Yaz (Mandip Gill) is inspired by her grandmother’s birthday to find out more about her family. Deciding that The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) would be the best person to ask, the gang decide to travel back to India in 1947. With partition occurring as the TARDIS team arrive, they discover that history is more complex than Yaz could imagine but that isn’t the only thing that is stirring. The Doctor soon finds out that something deadly is hiding in the Punjab.
Historical adventures have been a staple of Doctor Who since the very beginning of the programme. However, the show has mainly journeyed back into the past of Western Europe and America. Therefore, an episode set in India in 1947 is not only different but immediately interesting because of this difference – it helps the show feel truly international rather than be limited to one place on Earth.
The idea of an episode set in the part also having a direct connection to one of The Doctor’s companions is an interesting twist which the show has used sporadically to great effect – back in the 1980s with The Curse of Fenric and in 2005 with Father’s Day. Vinay Patel utilises this personal connection particularly well in this episode and allows us to enjoy a more personal connection to the era and to the displacement felt by Yaz’s family.
The central conflict between Yaz attempting to understand why her grandmother’s life is not as she told her and realising, as Graham (Bradley Walsh) says that life should be lived is brilliantly reflected in Patel’s portrayal of the conflict occurring in India. Patel perfectly captures the political bitterness between different people during the late 40s and the desire for separate nations and the end of British rule in India.
The use of the Vajarians as witnesses to the deaths of the million killed in the wake of Partition is a prophetic and profound way of utilising science fiction to discuss a deeply traumatic event that happened only seventy years ago and to remember those who died during the birth of two nations. Patel, like Chibnall and Blackman in Rosa succinctly combines science fiction and history to allow us to engage with a drama that can combine both significant history with fun aliens and time travel – neither demeans or reduces the impact of the other. Like with Rosa, Vatel doesn’t shy away from showing the horror of history and how we can learn from it and be better people for the future.
Mandip Gill gives an excellent performance in this episode and, in many ways, this episode is hers. Gill perfectly plays the emotions that Yas is feeling in each scene to the nth degree – both during the scene in which her grandmother Umbreen’s (Amita Suman) marriage to Prem (Shane Zaza) and during Prem’s death, Gill gives her all. The horror she feels at letting history take its course is portrayed throughout her face and we feel the sadness that she does. Gill’s performance certainly deserves a great deal of praise for its honest and its integrity – the sheer love for her grandmother being particularly honest in the final scene of the episode.
The design of the Vajarians is imaginative and it is nice to see aliens in the series that have a distinct and memorable design after previous series have featured aliens that aren’t as memorable. Hopefully, we will be able to see the Vajarians in the future – whether as witnesses or assassins they are a welcome addition to Doctor’s roster of extra-terrestrials.
The music used throughout the episode is exceptionally good and once again praise must be given to Segun Akinola for giving the music not only a heartfulness but using it to elevate the episode. The best composers not only add to the piece they are writing for but improve it and give it an extra amount of life and dexterity. Akinola can certainly be said to have done that.
Demons of the Punjab is Doctor Who at its best and like Rosa, it packs a deep emotional punch. Both episodes manage to portrayal the brutality of history realistically and effectively and they both balance emotional depth extremely well. Hopefully Vinay Patel will write for the series again as he is one of the best new writers that the show had introduced in recent years. Demons of the Punjab is certainly not only a testament to his vision but of the ability of history to touch us, regardless of how long ago it was.
Doctor Who Continues Sunday on BBC One.