Doctor Who review: Demons of the Punjab

“Love, in all its forms, is the most powerful weapon we have. Because love is a form of hope. And like hope, love abides. In the face of everything.”

Wow! Doctor Who is really not pulling it’s punches this year. An honest-to-god non-jingoistic Remembrance Day Doctor Who episode.

First up, let me just say it’s wonderful to see Yaz getting a bit more to do this week. Secondly, wasn’t that cinematography GORGEOUS? Seriously, the balance between the shots of the landscape and those intimate scenes and closeups were to die for.

But now to the real meat of the episode. That story was heartbreakingly good. Continuing the trend of “educating” the audience on important but perhaps forgotten history, we are thrown into 1947 and the Partition of India. Once our heroes realise the date, the horrible aftermath of the day’s events become a permanent backdrop for the story, much like other historical such as the Fires of Pompeii, but in far more subtle a manner. (I love the fact that there’s no “please Doctor, I’m ignorant of history and don’t know about these events”. Like in Rosa, these are characters who know their history – as we all should.)

And there we have it: a beautiful, very traditional, love story of star crossed lovers, a subtly done depiction of radicalisation only too topical, and a powerful reminder of what “lest we forget” really means. The red and white poppies of the episode were carefully incorporated into the imagery (another example of quite how well done it was shot), and we have that powerful speech, not from the Doctor but from Prem, raging about how the soldiers who fought, fought for humanity, to overcome difference, and ensure that never again would people have to die to let us all live in peace.

It was a cleverly woven story, in that it all all these different threads. Was this going to be another Father’s Day where the meddling caused the crisis? The set up certainly allowed for that, and then pulled back. At one point, we are potentially lead into thinking that Prem was a villain of sorts – certainly he isn’t Yaz’s grandfather and he’s hiding something, but no, he’s the true hero. And those aliens certainly look sinister… But, instead, we get history told in a microcosm, the tragedy of a nation and the untold deaths given a very personal tale of love and loss. And the Doctor and her friends yet again powerless to stop the tide of history. Theme much? Much like Rosa, Yaz has to stand by and watch the tragedy. Unlike Rosa, the positive outcome is less easy to see. We know her grandmother is happy, even if she regrets, and we are told Prem’s death is essential for Yaz’s survival (a nice inversion of the typical time-travel thought experiment), but the tragedy is so very real. At the beginning of the story, Yaz asks what the point of having a time travelling friend is if you can’t go back and visit your grandmother. The unspoken question throughout this story seems to be “what’s the point of being a time traveler if you can’t change anything?” Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, obviously. But then we also had our Trump-like villain from Arachnids in the UK and the Doctor’s inability to stop him.

I suspect the major complaint people will have about this story is the aliens. Beautifully designed, actually quite scary in their power and the suddenness of their movements but, ultimately, they were just a device. We think they’re the “demons” from the title, the Doctor even thinks they are the enemy: it takes Prem to voice who and what the real demons are. The demons of prejudice and resentment we all need to face: that cancer in our society that leads to hate and extremism. That said, while I think the alien’s back story did work, it felt a little too like The Tesimony in Twice Upon a Time, and did fall back, once more, on the misunderstood alien and the unreasonably prejudiced Doctor motif. As I said about last week’s episode, that is a great and important aspect of Doctor Who – and has been poignant in the series certainly since Jon Pertwee – but it’s power comes partly from undermining expectations. I’m not saying we need the Daleks. But the certainly if we want to believe the Doctor can ever be guilty of prejudice or thinking ill of an alien without giving them the time to explain themselves, we do at least need to be reminded of the fact that she does occasionally meet less benevolent species….

But the aliens were very much not the point. They were a misdirection and one that I just about think was needed for the telling of the story.

The acting was powerful and well played, and Graham’s heart-to-heart speeches brilliantly done. It was another test-jerker of an episode – which I love. Although, please can we have a Dinosaurs on the Spaceship soon?

Anyway, fantastic viewing! Bring on next week.