Previously on Doctor Who, “The Tsuranga Conundrum”
Like “Rosa,” “Demons of the Punjab” focuses on a critical point in history with immutable events that must be protected from alien and human intervention despite their devastating impact on a single person. With the episode set in India at the 1947 Partition, audiences might be wary of Doctor Who‘s approach, considering Britain’s oppressive relationship with India and the violence and controversy inherent in this period. Given this concern, showrunner Chris Chibnall relied on Vinay Patel, a young British Indian playwright, to tell the tale. Growing up hearing family stories of the Partition, Patel was committed to exploring the period authentically and seriously. He joins Malorie Blackman as Doctor Who‘s first non-white writers for its entire 51-year run.
Of the three companions in this season thus far, Yaz has certainly had lighter stories compared to Ryan and Graham, but with this episode, she and her family rise to the forefront. Intrigued by her grandmother’s mysterious past, she enlists the Doctor in taking her back to see for herself. The Doctor agrees, as long as they don’t interfere… But it’s never that easy, is it? What follows is a romantic, heart-rending look at how beings change at their very nature, love evolving into a religion or souring into revolution. It ends with war boiled down to its essential tragedies: brother killing brother, sacrifices for love, and the unmourned dead. Threatening though they seem, even the aliens are not what the Doctor expects, although they are impressive in costume and effects. As they fade into the background, Patel focuses the blame entirely on a handful of regular men, making decisions they don’t have to make, to hate their countrymen.
The Mysterious Timepiece
At her birthday, Yaz’s “nani,” or grandmother (Leena Dhingra), says she was the first woman married in Pakistan and first Muslim woman to work in a textile mill in South Yorkshire. She gives Yaz a shattered watch, forbidding her from ever repairing it, but won’t say why. It sends Yaz running to beg the Doctor for a trip to spy on her past. The Doctor plugs in the watch and the TARDIS lands them back in India, but a vision of dark aliens slams into the Doctor and disorients her. Fortunately a young man carting flowers comes along and transports them back to the farm, passing a holy man on the way, where Yaz’s grandmother, Umbreen (Amita Suman), prepares to marry the cart driver Prem (Shane Zaza)… who is NOT Yaz’s Muslim grandfather but a Hindu man she doesn’t recognize, wearing the not-yet-broken watch. Yaz is utterly flummoxed so now they’re committed to seeing this through.
The radio announces the Partition, and the Doctor realizes what they’ve walked into—the creation of Pakistan, separate from India, for Muslims, and with it, mass rioting and millions displaced from their homes. Prem’s brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) happily pounds in a border marker at the river, telling Umbreen and her mother that they belong in Pakistan now and Prem can go too. Prem’s shock is interrupted by the aliens appearing in person, then phasing away to where the holy man now lies dead, glittery particles rising from his body. Team TARDIS runs towards them, and, suspiciously, so does Prem. The Doctor, Ryan, and Prem track the aliens back to a doorway that transports them inside a Vajaran Hive, a renowned assassin race. When they find the holy man was their target, Prem admits he saw them before in the war, in Singapore, standing over his dead brother’s body. The Doctor impulsively grabs their particle container and transports out, countering their claims of desecration with her usual one about the aliens desecrating earth and her being its protector. Tearing their transport devices from the trees, she recalibrates them to keep the Vajarans out of the barn for 12 hours, long enough to investigate the particles and for Umbreen and Prem to marry, despite the loss of their holy man, one of few willing to marry a Hindu and Muslim. Yaz is confused to say the least, but Graham reminds her that Umbreen isn’t her nani yet.
“I honestly don’t know whether any of us know the real truth of our own lives, because we’re too busy living them from the inside.”
With news of approaching mobs and gunshots in the distance, the Doctor sets up a chemistry lab to process the particles, thanks to chicken poo and ox spit, with the aliens scrambling to unlock the Doctor’s codes. Then tradition takes over, with the women including the Doctor in pre-wedding henna art, giving her another lovely benefit to being female, and Umbreen asks the Doctor to step in as officiant. One more step into involvement. Unfortunately, Prem’s stag night is much more tense thanks to Manish’s rhetoric and Manish leaves in a huff.
Team TARDIS reconvenes at the lab just as the transport locks break and the Vajaran reclaim their particle container and take the Doctor away. Inside the Hive, however, it is soon clear that their intent has been misunderstood all along. Yes, they were assassins, but while they were away, their homeworld was destroyed with none to witness its passing. They then spent 100 generations sifting the dust for their unacknowledged dead, and now travel the universe with their remains–the particles–seeking other unacknowledged dead to Witness and honor. The Doctor copies their prayerful gesture and apologizes, not for the first time this season, and wonders why the holy man died if they didn’t do it. They show her, saying their new religion led them to Prem’s battle in World War II, and, again, to Prem’s pre-ordained death on his wedding day. After hearing the news from the Doctor, Yaz decides she must stay to ensure her nani lives through this sad day.
As the radio announcements grow more dire, Prem laments the incomprehensible hatred between his countrymen at the expense of people just trying to live their lives. Wreathing him with wedding flowers, Graham is overcome and embraces him, saying Prem is a good man. The couple meets just over the stream, in the newly created Pakistan, and at once we understand Nani Umbreen’s meaning from her party. The Doctor breaks the rope off of Manish’s border marker and says love is the most powerful weapon we have–that’s part of her religion. Umbreen asks Yaz to wrap their hands with the rope to finalize. At the celebration afterwards, Umbreen thanks Manesh for feeding them in the famine, but he refuses her food offering and walks out again. Prem gives Umbreen his watch, which she drops, accidentally preserving forever “their moment in time.”
The Doctor follows Manish to Prem’s army rifle, the one Manish shot the holy man with, and realizes he’s invited a mob to seize Umbreen’s family farm, unmoved and undeterred by his brother’s love or by Umbreen’s gratitude. Kissing his new wife goodbye, Prem sends everyone away to safety to face the real demons—his own brother and countrymen. The music turns mournful as Team TARDIS runs through the flowers. Prem begs his brother and men he once fought with to see sense, but they kill him as the Witnesses observe, the Doctor and her friends solemnly walking away in silence.
Back in the present, Yaz asks her grandmother if she’s truly happy with how her life turned out. Nani Umbreen says Sheffield, an “exotic” place she’d pinned on their farm map, wasn’t all she thought it would be, but, like Graham pointed out, all of these decisions led to her life now and of course to Yaz. And to me, sobbing my face off, because apparently that’s how things are going to go this season.
Quotes, Facts, & Thoughts
- ‘This episode has several stunning scenes that left me with a lasting impression after it was over: the first alien vision was surprising and disturbing, the elaborate Vajaran costumes with their remembrance gesture, everyone fleeing in slow motion through the sunny poppy-laden field away from the mob, and Team TARDIS with their backs turned to Prem’s death as the Witnesses’ angular headpieces jut up between the two groups.
- Composer Segun Akinola enlisted musicians Kuljit Bhamra, Surjeet Singh, and Shahid Abbas Khan for the Punjabi version of the Doctor Who theme over the ending credits. Listen here.
- Director Jamie Childs returns, after directing the premiere, and will finish out the season with the final two episodes.
- Is Graham going to live out this season? We seem to be picking up steam with this theme of honorable, mature men sacrificing themselves.
- Ethnic cleansing is another season 11 theme, mentioned almost every episode so far, from the Stenza’s widespread attacks down to this one family farm, making it an intensely relatable issue, presumably before revisiting the Stenza problem as we wind towards the back half.
- The Vajarans’ Witness religion sounds very similar to the Testimony who appear at the moment of death to collect the doomed person’s story. (“Twice Upon a Time“)
- “I have apologized for the Death-Eyed Turtle Army! Repeatedly!” Excuse me, we don’t get to see the Turtle Army?!
- “Gold star for Ryan. Or was I awarding points? Ooh, I forgot my points!”
- Name dropping: The Doctor says she’ll pass their thoughts to Mountbatten if she sees him again, then later says she officiated Einstein’s wedding, and his parents didn’t approve either.
- The episode was filmed in Analucía, Spain and did not intentionally refer to Veteran’s Day or Remembrance Day, but Prem’s service in World War II was an apt coincidence.
Doctor Who S11E6 Score
"Demons of the Punjab"
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Nathalie Cuzner, Leena Dhingra, Barbara Fadden, Emma Fielding, Ravin J Ganatra, Shobna Gulati, Hamza Jeetooa, Shaheen Khan, Isobel Middleton, Bahavnisha Parmar, Amita Suman | Director: Jamie Childs | Writer: Vinay Patel