Doctor Who 11x06 “Demons of the Punjab” Review
Finally, an episode that highlights Yaz!
After some convincing, the Doctor agrees to journey to the Punjab circa 1947 so Yaz can meet her Nani Umbreen and make sense of the secrets she seems to be keeping. Her Nani did give her a mysterious broken watch and refused to talk about it…yeah, I’d be searching for some answers, too.
They happen to arrive on the very day of India’s partition, a conflict which caused the death of over a million people and the displacement of tens of millions. That’s an extreme summary, keep in mind.
When we meet Yaz’s Nani, she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with. She’s smart, with a great sense of self and a strength that we’ve seen hints of from Yaz. Honestly, I would not be opposed to Nani as a future companion.
Yaz’s attempt at a happy family reunion is almost immediately derailed when she finds out her Nani is about to marry a man that is not her grandfather, and that their upcoming marriage is at the heart of the conflict between her husband-to-be, Prem, and his brother Manish. A literal brother against brother scenario unfolds, with Manish outraged that his brother, a Hindu, would marry Umbreen, who is Muslim. Apparently while Prem was away fighting in Saim his brother became a fully fledged Indian Nationalist who was all too eager to put up a literal barrier between the land belonging to his family and to Umbreen’s.
I’m immediately intrigued by this — her Nani had a whole first marriage that she told no one about? There’s bound to be a reason why.
Yaz’s panic upon realizing her Nani is about to marry Prem quickly fades into a touching devotion to her Nani and her happiness. It’s clear that Umbreen and Prem are in love, and they’re both determined to overlook any political conflict or religious difference that might stand in the way of their marriage. Yaz even takes part in the wedding when Umbreen asks her to tie her and Prem’s hands together using the rope that previously divided the new border between India and Pakistan. Subtle symbolism, Chibnall.
Wedding aside, this episode is uncomfortable to watch, and for good reason. You can’t exactly write an episode centered on the partition between India and Pakistan as a comedy. There’s an uneasiness that builds throughout the episode. Violence is approaching the partition. Manish is growing more and more volatile. We know that Prem isn’t Yaz’s Grandfather. Why?
The aliens in this episode serve as a red herring, immediately focused on as the villain by the Doctor. She recognizes them as the Vajarians, an alien race of assassins. It’s pretty confusing as to why they’re in the Punjab, and why they’d be targeting anyone there. Not too long into the episode we find them huddled over the body of the holy man that was to officiate Umbreen and Prem’s wedding — but what kind of threat could a holy man pose to anyone?
It turns out, if you applied the obvious answer to that question, it’s pretty easy to see how things will play out in the rest of the episode.
We can’t seem to find a reason that aliens would want to kill a holy man, and that’s because there isn’t a reason. They weren’t even the ones that killed him. That was Manish, still upset about the union of his brother and Umbreen, and willing to do whatever it takes to keep India and Pakistan separate.
The Doctor then learns that the reason that the Vajarians are on Earth is worse than previously thought. They are no longer assassins, but witnesses. They’ve changed since their entire planet was destroyed while they were away on a mission. Their entire planet and everyone on it was destroyed, without witness and without fanfare. So their new mission is to travel through space and serve as witnesses for those who would have otherwise died alone, as they did with the holy man. They explain to the Doctor that they’re specifically in the Punjab because of the upcoming violence, and that “millions will perish, unseen and unheard.”
Again, Chibnall isn’t so subtle with his references here: the episode aired on Remembrance Day, so writing an episode that centers around the Punjab with an emphasis on violence perpetrated by everyday people isn’t exactly a coincidence.
It’s easy to see by now that Prem is doomed, to be blunt. We now know that his brother is so caught up in this Nationalist narrative that he’s willing to kill, and as the episode progresses he grows more and more aggressive. Before Prem’s inevitable death, he manages to vocalize what the entire episode is about. He expressed his dismay at the partition and the violence growing closer. Sometimes the violence that is the most harmful is the violence perpetrated by “ordinary people, who’ve lived here their entire lives.” He continues to say that there’s “nothing worse than when normal people lose their minds.”
This episode is an obvious reflection on the Punjab, but I think we can all apply this warning to the events surrounding us today. We’re all being told that our differences are more important than what we have in common, something also mentioned by Prem.
In the end Umbreen and her mother are forced to flee, leaving Prem behind so he can attempt to reason with his brother. The Doctor and Team TARDIS are left to witness Prem’s murder, having to stress inaction much like in “Rosa.” Watching our heroes walk away from Prem, the fatal gunshot sounding in the background, is unlike anything they’ve done on Doctor Who.
All in all, this was another solid episode of Doctor Who. It’s obvious now that Chris Chibnall’s strengths are character driven conversations and historical episodes, of which I’m happy about. The aliens in this episode were underwhelming, but I think that was the point. They certainly weren’t meant to be the focus.
However, the problem I’m beginning to see is that the same thing applies for almost all the aliens we’ve met so far this season. The P’Ting of episode five was universally panned as silly, and the aliens that have the potential to be menacing haven’t been afforded enough time to be effective. We’re also being introduced to only new aliens, and not any Doctor Who classics like the Daleks or the Cybermen.
I’ve mentioned before that in previous seasons the show suffered from long winded story arcs that focus too much on being clever, but this serious doesn’t even have one. Monster of the week episodes are great and can be some of the strongest in the series, but without linking at least a few episodes, the effectiveness of the season as a whole suffers. There was potential in the beginning with The Stenza, but that potential quickly disappeared. There also haven’t been any truly high stakes for the Doctor, something that is noticeably missing from Jodie Whittaker’s performance. She’s wonderful in the lighter moments and is effective when being stern, but we haven’t seen her be a true force as the Doctor. Let’s hope the second half of the series picks up steam — who knows, maybe there’s a reckoning coming after all.