I commented last week that this series of Doctor Who was so far at its strongest when it journeyed into the past (only one episode to feed that theory, but Rosa served its characters exceptionally well). Demons of the Punjab, our second journey into history, bears this out – a moving episode that brings a personal element to a much vaster story, in a way that speaks to our society as it stands now.
The partition of India is an event only lightly touched upon in History lessons when I was in school, and although the episode could grandstand more on a subject rooted in colonialism and oppression, it doesn’t seek to. In avoiding that, it makes its chosen points more effectively. Passing references are made to the culpability of the British for ensuing catastrophes, but viewers are left to do their own reading on the situation. The episode’s real target is any voice of division, any voice that stirs radical opinion, or that answers difference with violence – regardless of those voices’ origins.
Vinay Patel’s first script for the programme shows the human cost of such rhetoric, whether espoused by Hindu or Muslim. Homes are abandoned, family ties severed, former alliances in conflict undone. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over proceedings, emphasised by the presence of the Thijarians, and it’s hard to think of an episode more appropriate for broadcast on Remembrance Day (further evidence of care and thoughtful planning going into this series’ running order).
Former assassins whose sole purpose is now to mourn those who die alone, the Thijarians are an alien presence whose service to the episode is thematic in the end. As with Rosa, we are shown the most frightening monster to be ordinary people who have ‘lost their minds’. Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) embodies this, a radicalised young man, whose blinkered view in the end helps claim his brother Prem’s (Shane Zaza) life. Two deeply compelling performances in a fantastic cast.
Through them, we feel the individual stakes amidst an enormous conflict, and personal unrest is threaded through the whole episode, developing our central characters further. As with Arachnids in the UK, we come to know Yaz better through seeing her within her family. Her relationship with her grandmother has shown us much more of who she is than the odd reference to her job as a police officer has. Confronted with the possibility of dishonesty on Umbreen’s (Amita Suman) part when seeing her youth first-hand, we see her face doubts about herself and her own standing in the world. It’s a fantastic challenge for the character, and a further engaging strand of the story.
There are pieces of wonderful writing also when it comes to Umbreen herself, as we see her in old age (Leena Dhingra) echoing her younger self’s dislike of her mother’s hand pattern design before her wedding. A fantastic little moment of character building. It also simultaneously counters and draws attention to the sense that she should recognise her adult granddaughter from one of the most important memories of her life. But honestly, when everything surrounding such niggles is so rich, it feels churlish to complain. Crucially, all the people in this episode feel like people. Vinay Patel is a very welcome addition to the writing team.
One issue that recurs here and elsewhere, though, is with the Doctor’s characterisation. Not necessarily a criticism, more a concern. Jodie Whittaker continues to impress, levity and gravitas coming in equal measure as her characterisation unfolds. It feels increasingly often this series that the Doctor makes a mistake and apologises – a refreshing change from the tiresome grandiosity of the previous ten years or so.
But the frequency of these moments, coupled with the, again welcome, more passive approach to historical adventures like this one, could begin to feed a perception of this Doctor as more a passenger, less a leader. As I say, refreshing for now, but if it persists without clearer moments of leadership along the way, is that the best look for the character?
That ongoing thought aside, this struck me on second viewing today as the strongest episode in the series so far. A moving, intelligent script with gripping performances and an awareness of history and context that reaches out to the viewer as much as it draws them in. And, once more, a special mention is warranted for Segun Akinola’s superb score. Music that engages without ever becoming pushy is a very welcome development this year.
I was also struck by the end credits, the usual theme tune rearranged to reflect this week’s delving into Asian history. As with Rosa’s use of Rise Up over the end credits, it reflects an overall creative approach that refuses to be reverent to the Doctor Who that has come before (only one episode before this year had gone without the traditional theme tune in over fifty years). Once again, as it always should be, Doctor Who is not being given special treatment for being Doctor Who, but is being treated by its makers with a sense of creativity that should go without saying for any drama. Thank goodness for that.