“Demons of the Punjab” is the first episode in Chris Chibnall era that Chibnall didn’t write. It is by far the best episode so far in the season. “Demons of the Punjab” tackles the sensitive subject of the Partition of India incredibly well.
During a visit to her family, Yaz’s grandmother gives her a broken watch. Her grandmother refuses to tell Yaz about the watch, which didn’t belong to her grandfather. Yaz convinces The Doctor to go and visit her grandmother’s past in Pakistan and ends up in the country as Partition is about to happen.
“Demons of the Punjab” was written by Vinay Patel (Murdered by My Father, The Good Karma Hospital). He clearly has an interest or at least a knowledge of South Asian themes and this was why he got to write this story for Doctor Who.
“Demons of the Punjab” is similar to “Rosa” – both are historical episodes that aim to be educational and impactful. Friends of mine have stated that they were touched by the episode “Rosa.” “Demons of the Punjab” will almost certainly have a similar effect. I personally felt that the “Demons of the Punjab” was a better episode because it was a more personal story for the characters. It affected Yaz directly and the episode showed the impact of Partition on ordinary people.
There is a lot of drama with the characters. The reveal in the episode is Yaz’s Muslim grandmother was planning on marrying a Hindu man. This was at a time where nationalistic and religious tensions were high and there were arguments within the families regarding what to do. Some suggest canceling the wedding because of the rising violence to some thinking the union was an abomination. The ending is tragic and all too real. The episode did address some historical facts but first and foremost it was a human story.
Like with any Doctor Who episode, there has to be a sci-fi element. In this episode, it was a pair of aliens known as the Thijarians. This point of the review has to go into SPOILERS.
The Thijarians are an ancient race of assassins, but these two turned their back on that life after the destruction of their homeworld. They state that they are watchers of events and be with people who die alone. It was a great twist it gave the title a double meaning. Whilst the Thijarians looked like demons, the real demons were the people. The twist regarding the aliens could have easily fitted in the Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat eras.
“Demons of the Punjab” was also a beautiful looking episode. The Spanish province of Grandma doubled for Punjab, and it looked bright and colorful. One of the most important moments was when a group of Hindu nationalists were riding on horses with their weapons drawn. The episode was filmed in slow-motion, and looked like a high-end period drama. Segun Akinoka supplied his best music for the series so far – like the cinematography it was cinematic, using Eastern style choirs for the important moments.
The biggest criticism of the episode regards how it fits into the wider Doctor Who mythos. The Doctor has strict rules regarding re-writing history and companions going back to events that could directly affect them. In Series One The Doctor took Rose to see her deceased father and because she tries to save him Rose nearly erases the whole human race. Surely after that experience The Doctor would put her foot down and say no.
“Demons of the Punjab” is the type of historical episode Doctor Who should make more of – focus on a real events, keep sci-fi elements to a minimum and be a well-told story.