Doctor Who XXXVII/11.6: Demons of the Punjab

Vinay Patel’s photograph of some of his Demons of the Punjab reading, as shared by him on Twitter.

I’ve not had time this week to review Demons of the Punjab in full, and it’s about to be displaced from its window by Kerblam! I hope to find time to write more about it: it battles with Rosa for being the most successful episode of the season. It was as visually impressive as Jamie Childs’s first episode as director, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, with the land being even more of a character in its own right than the cityscape of Sheffield was in the earlier season. Here, its scale is curiously small, the mountains seeming a long way away; like Rosa, I could imagine this story working as a 1960s four-parter shot at Riverside Studios if not Lime Grove. The scene of the Doctor’s machine-building echoed the sonic-forging in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and it brought back some of the drive I’ve felt was missing from the intervening episodes.

The Doctor cements her priestliness by marrying Umbreen and Prem, and though her faith is defined as personal and beyond denomination, the quasi-sacerdotal role she adopts projects a universalism without seeking to proselytise. Vinay Patel’s careful script concentrated on a wedding and family anxieties and beliefs rather than on the wider apocalyptic landscape of Partition, with the Doctor’s nonchalant remark about talking to Mountbatten expressing something of the continuing failure of British authorities and people alike to understand the consequences of decades of imperial misrule and the practicalities of dividing not just territory but people, without and within. This Doctor might, as many have it, be a ‘Doctor of Hope’, but while hope allows Umbreen to build a new life, it does not save Prem, and for now the men of violence rule.

Unsurprisingly, the story has inspired several forceful reviews which investigate aspects of the episode more deeply than I can. Iona Sharma’s “Tread softly, for you tread on your own history” brings home to this white British man how far the disempowering, disappropriating effects of the Partition of India are part of the identities of those who lived through it and their descendants, and how far Doctor Who grapples with the British imperial legacy. Paul Driscoll’s piece for What Culture is particularly good on the development of the thirteenth Doctor and especially the meaning of the Doctor’s seemingly increased religiosity in this incarnation. Strange Complex thought that the depiction of the trauma of Partition in the microcosm of a family transmitted history to an early evening Remembrance Sunday audience effectively, and liked the development of not just Yaz but also Ryan.

Elsewhere, there are comparisons with Rosa, Morgan Jeffery at Digital Spy thinking that while the story advances Chris Chibnall’s showrunning’s investigations of human nature, it’s not quite as solid in performance as its predecessor. Victoria Walker at The Tides of Time (disclaimer: I edit this site) found it more powerful and was particularly touched by the unavoidable fate of Prem. Tim Robins at Down the Tubes is greatly appreciative of the strengths of Vinay Patel’s script and where it complements Patel’s other work, but also thinks it shows up the weaknesses of the current season, particularly in the lack of space for the development of the regulars.


One comment

  1. I have to say that I don’t share the enthusiasm for this one. I’m not sure I can articulate why – I tried to in my review on my own blog, but I don’t know if I succeeded. As a production it was fine, but I don’t think it did a good enough job of explaining the historical context to partition, which made the descent into violence seem inexplicable. There was no real sense of what Muslims and Hindus believed, both in general and about each other.

    I was also disappointed (if not surprised) that religion was presented primarily as a problem to be solved and the anachronistic quasi-secularism of Umbreen was what all sensible people think. As someone who is religious and (I hope) not racist or militaristic, I found this problematic. It’s a line Doctor Who has generally taken, and Western popular culture in general (which these days is mostly created by secular people who have neither know nor care much about religion), but I find it problematic, particularly given the emphasis this season has placed on diversity – it feels that everyone is tolerated… as long as they subscribe to certain cultural assumptions. But tolerating only people like you isn’t real toleration. Toleration, if it means anything, means tolerating people who do not think like you.

    I hoped for more. I get scared to talk about my religion in fandom (even though Judaism is the only thing more important to me than Doctor Who!) and I had hoped that the emphasis on diversity of this season might help, but so far, it hasn’t.

    (Still hoping for a Jewish companion too!)

    I have to stress it wasn’t a bad episode, and all the regulars continue to impress, although I’m still not 100% sure there’s room for a four-strong TARDIS team with single-episode stories, but I hoped it would do more than it did. Perhaps I hoped it would do more than it could do. I don’t know.

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