Doctor Who: 11.06 Demons of the Punjab
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Doctor Who series 11's greatest strength may be its return to the show's historical roots. Rosa offered an emotional driven tale that educated its audience on the history of racial tensions and the civil rights movement in 50's Alabama. This week's was somewhat similar in tone; delving into the secret, traumatic past of Yaz' grandmother against the backdrop of the 1947 Partition that saw Pakistan segregated from India and the violence that ensued.
I have to admit, I knew virtually nothing about the Partition and the violence, mass displacement of Hindus and Muslims and the death toll that exceeded a million. And perhaps the biggest success of this week's Doctor Who was in how it brought to light the event that caused so much suffering and still has impact to this very day in the tension between the two nations.
Demons of the Punjab tackled a story that has been done before - the companion travelling back into an event that will impact their past - (Rose saving her dad in Father's Day being a great example). However this wasn't about Yaz trying to change history, and perhaps that gave a lack of momentum to start with (a bit of laziness / playing it safe that is sadly a little apparent in the storytelling this year). But this was soon forgotten with the setting providing some powerful subject matter and the mystery of how her grandmother Umbreen was about to marry someone who wasn't her grandfather.
It was an interesting character journey for Yaz, facing a version of her grandmother she had only seen in photos eager to marry someone who was not her grandfather. I wasn't always convinced Mandip Gill quite carried off the conflict in Yaz's character (she's a solid actress but doesn't quite hit the same mark as her main co-stars) but it was nice to see further development in her character, again through her family (a nice trope Chris Chibnall has resurrected from the Russell T Davies era).
Against the backdrop of the approaching chaos were Shane Zaza as Hindu Prem and Amita Suman as Yaz's Muslim grandmother to be Umbreen. Both delivered strong, engaging performances that made you feel for their Romeo And Juliet style plight of the two people from different religions and soon to be different nations purely because a line was being drawn between their farms. And having Yaz become a participant in their wedding knowing whatever happened, Umbreen would layer marry her grandfather, added an interesting conundrum for the young companion, even if wasn't explored as fully explored as it could have been.
The alien threat felt a little unnecessarily; this was certainly, like Rosa before it, an episode that would have worked perfectly well as a pure historical. However the Vijians looked great as the titular demons of the Punjab and the reveal that they were not aliens but witnesses to the death of Prem added some real emotional momentum to the final act as the Doctor, Yaz, Graham and Ryan helped with the wedding - The Doctor even officiating - knowing that he had just one day to live.
The violence and chaos of the Partition was witnessed through the death of Prem and the betrayal of his brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa), a man dissulsioned by his country and age preventing him from fighting in the very recent Second World War. Manish had embraced hatred, fiercely believing Muslims and Hindus should be divided and emerges as the true villain of the story, killing the holy man arriving to marry Umbreen and his brother and then bringing violence to their doorsteps on their wedding day. Not only was this a well delivered educational piece on the events of the Partition, it also served to reflect on social issues around race and religion still prevelant today.
The death of Prem was sensitively done, hidden by the Vijian witnesses as the Doctor and her companions fled, while the final scene with Yaz and her grandmother in the present day was a bittersweet coda, the companion now knowing the trauma her grandmother encountered in her escape to Lahore and then 'exotic' Sheffield. The question of whether Umbreen was happy with her second husband, Yaz's grandfather was nicely addressed too.
Demons Of The Punjab showed that perhaps the biggest success of Chibnall's Doctor Who is it's ability to return to the shows roots and educate the audience about a key period of history. It might not have needed the additional sci-fi trappings; this was a story that worked just as well as an old fashioned tale of two doomed lovers in one of India's most tumultuous periods.