch that will stand as a unique symbol of their marriage. A captured and all-too brief moment, which also works well as a gift to a time traveler, though Umbreen does not seem to realize the irony when she gives it to Yaz (hey, it's been 70 years). And it gives us the Doctor officiating at the wedding, with a beautiful speech about love and hope, which she calls her faith (see The Curse of Fenric for more of that).

Doc13 is great there, and throughout, making me genuinely laugh out loud for the first time with her "jokes" about gender regeneration, being the "builder Doctor" of the first episode with her Gallifrey-style welder's mask, her crazy shopping list for her makeshift lab, begrudgingly accepting help from Prem (just the way it plays on her face), and respecting the wishes of her team when she is outvoted at every turn. And though Yaz gets the most to do, and is touching in her own right, Graham is once again MVP. Just when you think he's going to spend the episode making snarky remarks and provide necessary humor, he's the one who thinks of last rites for the holy man (aside: my single complaint about the episode is that there shouldn't be this much mystery surrounding his death if he was simply shot), carries Grace's message with him, and tears up in front of Prem, the young man he knows is going to die. The man is a treasure.

THEORIES: In Rosa, the villain had to go to great lengths to nudge History his way and yet, it seems Team TARDIS was "always part of events". In Arachnids, we saw a more structured time vortex. Here, time seems even more immutable, despite the Doctor's worries. The team was likely always part of events, and nothing could have saved Prem. This is more evidence of the Time Lords having solidified history and being a great temporal power once again. Even though Yaz interacts with her own timeline, it cannot easily be changed. Again look at Father's Day. No Reapers, no dimensional collapse, and certainly no changes in the final conversation with her Nani. Umbreen does not suddenly remember her or tell a different story the way Jackie did to Rose. Oh, and a quick note about the turtle army mentioned at the top of the show: These are apparently not Chelonians, because another name is given, though these other aliens COULD be working with Chelonians, I suppose. That disappointed me on the one hand, but on the other, no, I still want to see Chelonians in the flesh later, so it's better if there are no references to them mucking it up.

REWATCHABILITY: High - I learned, I laughed, I cried, I was surprised, thoughts were provoked, I applauded... The one to beat this season.


LiamKav said...

Imagine if Graham and Wilf both appeared in an episode together! Imagine how lovely it would be.

Brendoon said...

Aye, Graham and Wilf! I'd like that too.

I still haven't seen the second half of this episode yet... and I never even KNEW India had been broken up in 47. This series is so darn fine!

Anonymous said...

"When his companion got involved in her own family history, he called her a stupid ape."

And he was right to. Rose demonstrated a complete lack of caution, and holy heck how stupid was she to touch her younger self? Stupid stupid ape.

"Unfortunately, the world had already forgotten the lesson of the Great War"

Funny thing about that, because there are conflicting lessons to be learned from the Great War. One is that war is never worth the human cost. But another is that war is a darn great way to change the geopolitical landscape in your favor. The Great War led to the liberation of the Balkan peoples under Austro-Hungarian rule, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the British / French acquisition of the Levant, the end of the monarchy in Russia, and all sorts of little border changes (Poland even got a corridor in the deal).

"it seems Team TARDIS was "always part of events""

Were they, though? Without Team TARDIS, nobody would have seen the "demons", the holy man's murder would have been sorted out much more quickly when they found his body in the woods ("dead from a bullet wound, I bet it was my idiot brother"), and the marriage might well have gone on in much the same fashion.

Anyway, so much good in this episode. The broken watch that must never be repaired was a terrific red herring, as I assumed there was a temporal cage or something tied to the watch. And another misdirect: the "demons" of the Punjab weren't the aliens but rather humans with hatred in their souls.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyable episode, but it was almost perverse how little we found out about Yaz during her family drama. Mandip Gill really is suffering from playing second banana to Jodie.


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