Doctor Who Review: Demons of the Punjab

doctor who demons of the punjab review vinay patel chris chibnall jamie childs jodie whittaker shane zaza mandip gill tosin cole bradley walsh

This is us. Forever. Our moment in time.

Airing this episode on Remembrance Sunday was, as many people have already pointed out, something of a stroke of genius.

In isolation, Demons of the Punjab was already a mature and thoughtful episode; there’s something quite affecting about its quiet consideration of personal history, in contrast to the broad sweep of celebrity historicals we’ve seen before. It harkens back to Father’s Day in some ways, with a poignant and intimate story about Yaz’s family – much like the earlier episode, it’s quiet and sensitive and deeply concerned with its characters. Even if Demons of the Punjab had aired three weeks later as episode nine, as I understand had been originally planned, it’d still be able to make an easy claim to being the best of series 11. There’s simply a degree of confidence and understanding to this episode that marks it as something special more or less immediately.

But contextualised in terms of Remembrance Sunday it became something altogether more resonant.

Much of the story is about remembrance – that, in effect, is what the Thijarians do when they bear witness, when they mourn for the forgotten dead. The forgotten dead, in this case, of partition, and of the victims of British colonialism and its consequences. It’s quite a story to tell as part of Doctor Who’s first substantive engagement with non-Western history. And airing the episode on Remembrance Sunday, when (despite everything) so many of these forgotten dead stay forgotten lends Demons of the Punjab an even greater degree of significance. In that sense, it’s one of the first episodes this series that really manages to be about something, to have substantive ideas worth real and genuine engagement – not just because of the quirk of its airing, of course, because all those ideas were still in the episode regardless. But it’s difficult not to notice the way this accentuates and emphasises so many of the ideas that Demons of the Punjab was already invoking.

There’s a vision of history to Demons of the Punjab that feels vital, that feels like something Doctor Who should commit to much more wholeheartedly, especially now as it begins to pivot back towards a more educational programme – a vision of history that includes the forgotten dead, that looks beyond the traditional narratives.

doctor who demons of the punjab review shane zaza vinay patel thijarians chris chibnall jamie childs jodie whittaker

Hence, then, why it’s so interesting to see the episode parallel the Doctor and the Thijarians.

It’s not a straightforward, one-to-one match – they aren’t, after all, identical. But there’s a link drawn between them, and it’s reinforced repeatedly across the episode in myriad ways. A lot of these connections are small, subtle ones. Consider the fact that the Thijarians are travellers who’ve lost their home, not entirely unlike the Doctor; Jamie Childs, offering much stronger direction this week than in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, reinforces that idea through a scene transition from the Thijarian ship to the TARDIS. It’s not so much that they’re identical, exactly, but there are echoes – echoes that resonate in the face of the fact that, in the end, the Doctor and the Thijarians do the same thing. They remember forgotten history.

It also, perhaps, speaks to what’s still one of the wider problems of the series – something that isn’t quite a problem in Demons of the Punjab, though it’d still be worth commenting on, but is certainly part of a frustrating trend. Once again, there’s an episode that ultimately relies on the Doctor’s passivity and non-interference – she gets involved, yes, but ultimately very little. At the end, she simply walks away.

Like I said – on its own, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Indeed, in the context of Demons of the Punjab, it almost makes a degree of sense, though admittedly I’d have preferred if the Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan had stayed to bear witness to Prem alongside the Thijarians.

But taken as part of the series as a whole, it’s a little troubling – it’s strange and unsettling that a character who’s always been defined by the way she interferes and the way that she’s active rather than passive is now being depicted as quite the opposite. At this stage, it feels clear enough that it’s a conscious choice – as of Arachnids in the UK, it felt a little more akin to a recurring scriptwriting weakness, but now I’m starting to feel like there’s something a little more deliberate going on. Perhaps we are building up to a broader point about how difficult it really is to interfere in the face of such broad, structural problems like historical racism or the effects of imperialism.

Perhaps the point of contrasting the Doctor and the Thijarians is to say that the real radical act of interference – the sort of thing we can genuinely do in real life, especially today, on Remembrance Day – is to carve out a space for the forgotten dead and remember them.

doctor who review demons of the punjab jodie whittaker shane zaza chris chibnall jamie childs vinay patel mandip gill

Outside of that, I think there’s little to find fault with in the episode – and, even then, that’s not so much a fault with Demons of the Punjab as it is a fault with the stories around it. The same could be said of other flaws I’d be inclined to highlight – there are still some struggles with balancing the cast, but to be honest this episode does a much better job of any other so far, so it’s difficult to criticise too much. (I suspect part of the reason Demons of the Punjab does so well balancing the cast is the fact that Vinay Patel paired Yaz with Graham for a while – and in turn she got caught in his narrative gravity for a while, and finally got given something to do. It’s still not ideal, especially in what’s meant to be Yaz’s second focal episode, but again, I don’t think it’s worth criticising Demons for the faults of series 11 as a whole.)

Indeed, I’m generally really pleased with Demons of the Punjab. It is, as I’ve already said, my favourite episode of the series so far – but it’s also been my favourite one to write about so far. In a few of these recent reviews, I’ve been despairing a bit (and it’s shown) over how little I’ve been able to find to say – or, maybe more accurately, how little I’ve been able to say that goes beyond a more superficial bullet point list of sloppy aspects and technical mistakes. I’m glad I’ve been able to do more than that here with this one; if nothing else, Demons of the Punjab is certainly the first episode so far where I feel like I’ve still got lots of positive things to say, rather than negatives I’m holding back on.

(Like, how amazing was Shane Zaza as Prem? In a just world, he’d be getting all sorts of awards for this episode, and would certainly be remembered as one of the stand out guest performances in Doctor Who over the past decade. If ever they’re looking for a man to play the Doctor again…)

So, yes. Demons of the Punjab has left me feeling really quite reassured about series 11 – it’s perhaps overly optimistic to make this judgement, but maybe it’s simply the case that all the more interesting episodes in series 11 have been positioned closer to the end. That’s the hope, anyway; I suppose we’ll find out in a few hours in Dr Who vs Jeff Bezos.

9/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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