‘Doctor Who’ 11.06: ‘Demons of the Punjab’

❉ An enlightening drama about a shameful period of Britain’s colonial past, the sci fi interwoven cleverly and unobtrusively with the historical setting.

“The greater tragedy of Partition was in the psychological fallout; the fracturing of families and long-standing communities and wounds that still linger to this day.”  – Writer Vinay Patel.

Demons of the Punjab was shown in the same month that President Trump praised the “beautiful barbed wire” placed on top of barricades built to deter Mexican migrants entering fortress America. On November 11, Doctor Who delivered a stunning, enlightening and gripping drama about a similarly shameful period of Britain’s colonial past. It was appropriate for an episode transmitted on Remembrance Day, as the story also incorporated the theme of honouring people killed in conflict.

Vinay Patel’s tale is the reverse of Rosa: the earlier episode focused on an ordinary person doing an extraordinary thing, while Patel’s companion piece considered the effect of extraordinary events on ordinary people. Unlike Rosa, not a single white oppressor – responsible for the Partition of India in 1947 – was seen. The creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan triggered generations of violence between the two countries, so having a stern British warning floating, detached, above events, reinforced the appalling idea of “Men without a clue… imposing a border like a crack through my country.”

If this all sounds heavy going and overly worthy, it wasn’t. Vinay Patel’s narrative was a sprightly thing, the science fiction interwoven cleverly and unobtrusively with the historical setting. The twist of this week’s aliens, the Vijarians, being reformed assassins (and the “deadliest” ones in the universe at that – geddit?) was very well done too.

The dialogue sparkled with incisive commentary, as well as being genuinely funny – the Doctor’s comment “I never did this when I was a man”, re hanging out with the girls on the eve of a wedding, was the obvious winner. The cinematography was something else, beautifully transforming the Spanish location into a convincing rendition of the Punjab. Full marks as well to the creature designers, because the Vijarians are the best realised aliens seen so far on Chris Chibnall’s watch. They a silhouette that resembled angels more than demons, which was entirely appropriate to the story.

At the heart of the drama, though, were the relationships between three people: ex-British army serviceman Prem (Shane Zaza), a young man about to marry Umbreen (Amita Suman), Yaz’s grandmother, a Hindu/Muslim union opposed by Prem’s radicalised younger brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa). The guest actors were uniformly excellent, in a nationalist take on Romeo and Juliet that also ended in tragedy but concluded with hope. You felt like you’d been on a real journey in the company of these people.

For me this was Jodie Whittaker’s Dalek (2005), i.e. the first episode where her character really snapped into place, her agonised expression as she hears the shot that kills Prem taking her performance to a new, mature level. The symbolism of Prem’s British army rifle was perfectly judged, firstly used against the British Empire’s enemies, then turned on its subjects and then on Prem himself. It was dramatically fitting that a rifle of the same design, carried by a former comrade-in-arms, murdered a man prepared to stand up to a mob and say “This isn’t what we fought for.”

As ever, there were minor caveats: the Vijarians were very like Testimony from last year’s Christmas Special Twice Upon a Time, even down to possessing a handily informative Hive and preserving the memory of the dead. There was also a continuity glitch: the aliens apparently told the Doctor “everything” about Prem’s murder, so why didn’t she know his brother was involved in his death?

Of course, the Daily Mail will continue to dismissively say that Doctor Who is now the most politically correct show on television while, elsewhere, I imagine a narrow minded fan of the ‘old school’ – whatever that is – who believes Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970) was about UNIT fighting underground monsters, will have thrown things at the TV in annoyance at the parallels with Brexit. Lest we forget, Demons of the Punjab was shown in the same week that some f***ing white people thought it was amusing to burn an effigy of the Grenfell Tower on a bonfire, complete with cut-outs of black people in the windows, and then post the video of their fun online.

That’s how far we’ve come since 1947. And it’s one of the reasons why Demons of the Punjab burns up the screen with righteous anger.

❉ ‘Doctor Who’ airs on BBC One, and is made by BBC Studios in Wales. Series link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0

 Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘Infinity’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’.

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