Review: Doctor Who, Series Eleven, Episode Six, ‘The Demons of Punjab’

Demons of Punjab promo image - Yas and her great-grandmother standing in a meadow.

Another beautifully written historical episode. I think the fact that showrunner Chris Chibnall has ensured that people of colour are hired to write historically sensitive episodes like this, and ‘Rosa’, is making a palpable difference. Writer Vinay Patel‘s grandparents were Indian, and his previous credits demonstrate his experience and passion for writing in a way that draws on his roots. It matters that these episodes are not simply written by white people about a white Doctor interacting with these moments, and I think it shows in the quality of the episodes, which come across to me as personal, engaged, and centred on the moment in history and not on the Doctor.

In this episode we see Yaz (Mandip Gill) begging the Doctor to take her back in time to an important moment in her family’s history – the day her grandmother received a watch from her grandfather. We’ve seen similar story premises before, most notably in ‘Father’s Day‘, where the Doctor takes Rose back in time to see her father, and we all learn why that’s generally a bad idea. Some moments are fixed in time, and if you try to change things for those moments, Reapers sweep out of the fabric of the universe to correct things.

With plenty of warnings from the Doctor about not interfering, she eventually agrees. Because the Doctor will always side with curiosity.

Only this time it turns out that they arrive not only at an important moment of family history, but of the history of India and the world. They arrive the day before the Partition of India, when the country was divided in two – creating Pakistan.

I am going to own up and say that this truly significant moment in history is one that I knew nothing about prior to today. Zero. Nadda. As a white girl who attended British and American schools, no one ever told me anything about this. This new season of Doctor Who is once again serving up genuine history lessons – not only for the children who will be watching, but for many adults, too.

When I consider comparing this episode to other Doctor Who historicals – ‘The Romans‘, ‘The Visitation‘, even ‘The Fires of Pompeii‘ – there’s really no contest. The vast majority of Doctor Who historicals are focused on white European and American history, and it tends to focus on the kind of history that kids will be learning about in schools anyway: the Tudors and Stuarts, the Romans, Pompeii, the Moon Landing, the French Revolution. There are exceptions. I wish we had the lost serial ‘Marco Polo‘ – I listened to the 30-minute reconstructed episode about ten years ago… but it’s not the same. It’s also noticeable that it’s an episode focusing on a European encountering Kublai Khan and the Silk Road, and I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to whether it was sensitively handled.

This episode – and ‘Rosa’ – are doing something very different and very good. The Doctor isn’t explaining history to us and history is not simply an entertaining backdrop, focusing on the greatest hits of what English school kids are probably going to hear about anyway.

When the political situation in India is discussed, it is outlined for us by two brothers on opposing political sides. One a Hindu man, Prem, who wants to marry a Muslim woman; the other his brother, who is firmly opposed. When they discuss the British involvement in Indian history, again, it is the brothers who tell us about it and contextualise it from the point of view of the war that Prem fought in, and that his other brother died in. When we learn of the drought and starvation that India endured, it is Yaz’s grandmother and great-grandmother who tell us about it.

We are also introduced to Hindu and Muslim marriage ceremonies and a Hindu holy man. We are shown culture, not merely facts. And we are shown the hope that exists in these times, too. Thoughts about creating new ceremonies and new ways of living together, not simply enmity and despair.

This is a rich episode.

I also loved that the inevitable alien involvement turned out (minor spoilers) not to have any affect on the historical events. Doctor Who is not attempting to rewrite history. It is not inserting the Doctor, or alien species into human conflicts, which is a particularly problematic trope when it comes to white people interpreting things that happened to, or were achieved by, people of colour.

And because I’m sure someone, somewhere will say it: no, it is not the same if aliens turned out to have built Stonehenge or the Doctor started the Great Fire of London. One significant difference is that no one believes that ancient Britons could not have built Stonehenge, whereas a disturbing number of people think that the pyramids of Egypt and the Nazca lines could not have been achieved by the ancient peoples of Egypt and Peru and must have been made by aliens. It is different when science fiction stories posit aliens being responsible for the events that happen to marginalised groups. It matters that the Thijarans are here to witness history, and not make it.

That the Thijarans come to witness the ‘unacknowledged dead’ is so deeply moving, Not only simply as a thought for us all about death and baring witness, but also as a reminder of our role as viewers, and a description of what the writers are doing in bringing this episode to us. Part of remembering history is acknowledging the lives lived and people lost. It matters that we try to witness them as they were – to value them as people in their own right, and not simply facts in history, numbers of dead in terrible conflicts. That we acknowledge them as people who lived and died.

They’re also striking as alien creatures – their architecture and costumes are dark and gothic, but acknowledged to be beautiful by both the Doctor and her companions. They also seem to be inspired by bats – their heads resemble bats, and the CGI effect that shows when the matter transmitter is used recalls the motion of bats flying. I’m curious as to what inspired them, and briefly wondered if they reflected any aspect of Hindu mythology, but my GoogleFu suggests not. I’d welcome comments from anyone more knowledgeable!

I’d also like to give a shout out to the writing for Graham in this episode and the performance by Bradley Walsh. There are several nice, understated moments when he really shows the value of having an older companion in the TARDIS. His understanding of why Yaz’s nani might not want to talk about difficult and traumatic times from her past provides a welcome word of wisdom. I’m loving the way his character is developing to consistently provide quiet insight – an insight that tends towards respecting others whilst embracing the new.

Lastly, I would just like to say that Shane Zaza, who plays Prem, is a very beautiful human being who can assuredly get it, and I would welcome seeing more of him on my screen.

In all seriousness, though, this was an excellent episode that continues this series’s run of presenting groundbreaking, original, and truly moving television.

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