If there is one subject I enjoy learning about, it is history. Science and politics all have their elements of interest but history is something that means a lot to me. There are so many interesting stories held in the past and lessons from them feed into our future. In a series of Doctor Who that is clearly striving to double down on its educational aspects, the historical episodes are, in my opinion, knocking it out of the park with every new instalment.
Demons of the Punjab begins with Yaz celebrating her Nani Umbreen’s birthday and receiving an old watch as a present. Wanting to learn more about it and the secret of her grandmother’s past, especially her boast about being the first woman married in Pakistan, Yaz talks the Doctor and Team TARDIS into venturing back to 1947, to witness her Nani’s marriage first hand. Sadly, our heroes arrive on the day before the Partition of India and springboard straight into a new adventure filled with alien bat assassins, racial tension and tragedy.
Let’s start with the good: personally, I think Demons of the Punjab is one of the best episodes so far, second only to Rosa and a lot of the reason for that is the way the episode is framed and the historical backdrop it draws upon. The pacing of the episode is brilliant, starting and ending with some great segments with Yaz and Umbreen in the modern day, talking about the past. The framing device is mildly unsuited, considering Arachnids in the U.K took painstaking efforts to show us how much Yaz wanted to get away from her family, but it makes for a good set-up for the story and gives this episode a bigger weight than a lot of the others thus far. This is the first personal episode Team TARDIS have gone on and personal episodes always make for more interesting encounters, Series 1’s Father’s Day being the first that comes to mind.
The setting of the episode is another main strength. Whilst the Spanish landscape fails to look completely like India/Pakistan, the acting and writing really make you become invested in the time period. It was especially interesting for me who, sadly, had never heard of the Partition before. It was nice learning about a period of time I didn’t know about and seeing events unfold in such a tragic way. Props to writer Vinay Patel for not flinching away from the darkness of the past.
Vinay Patel also does a good job at formulating a good plot too. Upon finding her in the past, Yaz realises she’s engaged to a man who isn’t her grandfather, Prem, played by Shane Zaza. Considering the looming threat of the Partition and a mysterious alien threat lingering just out of sight, Patel does a good job structuring the action and an excellent job as a writer making the setting and characters feel real and likeable. Yaz gets some good development and advice from the amazing Graham, but we also honestly care for Prem before his final fate is revealed. Prem’s final scenes as a doomed man are brilliant, a mild shame since Shane Zaza’s performance is a little rocky throughout.
Sadly, as good as Demons of The Punjab is, it still succumbs to the main flaw that has become the recurring theme of series 13 thus far: it’s all feels a little generic and done before. We’ve already had an episode based around preserving the course of history that was very racially charged and though Demons is great and has solid moments, none even come close to how enjoyable Rosa was.
The new alien force, the Vajarians, also suffer. Boasted as some awesome assassins from the start of time, they’re actually revealed to be a benevolent force of observers. At the very least, it’s better executed that the ‘testimony’ plot of Twice Upon a Time, but it’s still an issue. The aliens being good or harmless is becoming less of a twist and more of an unstated fact in the series. I’m all for the range of morality in characters but I’m beginning to miss Doctor Who monsters just being really cool monsters. Anyone remember the Werewolf from Tooth and Claw? The comedic Slitheen and the mysterious Toclafane? Maybe it’s just me missing the Daleks and Cybermen this season (and still desperately wanting the Sontarons to be the awesome force I know they can be) but the Vajarians are the coolest original design for an original monster we’ve seen this season, and their ultimate role is a complete disappointment.
The villain of this episode is instead our old friend: human racial prejudice. Yes, it’s written well and yes, it would be a good twist, if it hadn’t already been done before and better. Rosa at least gave us a time-travelling racist bad guy…even if his name has since evaded me. At the very least, both episodes stick to their guns and deliver hard-hitting final moments, harping on the tragedy of life and the greater tragedy of being a time traveller: unable to change history.
Whilst generic, Demons of the Punjab ultimately excels. It’s a great written episode with a lot of good characters, good acting (we finally see Jodie get angry, yes, more of this please) and we finally get a bit more focus on Yaz, as well as an interesting period of history. I’d recommend anyone who enjoyed Rosa give Demons a try for a decent spiritual sequel but if you’re looking for something unique in a season that’s been very much back to basics, I could understand if you’d want to give Demons a pass.
The Demons of The Punjab: 4/5