It has to be said that the quality of Doctor Who season 11 has been a little up and down so far, but six episodes in and it seems a pattern’s emerging: historical adventures are where this new era of the show excels. Three weeks after the superlative “Rosa,” we have “Demons of the Punjab,” another installment that travels back to a dark period of human history and tells an intelligent, genuinely moving story.
Wanting to pull a Back to the Future and visit her grandmother Umbreen when she was younger, Yaz gets the Doctor to take the TARDIS to 1947, right on the cusp of the Partition of India. What’s more, it’s Umbreen’s wedding day to someone who’s not her grandfather, a Hindu man named Prem. As Yaz comes to terms with this discrepancy in her family history, the Doctor has to solve the mystery of what alien assassins are doing in the area and also must face the terrible truth of the human evil growing around them.
For starters, welcome to Doctor Who, writer Vinay Patel. On the strength of this episode, you’re welcome to pen another one for season 12. Much like showrunner Chris Chibnall and co-writer Malorie Blackman did in “Rosa,” Patel paints a strong portrait of the times through just a small group of characters who are effectively and efficiently fleshed-out. With little lightness to puncture the dark, it’s a sad, shocking journey that culminates in an real gut-punch of a climax. After all, we rarely see a real gun fired on the show, let alone when it’s someone killing their brother.
On a lighter note, “Demons” finally rights a major issue with the first five episodes of the season, as it actually gives Yaz something to do! Even though we met her family in episode 4, Mandip Gill has usually drawn the short straw with this cramped TARDIS crew, but here she gets to impress when Yaz has to face a personal and familiar dilemma, growing over the hour as she overcomes her own feelings of mistrust towards Prem and overcoming her hurt at Umbreen for keeping all this from her. Gill gives Yaz a big heart and youthful naivety and for the first time, it feels like we know her as a person.
Not that it impacted the quality in any way, but it’s also worth considering just how closely linked “Demons of the Punjab” is to “Rosa,” which is curious given how close they’re positioned to each other in the season. For sure, both episodes explore different time periods and conflicts, but the similarities are clear – the central cultural conflict, the brave, progressive woman at the center of it all and the tragic ending in which the Doctor and friends have to stand aside and watch the horror unfold. This episode plays out many of the same beats as its forebear but, while curious for a show that’s meant to be something different every week, crucially the sense of deja vu doesn’t affect its impact.
It’s been a recurring criticism from fans this year that season 11’s aliens have been a bit lacking but thankfully, “Demons of the Punjab” served up a nicely-conceived new species as well as a great switcheroo that helped the story. The Vajarians at first appeared to be much like the Stenza from episode 1 – evil aliens hunting a specific target on Earth – but it’s revealed that they aren’t assassins anymore and became sort of the kindly undertakers of the universe instead. Patel clearly relished the chance to create some truly original Doctor Who monsters here and he very much succeeded.
But, of course, the real monster turned out to be Prem’s brother, Manish, who sold his friends and family out to the marauders. It’s perhaps an obvious twist considering this story is all about families and friends turning against each other, but it feels much more in the comfort zone of Chibnall’s vision of Doctor Who – it’s less intrigued with invading aliens and sci-fi shenanigans and more interested in exploring the fallibility of human nature. It has to be said that it’s not often particularly subtle at doing this – Prem practically points at the audience when he talks of how we shouldn’t let differences tear communities apart – but it’s hard not to be impressed by its boldness.
One thing you also have to say about this season is that it’s some of the more gorgeous Doctor Who ever produced. After a couple of episodes filmed in South Africa, we get more overseas shooting this week as the Andalucia region of Spain doubles up for the titular Punjab. Some excellent direction for Jamie Childs really captures the beauty of the landscape, though the score from Segun Akinola is what really brings it to life. This might be his finest work on the series yet, with that Indian-styled redo of the classic Who theme being a real treat.
Needless to say, “Demons of the Punjab” is easily the joint-best episode of the season so far. Its leisurely pace, heavy subject matter and lack of humor may alienate some fans who like their Doctor Who traditional, but it’s hard to deny that it’s a well-crafted piece of TV drama all-round. We now can say for sure that this new version of the show is great at historical episodes, so let’s just hope we get to see some adventures set in the present and the future made with the same deft hand as this one was.
Its leisurely pace, heavy subject matter and lack of humor may alienate some fans who like their Doctor Who traditional, but it's hard to deny that "Demons of the Punjab" is a well-crafted piece of TV drama all-round.
Doctor Who 11x06