Demons of the Punjab review- A welcome return to form

Question- what did we do to deserve this series? Seriously, we were lucky to have one era-defining historical story but to have two? The conspiracy theorist thinks Chibnall made last week deliberately “meh” in order to make us savour something with substance, and something with substance we got. Demons of the Punjab is a wonderful episode that encapsulates everything brilliant about this show and deals with a difficult subject matter with skill and precision. I dare say it’s even better than Rosa, but I’ll need to rewatch it. Rather than stick an alien invasion plot in the middle of a controversial period of history, Vinay Patel takes a complex, multi layered look at war, remembrance and religion.

The greatest strength about this script- and indeed this series- is the characters. The opening of this episode is very subdued and character driven, with Yaz desperate to find out about her grandmother’s past and the establishing scenes in soon to be Pakistan focusing on establishing the history and setting. This is a Hartnell script come to life and unlike last week the adherence to Classic Who worked a wonder as the more subdued character work took the foreground. The Partition of India is not an area I’m too familiar with but I’m very interested in it now and found the information here great such as the fact the line dividing India and Pakistan caused former friends and families to turn on each other. It was a fantastic choice to focus the effects of the Partition on an ordinary farm instead of the larger politics and I love how the Doctor upholds her “no interference” policy and tries to stay out of trouble. Like Rosa this episode pulled no punches in exploring the darker aspects of the history- the religious divides create conflict between the characters and fuels the narrative. For the first time since the 60’s, history feels dangerous. The main grounds of division is the division between Manish and Prem, with Manish believing Muslims should go to their new country believing that his brother died for the Hindu people whilst Prem believes that the war was fought for equality amongst all religions and people. Both sides are painted sympathetically and despite Manish being the villain you still understand where he’s coming from. His brother dies for a foreign country and gets promised a new, independent land for his people only to have that taken away. You may not agree with his views but they are well explored in the episode. It’s also worth noting that he wins.

This week’s focus was a much needed one on Yaz, so far the least developed of the companions. This episode really fleshed her out and I hope other writers remember her story in this episode in order to make other episodes link together. In particular it’ll be interesting how the next historical, The Witch Finders, affects the TARDIS crew. They’ve had to be a part of history, then leave history as is. Following on from last week’s great showing of the Doctor here we get a compassionate, excited and optimistic take on the character and this time the script compliments her. I’ve heard complaints that the Doctor didn’t do anything but since the beginning the show has followed a “non-interference” policy so if history has to take place, the Doctor has to let it happen. As a result of the focus on Yaz Graham and especially Ryan feel a bit superfluous but they both had great moments and I love the scene with Graham and Yaz as well as the hilarious reactions by them to the Doctor’s long list of ingredients. The characters were all wonderfully fleshed out and real. There’s a strong focus on family and how secrets are kept from each other as a means to cope with grief, which compliments Graham’s arc wonderfully despite the fact he isn’t in focus this episode.

This episode once again dealt with a difficult subject matter and once again I was concerned as to how the sci-fi elements would impact the story. The Thijarians were a great monster and design and I was actually really invested in the space assassin plot… until it wasn’t. The revelation that the Thijarians were actually peaceful beings that mourned those who were not remembered was a brilliant twist and superbly executed- I love the moment right after they reveal their true intentions when the Doctor immediately apologises and does their hand symbol as a mark of respect. Once again the subtext of war comes into focus, as the Thijarians choose to tackle their loss through mourning others whilst Manish chooses violence. Despite my issues with Moffat’s use of “we’re not evil” as a trope, here it was handled very well and suitable to the kind of episode this was. It would have been funny if yet another “deadliest creature in the galaxy” was defeated easily (hello Skovox Blitzer) so I really liked this unique take on a Doctor Who monster. There’s a meta level to the Thijarians as well as they arrive in 1947 to mourn the millions lost during the violence caused by the Parition which no one remembers- very much like how basically no one in the UK knows anything about this period of history or the consequences caused by splitting India and Pakistan which are still felt to this day. This episode is obviously very personal to Vinay Patel and I’m glad he told it. Comparisons have been made to Twice Upon a Time but Demons of the Punjab was a million times better. There was actually a story and a villain and rather than William Hartnell’s era being misunderstood it was honoured. The use of war was also done more tastefully as rather than just cramming the Christmas Truce in for no reason this episode addressed its air date through the idea of the Thijarians and what they aim to do by remembering people.

The ending… wow. As the Doctor walks away from history and the Thijarians arrive to mourn Prem I had the realisation that the show was well and truly back. To have an emotionally resonate and powerful period history brilliantly done once was fine, but to do it again arguably even better… this series has been so important and well done. The raw, human emotion that uses science fiction as a device to tell powerful drama returned with a vengeance and it’s brilliant that a new generation of children will know all about the Partition of India thanks to this wonderful episode. Like the original era of the show, the strength of Chibnall’s era seems to be the historical episodes and with two touchy subject matters out of the way I’m more than convinced The Witch Finders will be good.

Anyway, references!

  • An idea for the first season of the show was a Terry Nation story called The Red Fort, set during the British Raj. It was scrapped as the producers wanted more Daleks and to be honest it was probably better for enough time to pass before telling it.
  • “Death Turtles”- Big Finish was very happy at that line.
  • Much like Father’s Day we have a companion want to know more about their families past and similar to that story there’s an emotional throughline in this story.
  • The lost First Doctor story The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Eve is similar in that the Doctor can do nothing to prevent the mass deaths coming up and instead just walk away.
  • I dunno why, but I got a Visitation vibe from the first half- you know, a young blonde Doctor with three companions in the days before a major historical event investigate a mysterious spaceship in the woods.
  • As I’ve mentioned, the plot is similar to Twice Upon a Time, except done much better.

So, that’s two great episodes, three pretty good ones and The Tsuranga Conundrum. What does next week’s, Mccoy-esque bizarre episode hold? All I can say is Kerblam.

One thought on “Demons of the Punjab review- A welcome return to form

  1. I think that this was the best episode of the series so far. Sympathetically written, beautifully photographed and just enough plot twists to let the story unwind at an appropriate pace.

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