A Country Split By History
♦ Tripwire’s contributing writer and Brit in Los Angeles, Robert Cave, takes a look at the sixth episode of the new Doctor Who season…
Episode 6 Demons of the Punjab
Director: Jamie Childs
Writer: Vinay Patel
Stars: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
When Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, perhaps the most surprising episode of its first season was Father’s Day, in which companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) convinces the Doctor to take her back to 1987 to witness a key moment from her own family history, her father’s death in a car accident. It was a bold departure from the kinds of straight-up adventure yarns that had epitomised the show’s classic era, but it brilliantly delivered something the old series had largely lacked: time travel as a means to explore a character’s personal history and relationships.
Demons of the Punjab is a tale that is very much in this same vein. It sees Yas (Mandip Gill) asking the Doctor to take her back to see her Nani Umbreen, (played in old age by Leena Dhingra and in youth by Amita Suman) “when she were young.” Like Father’s Day, it is less of an adventure and more a meditation on loss and pain that takes its plot and central theme from its setting: the 1947 Partition of India that saw the subcontinent carved in two along ethnic and religious lines.
There are aliens of course, because this is Doctor Who, and aliens are an essential element of the modern show. But despite their history of serving as assassins in the past, the Fujairans are not the monsters here. They are merely witnesses to the massive, senseless, loss of life that Partition brought about. I really liked the Fujairans. I liked that they were ultimately bystanders rather than antagonists and their involvement. They might have dressed a little too much like the Shinigami from the manga/Netflix series Death Note, but their telepathic communication and teleportation effects gave them a distinctive look and feel that fitted the episode well. The moment when they effectively stole the Doctor worked well and and made me, for a moment, wish we got to see what the TARDIS crew did in the hours in which she was apparently gone.
Demons of the Punjab is not a tale of historical facts and figures: outside of Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India, none of the political movers and shakers even get a mention. Instead, writer Vinay Patel focuses on the emotional truth of the event, crafting a tale that is more of a parable; an allegory of an interfaith marriage cut tragically short just as one country is cleaved needlessly in two.
The whole story unfolds in the manner of a dream. We don’t see the growing unrest, but hear snatches of reports of it via radio broadcasts. Key moments, such as Yas actually asking the Doctor to take her to see her Nani’s youth, are implied rather than shown. The final fatal shot that kills Prem (Shane Zaza), Umbreen’s previously unknown first husband, comes from an unnamed man, a fellow soldier from Prem’s days in the British Army, radicalised by the angry divisive words he has heard on the radio.
Some will, no doubt, take exception to an episode that deals so overtly with the dangers of narrow nationalism and the tragedy of imposing artificial borders on people, but these are themes that are all too relevant to our times.
One of the other things I loved about this episode was the Doctor hanging out with the girls the night before the wedding and how authentically awkward she seems, an alien still not quite fitting in among her human friends after all these years.
I also liked the fact that this was a story about another grandmother. Neither, Ryan (Tosin Cole) or Graham (Bradley Walsh) mention Grace, the grandmother and wife who was so central to their lives before her death in the season opener, but her presence lurks silently throughout. It strikes me that there is a tight character arc at work here focusing on family, which I hope will end with Ryan coming to peace with his father and Graham coming to terms with his grief. Quite where Yas’s character is heading though, I have no clue.
Lastly, it was great to see another episode filmed largely on location outside the UK. OK, so Spain, where this week’s story was filmed, isn’t quite the same as Pakistan or India, but it really helps sell the show as something both truly international. Not every alien landscape should look like some part of Britain. Doctor Who is now a global brand, and its production should take every opportunity to reflect that!
Now roll on next week’s episode!