In the latest episode of Doctor Who, Yaz does The Thing. The Thing which practically every companion does at some point, and which never ends well.
“Can I go back and meet my [insert relative here]?”
Seriously, it's like they're asking for the grandfather paradox. Or, in this case, the grandmother paradox. The Doctor consents, but predictably, she comes to regret it. “I'm too nice,” she laments. Yes, Doctor, you most definitely are.
And so, we have “Demons of the Punjab”, Doctor Who's second attempt this season at a historical episode with educational themes. After the weak and overly political “Rosa”, did this story do better?
Yes. Not perfect, but better.
The Quick and Spoiler-Free Verdict
“Demons of the Punjab” is a beautifully told story filled with great character moments and strong performances. Full marks for presentation and heart. The actual plot does suffer somewhat from an alien monster which ends up being little more than set-dressing. Overall, though, this is one of the better entries in Series 11.
Content and Themes
There are notable political themes in this story which dovetail to a certain degree with modern border disputes. However, at its core, it's more of a story about the past than about the present. Also, while the subject of British imperialism is briefly addressed, since it was connected to the Partition of India, the villains here are not stock, cartoonish, white Christian Brits. Rather, the conflict at the heart of the story is between Hinduism and Islam, and the villain of the piece is a more nuanced character than the badly-written Krasko from “Rosa”.
What I Didn't Like
Going into this episode, I was concerned that the alien threat would be nothing more than an incarnation of some social issue, as was the case with stock racist Krasko. This is not the case with the Thijarians; however, their role in the story is still poorly conceived. If the whole alien subplot were removed from the episode, it would make little difference to the plot. The Thijarians are peripheral, only serving to check the sci-fi box for this week. Arguably, “Demons” would have been stronger without any alien presence. Doctor Who has done “pure historicals” before–episodes in which the only sci-fi element is time travel to a given setting. (For an excellent and heart-breaking example of a pure historical done right, see “The Peterloo Massacre”, a Fifth Doctor audio drama from Big Finish Productions.)
This issue ties in with another problem which I feel is affecting the season as a whole. It's almost as if we're getting the stories which should have been tie-in novels as TV episodes instead. There's a great line early on in the episode where the Doctor says, “I have apologized for the death-eyed turtle army! Repeatedly!” And the thing is, if I'd had a choice between “Demons” and “The Death-Eyed Turtle Army”, I'd have gone with the turtles. Yes, I did enjoy the character drama of Yaz delving into her family history. This episode had some great moments. But let's be honest: we watch Doctor Who for scary monsters and mind-bending sci-fi. That's why most of us came to love this show in the first place. We don't mind the occasional pause in between those action-heavy stories, but this season has a few too many of those pauses. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” and “The Ghost Monument” had good pacing. In these stories, Chibnall was clearly trying to win over long-time fans, and in my opinion, he largely succeeded. Then came “Rosa”, which was far from captivating, no matter what your opinion of its message might be. “Arachnids” was almost a return to form, but suffered from a weak denouement. “The Tsuranga Conundrum” had a disappointing and non-threatening monster. And in “Demons”, the scary-looking aliens aren't scary at all.
A brief open letter to Chris Chibnall: I know you're getting accolades from highbrow critics for successfully introducing a female Doctor and a diverse cast of companions, as well as teaching a variety of social and historical lessons. Don't rest on those laurels. If Series 11 of Doctor Who goes down in history as The Year of Feel-Good Social Justice Lessons, or The Year Where All the Monsters Sort of Disappeared at the End Without Eating Anybody, your ratings are going to drop. You took the very risky step of casting a female Doctor, and thanks to Jodie Whittaker's performance, an impressive number of fans have accepted Thirteen. You dodged a bullet there. Now that you have a largely successful regeneration behind you, don't squander your chances by failing to deliver on what viewers have come to expect from the show over the years. Don't dismiss us as shallow just because we expect those classic hide-behind-the-sofa moments. I'm hoping for better things from what's left of this run of episodes, but if this season as a whole is a disappointment, then you might want to get Daleks, Weeping Angels, and a regenerated Missy ready for Series 12. You'll need them.
OK, rant over. All that aside, there was still a lot to praise this week.
What I Liked
While the role of the Thijarians may have been a let-down, their design was superb. Props to the FX team this week; they outdid themselves. I find myself wishing that last week's P'Ting had been an old-fashioned assassin Thijarian. That would have made “The Tsuranga Conundrum” downright amazing.
The supporting characters, as has become the norm for Series 11, were excellent. Each one was distinctive and well-written. As I mentioned earlier, there weren't any stock racists/imperialists this week. The reveal of Manish as the antagonist was quite clever, since it elevated the episode to something more than a polemic about imperialism or discrimination based on skin color. Plus, this may be the first time I've ever seen a sci-fi story involving real-world religious conflict in which the bad guys weren't Christians. That's refreshing.
The main cast did a great job this week as well. Ryan and Graham were pushed to the background somewhat so that Yaz could get more focus, but they still had plenty of impressive moments (Graham in particular). Despite the inevitability of fate being a central theme here, as it was in “Rosa”, the Doctor came across as more proactive this time around. Thirteen has been criticized by some for lacking the ferocity of her previous selves. I don't mind this incarnation being a bit more sensitive and caring, since it's within the scope of the personality fluctuations the Doctor has undergone before. (For reference, see the Fifth Doctor, who was so nice it's a wonder he survived for as long as he did.) That said, Thirteen does get a bit more fierce this week as she faces off against the Thijarians, and later, Manish. It's intriguing to see the Doctor's new self continue to develop as she comes up against a variety of threats.
At its heart, despite its flaws, this was a very solid story, with plenty of emotional impact and character development. “Demons” masterfully tugs at the heartstrings, introducing the viewer to a cast of likable characters who face a conflict that will inevitably tear their world apart. This makes for objectively great TV, despite the specifically Whovian criticisms which can be leveled at this episode. Even the disappointing aliens get a beautiful moment near the end.
Special mention should also be made of the music this week. Segun Akinola's score has been consistently satisfying this year, and rises to new heights in “Demons”, combining appropriate ethnic elements with traditional string motifs in a haunting symphony that enhances the episode's more dramatic scenes. I'm very much looking forward to having the Series 11 soundtrack in my Spotify library.
“Demons in the Punjab” is a good, but not great, historical episode of Doctor Who. Its biggest failing is its visually-impressive but otherwise forgettable monster. Aside from that, there's still plenty to like. The episode gives Yaz some worthwhile new layers and explores her developing friendship with the Doctor in entertaining ways. It's worth the price of admission even if it's not a new classic.
Granted, we do need a new classic right about now. That's an issue which stretches beyond the specific problems in “Demons”. So, what do we have to look forward to next week?
Next Time: Kerblam!
Eep. Now, that's one creepy-looking robot. The question is, will it be truly menacing? Or will it just be a misunderstood monster, some consequence of cruel labor laws for non-organic life forms in the distant future? Will it quietly flutter off into the stars after a moving scene in which it hugs the Doctor and apologizes for trying to murder her and her friends that one time forty-five minutes ago, while the true villains, evil corporate ghouls that they are, gnash their teeth and threaten reprisals?
I really hope that doesn't turn out to be a pitch-perfect prophecy about Kerblam! It honestly sounds like it could be. As always, time will tell…