The latest episode of Doctor Who, ‘Demons of the Punjab’, tackled the Partition of India. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it turned out.
I don’t watch Doctor Who – I have only seen a handful of episodes, but never quite took to it. I am more than delighted that there is now a female Doctor, but I intended to watch the season once it was on Netflix. ‘Demons of the Punjab’ is making me change my mind.
When I read about Doctor Who setting an episode during the Partition of India, I knew I had to watch it, even if I was concerned that I would cringe throughout. A British show tackling an event that caused the deaths of millions, all because the British wanted to make a clean getaway when their Empire failed? Surely, this would be terrible! Fortunately, I was wrong.
With a working knowledge of The Doctor and the Tardis, I leapt into episode six of the eleventh season. Here’s what I thought about ‘Demons of the Punjab’.
Yas Khan (Mandip Gill) is given a broken old watch by her grandmother but Yas knows there is more to this memento than her grandmother is willing to share. Fortunately for Yas, she happens to have a ‘mate with a time machine’.
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is initially unsure of travelling to the past to meet Yas’ grandmother, but when her other companions, Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole), agree to the trip, The Doctor uses the Tardis’ telepathic abilities to send them to the watch’s destination.
In the past, the group get a ride from Prem (Shane Zaza) who takes them to meet the younger version of Yas’ grandmother, Umbreen (Amita Suman). Umbreen lives with her mother in a secluded farm outside Lahore. She is a happy young woman, looking forward to her impending marriage to Prem. But wait a minute. Prem isn’t Yas’ grandfather!
The Doctor and her companions quickly realise that something drastic is about to happen, not least when The Doctor feels a psychic attack by aliens who should not be there during that time-period.
Where has the Tardis brought The Doctor and her companions? Why has Umbreen never mentioned Prem to her family? Who is behind the psychic attacks? The Doctor, Yas, Graham, and Ryan are about to make some shocking discoveries.
I had an inkling I would love Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and, after watching this episode, I am absolutely certain. She is charming and funny, and fiercely protective of Yas, which makes me want to watch the earlier episodes to see how their relationship has developed.
I don’t know what it is about Bradley Walsh’s Graham, but he was super-invested in Prem and Umbreen’s marriage. His send-off for Prem before the wedding was so heart-felt, and heart-breaking, that I can’t help but wonder what is lurking in Graham’s past for him to feel this way.
Ryan was probably the only level-headed one of the group, but even he seemed less concerned about preserving the timeline and more about ensuring that Prem and Umbreen got their happy ending. He seems a bit of a cinnamon roll and I need to watch more to ensure he is. You know, for research.
Yas is a delight. Her chemistry with The Doctor was a highlight but Mandip Gill pretty much kills it throughout this episode. She hasa Marty McFly-esque curiosity about her grandmother, even at the risk of erasing herself from the timeline. Her scenes with Leena Dhingra, who plays Yas’ grandmother in the present, felt incredibly genuine. You can feel how close they are to each other. Also, shoutout to The Doctor for not wanting to imagine a world without Yas. Theirs really is a wonderful friendship that I want to see more of.
I was concerned about how the sub-continental characters would be portrayed, but they actually end up stealing the episode, even though their British accents did throw me initially. What’s Doctor Who’s budget? Could they not have cast actors from the sub-continent? And they definitely didn’t shoot in Lahore.
Shane Zaza gives us a wonderful protagonist in Prem, whose name literally means ‘love’. He is earnest and friendly, though haunted by the literal demons of his past. Amita Suman as the young Umbreen is vivacious, and loyal, not to mention brave. While Prem is haunted by the horrors of war, Umbreen is still reeling from the devastation of famine and drought, which occurred at alarming frequency under the British rule of India.
I was fascinated by Hamza Jeetooa’s Manish, Prem’s younger brother. This is a man who has not seen war, who knows his brother loves a woman of another faith, has been a neighbour to Muslims for years, but is still delighted by the artificial border between India and Pakistan. People like Manish were a dime a dozen at the time of Partition, and since, but he is more than just an out-and-out villain. He stands by his convictions, no matter how flawed, and is at the heart of the episode’s tragic ending.
Of course, it can’t be Doctor Who without some aliens thrown in. The Thijarians are the titular demons of the episode title and, as it turns out, The Doctor knows them to be ruthless assassins. But, there’s more to the aliens as well. Not only do the Thijarians work as an excellent concept, it is through them that the audience learn of the devastation to come in the wake of Partition.
[Spoilers ahead] When confronted by The Doctor, the Thijarians explain that they are not here to assassinate anyone. Their planet was destroyed, with only two Thijarians surviving because they were off-world. Because their people died ‘unwitnessed’, they have made it their mission to witness the deaths of those who die alone and carry their essence in their ‘hive’. That is why they are at the India-Pakistan border, because millions will die unwitnessed. [End spoiler]
The Subject Matter
Doctor Who has been rightfully garnering praise for ‘Demons of the Punjab’, mainly as the subject is oft-overlooked in British history. The Partitions of India (there were two – the Partition of Bengal into East and West Bengal in 1905, and the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947) were massive undertakings and have shaped politics and communal boundaries in the region since. Many fans have been taken aback by the historic direction of the new season, but as other publications have noted, this is not new for the show. More importantly, it is good to see a show like Doctor Who acknowledge the damage that the British Empire did on the Indian Sub-continent with Partition. Pop culture is where many turn to for their historic knowledge, making it increasingly important for entertainment to do right by the past.
I would go as far as to say that the focus on Britain’s improper governance could have been more forcefully stated. Near the end, the episode steps away from the British impact on Partition, instead choosing to focus on the communal divide between Hindus and Muslims through the lens of Prem and Manish’s relationship.
‘Demons of the Punjab’, and its episode three predecessor,‘Rosa’, also demonstrate the impact of diverse writing in entertainment,something Doctor Who has been seriously lacking for most of its 55-year run.
‘Rosa’ was written by award-winning children’s writer Malorie Blackman, alongside season writer Chris Chibnall, whereas ‘Demons of the Punjab’ was written solely by Vinay Patel, an award-winning playwright with an interest in the Partition of India. Hopefully, they will not be the sole people of colour with writing credits on Doctor Who, but they are paving the way for more hard-hitting and poignant stories from our pasts.
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor had already perked my interest in Doctor Who, but ‘Demons of the Punjab’ makes me want to watch this series, or at least this season. If the show continues in this vein, they may have won a new Whovian.