Doctor Who: 11-06 “Demons of the Punjab” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Doctor Who post-2005 has had a…peculiar, if understandable, approach to historical settings. The revival of the show has opted for a Victorian England locale for a handy number of trips, presumably for budgetary reasons, whether that’s Dickens versus ghosts, or Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman versus killer snowmen. Stretching back to the very dawn of Who, there were Aztecs and cavemen, and post-viewing of Rosa, it got me thinking- sensitivity will naturally be a factor in terms of where the TARDIS takes us in real history, so where could we go that could bring us a relevant parallel of the past to the present and is a time or place we don’t see in the show, often or at all? Series 11’s sixth episode, Demons of the Punjab, certainly seemed like it’d fit, not least with the promise of more focus on Mandip Gill’s Yaz and her family past (at last!)
Written by BAFTA-nominated (for Murdered by My Father) writer Vinay Patel and the first story of this series since The Woman Who Fell to Earth directed by Jamie Childs, Demons of the Punjab launches off from one of the key questions I’m sure we’ve all thought about time travel- if you got the chance to dive into your family history, or discover a possible family secret, wouldn’t you jump at that opportunity? When Yaz is gifted a special broken watch by her nani Umbreen, she pleads The Doctor to take her back down her family’s timeline to discover the real story behind it, with Team TARDIS finding themselves in India, 1947. Problem is, the man that young Umbreen’s marrying is definitely not Yaz’s grandad. If that wasn’t bad enough, it’s Partition day, and one country is about to become two.
Giving us the chance to watch a story based in an event such as Partition is a superb choice, not least due to the fact that the consequences and tales still being told about it are felt to this day, with the real events not happening too long ago at all like Rosa. Allowed to grow and breathe in the splendor of location filming in Granada, Spain, Demons of the Punjab does the best it can to tell a story worthy of such a momentous but horrifying event. There was no possible way that a Doctor Who episode could ever capture the scope and terror of Partition not least visually but tonally also, so the decision to zero in on two families being torn apart with rumblings of the full picture in the background works as an analogue to the events. Filming in such an expansive, different location sells the flavor of the setting, with beautiful vistas contrasting with the deep heartbreak at the centre of the story.
Every aspect of Demons of the Punjab works to immerse you in the culture- we even get a special Hindi version of the theme at the end!- from the kindly but sadly soon departed holy man to the traditional wedding preparations and ceremony. Yaz’s family fit ideally as the characters from the time we experience the reality of Partition through. Her nani Umbreen is terrific, both in old and young form (the dry humour of her “first woman married in Pakistan being bought shop bought cake” bit is top notch). Amita Suman’s young Umbreen is assured in her love of soon-to-be sadly not husband Prem (Shane Zaza). Despite her being Hindi and Prem being Muslim, she is fierce in her belief that Partition will change nothing that matters, especially not their true love.
As the eventual outcome of the story becomes more inevitable, sadness creeps is as we watch their relationship play out, as it does for the warring brothers of Prem and younger sibling Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) who act as another direct parallel to Partition, with Prem resolute in wanting peace while Manish has been corrupted by listening to radio propaganda with Prem away fighting in the war. The modern radicalization parallel is laid bare, and their conflict is fascinating. Prem is on edge about the coming events, yet remains hopeful, but Manish is fully taken by the sweeping tide of war.
It’s certainly some chain of events for poor Yaz to find herself wound up in. While she gets to experience some fun moments such as traditional wedding prep, she’s put through the emotional ringer. Her initial excitement at meeting Umbreen is replaced with the quick realization that something is wrong, and Demons of the Punjab proceeds to give Yaz a real trial to endure. She knows something is off, but the promise to not interfere hinders her, and she begins to question the nani she thought she knew amongst protestations that the gang has to do something.
While we rather annoyingly still haven’t been revealed much substantial about Yaz’s true character, hopes and fears (where’s PC Yazmin Khan got to!) Mandip Gill still gets the best material she’s had so far, with Yaz put through plenty of turmoil, and she is allowed to reflect on that and her place in family history, not least if she potentially wiped herself from the timeline. Yaz and Bradley Walsh’s Graham (who knocks it out of the park, again) finally get to interact properly in a relationship I want to see more of, Graham’s pure happiness at simply being out there travelling and imparting life advice to Yaz being a moment of loveliness amongst the danger.
Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen gets to indulge in more classic Who tropes to further root her in the role (“it’s this time, this place!”) as does the show itself (translation circuits!). The Doctor here is authoritative but understanding, and while a more passive hero at times out of necessity is once more still one of intense compassion. Jodie gets a wonderful quiet moment of sadness in the barn, but still plays on Thirteen’s dorkiness with her lying to cover up latent worry (what a line) and her love of biscuits returning. Thirteen and Yaz get to sparkle together more, the scene of the two prepping for the wedding when The Doctor lets slip she used to be a man being *exactly* how references to her female appearing form should be. You and your jokes, Doctor!
As a story Demons of the Punjab has echoes of Father’s Day back in Series 1, setting out its stall of “no interfering” from the beginning despite the heavy temptation to want to tamper and make history “right”, in this case to stop nani Umbreen marrying the “wrong” man. Like Rosa earlier this series, we have another one where the villainy comes from people, the monsters being perfunctory. While an effective creation with their freaky teleporting, insectoid former assassins the Thijarians have become a peaceful race, and perform a similar role to Testimony from Jodie’s first appearance, watching over the dead and caring for their memory (if you add in Missy/the Nethersphere at one point, the afterlife is seemingly a rather busy place in the Whoniverse!).
Their mission change is surprisingly wholesome, fitting with the “most incredible change” capability speech from The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Despite the Doc getting a traditional “Doctor’s theme swells while telling them how she’s going to stop them” moment, these are “aliens with compassion”, as Graham says. Perhaps we could learn from them? Like Rosa fitted the vibe of the cultural conscious during Black History Month, Demons of the Punjab airing on Armistice Day is no accident, with themes of “learning nothing in the war”, and differences that cannot be more important than what unites us despite hatred coming from all sides.
At the end of it all, all we have is each other, and hatred tears us apart, whether marriage, brothers or countries. For the second historical in a row, we have a final act that lands with supreme emotion, as The Doctor and friends stay back, letting history play out, as it must. Nobody is affected more by this than Yaz, as she and the gang watch events transpire, brother murdering brother in cold blood to be the first death of millions.
There will be those who are feeling uncomfortable with a passive Doctor and crew, but for stories like this the power is evident. Events would’ve largely played out here if they’d never even turned up. Interference would have been wrong. Watching a powerless Doctor walk away, recoiling from the tragically filmed gunshot (the flare of the sun as the trigger pulls…) as she walks ahead of a lost looking, wet eyed Yaz. The transition from the Thijarian “hall of faces” to the TARDIS, capping off a moving moment. Yaz trying to make sense of her nani, this woman who holds these secrets and has been on such an incredible journey. It’s pitch-perfect. Maybe it’s best that some secrets are kept for another time? All that matters is that Yaz loves her nani anyway.
Demons of the Punjab joins Rosa as a highlight of Series 11, and like that story manages to handle a sensitive topic with great maturity and relevance for modern times, with a similar warning that the past should never be forgotten. I love that Doctor Who seems to be genuinely engaging with history in these stories, rather than a small whistle-stop tour or lightly touched on as often has been the case prior. It seems historicals really play to this series’ strengths, blending thoroughly interesting characters with a setting that’s given real life to it. There have been criticisms that this series has taken the educational element a bit too literally at times, so this is the ideal level to pique interest for younger- and older- viewers to a seismic moment in history. Demons of the Punjab is told with real passion, and is doubly as moving for that. A proper return to form for Team TARDIS.