2nd Opinion: “Demons of the Punjab”

Connor Johnston & Gustaff Behr give their takes on the sixth episode of Series 11.

Connor’s View – “Witnesses to History”

What does it mean to bear witness to history? Is it simply to be exposed to an archive of dates and events, or is it to find relevance in the stories and experiences of individuals? Is it to learn about the past or more to learn from it?

Of course, Doctor Who’s ability to have its characters interact with the past physically grants it a unique position from which to explore this concept – but it is the way in which it selects the stories and experiences it portrays that equips this series’ historicals with an overwhelming sense of relevance. It’s here writer Vinay Patel makes the assertion that to bear witness to history is not just simply watching it happen, but to use it as a resource from which to learn from and inform our present.

Initially motivated by a curiosity and thirst for answers, Yaz is quickly challenged by the secrets she uncovers regarding her Grandmother’s early life. Through conversations with both Graham and modern-day Umbreen at the conclusion of the episode, Yaz learns to reconcile the stories of the woman that’s inspired her throughout her whole life and the young woman she helps navigate through the loss of her first love. The need to ‘find answers’ seems to pale in comparison to wanting to be a point of support once she realises what to her means clarity, means a striking loss for her young Grandmother. This is the episode’s first example of reminding us that history isn’t just built from a selection of straight-forward stories and events, but from the individual lives and experiences that can’t just be separated from the influence of tragedy and circumstance.

It seems suspiciously suitable that an episode that revolves around the ramifications of conflict, division and war aired on Remembrance Day – especially through the role of the Thijarians, whose understanding of engaging with history is not one of exploration or malice – but one of compassion. Their involvement in the episode allows the episode to relay the destruction and loss caused by the Partition in a powerfully unique way. By avoiding the trap of glorifying the violence and brutality of conflict, the episode takes a far more intimate approach to honouring the importance of individual lives. The commemoration scene visually depicts the lives lost during the partition as those of individuals, refusing to reduce them to figures and statistics and asserting that an education in history cannot omit the acknowledgement of the people who lived and died through it.

The final way in which Patel invites us to interact with his characters and those they represent is by using their experiences to mirror that of contemporary issues. While Prem’s disbelief in the culture of othering and division speaks wonders for his own character, it sadly isn’t something that our familiarity with modern society can allow us to share. Perhaps this is why both Graham and The Doctor’s advice to a man they know won’t survive the day maintains its power when directed at the audience: To always strive for goodness and put our faith in the abiding ability of love.

However impressive Patel’s debut script is, it is the way in which each area of production functions together in an almost reverence that produces a truly rewarding experience – marking a vast improvement on last week’s inconsistent efforts. Segun Akinola’s use of Indian musicians and motifs produces his strongest presence in any episode thus far, culminating in a rendition of the closing theme that is overwhelmingly heartfelt. Jamie Child’s return similarly impresses, with the care and grace in which he portrays the Indian landscape echoing the emotional journey of both the score and script in his own visual language. Strengthened by the performances and perspectives of our main cast, this is storytelling at its most passionate.

Ensuring its setting isn’t used trivially or just as an exotic backdrop, “Demons of the Punjab” is an episode that encourages its audience to recognise the responsibility we have as witnesses to history. A responsibility to educate and not just entertain, to engage and not just observe, to inform ourselves with and not distance ourselves from. A responsibility, above all, for empathy.

Gustaffs’s View – “A Small Step Up”

“Demons of the Punjab” is a step up from “The Tsuranga Conundrum”, but not by much. Of all the episodes we’ve had so far this one came closest to making me want to rewatch it. After all, there isn’t much wrong with the episode. It isn’t as heavy-handed in its social commentary as some other episodes have been this series, makes good use of the Doctor and Yaz and provides us with a good, simple conflict.

So then why does it feel like someone just kicked the air out of my lungs… again? Easy. “Demons of the Punjab” spends so much time setting up a red herring involving another ‘alien threat that is really just misunderstood’ that it saps away valuable screen time from the brotherly conflict which should have been the core and only focus of the episode. Was it absolutely necessary for our enjoyment of the episode to turn these aliens into some kind of mystery for the Doctor to solve, only to find out that they are just bystanders to the story anyway?

And speaking of bystanders, my biggest gripe with this episode is its pointlessness. Much like “In the Forest of the Night”, the Doctor and company are completely unnecessary. None of them achieves anything or affects the brother conflict in any narrative way. If you think about it, all of the events of the episode would’ve transpired exactly as recorded by history had they not travelled back to satisfy Yaz’s curiosity. The only exception being the Doctor needing to officiate the wedding ceremony because Manish killed the first one.

Graham and Ryan also spend another episode on the sidelines, but given that Yaz spent four episodes in a row doing nothing, this isn’t so bad.

Prem and Umbreen were very likable and I was completely absorbed in their story. Their actors, Amita Suman and Shane Zaza, both put in amazing performances. The same can be said for Hamza Jeetooa’s Manish. I personally believe that the conflict with Manish should’ve been the core focus of the episode. His scenes with the Doctor and his brother were raw and intimate, even if his fanatical attitude towards the separation of Hindus and Muslims was not well explored. As a side villain, Manish was entertaining and it was such a breath of fresh air that the ‘antagonist’ won in the end. This is very rare in Doctor Who so the subversion of expectations should be praised. Manish suffers no consequences for his actions and his hand in the cold-blooded murder of his brother cements him as irredeemable.

Despite any criticisms I have above, I would still put “Demons of the Punjab” near the top of the list when ranking Series 11. I do have one curious observation though: Why does Umbreen not remember her granddaughter being present at what was the happiest and most tragic day of her life? If it were any other day sure, why not the memory fades but your wedding day and your husband’s death day? It feels like one of those times where every detail of the day is burned into your memory forever.