Doctor Who once again takes on a historical landmark setting for the latest instalment from award-winning writer Vinay Patel (Murdered by My Father). The first in the season not to be written/co-written by showrunner Chris Chibnall, the episode offers a much-needed respite in terms of location and writing style. The Doctor and the TARDIS team end up 1947 Pakistan at Yaz’s (Mandip Gill) nan’s wedding as she’s desperate to know more about her family’s history.
Yaz has often been given the short straw at this point in the show. Between her and The Doctor herself, I’d say we know less about the two of them than we do Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh). I was excited for the chance for her to strengthen her character a little, and whilst the episode certainly offers up chances for her family to shine, apart from one heart-to-heart conversation with Graham, we’re offered up nothing once again. Yaz is fascinated by a broken watch given to her by her grandmother and, having a friend with a time machine, wishes to visit her wedding to her grandfather. However, in Pakistan Yaz’s grandmother Umbreen (Amita Suman) is in the process of becoming wed to Prem (Shane Zaza) – a Hindu man and an unknown stranger. All the while, The Doctor’s head is being run rampant with psychic intrusions from an unknown source, and a local holy man is found dead amidst talk of supposed ‘demons’ across the plains. So far, so Doctor Who.
However, as was the case with this season’s ‘Rosa’, the events of the episode coincide with the partition of India, an event which I had very little knowledge about beforehand. Chibnall has gone on record as saying he wishes to bring back some of the educational aspects a time-travelling show can present, and I can’t fault him there. I found myself learning about the event and the ensuing massacre of millions- not the happiest of topics of course but that’s not for me to judge. Filming on location in Spain allows returning director Jamie Childs to make the most of the sweeping desert, and seeing the crew waltz across the mainland was great to see. There’s never been any doubt that the show’s never looked this good before.
It’s the writing I continue to have a problem with this season unfortunately. ‘Demons of the Punjab’ offers up an intriguing and timely-premise yet I found myself checking my phone continuously during the episode. We’re introduced to Umbreen, Prem and his brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) quickly enough, but we’re teased by the presence of the aliens (or ‘demons’ to the locals) all too briefly before finally seeing them. The Vajarians are another species with a strong visual flair, their insect-like heads offer up a nice design alongside the Stenza and at first it seems as though they may indeed offer some real threat in a series that so far has been devoid of it. As The Doctor, Ryan and Prem infiltrate the Vajarians’ base, The Doctor hijacks their teleportation devices and re-wires them to Umbreen’s home, allowing them a short amount of time to hold off a potential attack. A base-under-siege episode set amidst the partition of India could have offered a nice, though familiar, respite for the show yet we’re soon told that the Vajarians – an assassin species – have given up their previous tendencies and instead live a more peaceful and altruistic existence. They catalogue and offer witness to the deaths of those who die alone, a concept incredibly familiar as it’s the same one used by the avatars in Steven Moffat’s final episode ‘Twice Upon a Time’ not even a year ago. Granted I’m a bit of a sucker for heartwarming conclusions to initially-antagonistic creatures, but it still feels as though an episode like this should have arrived a little later in order to not pale in comparison to Peter Capaldi’s finale.
With the alien threat seemingly non-existent (as well as The Doctor’s head traumas), that leaves the episode to instead focus on the darker side of humanity and history itself. A bold claim but again not one we haven’t seen before. With the line between Muslims and Hindus growing alongside the partition, a wedding between two opposing faiths is met with anger by none other than Prem’s brother Manish. The wedding between the two is pushed forward before they’re forced to move across the newfound border, and The Doctor is able to adjudicate the ceremony. Zaza and Suman both put in great work across the episode, and Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor actually takes the more quiet approach during the emotional moments, allowing other character to celebrate their love or fear however they wish. It’s far from building her character, but it’s a nice start. It’s difficult not to continue praising Bradley Walsh’s Graham, especially when he seems to be given every decent emotional speech within the show. I’d like to see some of his dialogue be given to The Doctor at some point, because it’s beginning to feel as if her character is suffering due to his strengthening presence. I hope to be proved wrong of course.
It’s these small handful of emotional moments that seem to be the only memorable plot points however. Over the course of this recap I’ve had to search for what else happened numerous times, as through the episode either felt too bland or slow when thinking about what was actually going on, and how unique the premise is. There’s been a tendency this year to have, quite frankly, dull plots within the episodes and it’s a shame that the one which offered up the most promise felt like one of the slowest.
Having said that, in the episode’s final ten minutes the show became the literal manifestation of its speed. Manish and a number of Hindu soldiers march towards his brother with the intention of segregating them and applying the laws of the partition and Yaz, realising why she doesn’t know who Prem is, knows what happens next. Prem confronts his brother whilst Umbreen and their family escape from the forces and subsequently the foreboding slaughter, and it’s here where Childs’ direction shines. An intensely emotional standoff between the two brothers with the beating sun shining down upon them offers up the highlight of the episode. The Doctor, Ryan, Yaz and Graham walk off regrettably, knowing that they can’t interfere in what’s about to happen as composer Segun Akinola offers up the best piece of music the show’s had yet. Prejudice to the point of murdering your own sibling is a dark topic, but it’s true to reality and of the time. The sequence is handled with grace and compassion by all of those involved, and the following warm sequence of Yaz just enjoying a conversation with an elderly Umbreen is desperately needed. The Vajarians catalogue and witness Prem’s death at the hands of his brother in a haunting sequence, as his memory is transferred up into a database filled with the lonesome deaths of countless others, yet it’s never downbeat. Both Prem and the Vajarians showed love and empathy throughout, and The Doctor’s respect is dutifully given as the episode comes to a close.
I will admit I’ve been struggling with Doctor Who the last three weeks. Whilst there’s certainly aspects of the show I love I’m finding the storytelling to be suffering a worrying amount. I can only hope that the change of writers will once again prove wrong the thought that I may be losing my time with the show. Who knows? Only time will tell.