Doctor Who (Modern): S11E06 “Demons of the Punjab”

Series 11
Directed by Jamie Childs
Written by Vinay Patel

We’ve settled into a nice, solid groove this season with the last episode being no exception.  If there’s anything that will threaten to break free from that groove, it is located right there above in the credits.  Yes, this is the first episode which new showrunner Chris Chibnall doesn’t have a writing credit on and only the second overall that any other writer has a credit on.  Considering that episode was possibly the season highlight (even if it put off quite a few people with its heavy handedness), there’s some hope that this can avoid a few of the more common issues (problems ending episodes, balancing three companions, consistent tone) that have been cropping up.

Speaking of “Rosa”, we are also returning to Earth’s historical past, this time to India in 1947, the year it would gain its independence from Great Britain.  It’s only the second time the country has been visited by The Doctor (at least on the show), coincidentally written by Chibnall, and even then, it was only briefly in the future during Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.  It’s also the second episode this season after “Arachnids in the UK” that promises to explore Yaz’s family, this time her grandmother who is from and was still living in India at the time.  In that episode, we were introduced to her family who make another appearance in a flashback featuring her older grandmother giving her a broken watch that she insists must never be fixed.  This mystery (not to us since basic dramatic knowledge is plenty to tell us this is a closed time loop) of course inspires Yaz to go ask The Doctor to head to the Punjab and despite her reservations about doing so.

Besides the obvious concerns about messing with your own timeline, she had done it for Rose in “Father’s Day” only for her to nearly cause catastrophic issues thanks to her own secret agenda.  Yet, The Doctor plugs the watch into the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits and it transports the four of them to the Punjab on the 17th of August, the day of the division of India and Pakistan and right on the new border.  It’s also the eve of Yaz’s grandmother Umbreen’s wedding but to her distress to someone (Prem) who is not her grandfather (which of course causes her to try and meddle a bit).  He is however wearing the watch she was given.  Also, unlike Umbreen, Yaz, and all her other ancestors who are Muslim, he is a Hindu, a conflict that forms the backbone of the episode.

The Doctor also starts seeing flashes of something when she arrives, creatures that are shortly thereafter seen watching over them.  Prem in fact had seen the creatures before while he was away fighting, standing over his dead brother’s body in Singapore.  The episode takes great pains to make it obvious that they aren’t threatening despite their intimidating appearance for when The Doctor takes something of theirs, they claim she is desecrating The Hive and that she cannot stop this.  When someone claims you are desecrating something, you are rarely in the right.  The creatures were Thijarians, assassins whose world was destroyed while they were off-world.  Now they carry around what little remains of their world and around the universe through time and space to honor those who die throughout time and space, passively observing those who die.

Doctor Who, or at least NuWho, has always made a big deal about certain moments being fixed while other moments in history being more malleable to change.  While the show has pretty much avoided talk of that this year and The Doctor’s insistence that Yaz has to live can easily be chalked up to her extreme determination (at the expense of the lives of countless others) to keep the people in her charge alive, it does start to point that her existence has become a fixed point thanks to her travels with The Doctor.

Prem’s death is set in motion by his own younger brother who has become fiercely separatist and prejudiced while he was away at war.  He objects strongly to the marriage and is the one who had killed the holy man to prevent him from marrying the two off as well as leading the Hindus to the wedding party.  Umbreen’s mother also wants her to marry a Muslim mostly for security, but there’s a heavy hint of tradition in her tone as well and seemingly her every line pointing to the events being an indication that the wedding is cursed and it’s not too late for Umbreen to change her mind.  Ultimately, the wedding goes through, if loaded with dramatic irony for the TARDIS Team knowing how it is going to end for Prem.  We see Umbreen and her mother head for Sheffield, but her husband stays behind to distract his brother (the real demons).

In so many ways this feels like “Father’s Day” all over again between the meddling from a companion over their ancestor, the upsetting if inevitable conclusion, and the monsters overseeing death/the timeline who we will probably never see again.  I can’t say it has nearly the impact on the character since we are introduced to Yaz’ Nani this episode and the story just doesn’t have nearly the same kind of ties to who the companion is as a person, but it was effectively handled.  It’s still an imperfect story, largely struggling by how telegraphed every plot point was, but it may be the strongest yet.

Grade: B+

Stray Observations

– Since the comments have largely stopped coming in until after the episodes have finished up (no complaints here) in the US, I’ve obviously started holding these until 9 EST.
– Leena Dhingra (Nani Umbreen) had previously appeared on the show as Miss Chandrakala in “The Unicorn and the Wasp”.
– Add chemistry to The Doctor’s skills here as she uses a bunch of random ingredients to analyze the substance she had recovered (initially claiming it was for a demon repellent).
– Once again (I think this is three straight weeks), the episode largely sidelines Ryan (not complaining) and Graham (as this episode points out, that’s for the best considering the setting), and my early concerns about how the show would handle it based on the first few seasons have been coming true.
– This is the most we have taken the gender change on here with The Doctor getting excited over the wedding prep having never done anything like that when she was a man.
– Despite The Doctor’s insistence that they not get involved, it is The Doctor who winds up getting the most involved (mostly by appealing to her vanity) as she is chosen to officiate the wedding in the stead of the murdered priest
– The stories this season have felt more sci-fi tinged than embracing the sci-fi elements for whatever reason.  I don’t know if that is just perception or a conscious choice.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: I guess we have mostly abandoned cliffhangers to the point that I didn’t even notice I left this section out last week.  The show has felt like they have moved for better or worse to more self-contained stories.

Next Up:  We will return for more coverage of the Thirteenth Doctor‘s era with “Kerblam!” next while Doctor Who Classic will return on 11/26 with “The Seeds of Death” at 10 AM EST.