‘Doctor Who’ Shines a Spotlight on Yaz’s Family History & the Partition of India (RECAP)

Doctor Who Series 11
Spoiler Alert
Photo: BBC America

Team TARDIS attends a wedding during the Partition of India and Yaz learns about her tragic family history in November 11’s powerful Doctor Who.

“Demons of the Punjab” marks a significant moment in the season, not only due to its heavy subject matter but as the first episode not to be written or co-written by new showrunner Chris Chibnall. I’ve been fairly critical of Chibnall’s perfunctory storytelling and klutzy dialogue so far, and so I was more than ready to see what a fresh writer could do with these characters.

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Vinay Patel, a playwright best known for his BBC drama Murdered by My Father, pens a much tighter script than any we’ve seen up until this point. Chibnall, while he has some strong initial ideas, often feels like he gives up on a story 3/4 of the way through, which is why so many of his episodes have these slapdash conclusions. Patel structures his story in a way that provides a definitive ending, one that feels well-earned and true to the characters, even if some of his dialogue still suffers from Chibnall-like clunkiness.

The episode also succeeds by putting Yaz (Mandip Gill) at the forefront. The gutsy police officer has been tragically sidelined for the first half of the season; even in the episode that introduced her family, she was little more than an exposition spewing sidekick. Her primary role has been to robotically ask questions like a computer-generated chatbot that has no idea how to interact with humans. Here she gets to shine as a character with her own motivations, desires, and emotions.

Photo: BBC America

After being gifted her dead grandfather’s broken watch by her Nani Umbreen (Leena Dhingra), Yaz is intrigued to learn more about her nan’s past and convinces the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to take Team TARDIS on a trip back to 1950s India. “What’s the point in having a mate with a time machine if you can’t go back and see your nan when she was young?” Yaz asks. She has a fair point.

As is often the case, the TARDIS doesn’t quite land at the intended destination. Instead, the gang ends up in the Punjab on 17 August 1947, the day Partition was declared and British India was divided into two independent nations of India and Pakistan. The separation of the borders resulted in the forced migration of millions of people who were uprooted from their homes; the violence which followed caused the death of over a million people.

It’s a heavy topic, but Patel handles it skillfully by focusing on the effects it has on two families. Team TARDIS arrives on the day that Young Umbreen (Amita Suman) is set to marry her neighbor, Prem (Shane Zaz), a likable farm boy who fought for the British in the war. Yaz soon learns that her nan had a secret Hindu husband and that their marriage was frowned up in the midst of the Partition and the growing tensions between the Muslims and Hindus.

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There are aliens in this episode, but similar to “Rosa,” the villain of the piece is prejudice, represented in the form of Prem’s younger brother, Manish (Hamza Jeetooa), who cannot come to grips with his Muslim brother marrying a Hindu woman. Manish has become radicalized from “reading pamphlets and listening to angry men on the radio,” causing him to go so far as to kill the Holy Man set to officiate the wedding and bring in armed soldiers to seize the family’s land.

As for the ominous cloak-wearing aliens, the Thirjarians, they turn out not to be a threat at all, though creepily lurking behind trees and saying things like “you will leave or we will stand over your corpses” is going to cause people to get the wrong end of the stick. Once deadly assassins, the Thirjarians are now intergalactic funeral crashers. “We mourn the unacknowledged dead across all of time and space. We bear witness to those dying alone and commemorate them as they pass on.” It’s a lovely message and fitting for an episode that fell on Remembrance Sunday (Veteran’s Day).

Photo: BBC America

While the Doctor is off dealing with aliens and cosmic space dust, it allows Yaz some quieter moments of reflection. In perhaps the sweetest scene of the episode, Graham (Bradley Walsh) shares some wisdom with Yaz, who is conflicted about her nan lying to her all these years. “I don’t think any of us know the real truth of our lives because we’re too busy living them from the inside,” he tells her, suggesting that she live in the moment. Graham has been so focused on Ryan (Tosin Cole) that it was nice to finally see him sharing his fatherly advice with the young PC.

Yaz watches proudly as Umbreen and Prem marry at the border, in a ceremony officiated by the Doctor nonetheless. But as the violence draws nearer and Manish’s intentions are revealed, Yaz is unable to do anything to change the past. If she saves Prem then she knows Umbreen will never marry her grandfather and therefore she will never be born. “You could interfere yourself out of existence,” the Doctor warns.

It’s a heartbreaking yet authentic ending, with the gunshot ringing out in the background as Team TARDIS help Umbreen and her mother make their escape. Anything else would have been a cop-out and I think Patel knows that. It’s impossible to cover all the nuance of Partition in a 50-minute episode of family-friendly sci-fi, and yes, at times the material is heavy-handed, but just like the Rosa Parks episode, the brutal honesty of this ending will hopefully have a lasting impact on younger viewers.

I find it interesting that the strongest episodes of this season so far are the two historical installments. While I think that’s a good thing for the reasons outlined above, I do still worry that Doctor Who under Chibnall’s watch has lost its sense of fun. There’s not enough time-bending hijinx and we’re definitely lacking a proper scary monster episode. Even the episodes set in the future, like last week’s “The Tsuangra Conundrum,” are offputtingly sterile.

Early in the episode, the Doctor makes an offhanded comment about fighting the “Death-Eyed Turtle Army,” it’s nothing more than a quick gag which tells us that the gang has been having all sorts of adventures off-screen. But all I could think was: ‘You know what? That is the kind of story this season is missing.’ With just four episodes remaining, I’m still waiting for the killer turtle army type stories.

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Additional Notes:

-Ryan (Tosin Cole) is the one sidelined this week, used merely to point out the obvious to the Doctor. I do really the dynamic of Team TARDIS but the show hasn’t quite worked out how to utilize all three companies to the best of their abilities at the same time.

-The episode was filmed in the south of Spain, in the Andalusia region, and while obviously not a perfect stand-in for the Punjab, the scenery does look beautiful on screen. The cinematic feel of this season is one thing that cannot be faulted, even if I do wish they spent some of that money on more script editors.

-Composer Segun Akinola also continues to deliver. His bhangra-influenced soundtrack across this episode is fantastic.

-The Doctor is still doing her Tahani-style namedropping. She apparently officiated Albert Einstein’s wedding and met Lord Mountbatten, the British Navy Officer whose radio announcement declaring the Partition is heard in this episode.

Doctor Who, Sundays, 8/7c, BBC America