Contains spoilers for the episode
Last month, the episode “Rosa” caught fans out by delivering an unabashed return to the ‘historical’ sub-strand of Doctor Who that had been more or less dormant since the 1960s. The truly surprising thing about Vinay Patel’s “Demons of the Punjab” is that it repeats the same trick just three weeks later, establishing beyond doubt that “Rosa” was no mere one-off quirk but rather a fundamental tenant of new showrunner Chris Chibnall’s vision for the future of the venerable show, despite this being the first time this season that he takes a step back from writing duties.
The destination this week is India in 1947 on the eve of Partition, that typically British pragmatic bureaucratic ‘solution’ to an intractable problem that caused huge upheaval for millions of people and cost a large proportion of them their lives, setting off an onslaught of ethnic cleaning and laying down fault lines in world geopolitics that persist to this day. You have to say this about us Brits: when we put our minds to, we really know how to spectacularly screw things up with a ‘sensible’ solution that makes no sense but causes infinite harm to those on the ground.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Yas, Ryan and Graham (Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole and Bradley Walsh) have travelled back to this point in history as a bit of a genealogical exercise, investigating Yas’ family roots. In particular she’s there to see her elderly grandmother Umbreen (Leena Dhingra) as a young woman (Amita Suman) on the eve of her wedding in Lahore. But when they arrive they find that they’re nowhere near the city and that the groom is not Yas’ grandfather after all, but a young Hindu man named Prem (Shane Zaza) whom Yas has never heard of before. How could her beloved Nani not have told her about any of this?
As a period family drama, this episode has considerable style and appeal. It’s beautifully photographed by director Jamie Childs on location in Aldeire, Spain and looks utterly gorgeous. Throw in a murdered holy man and there’s quite enough intrigue and mystery in the set-up to make for a compelling story as we wait to find out just what must have happened. Pretty soon the events of Partition also kick into gear, and – in an obvious cost-saving measure – there is distant gunfire heard from over the hills, and radio updates intoned in cut-glass BBC news announcer tones as conflict grows closer. In the end, revolution and civil war shows up in the form of four horseman bringing death to the small family farm, all of them unspeaking and faceless when backlit by the glaring sun. (Well, it cuts down the cost of paying speaking extras.)
All of this I liked a good deal more than I had been expecting to from the advance previews and episode synopsis. I know the show has been attacked by being ‘too politically correct’ because it is tackling another big civil rights event of the last century, but this is an important bit of history that needs to be remembered and explained far better than it has been to date. I certainly felt I knew pitifully little about Partition, ironically much less than I do about Rosa Parks, Dr Martin Luther King and what happened in the US Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s, so I was looking forward to finding out more.
My first complaint about “Demons of the Punjab”, then, is that I didn’t learn much that I hadn’t been aware of before. Maybe I was better informed than I had thought? All the same, this seemed a very superficial telling of what happened, almost as though it didn’t want to spook the horses by being too cutting in prime time about the British actions in tearing a country apart into two separate nations along arbitrary borders and in the process dividing families and loved ones without regard for history, culture, tradition or feeling.
So, okay, I’m still glad the subject has been raised. I’m sure there will have been many people watching who know nothing at all about Partition and are now just a little more aware and may go on to find out more. But it also seemed a bit of a lost opportunity, too little to really give viewers a proper feel of what happened unless they were clued up about it already.
Of course, that’s mostly down to the lack of available running time. But here, the limitation of a 50-minute slot is exacerbated by the episode attempting to cram in an alien monster plot on top – presumably in order to satisfy the sci-fi fan boys who wouldn’t sit still for an interfaith domestic drama if there weren’t some ray guns to spice things up every few minutes. And so we get the Thijarian Hive, an effectively-realised prosthetic creation but at the same time an entirely unmemorable one. Established as a sect of fearsome assassins, it soon turns out that – much like last week’s Pting – that’s a rather massive misdirection and they’re not what they initially appear to be at all.
In fact, let’s be entirely honest: they’re not only a red herring, they’re also entirely superfluous to the story and just a way to give the Doctor something to do that looks clever and Doctor-y before we can get back to the grown-up emotional drama. They could easily have been replaced by something significantly simpler and lower-key, such as a camouflaged historian from the future or an alien planet conducting clandestine field research, in much the way that Starfleet set up covert surveillance on primitive worlds in Star Trek.
Instead we get loud, shouty aliens that appear out of nowhere to give us a big scare (very cool teleportation effect though, it has to be admitted) whose backstory ends up being a poor copy of the Testimony project that appeared in last year’s Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time” which introduced Whittaker as the Doctor. It’s all entirely unnecessary and the sub-plot soon peters out once everyone realises it’s a complete waste of time, but in the process it’s distracted from the family drama and taken up space and time that could have been invested into a better representation of Partition.
Finally it all builds up to what should be a devastating conclusion, but there are a few problems here, too. For one thing it’s pretty clear from the set-up exactly where this story is going and the only uncertainty is exactly who will pull the trigger – one of the horsemen, or Prem’s increasingly radicalised younger brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa). The climax plays out with a languid pace that rather robs it of any remaining suspense or tension, especially when there is no last minute twist to justify how protracted it turns out.
And the biggest problem of all is that when all is said and done, the episode leaves the Doctor and her friend with no part to play in what happens other than as witnesses. At least “Rosa” found a clever way of making their presence on the school bus necessary and meaningful, requiring a definite act of will against every fibre of their beings to pull off. But in the climax to “Demons of the Punjab” their only function is to high tail it into the forest and leave a man to die. It seems cruel and cowardly – and since it’s motivated by the need to protect Yas’ timeline, also perversely selfish. No amount of looking stricken can disguise the fact that on this occasion they sacrificed someone in order to protect one of their own.
That’s not to say that the script didn’t set up the inevitability of what’s to come fairly early on, describing Prem as a fixed point in time whose fate cannot be changed (and certainly not rewritten, not one line). In Doctor Who lore, it’s a Time Lord’s ability to tell what can be changed and what must stay forever the same as tampering with it could unravel the very fabric of time itself. But in “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” the show has set out very different views of what this ‘fixed point in time’ is and what is allowed: with “Rosa” the problem was that a time traveller was potentially able to interfere and the consequences for civil rights on Earth and around the universe would be dire. Nonetheless it could be done unless the Doctor did something about it. Yet here, just a few weeks later, the same ‘fixed point’ is taken to mean that the Doctor can do nothing to save an innocent, honourable man from his death – and so she doesn’t try.
It goes back to the basic problem of historicals that I talked about when reviewing “Rosa”: events from our own recorded history have to be maintained at all costs since the show can’t fiddle with what’s in school text books. But for a Time Lord like the Doctor, India in 1947 is no different from the hospital ship Tsuranga in the 67th century; so if it was fine to change the outcome last week and save a bunch of people who would otherwise have died, why is it suddenly forbidden for the Doctor to do anything useful now? Why should one man’s tragically unnoticed death in a field on the border of Pakistan be any different from saving the life of a crane operator in Sheffield in 2018?
Fantasy needs fixed, firm and well-understood rules if its to be believable and credible or else it’s just vague hand-waving ‘magic’. The risk the programme is taking this season is that those rules aren’t there because the consistent logical storytelling underpinning is missing. Last week it was fine for the Doctor to save everyone but that was because it was just a big dumb old bit of disaster adventure ‘fun’; but this week we need an emotional heartbreaking ending so the rules change without mention let alone explanation. And such nitpicking matters, because that flaw directly affects not only the success of “Demons of the Punjab” but also goes to the very heart of the nature of the regular characters and their response to what happens.
Talking of which, it was at last a good, solid episode for the perennially overlooked Yas, who was front and centre for what unfolded. She finally got to express herself and make her mark as a character, and even got a nice bonding moment with Graham after the two had gone weeks having no noticeable interaction at all. The price of this was that Ryan got pretty much squeezed out and would almost have been better off left behind on this particular jaunt; his only notable contribution was to make up the numbers at Prem’s stag night. It begs the question, do all of them really have to be along for every story? Again it seems to suggest that three companions is one too many in the modern show, unlike 1964 when a typical story could run to six or seven 25-minute episodes allowing room for Ian, Barbara and Susan to all get a decent look-in alongside the Doctor.
Even though it was the best showcase yet for Yas and Mandip Gill, it was still somewhat limited by the passive role that all of our travellers had in this story. She could only watch and emote as she interacted with her grandmother and great-grandmother. It then felt a bit of a missed opportunity when she returned to the present and her Nani showed no trace of recognising her as the young woman who attended her wedding all those years ago. It would have made sense of why she gave Yas the broken watch in the first place and then refused to say anything further about it, if it had turned out to be a knowing tactic on her part that proved her to be wiser than anyone had hitherto realised. But no, that chance slipped away as the end credits rolled.
Ahh, but what end credits. Segun Akinola’s music in this week’s episode had already been particularly good, and the ethereal Indian-style rendition of the Doctor Who theme was just stunning – like a good many other aspects of the show. If this review has focused on the negative aspects of a flawed gem of a tale, then I apologise because there were also some excellent facets to it.
Considering the new production team is still feeling its way in reinventing the franchise along very different lines from the Davies and Moffat incarnations – a peaceful Partition itself in a sense, you might say – then it’s obviously going to take time for them to nail things down. And even with its current minor failings, this is a more assured, ambitious and ultimately largely successful piece of television than so much formulaic dross that clutters the schedule. Let’s not take it for granted.
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sunday evenings at 6.30pm, and is afterwards available on BBC iPlayer for viewers in the UK. A home media release on DVD and Blu-ray is expected early in 2019.