“Tread lightly. You’re treading on your own history.”
I think Doctor Who should do far more episodes like this – historical episodes that cover an often overlooked (and foreign) event with weighty emotion and a good science fiction hook. Less ‘Victory of the Daleks’ and ‘The Shakespeare Code’, and more of this. Despite sounding like an episode of Young Indiana Jones, Demons of the Punjab is a thrilling and surprisingly educational science fiction tale.
The episode opens with a birthday party at Yaz’s house for her grandmother. She gives her family some mementos and Yaz receives a broken watch, but her grandmother remains tight-lipped about it’s origin. Yaz asks The Doctor to whizz them back in time to learn more, and using a convenient TARDIS macguffin, they do just that. Now you’re probably wondering, hasn’t The Doctor learnt her lesson from all the meddling in time she’s done in the past? If she’s not careful unleash a whole load of Reapers from the time vortex. Anyone else remember them? Does anyone remember Pete ‘Trust me on this’ Tyler? It seems the show has tried its best to forget them. The rules of time have never been exact in Doctor Who, despite what the wiki might argue, and you’re best bet is to sit back and try not to unpick it too much.
The gang end up in India, on the eve of Yaz’s grandma’s wedding. But the problem is, it’s not to her grandad, it’s to a mystery gentleman named Prem. This causes a lot of confusion, which is then turned up to 11 when the guys realise they’ve wandered right into the partition of India, and that there are space assassins seemingly killing off people and teleporting all over the place. Now unlike race relations in the US in ‘Rosa’, this time period is something I’ve never studied or looked into. And it seems Chibnall’s aim with the historical episodes this season is to give us all a good reminder of these lesser known events, events which may hold answers about our own society today. After winning it’s independence from the British, India split into two – India (mostly Hindu) and Pakistan (mostly Muslim). It doesn’t take a genius to draw parallels between this racial trouble and our world today, but good sci-fi should always strive to be a criticism or comment on society, and Demons of the Punjab doesn’t hold back there.
Six episodes in and Jodie Whittaker has made the role completely her own. She has a sort of infectious nice-ness that is really welcoming in this day and age. The Doctor doesn’t need to be an antihero, she’s 100% hero this time around. The downside is that she is so engaging, taking up so much attention, it can often feel a little like the companions are fighting for things to do. Ryan is the victim of that this week, with very little plot or development – but it was Yaz last week. But that doesn’t mean I’m against the idea of three companions. In ‘Rosa’ and ‘Arachnids in the UK’ and ‘The Woman That Fell to Earth’ they were all useful. They just need to find that balance. And Graham is always the best character, of course.
The main plot of the episode with the space assassins actually has a neat twist to it. They are not actually assassins, at least not anymore. After failing to save their own race, they now travel the galaxy to witness forgotten deaths, the lonely deaths from around the universe. Sort of like a cross between an undertaker and Uatu The Watcher. It’s ridiculous obviously, but it’s the sort of reassuring ridiculous that Doctor Who thrives on. And the design is great too. The villains of this season, despite other flaws, have more often than not had some really inspired designs.
Most importantly for an episode dealing with subject matter like this, the ending. And this one’s a whopper of an emotional climax. It doesn’t end happily, but how could it? Like in ‘Rosa’, the racist characters stay racist, the good character that is destined to suffer does so. The world keeps turning and things eventually change. But for our time-hopping heroes, all they can do is watch, burdened but comforted with the knowledge of what comes after. It’s quintessential science fiction.
A standout episode of an already strong system. Hopefully this season will be remembered as the one that made the historical episodes not only fun and educational, but the very best episodes of the show in a long time. It seems the strongest episodes are when Chris Chibnall hands the reigns over to a writer that can offer a completely different perspective, Malorie Blackman on civil rights and Vinay Patel on India here. We’ve got another historical one coming up the week after next, and I can’t wait.
See you next week for ‘Kerblam!’ and wait, is that Lee Mack?!
Reviewed by Jack