I wonder if writer Vinay Patel realised what day his episode was going to be broadcast when he was writing it? If not, it’s an extraordinary coincidence, because the theme of honouring the anonymous dead in conflicts is perfect for Remembrance Sunday, as is the anti-xenophobia message.
The end of British rule in India and the partition is a fascinating moment in history and one that I studied in some depth a few years ago. The factors leading to the partition are complex and beyond the scope of this article and also the episode itself. Quite rightly, Patel focusses on the tragedy of that moment of division, when millions of people had to abandon their homes and move to a different part of the country to live amongst people of their own religion, there was widespread violence, and those who wished to stay were forcibly displaced or killed. Patel represents that moment with a doomed marriage and a family divided, cleverly bringing a huge, confusing mess of a conflict down to the personal level of one household. It’s an intelligent approach, allowing us to understand that moment and what it meant for the people living in the country at the time.
It is an interesting development this year that Doctor Who is returning to within a hair’s breadth of pure historicals, showing faith in the intelligence of the viewers. It is a very long time since Doctor Who has engaged in this kind of storytelling, with the alien threat really just a sideshow. While Rosa went down the route of having somebody interfere with history, what we might call the “Meddling Monk approach”, Patel actually finds a new way to fit the historical within the format of Doctor Who: what appears to be an alien threat is simply aliens wanting to observe and honour the fallen. What is so brilliant about this is that it doesn’t just solve the problem of how to include a sci-fi element in an historical episode, but it is also completely integrated thematically. Where the meddler in Rosa felt contrived, this all fits together like a jigsaw of pieces that make up one picture.
The episode also encapsulates Doctor Who’s original purpose to educate and entertain, probably better than just about anything since the 60s, and it feels like we are returning to the original premise of Doctor Who very strongly this year. The Doctor travels around with three companions, dropping in on other people’s stories, doing her best to help, and allowing the viewers to learn something. Demons of the Punjab is the first episode to nail that approach perfectly, without diminishing the Doctor as a character. I do feel that we need a proper big bad for the Doctor to defeat some time before the end of the series, but this is not the right episode to complain about that.
While we are on the subject of the return to the Hartnell era approach, what has been so striking this year has been the importance of the companions. The Doctor really is just one character in an ensemble now, and only the most important by a slim margin. This is obviously Yasmin’s episode, but I want to focus here on Bradley Walsh as Graham. You see, the best example of a character who arrives in somebody else’s story and does their best to help without trying to change what cannot be changed is not actually the Doctor this year, but Graham. His quiet little speech about being good men says it all really. He can’t change the big picture, so he does what he can on a personal level. Bradley Walsh steals every scene – it’s impossible not to focus on him when he’s on the screen. The moment he was verging on tears was incredible. He really is the best thing to happen to Doctor Who since Bernard Cribbins, and all credit to Chris Chibnall for deciding to include a character like Graham this year. It has taken a while to get here, and a writer who isn’t Chris Chibnall, but the Chibnall vision of Doctor Who has finally proven itself to be one of the best. RP
The view from across the pond:
We’ve gotten our first story without Chris Chibnall as the writer and it’s a resounding success. I am not against Chibnall, but his stories lack a certain punch. Rosa, the one that had the greatest impact, shared the writing credit and it shows. Chibbs is all about pulp adventure storytelling but Doctor Who works best when there’s more to it than that. Writer Vinay Patel gives us a story that rises to the challenge.
“I only hang around here to be insulted…”
Let’s cover some unpleasant ground first. Waaay back in the days of John Nathan-Turner, there was a decision to remove the Sonic Screwdriver because it was an omnipotent tool, able to do everything and write the Doctor out of a scrape without any thought. I love the sonic and have fun collecting them as much as any fan but when the Doctor brandishes it to even untie a rope, you’ve got to question the wisdom of writing keeping it around. Also how many name drops do we need? We get it – the Doctor has traveled throughout history and met many, many people, but officiated at Einstein’s wedding… give me a break. And was that contraption meant to be a call back to Pertwee’s device in The Time Monster, because at least this one was done with a flair for actual science! Oh, let’s also not ignore that there was a “favorite granddaughter”, a thing I would hope no grandparent would ever say in front of another grandchild. I’ll let the “I never did this when I was a man” comment go because it ended up being quite funny. And in 6 episodes, it has been the only other reference to the gender change since the first episode, so I can live with that.
“Right, none of our other trips have ever been risky…”
And that bring us to yet another throwaway line about an adventure that happened off-screen. How “new” is this Doctor when there is an adventure mentioned ever episode that we didn’t see? Rain bathing in the upper tropics of Canstano and now a killer army of turtles? Even possibly a sister in an aqua-nursery? The writers are overdoing some of these things, which will turn the Doctor into a caricature if they are not careful.
“They’re under my protection now…”
But that’s about the worst the episode throws at us. After that, it gives us a bit of a history lesson from August 17th, 1947 (of which I knew nothing) and an amazing character piece. The Doctor finally seems to be willing to take a stand against a threat, no longer being overshadowed by a more powerful opponent. Up until now, we’ve only really seen this in her debut story against the Stenza. Then again, there hasn’t really been any villains since that debut. More on that shortly. The drama that unfolds around Yaz’s family is deeply heartfelt and Graham really helps put things into context. “She ain’t your nan, yet”, he tells her, advising Yaz to live in the now and figure things out later. But when he knows Prem will die, and has to look him in the eyes before his wedding, that’s the moment that really illustrates just what we’re dealing with this season. These characters have hearts and souls. They care; they’re “real people”. This may save the characters from becoming cliché. Which brings us to…
“Oi. The alien assassin’s started it!”
The Fijarians looked amazing. I loved their appearance, the way they spoke and even their psychic “attacks” on the Doctor. Visually stunning and then to learn that they are not villains, but there to bear witness, with compassion, was the icing on the cake. (Although I think Graham’s consideration of “aliens with compassion” was a bit misplaced considering who he’s traveling with.) But that’s been the real lesson of the season hasn’t it? There have not been any traditional “bad guys”. This season has been a commentary on human nature and real life villainy. Yes, we had the Stenza in episode one, but from then on… we had a race, a moment in history that had to be allowed to happen (Krasko was barely a villain), bugs mutating due to greed, a hungry alien not trying to hurt anyone and now “demons”. But the demons were not the Fijarians. The title is brilliant because throughout the episode they were called demons, but it’s the demons Prem has to face that are the real demons of the Punjab.
Like Rosa, the story is one of disharmony between imaginary lines drawn by human beings; another time where we see the absurdity of telling one another that “our differences are more important than what unites us”. When “listening to angry men on the radio” makes us lose sight of what we have in common and how much better we are together. Black vs. White, Hindu vs. Muslim; these are the demons to which Vinay Patel draws our attention. When hate is more powerful than reason, brothers kill brothers. Horrible. (But the cinematic effect of shooting the gun while the sunlight obscured the trigger, was marvelous!)
“All we can be is good men…”
And with the allegory in place, we can focus on the lesson. “In my faith, love in all its forms is the most powerful weapon we have. Because love is a form of hope and like hope, love abides.” Love makes us strong. Hope makes us strong. And this is why Doctor Who is a show about hope; it reminds us that we are always stronger together. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Kerblam!