Finally, it only took half the season but we have a season eleven episode that isn’t written exclusively by Chris Chibnall. It’s true that as the showrunner the Chibbs (new nickname, trying it out) will have had a hand in Demons of the Punjab, but, like Rosa, this episode gives this season a much-needed sense of variety, not just in the setting, but also in terms of story-telling. I’ll be honest: story-wise, season eleven hasn’t exactly thrilled me. Except for Rosa, the episodes we have seen up to now have been mostly fine exercises in sci-fi plotting: with some clear references to Predator (The Woman Who Fell to Earth), The Running Man (The Ghost Monument), Alien (The Tsuranga Conundrum), and the 50s creature feature homage of Arachnids in the UK and, apart for his love of 80s Arnie movies, which I happen to share, these episodes haven’t exactly blew me away.
Perhaps the reason for this opinion can’t be blamed solely on Chibnall’s skill as a writer, or indeed my own subjective opinion of these episodes. Maybe, at least in terms of the episodes that take place in the present and the future, Doctor Who is acting like a show that is in its eleventh season. Perhaps it’s the fact that there are only so many futuristic stories that can be told. The reason why this has been on my mind so much is that this new version of Doctor Who has been feeling stale in these aforementioned episodes, and completely renewed when it comes to episodes set in the past. Both Rosa, and now Demons of the Punjab, have swerved away from the action adventure historical stories to more character-based stories that have clear parallels to our own society.
After Rosa, Doctor Who was accused of wearing its lefty politics on its sleeve, which is true, and whether you agree or disagree with the show’s agenda is up to you, (I myself agree). Arguably though, the power of Rosa wasn’t just its politics, it was Doctor Who’s willingness not to ignore the heritage, the struggle, and the history that informs both Ryan and Yaz’s everyday lives. Demons of the Punjab repeats this feat but this time it’s just Yaz’s heritage that the episode is concerned with.
In previous weeks I’ve critisized the show for its lack of compelling villains but as Chibnall’s era continues it’s a little easier to see what he’s going for thematically. Demons of the Punjab is the third episode in a row that the villains or threats have been misunderstood. The spiders of Arachnids in the UK where a side effect from a toxic waste dump created by humans. The little goblin fellow from last week was, like the spiders, only acting out of instinct and received sympathy from the Doctor who found a more humane way of dealing with the problem.
The same thing happens this week as the huge bug-eyed aliens, who were the supposed demons of the title, turned out to be a race of aliens deeply affected by the destruction of their home planet that they travel the universe to commemorate the deaths of the unseen and forgotten. That’s quite a beautiful statement from the show, especially because the episode premiered on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.
The real monsters of this episode is people. Demons of the Punjab has a lot going on, and it balances its themes and reveals, along with the consequences of certain actions, in expert fashion. In character terms, the episode is most reminiscent of season one’s Fathers Day. Like Rose, Yaz asks the Doctor to go back to the time when her gran was young to find the truth of a story that her gran has kept to herself for decades. That story is the marriage and death of her first husband, Prem, during the life-changing events of the Partition of India and Pakistan an act that caused the deaths of over a million people. The episode uses a tiny community’s story as a stand-in for this conflict as Yaz and her fiance defy the drawing of the border in order to get married.
From what is first thought to be an alien assassination story, quickly becomes the story of two brothers separated by different beliefs. Prem is the symbol of good, even telling the men who are coming to kill him, which are led by his brother Manish, that they are welcome on his land. Unlike his little brother, Prem served in the Second World War, seeing first hand what human beings are capable of when set against each other, even losing his and Manish’s older brother in the conflict. Manish, who has never known war, has been militarized by the Partition, believing in hate enough that he is willing to stand by as his only surviving brother is murdered.
8/10 – Demons of the Punjab is another episode where Team Tardis must let past events run their course. It’s a lesson that needed to be relearned by both the Doctor, her assistants, and us as viewers who were used to Moffat breaking all of these rules. It’s not perfect, as good a character Prem is, the performance of Shane Zaza is frankly awful, and while, like Rosa, Team Tardis worked as relative bystanders to events, the show needs to give them more to do. Still, this is easily one of season eleven’s strongest episodes, we just need the rest of the show to be as strong.