TL;DR – In the battle between love and hate, on which side would you be on? This is the question today’s episode asks before emotionally punching you in the gut.
Score – 5 out of 5 stars
When I heard Doctor Who was going to set an episode in colonial India, you can bet I was deeply concerned. A British TV Show doing an episode on the British occupation of another country, it is a recipe for disaster if handled wrongly, and the title Demons of the Punjab didn’t exactly fill me with confidence either. However, then we got to see Rosa (see review) earlier this season all about Rosa Parks and her struggles, they showed a real understanding of exploring deeply complex historical events, so I had a hope that they would be able to here as well, and I honestly think they pulled it off.
So to set the scene, we open in on Yas (Mandip Gill) and her family as they come together to celebrate their Nani Umbreen’s (Leena Dhingra) birthday. At the end of the day, Nani gives everyone some presents including an old watch to Yas and mentions that she was the first woman married in Pakistan. This, of course, raises a lot of questions, ones that would generally go unanswered because you would need a friend with a magic time travelling box, oh wait. So against The Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) reservations they use the watch to back in time to visit Yas’ grandmother when she was young but instead of going to Lahore in the 1950s they land in a quiet valley in the Punjab, and it is not the 1950s it is 1947 on the eve of The Partition of India and that man Prem (Shane Zaza) who is about to marry Umbreen (Amita Suman) is not Yas’ father. This is all a problem, and oh did I mention that there are demons waiting and lurking as the horror of The Partition is about to erupt. Now as always, we will be looking at the episode as a whole, so there will be [SPOILERS] ahead.
For a lot of young people today, they might not know a lot about The Partition of India and the absolute calamity it unleashed, so like Rosa, this might be a really important episode for people to explore their histories. It was a time where an incompetent British colonial government and the desperate drive to not lose the crown jewel of their colonial empire coincided with or indeed help the rise of those using the confusion to assert one group over another. All of this ended in bloodshed and a legacy that still can be felt today, and Doctor Who waltzing in and doing an episode should have been a recipe for disaster. However, Vinay Patel who wrote the episode did the smart thing and took this big complicated and messy event and focused it by looking at how affected one family in one town on what is about to become the border of two different countries. This creates a level of intimacy that you would not have gotten otherwise and thus makes everything that happens much more relevant, but also much more personal.
One of the highlights of the episode is that we actually get one focused in on Yas. Yas has not had the same narrative exploration as she does not have the ‘will Ryan (Tosin Cole) ever reciprocate Graham’s (Bradley Walsh) fist bump’ as a running plot. This is highlighted by the fact that she is very much treading on her own history, which is historically a very bad thing to in Doctor Who, and while we don’t accidentally kill everyone on the planet to heal a time wound, this had more of an impact. Her history is unravelling before her because there is this whole side of her Nani’s life that she never knew about, the struggles she faced, the horror’s she endured, and the love she lost, and it is a hard story to watch at times.
Indeed, I would say that this is the focus of today’s episode, the war between love and hate, and it is a story that is very much focused on the time the story is set, but it is also a theme that is very much relevant today. Umbreen and Prem are in love, they have always been in love and the fact that one of them is Hindu and the other is Muslim is no problem to them, but it is to others, including Prem’s younger brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa). Manish’s heart to his neighbours had been hardened after listening to angry men on the radio spout their hate to the point that he is willing to kill to protect the purity of his new country. This is a betrayal that is much more personal and so it hits home much more, than if it had been some unknown external threat.
That being said there was also an unknown external threat this week in the Thejarian Hive, the titular demons in the episode. I really liked both their design and their arc through today’s episode. At first, they are just this thing hovering in the background giving people headaches, then they are killing holy men walking in the forest, and then we find out that they had been around death before. This means we are already super dubious of them even before we find out that they are one of the ancient races, evolved to be perfect assassins, and who are they after next, but no other than Prem. It is here that you have the episode all figured out until the swerve, they are not assassins, okay they were, but not anymore. Now they go and stand vigil for those who die alone, and that is where the first emotional punch to the gut happens because you know how this ends, and now I need to stop for a moment because I started to cry again typing this review.
This is an episode that would not have worked if the acting was not there to support the script, and it was. Indeed as we open in on the episode Leena Dhingra is there to give us the grounding for what is about to come in a performance that shows there is pain in the past but joy in the present. You have the young lovers played by Amita Suman and Shane Zaza that have a real bond, being equal parts infatuated but also giving each other a little bit of a hard time that just felt really natural. Also, it is good that this week I think we finally watched Jodie Whittaker move out of that ‘what sort of doctor will I be’ mode she has been in so far and start driving forward with her performance. It was also great to see that they have been travelling as a group for so long that they get each other’s quirks like when The Doctor starts rambling off some random things that everyone knows that she is just using it to hide how worried that she is in the moment.
Doctor Who shines when it uses its time travel mechanic to explore an event from the past or future that also shines a spotlight on the world we live in today. Indeed today, we do see a world where angry men on radios/podcast/YouTube videos/internet chat sites, yell hate to anyone who will listen, and we know the pain that can cause. When people complain that Science Fiction shows like Doctor Who has suddenly become political, well I truly have to wonder have never watched/read/listened to any SciFi before. Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Red Mars, The Foundation series, The Twilight Zone, The 4400, Ghost in the Shell, Orphan Black, Fringe, and so many more, or indeed any past episode of Doctor Who. This is the power of Science Fiction (when it is done well) and we see it today in Demons of the Punjab.
In the end, do we recommend Demons of the Punjab? Yes, yes we do. It is a powerful episode, but at its heart, it is the story of love verse hate, and that is a story that has relevance through all of time and space.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Doctor Who
Directed by – Jamie Childs
Written by – Vinay Patel
Showrunner – Chris Chibnall
Starring – Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole & Mandip Gill with Leena Dhingra, Amita Suman, Shane Zaza, Hamza Jeetooa, Shaheen Khan, Shobna Gulati, Ravin J. Ganatra, Bhavnisha Parmar, Emma Fielding, Nathalie Cuzner, Isobel Middleton & Barbara Fadden