Demons of the Punjab

One of the best episodes from 13’s era of Doctor Who is, in my opinion, the era defining series 11 episode Demons of the Punjab. This historical episode sees the doctor, Graham, Ryan and Yaz travel back into Yaz’s family history to investigate Umbreen’s (Yaz’s Grandma) past after she gave Yaz a broken watch as a gift without much explanation.

This isn’t the first story where the doctor has reluctantly indulged a companion by travelling back into their personal history. They did the same way back with Rose in Father’s Day from series 1. Understandably the doctor is hesitant as they are scared about Yaz accidentally doing something in the past to make herself not exist, classic grandfather paradox time travel story. However, they can see how much Yaz wants to know and I think they’re curious themselves, even if they initially seem to only agree to shut up Yaz. Something that’s incredibly evident in s11 is the softness 13 has with all her companions. This makes the way she treats Yaz in flux feel even more harsh, poor Yaz.

The two things I think that this doctor, in series 11, is defined by are hope and a kind of childish curiosity/joy. You can track each doctor's motives by how they introduce themselves by name. So, the 13th doctor’s ark is [gleefulhope] to [questioning] to [unhinged threat] and at this point in the story she is still very much the doctor of hope. (This isn’t a concept I noticed btw just a fun thing many fans of the show have been pointing out for years).

So the episode starts and our Tardis team travel back to India 1947, partition. A particularly horrific part of history which is not normally discussed when we talk about historic events. In many ways partition is purposefully forgotten/omitted like the witch trials or segregation. Partition happened when the British drew a line through the country of India splitting it into the two countries of India and Pakistan, separating the people along with the land. As the doctor says in the episode, millions were displaced, a million died. I do like the aspects of history chosen. It’s refreshingly nice to see how global the Chibnall era has been in general.

I’m a big fan of how this episode approaches the topic by focusing on a small fictional family living with the consequences of partition. One character describes the British as “men without a clue” and it’s clear they hold resentment for those in power and their decisions. This along with a few other lines and attitudes of other characters are clear in demonstrating that it was the fault of the British that so many people died. I know this is the absolute minimum for a historical episode, demonstrating the truth of the situation, but Doctor Who doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to discussions of empire and the horrors. In fact, the BBC in general has an awful track record with this. So thank goodness that Vinay Patel was writing, both of his episodes from this era are genuinely really great. I hope he gets brought back as a writer in RTD2.

On the topic of Doctor who misrepresenting the British Empire, previous show runner Steven Moffatt’s era was particularly bad for this. His era had a real tendency to paint historical British figures in a particularly patriotic light. For example, Winston Churchill was portrayed as a wonderful friend of the doctor who wanted the Tardis keys to “save so many lives” when he was responsible for the deaths of at least 3 million Indian people in 1943. The character the Doctor meets in the episode “Victory of the Daleks” is a fictionalised version of the man created to teach viewers history from a very white point of view. It reads as propaganda to anyone who knows about some of the atrocities the man was responsible for. Churchill stated that it was okay for so many people to die because Indians “breed like rabbits” which I’m sure I don’t need to explain just how awful that is. Umbreen even mentions the horrors of the famine in Demons which she, of course, lived through.

Moffatt’s aforementioned episode, “Victory of the Daleks”, is one of my least favourite episodes of doctor who ever shown.

Although it’s only briefly mentioned in Demons which is far more focused on Partition and interpersonal relationships, you can see how this episode is far more aware of the historical context of the views and characters it’s presenting while Moffatt was much more focused on telling a British myth. Moffatt’s portrayal of 1940s Britain comes across as nothing short of propaganda.

On the topic of empire, later in the Chibnall era of the show there’s so many anti-imperialist themes and discussions of colonialism which is very refreshing to see after the British propaganda that was everywhere in the Moffatt (and rtd) eras.

In tooth and claw for example Queen Victoria is described by the doctor as being the “Empress of India” as if this is a wonderful title for her to hold when in reality she was of course a coloniser, Invader and perpetrator of horrendous imperialism. There’s an unavoidable predatory whiteness to the way British history is presented in past eras of Doctor Who. Perhaps I will write essays on the other Chibnall era episodes and their approaches some other time.

Demons of the Punjab has a lot going for it, there’s the tragedy of the horrors of empire, a story about familial relationship and radicalisation as well as the story with the aliens of this episode, the thejarians, running parallel to these very real tales. Oh yeah! I haven’t actually mentioned the alien’s in this episode, y’know, the sci-fi mystery in the sci-fi mystery story.

The doctor wrongly assumes that the aliens she encounters are assassins sent to kill Prem. It is later revealed that the thijarians are there to witness and honour those who died and were forgotten by history and are not assassins at all. I do enjoy the turnaround from presuming that they are the villains to later showing how the doctor had pre-existing biases. It’s a fun moment and thematically works with all the other discrimination themes presented by the episode. There are a few odd writing choices here:

“We will stand over your corpses” and by odd I mean, what were they thinking by having the aliens say that line? I’m not sure what the writers were thinking with this other than that they wanted to show the thijarians as being threating before the twist. Surely there could have been another way to make them seem threatening. This one line is my only issue with this episode.

The fake villain who turns out to be good troupe was covered recently with a very similar concept in the last season of Moffatt’s run (s10) with Testimony in Twice Upon a Time. [“it’s not an evil plan, I don’t know what to do when it’s not an evil plan”] Testimony is a memory bank that contains the memories and images of those who have died before such as the 12th doctor’s companions Bill, Nardole and Clara.

Although, as I mentioned, both are fake out villains who have some connection to the dead. I would argue both have very different thematic purposes.

The thijarians from s11 tie into one of the overarching theme of that season; “who gets to tell history and which parts get told?” The thijarians and the episode are very explicitly a commentary on this. By having them honour those forgotten by history, specifically the British empire’s atrocities, they serve a purpose narratively very similar to the purpose the episode serves in the real world. The thejarians are here to acknowledge the past and stand witness to it, like we as an audience should.

On the other hand Testimony existed to allow the 12th doctor to work through his own personal grief over those he had lost. The episode also has a very different thematic focus even including a random British soldier in there for, uhhh, British reasons. I know this is unrelated but funnily enough this soldier is portrayed by Mark Gaitis who is the doctor who writer responsible for lots of the British empire propaganda including the awful episode about Churchill mentioned earlier.

Another of the highlights of Demons is the supporting cast of characters. The writing is great and that’s really backed up by the performances. Manish, Prem and Umbreen are probably the three standouts. Especially Prem and Umbreen. You see, unknown to Yaz the reason why Umbreen gave her the broken watch was that she had a secret husband before Yaz’s grandad who was Hindu (something unheard of especially in the Punjab during partition where things were tense). You see, the watch was Prem’s watch, broken at time of partition. Prem is one of the absolute standout performances of the episode. His empathy and insistence on caring for those around him despite everything leads to some great emotional moments.

The watch being a symbol for things unspoken by Umbreen, the trauma she holds and does not tell Yaz about as well as Prem and Umbreen’s love being doomed by inevitable events beyond their control. It is especially interesting to go back and watch Demons taking a note of these themes given the later events/storylines in this era: 13 and the fob watch and Yaz and 13s romance. Although given recent interviews it’s safe to assume that this was not initially the planned ark for this era every later call back to it feels particularly emotionally resonant. Thematically this episode really did define some of the best parts of this era on a lot of levels.

There’s kind of two interlinked plots running parallel, there’s the sci-fi story of the Doctor trying to figure out who these aliens are and what they could possibly be doing in the Punjab as well as the inner family conflict leading to Mannish reporting his brother to extremists for marrying a Muslim resulting in Prem’s death.

Manish and Prem’s relationship in the story is particularly interesting, in my opinion, as a tale of radicalisation. Manish claims he has no issues with Muslims just that he does not want them in his country. These divisions between the people are partly imposed by the British and partly due to radicalisation within communities (which was greatly exacerbated by partition). In the words of prem “hatreds coming from all sides”. Umbreen points out how it is the British’s fault that these divisions and fights over land have reached this point. The point is that these sorts of imposed divisions cause people to turn on one another and not those in power responsible for their injustice. It’s something that can be witnessed in every group facing injustice ever. To mention a particularly British analogy, some LGB people turn on trans people instead of recognising the power structures in place and how the people at the top are actually the ones responsible for their issues. Those with power will try to turn people against each other to avoid facing backlash for their crimes, it’s a particularly cruel method of control. This is another theme that later gets touched upon again within series 12. In the episode “can you hear me” they use false gods to explore this idea again. These false gods took over two planets and pitted them against each other causing wars and death on a great scale. It was only when the people realised that it was their ‘gods’ who were the source of their problems that they were able to band together to defeat those who were responsible for their suffering.

Manish eventually calls upon the extremists to make his brother Prem ‘face justice’ for his marriage leading to Prem’s death. There’s a lot to be said about the way the Chibnall era approaches radicalisation and extremists as a theme with each episode seemingly coming to their own, and often contradictory, conclusions on the topic. Kerblam, I will tackle you later! On the whole however the show is very good at approaching this topic. Kerblam is definitely the outlier.

Outside of the historical context and politics of the story, Demons has some beautiful character moments like the speech the doctor does when she marries Umbreen and Prem. Possibly my favourite speech made by the 13th doctor. I think the impending tragedy makes it more poignant. The doctor’s religion? Love. A really great and defining doctor moment.

I also really enjoy Graham’s characterisation in this story, telling Prem all we can do is ‘try to be good men’ through tears. It has that same weight to it, the same tragedy.

This episode is also beautiful aesthetically, the cinematography is gorgeous, the soundtrack is beautiful weaving together the subtle motifs of s11 with traditional instrumentation and vocal music, I love it! So many great moments with the doctor like when she asks for a biscuit and a chicken poo, the used to be a man moment and her fear of losing yaz.

There’s a ton of foreshadowing moments, some I mentioned earlier with the memories and watch, the doomed love and themes of imperialism/colonialism but individual lines as well. Graham telling yaz that no one knows the truth of their own life and that she should live for now it’s just a nice acknowledgement of the hidden generational trauma in Yaz’s family's past but also, it’s about enjoying what you have while you have it, a theme which is later called back to in the most recent episode of doctor who, Legend of the sea devils. Even the final moments of this episode get somewhat paralleled later in the Vanquishers.

One of the best historical episodes of doctor who and one whose implications thematically have been felt within the show for the past few years. There are some clunky lines in there, namely the thejarians are totally-not-evil-moment and Yaz’s insistence on Prem and Umbreen not getting married. I think it does what it sets out to do very well. Thematically it’s very relevant to British television and society with great side characters and acting. As an overall experience it is some of the best tv I’ve enjoyed in the past few years and really deserves all the praise it’s given. I do think it also stands well on its own as an episode exploring an often-forgotten part of history. I apricate the smaller cast and the alien threat is interestingly subverted in a way that is thematically interesting.