Monday 12 November 2018

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 11x06 - Demons of the Punjab

Doctor Who 11x06 - Demons of the Punjab

Since this current series of Doctor Who seems to be all about the simple stories, one about going back in time to visit your own relatives and the dangers that can bring about seemed almost inevitable. The show already did an excellent job of that back in 2005 with Father's Day, but the concept is so ingrained into science fiction culture that there's always room for a second go. Episode six of the 2018 series is entitled Demons of the Punjab, directed by Jamie Childs and written by Vinay Patel – making it the first episode this series without credited writing input from showrunner Chris Chibnall.

When Yaz is given a broken watch by her grandmother Umbreen Khan, she manages to persuade the Doctor to take them back to India in 1947 to find out the untold story behind it. There she's shocked to discover that the Muslim Umbreen is set to marry a Hindu man, Prem. Prem however isn't the man Yaz recognises as her grandfather. The Doctor warns Yaz about stepping too much in her own history, but begins experiencing strong head pains upon their arrival in India.

As the couple rush their wedding ceremony before the partition of India is set to begin, the Doctor and friends discover alien figures lurking in the forest. Between these unknown figures, opposition from Prem's brother and the events in history about to occur, will the wedding go ahead?

It took six whole episodes but it's finally come. Not only is Demons of the Punjab the first episode to be wholly written by someone other than Chris Chibnall, but it's also the Yaz-focus episode the series has been crying out for weeks now. It was quickly becoming clear that if anything was currently holding the show back it was the shallowness of the writing pool, and as expected a changeup was exactly what was needed to fix that. Demons of the Punjab may follow the pattern of previous episodes in that it's based off of a fairly simple and familiar concept, but unlike the others this one had several different strands coming together to make it more interesting. Powerful as Rosa was, it faltered by including a sci-fi element that simply felt out of place in the grand scheme of the story. Demons on the Punjab goes for a similar tactic, but its aliens are used to build suspense – giving a suitably sci-fi feel to the story that only later enhances the revelation that the tragedy will eventually lie with both history and humanity once again.

So for once Yaz takes centre stage as Doctor Who takes on a particularly strong familial aspect. Demons in the Punjab takes the wise decision to simply warn about the effects of meddling in history too much rather than focus everything around it, with the story being another event where the Doctor and company act more as witnesses than instigators. The extra focus on Yaz means that Ryan falls a little to the wayside, but with so many episodes already developing in some way this was no real loss. Bradley Walsh continues to shine as Graham though, turning every little speech he makes into an episode highlight. The Doctor is also at her hypocritical best, warning Yaz about the effects of meddling too much in history but then going ahead and getting involved just about as much as possible. There’s also a great little moment about her being a women for the first time, entirely played for laughs but drawing attention to the fact in a fitting way.

But Demons on the Punjab where the guest cast really shines, with both Amita Sumari and Leena Dhingra bringing something great to the role of Umbreen. Shane Zaza pulls in an equally great performance as Prem, and the two have genuinely good chemistry together - making it all the more heartbreaking when the crushing inevitability of this story becomes apparent. Final credit also has to go to Hamza Jeetooah as Prem’s brother Manish, a character that undoubtedly could have benefited from more development but was still able to provide exactly the impact the story required of him. Demons of the Punjab’s use of the Indian partition as a backdrop works brilliantly for the narrative as it allows the finer points to focus on characters but is nevertheless adds key historical context. The partition of India isn’t a period that’s perhaps especially well-known or educated to Westerners either, making it a particularly strong subject for something like Doctor Who. While the effects of prejudice are once again at the core of the story’s tragic ending, the story’s repeated allusion to the damage Britain did in creating that situation works to equal impact.

The on top of all this then you have the Varjarian, the first alien species this series of Who has tackled that weren’t utterly ridiculous in some way. Brilliant practical costumes, a genuine presence - right from their first appearance they really had the makings of a memorable Doctor Who villain. Not necessarily one you’d see repeatedly, but certainly one that you wouldn’t forget about by the following week. But then the episode went and turned it around, cleverly framing them as a threat but revealing them as misunderstood. Not only does this pave the way for a far more powerful ending, but also provides some much appreciated development for the Doctor too. This series might be laying it on with a Doctor that gets a bit too wound up and inevitably makes mistakes, but it’s always a pleasure to see her having to properly work the situation out and not immediately be right about it all.

And since I made such a fuss about it in my Rosa review a few weeks ago, Demons of Punjab also demonstrated EXACTLY how you can play around with the end credits theme without losing any of that Doctor Who spirit. Following on from Yaz's touching conversation with her grandmother, the credits rolled out to a Punjabi-inspired rendition of the classic theme – instantly recognisable yet carrying a whole different set of emotions to the standard version. The music composition for this episode was particularly good, this was a particular highlight.

Doctor Who can be many things. It can be fantastic, it can be historical, it can be mysterious and it can be sentimental. Rarely can an episode manage to encompass all of these things at once and not feel muddled, but somehow Demons of the Punjab managed it. A fantastic episode that takes the series' mantra of simple stories yet manages to do something interesting with it, the first non-Chibnall lead story of this year also just happens to be its best so far. Next week it's time to head back into outer space and find out if working for intergalactic Amazon is just as bad as it is here, in the rather wonderfully titled Kerblam!.

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