Demons of the Punjab
Series Eleven, Episode Six
Praise the lord – or the magic David Tennant that can hover and be transformed by wishes if you’re so inclined! We have temporarily escaped the scripted clutches of Chris Chibnall!
Of course it would be wrong to pretend this can fix some of the more fundamental problems of Series 11. For instance, the TARDIS is absolutely minging and no amount of clever direction can hide that. (This week I spotted those giant fingers / insect legs actually moving when the ship’s in flight. Euw!)
|"Christ... okay, just pull focus on the actors."|
"But you've got to show the TARDIS some ti-"
Yaz is curious about her grandmother’s history so she asks to go back in time and sneak a peek. You may recall the similar plot of Father’s Day, where the Doctor reluctantly agrees to let Rose be with her dad when he dies. There’s a danger of disturbing time by allowing this but his feelings about Rose get the better of him and he says yes. It was one of the really striking early episodes of New Who, showing off the character-driven nature of the show. Now, Yaz’s gran (not dead) doesn’t go into quite enough detail during a family chat, so Yaz nags the Doctor and the Doctor says fine, try not to set fire to anything. Isn’t it obvious how this might go wrong? The dangers of time travel were sort of instilled in Rosa, but keeping history on a famous course isn’t the same as having no idea what happened in the first place and standing around to watch – or worse, mucking in and meeting all the main players. The whole setup is weirdly complacent for Doctor Who. Why not, it says? I can think of several reasons why not.
On the flipside, this is historical Doctor Who – if you saw Rosa you know that’s a good place to start. There’s (hopefully) less reliance on McGuffins and technobabble, and you might learn something. For instance I didn’t know anything about Partition Day, or the kind of bitter feeling (and deaths) it caused in India. It’s great to have an episode that educates, even if it’s Doctor Who so you automatically need to take any “facts” with large sacks of salt. And okay, so we get more sci-fi doodads than we did in Rosa – just from the trailer it threatened to go full-blown “history, but only because of all this bollocks we made up”. But writer Vinay Patel keeps the focus on the history, with the sci-fi bits merely a coincidence. That’s two historical episodes now that strike a balance of story and people first, which in a way is a genuine improvement on a lot of Doctor Who. So yeah – take that, Series 11 gripes!
On arrival in 1947 Yaz is confronted with a strange man who is not her grandfather, but who is going to marry her grandmother. Meanwhile another man has been killed and aliens have been seen with the body. The Doctor is curious and quickly realises these are Thijarians, famed assassins; also that Partition Day is about to happen, with deadly results across the country. And really, there’s not a lot more plot than that. The partition is going to happen, we learn more about the Thijarians, and history takes its course. The episode almost seemed to drag the first time I watched it, not necessarily out of boredom but because there wasn’t a lot going on minute to minute. Instead it revels in character, which is easy when it’s as well cast and well directed as this. It’s cinematic and beautiful to look at, and the small cast are incredible, particularly Shane Zaza as the magnetic and hopeful Prem. The episode gives him such a full character to play with, it’s just a pity his story is more involving than anything that happens to the regulars. Seriously, Ryan doesn’t even phone it in any more – he asks a mate to text it in for him, while Graham gets several emotional moments to reflect on life and mourn death. Bradley Walsh gets (and to be fair, sells the hell out of) more heavy hitting moments than Yaz, and this episode is about her family! I would hope that certain actors are having words with their agents, but it just boils down to too many cooks.
|Yaz: the reason they're going.|
Graham: three funny lines in a row.
Ryan: "Yeah, I'm well up for it."
As for the demons, they’re more insidious than any Doctor Who monster: ordinary people compelled to do awful things by what they believe. In truth, I don’t think the episode sells this to the full because there aren’t that many people in it. Prem’s brother Manish is our spokesman for everyday people twisted by ideology, and the rift between the brothers is heart-breaking, but it’s still a bit odd that we don’t hear from anyone else on the “bad” side, including the pointedly mute group who show up at the end. I know I’m nit-picking, by the way: the second time especially, this episode packs a genuine punch as a very hurtful form of history exacts its consequences. Again, like Rosa, there’s nothing the Doctor can do to prevent awful things happening in the past, or at all sometimes. It’s a tad surprising that we’re going there twice this series, but the episodes do show history from different sides, one a triumph over dark times, the other a survival of them.
Among all this great stuff is the TARDIS team, aka a collection of gooseberries who don’t impact the plot very much. The Doctor officiates a wedding and otherwise bumbles a bit and thinks a bit; she doesn’t come across as particularly useless and thick for once, and can be forgiven for not guessing about the Thijarians and their change of lifestyle. The bit where her sonic screwdriver breaks is a bit of a red herring, especially two weeks running. It’s too much to hope she’s learning to live without it.
As for Yaz, I’m not sure what she learned that isn’t obvious, and I’m not sure what she needed to learn. But there’s nothing Vinay Patel can do to cheat character mileage, or make previous episodes set this stuff up the way Russell T Davies did with Rose. The script does it all very well, it’s just unfortunate that we’re doing this stuff in dribs and drabs whenever a script randomly calls for it. Demons of the Punjab is ultimately a gift horse episode: get involved in the story of these people, take note of the history, and if it’s not exactly brilliant as an episode about the cast of Doctor Who, well, what is these days.
|Quality aside, what kind of person would I be if I didn't mention this line of dialogue:|
"You could interfere yourself out of existence."
Ahem. Maybe take another pass at that?