What’s the point in having a mate with a time machine if you can’t nip back and solve a family mystery?
That’s why the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) took Yaz Khan (Mandip Gill) back to the Punjab, to find out about her grandparents’ wedding… or maybe not.
In his review, James Baldock highlighted how beautiful it all looked:
“The Doctor and her companions stride through the fields and lanes of rural Punjab (actually Granada), given a warm, almost sepia-tinted glow by Sam Heasman’s exemplary cinematography. The forest sparkles in the low sun of afternoon, and the camera lingers over the poppies that bloom in the fields. The cavernous interior of the Thijar spacecraft is bland and fundamentally pointless, somehow, and yet again the TARDIS barely gets a look-in (did they only have that set for half an hour, or something?), but both are forgivable offences when everything else looks so pretty.”
What did the rest of the DWC collective think? We asked a few members of the team…
The pick of the series so far for me. It tackled the epic story of the human tragedy of partition with great sensitivity (no mean feat for a family drama going out in an early evening Sunday slot) whilst offering no easy answers. Prem had to die for Yaz to exist, and the Doctor had to lead her friends away from the scene as he was murdered. We’ve become so used to characters cheating the final end that I was expecting the Doctor to whisk him away to some far distant planet where he could see out his days, but thankfully we were spared that. Death was shown to be very real in a way that it hasn’t been in Doctor Who for some time. And it was a far stronger story for it.
I’m in no way qualified to say whether location was a good match for the Punjab of the 1940s, but I thought the episode was shot beautifully. I rather liked the design of the benign observer aliens, though it was a little unfortunate that this notion was revisited so soon after Twice Upon A Time. Some have argued they were unnecessary to the plot but their presence seemed to me a useful bit of misdirection that added to the mystery of just why Umbreen was about to marry a suitor who had never been mentioned in any family stories.
So after a couple of misfiring episodes which I won’t be in any hurry to watch again, we had a fine examination of the theme that stepping back into history is a hazardous business, with every prospect that you may not like what you find. It’s one that has served the series well over the years, and when it’s done with this kind of style, I’m more than happy for it to be revisited.
I’ve been pondering what to make of Demons of the Punjab – specifically, I wondered how it would fare in another series. There’s a good drama in there, but due to the baggage left from the first half of Series 11, it struggles to properly emerge. It’s a slower story in which the Doctor doesn’t actually do anything except unnecessarily sonics stuff, topped off with a preachy tone. That could have summed up every other episode of Series 11, yet Demons is the best of the bunch so far; it’s diminished because it feels like more of the same. In another run of episodes, it could be a welcome change of pace; alternatively, it might be seen as the odd one out.
As it is, Demons of the Punjab is good enough. Vinay Patel is obviously a good writer, and I’d love for him to tackle a proper sci-fi adventure next time. This could’ve worked as an actual historical, because the aliens are… uh, what were they called again? They’re forgettable, joining a long list of Series 11 monsters that fizzle into obscurity.
Patel’s script is decent, but it loses some traction because the performances were dodgy at best. They weren’t uniformly bad, though it’s a close call between this lot and the Van Baalens in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.
I worry that the series doesn’t have a focus anymore. The show doesn’t always have to be about the Doctor for the character to be its driving force. Jodie, alas, doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all really. You could write her out, give Mandip Gill a vortex manipulator, and the show would be far more interesting.
For me, Demons of the Punjab was a big step in the right direction, even if some elements might be open to debate. It was refreshing to have a historical story not bleating on about the web of time and fixed points, just focussing a bit on the grandfather (mother!) paradox and telling a story. Unlike Rosa, the characters in the centre were nuanced as this told a large-scale story via a single family, so tension wasn’t just concerned with anti-British sentiment. This is not to say Rosa was wrong as it told a story about a single event and didn’t want to show any lack of prejudice amongst the white population.
The aliens were a red herring in my mind, and only there to give the Doctor something to do, and I’m still not sold on this Doctor whose contribution (wedding aside) really petered out. Also, with a Sheffield start and finish, did Ryan and Graham need to come along at all? Graham had some things to do (and is in many ways more Doctor like than the Doctor), but Ryan was all but invisible in the story.
I also think the series is suffering from the format, and there’s a really strong story to be told here over what would have been four 25-minute episodes. What if Graham had been captured as an example of revenge against the Imperial history of Britain in India and rescued by Prem?
Visually, it was stunning and the decisions on the end music a good piece of post-production. Poppy fields in abundance added to the Remembrance Sunday feel without overstating as did the sequences in Singapore. The story was driven by Prem and young Umbreen both of whom were well written and superbly performed.
Did the story need the Doctor at all? Would history have worked correctly anyhow? Was the only purpose to give Yaz some education? Sadly, she didn’t blossom in this story but that’s a small gripe. Have we now found the Thirteenth Doctor? For me, no, and I wonder if the direction is failing to allow Jodie space to show strength despite pain (rewatch Broadchurch if you must). You can’t have everything, though a bit more from the title character would be nice!
Have you never seen Doctor Who? Oh, it’s great. You must watch it.
It’s this new series on Sunday nights and it’s all about a loveable trio of unlikely friends called Yaz, Ryan, and Graham.
Yaz, Ryan, and Graham have a nutty alien friend called the Doctor, and she’s got this crazy time machine. On the outside, it looks like a big blue box (they were called police boxes and they used to be on our streets long, long ago, before any of you can remember). Inside, the time machine is way huge and weird and wacky and wonderful and full of big lumps of barley sugar and it has a big round control panel that gives you biscuits! Yaz, Ryan, and Graham can have fast-paced and exciting adventures with their nutty pal, but they usually don’t.
But that doesn’t matter – because how we love them all!
Demons of the Punjab was worthy and dull. There’s a good story to be told about partition, but this wasn’t it. Too many of the characters spent too much time info-dumping rather than talking like ordinary people. Writers do not necessarily agree with the viewpoints of their characters, but we were left in little doubt of who Vinay Patel thought were guilty. But it is individuals who are responsible for stupidity or cruelty, not races or countries. It was individuals who carried out the atrocities, not nations; whatever nationalistic or jingoistic influences there were on those individuals, it is wrong to blame the whole group for the actions of a minority. (I shall just throw in at this point that my late father-in-law served with distinction in the Indian Army in the Second World War.)
As with so much of this series, it was very, very slow. The Doctor is a member of an ensemble rather than the leading character (and her speech at the wedding was mawkish). Nasty aliens who’ve been to the same tailor as Koquillion turn out to be nice and kind (yawn). Still, at least they didn’t make classic monsters turn goody-goody. It all seems pretty unlikely, though. Would the Weeping Angels organise a soup run for the homeless? Would the Daleks sell candyfloss and the Cybermen provide a befriending service to the elderly? Would the Ice Warriors become benign ambassadors and peace negotiators? (Oh, hang on…)
Preachy. Instructed us what to think. Instructed us when to emote, especially at the end, with the singing over the title sequence (please, STOP DOING THAT). Ending a piece of drama with “I love you”, “I love you too” is a hackneyed and ghastly cliché. Are we supposed to be missing out because they’ve never done it before? Imagine…
“I love you, Doctor.” [Pause.]
“Have you taken leave of your senses, Chesterton, hmm?”
I heard whispers when the show returned in 2005 that the series may end its run on BBC4 – so unsure were people as to how successful it would be. I was reminded of this while watching Demons of the Punjab. This would have been effective as a BBC4 drama, highlighting the effects on people living along the newly imposed border. Last year, the BBC ran a season of programmes marking the 70th anniversary of Partition. With a few tweaks, this story would have fit in perfectly.
Once again, we hit the main problem I have with this season. I don’t feel the TARDIS crew were required in this story, and looking back most episodes this year have been guilty of this. They seem like casual observers to other people’s stories. They may as well have been wandering round a theme park called Partition World.
In this romantic tragedy, there was no need for Team TARDIS.
And so we trundle on … at an oxen drawn cart pace through another story. Although parts were painfully slow, it did gather pace and was quite an enjoyable little tale with a moving ending.
Before I could say “not another humanoid alien”, they were, but with a quest quite similar to Sarah Jane’s Shansheeth although without the good looks!
The story was interesting – it nearly stepped on Father’s Day, but avoided it quite nicely; in fact it avoided everything quite nicely as, and I suspect others had noticed and reported in, that the action of the TARDIS crew made no difference to the events. In fact, they were insignificant to the story and to its background, the announcement of the Radcliffe Line.
The TARDIS was used a little more this week and we get confirmation that she is still “she”: I had feared that Chibnall may have reversed the TARDIS’ gender as well. However, there was again not enough story for three companions and no significant “universe saving” action that would make me believe this is real Doctor Who. The line “References to my body and gender changing are all in gest” seems to have a hollow clang as possibly wake-up call for why the season is so poor overall.
Final Verdict – episode six – it ranks equally with Rosa as a good historically-set story: sadly little to do with Doctor Who although I enjoyed watching it.
I wonder if we need to reset our expectations of what Doctor Who can be from week to week? After all those celebrity historicals, this new vision of the show has twice brought us something different, reviving a mode of storytelling with its roots deep in the Hartnell era; arguably Demons and Rosa have been the strongest episodes so far with our characters as visitors in human history, there to live through it and keep it on track – to bear witness rather than to change it.
Timing is of course everything and transmitting this tale on Remembrance Sunday was utterly appropriate, but despite some impressively creepy visuals the aliens were pretty inconsequential and a shade too close in concept to the Testimony for my liking. The true monster here was man’s inhumanity to man and while that is always a worthy topic for examination, we are six episodes into a 10-part run and in dire need of a truly memorable alien creation.
Honestly, I wish the show would lean harder into the history and I think this episode would have been even stronger with the focus more on the murder of the holy man, with a handful of human suspects. The radio broadcasts helped to build a sense of the impending threat, but I wish we could hear less and seen more of the coming darkness. For those who wanted it, there were relevant parallels to the present day regarding radicalisation, and if some viewers have been inspired to learn more about Partition that cannot be a bad thing.
Despite stunning visuals and a terrific score, I fear the show is struggling to maintain three companions. Graham had some nice moments but Ryan was woefully underused and despite the focus on her family’s history, Yaz could have had more to do. On the plus side, I adored some of the Doctor’s scenes. Her back to basics science work and pinching all the teleport thingies was spot on, as was her reverence when she understood what the aliens were there for – and that speech when conducting the wedding was tremendous!
More than previous episodes, this seems to have hit the middle-ground – in a positive way! Few actively disliked it, so perhaps Demons of the Punjab can be considered a hit for Series 11.
Next time: We are Not Going Out…