“Demons of the Punjab” aired on November 11th, and helped right the DOCTOR WHO ship after its dip in ratings following “The Tsuranga Conundrum.” Rebounding from that episode’s Rotten Tomatoes rating of 6/10, “Demons of the Punjab” caused DOCTOR WHO’s rating to gain nearly two points on the same scale.
Although I tend to like the Doctor’s futuristic space adventures more, “Demons of the Punjab” managed a relatively intriguing period story about a pivotal moment in India’s history largely unfamiliar to western audiences, the partition of India.
DOCTOR WHO: “Demons of the Punjab” – “Please? I promise I won’t change history!”
Even though reality nearly tore itself apart when the 10th Doctor reunited Rose Tyler with her dead father, the 13th Doctor throws caution to the wind and takes Yaz back in time to meet a younger version of Yaz’s grandmother Umbreen. The TARDIS uses a broken watch that Umbreen gave Yaz to home in on a specific moment in time, and the unlikely team wind up in the Punjab on the 14th of August in 1947. The Doctor notes that they’ve arrived the day before the partition of India — similar to “Rosa,” in which the team arrive the day before Rosa Parks’s famous protest.
DOCTOR WHO: “Demons of the Punjab” – Not My Grandad
Things are going well enough for the team until Yaz finds out that her grandmother is planning on marrying someone other than her grandfather. A Hindu man named Prem is Umbreen’s intended, and because Umbreen and her family are Muslim, Yaz isn’t the only one taking issue with the interfaith marriage. Members of the young couple’s families, especially Prem’s brother Manish, and some other members of Umbreen’s and Prem’s respective communities disagree with the marriage.
In 1947, tensions are running particularly high between Muslim and Hindu communities in the Punjab because of the impending partition, which draws provincial boundaries in British India and creates the national boundaries of the Dominions of India and Pakistan. That these boundaries are drawn by the British, mainly to separate Muslim and Hindu communities from each other, makes Prem and Umbreen’s wedding all the less welcome to the people around them.
Despite all this, in her usual cavalier way, the Doctor urges the young couple to get married as soon as possible since performing a Hindu–Muslim wedding will be much harder after the partition. This is, no doubt, true since the partition displaced around 14 million people, caused the deaths of as many as two million, and saw the two newly established countries erupt in violence.
DOCTOR WHO: “Demons of the Punjab” – A Very Late Officiant
On her way to the wedding, the Doctor has a vision of aliens who she identifies as Thijarian, and Umbreen and Prem’s wedding seems even less likely when they find their wedding officiant, Bhakti, dead in the forest. The Doctor’s vision makes her think that the Thijarian are responsible for Bhakti’s death, but further investigation reveals that these Thijarian are harmless, seeking only to memorialize those who die alone.
Prem corroborates the aliens’ story by revealing that he saw them on the battlefield when his brother died in service during the Second World War.
The Thijarians reveal that Prem will be killed during the partition, and the Doctor asks the aliens if she can see a recording of Bhakti’s death. The recording shows Manish, Prem’s disturbed younger brother, killing Bhakti.
DOCTOR WHO: “Demons of the Punjab” – Irrational Nationalists
The Doctor officiates Umbreen and Prem’s wedding in Bhakti’s place. After the ceremony, Manish exclaims that none of it matters, insisting that the partition will change everything. When the Doctor accuses Manish of Bhakti’s murder, Manish informs the wedding party that he has told a number of Hindu nationalists about the wedding. Although the rest of the party make it out, the armed nationalists shoot and kill Prem.
DOCTOR WHO: “Demons of the Punjab” – Final Thoughts
My knowledge of the partitioning of India and Pakistan is sketchy at best, so I can’t really say how on point this episode is historically. I thought, though, that this episode was better than the thematically comparable “Rosa.”
The writing felt more genuine, full of nice touches, like Yaz’s reaction to Prem and Umbreen’s wedding, the species of reformed assassin aliens who commemorate those who died alone, the Doctor’s insistence that the unlikely couple marry, and Umbreen discussing Yaz’s henna at the end of the episode.
I wondered why Umbreen never mentioned that Yaz looks exactly like a woman she knew when she was much younger. Even if it were just one line, mentioning this particular paradox would have been a nice touch.
This season has focused a lot on the Doctor’s companions’ familial relationships in a way that previous seasons haven’t. Although Yaz’s grandmother was, basically, just a vehicle by which to explore a particular historical setting, this layman thought the creative team handled their chosen subject well. Historical accuracy aside, the story was touching and disturbing in equal measure, which made for a good episode.