Demons of the Punjab

Posted in Episode by - November 12, 2018
Demons of the Punjab

Aired 11 November 2018

Doctor Who has always used science fiction as a vehicle to explore characters from all walks of life and in situations both mundane and fantastic, but halfway through Chris Chibnall’s first series at the helm it seems clear that characterisation and personal demons have become even more paramount than usual with science fiction already frequently featuring in a more reduced capacity. While the franchise from the beginning has been intimately associated with Earth’s history, the trend as the years progressed was to use history more as window dressing and to fuel specific character moments, but that has likewise changed as a much closer approximation to the true historical genre has now shown up for a second episode in ‘Demons of the Punjab’ by Vinay Patel. Yet while ‘Rosa’ which so superbly captured the unsubtle truth about inequality in a segregated Alabama faltered a bit as allegorical science fiction drove the Doctor’s actions to ensure the timeline remained intact, the aliens here are very much in an observatory role, making the tragedy and horror of 1947’s Partition of India all the more resonant and real.

Vast portions of Earth’s history- especially outside of England- have as yet been left completely untouched by the ever-expanding library of Doctor Who, and the Partition of India in which the British Raj was dissolved and three provinces of Assam, Bengal and Punjab were divided based on Hindu or Muslim majorities represents a turning point in modern history fraught with incredibly real emotion and drama. Accordingly, it’s also a superb setting to wrong-foot viewers by initially presenting the fearsome Vajarian assassins known to the Doctor who seem to be murderously interfering with established actions, only for Patel later to reveal that the horrors experienced are purely human in nature with these aliens reformed to compassionate beings seeking the unacknowledged dead across all of time and space. Though it is strangely surreal to consider any one moment in Earth’s history being acknowledged by those from so far abreast, it also gives a tremendous sense of scope and importance far beyond the incredibly personal turmoil already present in what unknowingly became such a formative moment in Yaz’s family’s history.

Indeed, while ‘Demons of the Punjab’ works incredibly well as a standalone affair, it’s all the more impressive when considered as a counterpoint to the previously mentioned ‘Rosa’ wherein there was great time taken to detail a rising wave of social justice spearheaded by one woman’s stand against oppression. Here, a man has done nothing wrong but live his life honourably and fall in love with a woman whom the powers above have now declared to be an outsider, and while it’s easy to pass off this man’s death as the result of his brother’s dishonourable decision that placed partition over family, that takes away from the tremendous chaos in every regard that was simmering in the background and often boiled to the forefront during this seismic shift in regulations, boundaries, and even personal beliefs. Right and wrong are not so easy to differentiate in this setting even if on a personal level the difference should be abundantly clear, and the Doctor and her friends once more find themselves on the wrong side of history from which all they can do is helplessly watch as the terror of humanity plays out before them, this time with only Yaz’s presence offering a beacon of hope with no famed historical figurehead in which to place their faith.

To this point, Yaz has been the companion with the least amount of time for development, and to an extent that strangely continues to be the case here despite her family featuring so prominently. Mandip Gill is nothing less than enthralling in the roll, but Yaz already has an innate curiosity that here fuels her search to discover more about her grandmother, and the heavy focus on her family doesn’t necessarily highlight anything new about her character. Still, this is a minor quibble and Gill sells the intensely personal emotions stemming from a hidden chapter of her grandmother’s life incredibly well, and although Manish perhaps doesn’t get quite enough time on screen to fully flesh out his own beliefs and motivations that so pit him against Prim without dialogue doing the heavy lifting, ‘Demons of the Punjab’ is a well-acted and well-directed harrowing outing that highlights everything this new series is trying to do as it works to piece together its many wonderful component parts.

  • Release Date: 11/11/2018
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