DW: Demons of the Punjab Review

DW Demons of the Punjab

While part of me thinks it was a bit too soon after Rosa for Doctor Who to do another historical that focused on racial prejudice and related issues, Demons of the Punjab managed to outdo Rosa in the storytelling stakes and delivered a really interesting drama, with a bit of Who alien-related stuff around it (so we’re still not in pure historical land just yet…) So let’s take a look at the story and see just why it took me by surprise…

Synopsis:

With Yaz desperate to learn more about the life of her grandmother, the Doctor brings her friends to the Punjab in 1947 to meet her in the past. But with a marriage unknown to Yaz on the cards and the Partition of India threatening to pull her family apart, it may not be the mysterious “demons” that are the biggest threat.

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

Cast of Characters:

DW Demons of the Punjab 1

The Doctor and her companions gain new appreciation for the TARDIS…

The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) – The Doctor, against her better judgement, decides to take Yaz back in time to see her Nan Umbreen when she was younger, but as per usual, while there she finds something more alien…

Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) – Ryan is happy to join Yaz on her quest to find answers about her grandmother’s past. If nothing else he’s never been to Pakistan…

Yasmin Kahn (Mandip Gill) – Yaz listened to her grandmother’s story about being the first woman married in Pakistan and how a broken watch that she gifted her meant so much to her, but left it at that. Hey, she has a friend with a time machine, so… why not find out yourself?

Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) – Graham is on board the idea of visiting Yaz’s grandmother, it might make a change from all the danger and alien life forms…

Umbreen (Amita Suman / Leena Dhingra) – Umbreen is Yaz’s grandmother, who was right in the middle of the 1947 Partition of India, where she dealt with both love and tragedy…

Prem (Shane Zaza) – Prem was an Indian man and former soldier looking to settle down with Umbreen, despite the difference in faith and a new, British-made border declaring them people of different countries…

Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) – Manish is Prem’s younger brother who is against the idea of a Muslim marrying a Hindu, going to extreme lengths to “save” his brother from this apparent mistake.

The Thijarians (Emma Fielding / Isobel Middleton) – Thijarians were once a race of deadly assassins, but now the few that remain honour the dead of the universe, bearing witness to the deaths that have no one to see them…

Plus more!

The Good:

DW Demons of the Punjab 4

I don’t think I mention the gorgeous scenery in the actual review, so… That was me mentioning it.

First things first, the setting is a unique one. Most historicals tended to veer heavily towards British history, so to have a story set during India’s Partition, where the Brits are just casually mentioned as being the ones responsible for splitting the land and the rest is made up of people from India or the future Pakistan, is a really interesting move. Yaz wanting to see her grandmother’s secret past was a good twist, though given previous instances of companions crossing their own history, I’m not sure why The Doctor was so immediately willing to go for it…

The big highlight to me was the new characters. Umbreen, the younger version anyway, and her soon-to-be husband Prem were really well played, believable characters, with Prem’s relationship with his younger brother Manish being the real tragic highlight. Their older brother died in WWII, where Prem also fought, and when he got back Manish was bitter and broken. It’s soon revealed that Manish is very much against Muslims and is happy with the idea of a border being created, and is so against his brother’s marriage that he stole his brother’s rifle and killed the priest before he could arrive…

The Doctor and her companions soon find out that Prem is destined to die, and there is nothing they can do about it, so when Manish sends for some rebellious forces to come to the farm and Prem goes to meet him, everyone sees him off, knowing full well what was going to happen. Prem pleads in vain to change his brother’s mind, with the nameless armed men on horseback training their guns on him. We simply hear a gunshot as everyone walks back to the TARDIS.

The other twist to the tale is the Thijarians. Former assassins, The Doctor eventually finds out that they lost their whole planet without their people having anyone to witness their final moments, so they now travel the universe purely to bear witness to people’s final moments that otherwise would have gone unseen. This is not only an interesting idea for a race, but it’s also how everyone finds out about Prem’s destiny. Right before the fated gunshot, they arrive and tell The Doctor and co. to leave, eventually putting Prem’s image in their database as some soothing music leads us into the end credits. It was a properly beautiful end, to a really good piece of drama.

Yaz and her interactions with her future grandmother are very endearing, the contrast to her as an old woman saying she has no regrets is comforting in letting the viewer know she did eventually get over the loss of the love of her life. Beyond a few “things will be okay, I’m sure” conversations, Ryan and Graham had very little to do in this story, but that’s okay given how good the story involving the one-off cast was. The Doctor had a few moments, particularly confronting Manish before the riotous group arrived.

So at the start of the story the Thijarians were created to look like the titular demons of the Punjab, but in turned out that the real demons were humans who were too racist / nationalistic to see sense. Nice, if not uncomfortable, twist.

The Bad:

DW Demons of the Punjab 2

The true villains of the story (because the BBC press photos never include the actual aliens…)

I think the only bad was in the first half, where everyone, The Doctor included, assumed the Thijarians were hostile and it had a lot of alien technology and the Doctor making a crazy machine that involved a long list of things and stuff… oddly, looking back, I’d have liked less classic Who alien-based run-arounds and more focus on the humans of the time…

The Continuity:

DW Demons of the Punjab 3

“Could be worse Yaz, at least we’re not back in the UK. I hear there are arachnids there now…”

Do I have to say it? Once again this doesn’t connect to any other story directly. The use of the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits to trace an item’s history was used by the Twelfth Doctor twice in his debut series, in “Listen” and “Dark Water / Death in Heaven”.

Overall Thoughts:

Demons of the Punjab is a great story, though I’m not sure if it was a great Doctor Who story… The sci-fi elements if anything detract from what was an interesting and dramatic story of this rarely-touched-upon time in history. Still, just as a piece of TV, I have to give it top marks. Took me by surprise, in a really good way.

5 Star Watch

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