Doctor Who’s latest episode “Demons of the Punjab” was yet another historical hit filled with raw emotion, exceptional dialogue, and an examination of humanity’s internal issues that serve as the real antagonist. It’s hard to find proper words to express how poignant this episode is but I’ll give it a go.
First, Doctor Who did the right thing by putting this episode in the very capable hands of British Indian writer Vinay Patel. According to his Twitter page, he did extensive reading and research in preparation for “Demons of the Punjab” to give it an authentic feel.
And look Whovians, The Great Partition book was written by – you guessed it – Yasmin Khan! Coincidence? Probably not. Patel does a phenomenal job with this episode along with composer Segun Akinola, who brought in musicians of South Asian descent to deliver great music as well as an incredibly gorgeous take on the show’s theme in the credits.
Admittedly, I am not familiar with ins and outs of the Partition of India, but this episode does what Doctor Who historicals were designed to do – make you want to research and learn more. In this case, the historic event mostly played the background to the interpersonal drama between Yaz’s grandmother Umbreen, her fiancé Prem, and his brother Manish, who opposes their impending marriage due to religious differences.
Yaz’s present day interactions with her grandmother felt familiar to anyone who has a relationship with the elders in their family. Umbreen bragged about being the first woman married in Pakistan and offered her beloved granddaughter a broken watch, yet she dodged the details behind the timepiece.
This sparked this episode’s action as the TARDIS team traveled back in time to find her grandmother and discover the origin story behind the gift. It turns out Prem was NOT Yaz’s grandfather, which made Yaz lament about her grandmother omission of the truth.
It’s a common and practically universal theme with elder generations who tend to keep their dark secrets and trauma compartmentalized away from their descendants. And, sometimes we forget that they were once young with different goals, dreams, and lives. Often times, the skeletons don’t surface until after they have passed away if they come out at all, but Yaz gets to see the uncomfortable and tragic truth unfold in front of her eyes.
Yaz’s interactions with her future grandmother in general conversations and at the wedding will no doubt have an effect on her in the future. It gave her another layer of respect and admiration for her grandmother to face oppression and boldly pursue love in the face of opposition.
It’s the stories of everyday people like Umbreen that need to be told more often because they play a role in history. And, it’s so important for those stories to be told through the creative lens of their own people to retain the authenticity and respect the story deserves.
As expected, this episode is the best use of Yaz thus far, giving her some depth and complexity that wasn’t explored in the first half of season 11. Her disbelief during the unraveling of her grandmother’s history and the pain of watching someone she loves get married while she knew the inevitable showed Mandip Gill’s incredible range as an actress.
I still want to see her involved in more of the action or perhaps on an adventure separate from the group that allows her strengths to shine.
Imagine finding out that a former assassin race is now guiding people who die alone to their next spiritual level (the best take on an alien villain this season). Now, imagine how complicated that gets when the next person to die is the love of your grandmother’s life. It’s almost too much to bear but Yaz had to see this through to honor her grandmother’s history and preserve her own future.
Manish’s direct involvement in his brother’s death really added to the gut-wrenching anticipation of Prem’s final moments. It really be ya own people sometimes. The revelation about Prem kept me on pins and needles throughout the last half of the episode and broke my heart when I heard the single gunshot echo in the distance as Yaz walked away with the team.
It was interesting to see The Doctor with her hands tied similar to how they were in “Rosa.” She could not control a fixed element in time but she could help guide the established timeline where it needed to go.
The best part of Thirteen’s run (so far) is how her POC companions have further opened her eyes to religious intolerance, racism, and privilege while simultaneously taking her to incredible places. She’s the perfect Doctor for these types of situations because she’s so governed by her feels.
Her wedding speech as she joined the couple in marriage was absolutely brilliant and a reminder of how she truly believes hope and love prevails.
“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.”
I appreciated Graham’s role in this episode as much as I did in the “Rosa” episode. He really brings a level of emotional maturity, wisdom, and strength for Yaz as she processes the truth about her grandmother.
The pair haven’t interacted much, so it was nice to see them form a bond. And, Ryan is delightful as usual as the first one to run towards danger and the first one to run away when The Doctor says to leave.
He understandably took a back seat in part of this story, but this episode did a good job of involving the secondary characters without completely losing the core companions.
There is a lot of social commentary naturally mixed into the dialogue, especially when Prem notes how division is forced upon people and the ways that regular people can be coerced into dangerous, intolerant groups.
The issues surrounding their marriage with Yaz’s grandma being Muslim and Prem’s family being Hindu are also another layer of how those beliefs can unravel relationship bonds.
In the end, Yaz is proven to be right about her grandmother’s life being her family’s heritage. Exploring the stories of well-known historical figures is awesome, but peeling back the curtains on the life of an ancestor who has loved, lost, and survived gives you a new appreciation for the struggles of a people.
“Demons of the Punjab” just made its way into my top five episodes of all-time.