"Demons of the Punjab" is, by far, the strongest episode of the season so far. The only episode to rival it is "Rosa," and there's a clear indication that this new version of Doctor Who is strongest when presenting historical, socially aware stories rather than escapist adventures. More cynically, I might point out that these two episodes are the ones with the least involvement from showrunner Chris Chibnall. "Rosa" was co-written by Malorie Blackman, while this has a sole writing credit for Vinay Patel. On the other hand, the episode feels very much a part of the new Who; while there has been quite a variety of stories in just these six episodes, series eleven still feels consistently part of one vision for the programme. Chibnall has stated he's using the open writing room approach to brainstorm ideas, and while this episode seems very much the work of Patel, others doubtless had influence.
Some have questioned why the two writers of colour this season have written scripts specifically concerned with their racial backgrounds. Patel, at least, is on record stating that this is very much the story he wanted to tell. This is surely not a shock, to anyone except the most parochial viewers. The Partition of India is one of the most significant events in the history of the world, one that continues to have repercussions for people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) and the United Kingdom. The rights and wrongs of the British Empire and its actions worldwide are far too big a subject to go into here, but the Partition is a singular event that triggered astonishing violence. It was, of course, intended to prevent conflict, but human nature is far more aggressive and complicated than that and the idea that drawing a line through a map would somehow leave a community happily divided is tragically flawed.
Such world-changing events are impossible to really comprehend by individuals, so stories like this - seeing the effects on people's lives, on their families - let's us understand it in personal terms. I have friends who's parents and grandparents experienced very similar events to Prem and Umbreen, with the border line drawn right through villages, splitting communities down the middle. What's surprising about Patel's script is that it doesn't give much time to the British Empire's responsibility here. There's the odd line about Englishmen not being very welcome, but it's not followed up, and there's the Doctor's slightly ill thought out line about the Viceroy Mountbatten. Overall, though, the British responsibility for the crisis is overlooked in favour of placing the responsibility for the violence on those who became radicalised. Which is not wrong, by any means, as the responsibility for violence lies at the hands of those who perform it, but all such situations exist in context. As well as the British officials, there were Hindu nationalists and an influential Pakistan Movement calling for a two-nation system. It's complicated, and, like with "Rosa," this is just too big a subject to examine properly in a fifty minute TV show.
Which is not to say it isn't worthwhile. It's frustrating how little most people in Britain know about an event that is a significant part of our history, not least because of the large numbers of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani people, and their immediate descendants, who live here. I only know a little myself, although the episode has encouraged me to read into the events more. I imagine the episode will prompt others to learn more about it too.
So, while the subject is a worthwhile one, it would be wasted on an episode that was poorly scripted and realised. Fortunately, this is easily the strongest script of the season so far, and the performances are, for the most part, very strong. The weak line, unfortunately, is Amita Suman, who is captivatingly beautiful but sadly very wooden in her acting with some poor delivery, which is a problem when her character demands so much screentime. Fortunately, both Shane Zaza as her husband Prem, and Hamza Jeetooa as his radicalised brother Manish are more than capable of carrying their share of the episode. Zaza in particular commands real sympathy and charisma.
The regular cast are as good as ever, and it seems like every episode I point out just how brilliant Bradley Walsh is, particularly in the heartbreaking moment he consoles Prem, knowing what awaits him. Tosin Cole doesn't get very much to do this episode, and Ryan is suffering from the same problem as Yaz did earlier in the season; there just isn't enough story to go around for this many regulars to have much focus each episode. This is, of course, Yaz's episode, and Mandip Gill holds it admirably, but there's still the frustrating sense that we don't really know her character. While this episode and "Arachnids of the UK" gave her much needed focus, she exists almost entirely in relation to her family.
Jodie Whitaker is effortlessly charming as the Doctor, especially the hen party when she revels in being included in things like henna painting, and things she never got do when she was a man. Her sense of powerlessness is palpable as events play out, and there's a lot to be said for an approach to historical stories that don't involve famous and influential figures. There's no moral or scientific argument that history must be maintained, no fixed points in time or immutable chronology. The Doctor and her companions are simply in no position to affect the grand sweep of events here, and any direct intervention in Prem's fate would almost certainly negate Yaz's existence. There's nothing they can do but accept that he will die and that the family's story will continue. The Doctor's lack of direct impact has been a talking point this season, but it's exactly what this episode needs (nonetheless, I hope she has the chance to show what's she's capable of before the year is out).
Why the Doctor is so easily persuaded to take Yaz back into her personal history, in spite of the obvious dangers, is another question. For those who ship the Doctor and Yaz, it's worth remembering that the last time the Doctor did something like that, it was because he fancied Rose and lost all judgment. Whether it means anything like that now remains to be seen.
The aliens of the week, the Thijarans, are both very effective and essentially unnecessary. I suppose we're just not going to see pure historicals anymore, but even more so than "Rosa," this is an episode that could have worked perfectly well without any other time travellers or sci-fi elements beyond Team TARDIS. Nonetheless, they are excellently realised, easily the most visually effective monsters of the season so far. Making them physically monstrous but actually rather pleasant is a nice touch, and I like how the two aliens were both voiced and physically portrayed by women, which when combined the masculine, alien Shredder look, adds to the unearthly quality. On the other hand, their mission to observe the forgotten dead, while noble and effectively portrayed, is very similar to the Testimony and their actions in the most recent Christmas special.
If anything, the fact that the Thijarans, while being both simultaneously effective yet surplus to requirements, shows how well Doctor Who could pull off a return to the purely historical adventure. "Demons of the Punjab" shows that this is where the series' newest iteration's strengths lie.
Play Segun Akinola's haunting Punjabi-inspired arrangement of the Doctor Who theme.