We’re past the halfway mark of series 11 of Doctor Who. We’ve had adventures in the present, the future, the past, the present (again), the future (again), and now it’s time for another historical episode. This time, we go back in time to 1947 India where Yaz (Mandip Gill) is seeking some information about some of her grandmother’s secrets.
Epiode 1106: Demons of the Punjab (written by Vinay Patel and directed by Jamie Childs)
India, 1947. The Doctor and her friends arrive in the Punjab, as India is being torn apart. While Yaz attempts to discover her grandmother’s hidden history, the Doctor discovers demons haunting the land. Who are they, and what do they want?
Like Rosa, Demons of the Punjab is one of the strongest episodes of this season of Doctor Who. It features some of the best character development for Yaz that we’ve gotten so far, an interesting (and beautifully filmed) setting, some very well designed aliens, and a well-paced adventure that is equal parts thrilling and emotional. Set on the border between India and Pakistan on the eve of Partition, Demons of the Punjab takes the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan (Tosin Cole), Graham (Bradley Walsh), and Yaz to an event in Yaz’s grandmother’s (Leena Dhingra in the present-day scenes that bookend the episode, Amita Suman in the majority of the episode set in 1947) past: her wedding to Prem (Shane Zaza), a man who isn’t Yaz’s grandfather. The episode, like 2005’s Father’s Day before it, has the Doctor taking her companion to an event in that companion’s family’s history so that they can get a better understanding of where they came from. And like all trips down your own history, Yaz learns some new information about her grandmother. At first, she’s upset that Umbreen had hidden this information from her, but as the episode goes on and Yaz fully understands just what happened, her attitude changes and it brings her closer to her grandmother by the end of the episode. It’s a nice set of emotional beats for Yaz and it absolutely helps to flesh her out as a character. We’re also given our first real, meaningful conversation between Yaz and Graham in this episode and it’s a really sweet moment for both of them. I just really love the journey that Yaz went on in this episode – but more on that shortly.
While much of this episode is devoted to Yaz learning about her grandmother’s past, the bulk of the rest of it is devoted to the Doctor’s attempts to put an end to an alien presence threatening the lives of Umbreen and her family. Like many of the aliens from this season, the Thijarians aren’t the evil menace they’re originally thought to be. The Doctor has heard legends of how they’re these horrible assassins and assumes they’re on Earth to assassinate someone. She ends up only being a quarter correct. The Thijarians were assassins at one point in their history, long ago, but now they’ve taken up mourning those who die alone instead of killing them. The Thijarians are more akin to the Sanctuary (from Twice Upon a Time) than they are to the Stenza (from The Woman Who Fell to Earth). Whereas a lot of the aliens this season have fallen flat for me (mostly due to being poorly developed), I really enjoyed the Thijarians. Sure, they weren’t really necessary for the episode and ended up being a red herring used to pad out the plot, but they were still interesting characters and they did help propel the plot forward as the Doctor worked to figure out just what was going on. And they actually had a backstory that gave them an understandable and compelling motivation for what they were doing – plus their designs were super cool! So while they ended up not being the real antagonists for this episode, I still really loved them.
So, if the Thijarians weren’t the antagonists, then who were? Well, similar to Rosa, prejudice was the real antagonist of the episode. Most noticeably in Manish (Hamza Jeetooa), Prem’s brother. Manish was thoroughly against Prem’s marriage to Umbreen; Prem (and Manish) are Hindu while Umbreen (and her family) are Muslim. As this episode is set at the very beginning of Partition, prejudices between the two religions are high and Manish has bought into those prejudices hook, line, and sinker. He goes so far as to betray his brother to a mob of people who arrive towards the end of the episode looking for any Muslim people who don’t belong in India. Like Krasko (from Rosa), Manish is never really given any motivation as to why he’s so prejudiced against Muslim people, he just kind of is. But, for some reason, it bothers me less here than it did in Rosa. Maybe it’s because, unlike Krasko, Manish was never billed as the main villain. The episode spends most of its time making us think that the Thijarians are the bad guys while it just slips some of Manish’s prejudices in under the radar and slowly builds the episode to the revelation that Manish is actually the cause of Prem’s death (and the reason why Yaz had never heard of him before). While I’d have liked a bit more characterization for Manish, his character still mostly worked for me as he was very much a man of his time projecting the prejudices that were being fed to him by others. That parallel to today’s time (of people projecting the prejudices of those in the media/those they consider to be figures of authority onto others) helped make Manish’s characterization ultimately work for me, even though it wasn’t particularly deep.
At the end of the day, Demons of the Punjab is another excellent historical episode of Doctor Who. New-to-Who writer, Vinay Patel, delivers a script that is both thrilling and emotional and provides a lot of much-needed depth to Yaz’s character. Filmed on location in Spain, Jamie Child’s directing helps to elevate an already compelling script into a truly memorable episode. This season, as a whole, has really benefited from its ability to step outside the confines of its studio in Cardiff and out into the world. This episode is beautiful, both visually and on a writing level. Segun Akinola’s superb score elevates the episode even higher as he perfectly balances the needs of each scene through his compositions for its score. The music in this episode is truly beautiful and is some of Akinola’s best work this season. The acting across the board is superb, with Mandip Gill finally being given something to do and proving just how great she is as this character. I really loved Demons of the Punjab. It’s not a perfect episode – mostly due to Manish’s lack of development – but I think it works really, really well. It’s timely and entertaining and educational and thrilling and features some superb work from everyone involved in the making of it. I really hope they bring Vinay Patel back next season to write another episode, because he’s a great fit for the show.
Demons of the Punjab: 4.5 out of 5 wands