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Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab (Review)

“What have you done? Who’s coming?”

“The future.”

Demons of the Punjab is in many ways a companion piece to Rosa, touching on and developing the core themes.

It is interesting, in large part because Demons of the Punjab feels like a much more confident execution of many of the same ideas. It is a lot cannier in how it chooses to construct its central story, avoiding a lot of the smaller and finer details that haunted Rosa. It helps that Demons of the Punjab is a much less showy story. It is not a “celebrity historical” in the same way as Rosa was, avoiding the temptation to cast Lord Mountbatten as a companion. It also avoids setting its closing credits to a triumphant pop song as systemic racism endures.

Flagging enthusiasm.

Of course, the fundamental issue with Rosa remains. Demons of the Punjab is very much of a piece with Rosa when it comes to reconfiguring who the Doctor is and the function that she serves. The Doctor is no longer a time travelling radical or an anarchist. She is not a “mad woman with a box.” She is instead somebody who travels through time to “bear witness”, to acknowledge suffering that has occurred rather than trying to heal it. The Doctor is no longer a triage surgeon or a concerned medic, instead more of a cosmic mortician. There is something rather bleak in that.

That said, Demons of the Punjab is a very effective and very powerful piece of television. If Doctor Who is to embrace this approach to the Doctor as a character, this is certainly the best way to go about it.

The Four Horsemen.

Demons of the Punjab has the luxury and freedom of not having to deal with a star character at its core. Rosa Parks is a legend and icon. She is an incredibly important figure in American history. It has long been possible to draw characters like that into orbit of the Doctor, as stories as diverse as Timelash, The Unquiet Dead and even Robot of Sherwood demonstrated. However, it becomes trickier when that figure is a hero tied to a particular social cause. Rosa was an episode that found the Doctor enabling Rosa Parks by participating in systemic racism.

The stakes in Demons of the Punjab are appreciably lower, because it does not focus on any characters who actually exist. The characters at the centre of Demons of the Punjab are the ancestors of a companion who travels with the Doctor. When Yaz’s grandmother claims to have been “the first woman married in Pakistan”, the audience instinctively knows that they won’t find her picture when they look up the historical records. While Rosa unfolded around a very particular event, Demons of the Punjab is set in a much more intimate environment.

The farm in Demons of the Punjab could be any farm on the border of India and Pakistan. Indeed, it would be easy enough to tell this sort of story in any number of situations in the twentieth century, whenever any larger power drew arbitrary borders dividing populations and families. There might easily be a version of Demons of the Punjab set in Northern Ireland with Catholic and Protestant families. Even in the context of the partition between India and Pakistan, it is easy to imagine a story like this unfolding with any number of other Hindu and Muslim families.

This renders the story a universal quality that defuses a lot of the criticisms that haunted Rosa. The use of a singular fixed point as the nexus of the entire Civil Rights movement in the United States led to a very strange internal logic, insisting that Rosa Parks had to be asked to stand on that exact bus at that exact time by that exact driver in order for history to unfold the way it did. This detail paradoxically undercut both Rosa Parks’ own agency as a civil activist and the idea of broader historical forces at work. What if the strike took place the following week? What if it was on a different bus?

Great grandmother knows best…

Demons of the Punjab avoids that fixation upon the mechanics of history. India and Pakistan have been partitioned almost as soon as the episode begins. Manish already knows where the border will fall as his brother and his sister-in-law listen to the broadcast. There is nothing that the Doctor can do here to alter the flow of history, and nothing that the Doctor needs to do to ensure that events unfold as the audience knows they must. While this still involves the Doctor watching passively as two countries tear themselves apart, at least this time she is not enabling systemic oppression.

This allows for an episode that is much more interested in how these systems perpetuate themselves than Rosa was. Demons of the Punjab is essentially a family drama against an epic backdrop, a tale of lives destroyed by forces outside of their control. While this does not side step the biggest single issue with Rosa, it does avoid a lot of the smaller issues that cluttered the episode. Writer Vinay Patel very cleverly decides to write an episode of Doctor Who without a monster in, essentially pulling a variation of the trick that Steven Moffat pulled with Twice Upon a Time.

Patel arguably borrows a little too liberally from Twice Upon a Time with the Thijarians. Like the “Testimony” in Twice Upon a Time, these creatures fill the structural void at the heart of the story by providing an alien menace for the Doctor to investigate. Like the “Testimony” in Twice Upon a Time, they are eventually revealed as a benevolent force in the universe. Like the “Testimony” in Twice Upon a Time, they are revealed as an alien race who effectively serve as a witness to creatures at the moment of their passing.

There is, perhaps some strange contemporary resonance with the idea of “witnessing” as a valid and worthy activity of itself. In a sense, this seems to be carried over from mid-nineties anxieties about the manner in which history seems to slip away from modern generations – the worry that defining events like the Holocaust and the Second World War were leaving living memory, necessitating comprehensive archival and documentary efforts like Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

“Boy, those anamorphic lenses really took a lot out of the budget.”

Demons of the Punjab broadcast marking a century since the end of the First World War, and its setting is the aftermath of the Second World War. There are very few living people who can remember the First World War. The number of survivors of the Second World War are also dwindling. Umbreen is one of the few people who has actual first-hand knowledge of what happened during Partition. For the plot of Demons of the Punjab to make any sense, she would need to be approaching ninety years of age. When she dies, the first hand memory of those events dies with her. “Your life’s our heritage,” Yaz tells her. It is true.

There are, perhaps, other reasons why the idea of “witnessing” seems to resonate at this cultural moment. There is an argument that the past few years have seen the idea of truth and consensus reality under attack by aggressive right-wing movements in ways both large and small. This sentiment is reflected in buzzy phrases like “post-truth”, “fake news”, “truth isn’t truth” and “alternative facts”, but the implication is that all of reality a postmodern construct in which history is a malleable narrative that can be distorted to suit the whims of whoever is talking.

This distortion of reality is reflected in any number of ways. Some of these ways are incredibly petty to the point of being laughable, such as Trump’s efforts to exaggerate the size of the crowd attending his Inauguration. Some of these efforts of erasure are incredibly dangerous, such as efforts to downplay the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. This is all part of a larger war on the idea of objective truth, such as the breaking down of barriers between political policy and the scientific method, suggesting that not only is the application of facts subject to political expedience, but also the facts themselves.

In this context, the mere act of “witnessing” becomes a political act itself, a way of stating to the world at large, no, this is how things happened and there is nothing that anybody can say that will change the reality of what unfolded and what has been seen. In an era where ideas of truth and meaning are fundamentally under siege, the process of observing truth is an important and meaningful activity. In its own way, it is just as important as taking direct and meaningful action. Knowing what is true is both important and difficult in these turbulent times, so it makes sense to have fictional characters affirming it.

The eyes have it.

There may also be a renewed focus on this idea of vicarious observation due to the ways in which social media have been employed in recent years. Social media theoretically allows people to be in much closer communication with one another than ever before, even allowing individuals to forge meaningful connections with complete strangers. Through social media like Facebook or Twitter, it is possible to passively observe lives unfolding half the world away with a strange intimacy that would have been impossible to imagine even a decade ago.

Indeed, it is tempting to liken social media (at its best) to the TARDIS. This metaphor extends beyond those high-concept accounts that play out historical on social media in real time as a way of making them more “tangible.” Social media platforms can serve as a window and gateway into parts of the world that would previous have been off-limits, allowing observers access to first-hand accounts of momentous events like the Arab Spring or the Ferguson protests. The mere act of bearing witness, of seeing these events unfold in real time and spreading the word, has a tangible importance at this moment in time.

In this context, the Chris Chibnall era has made a point to broaden the historical perspective of Doctor Who, to expand the kind of stories that the show can tell about the past. It is very revealing that the era’s first two historicals – Rosa and Demons of the Punjab – took the series outside of the United Kingdom. The revival series has done stories set in the United States before – Dalek, Daleks in Manhattan, Evolution of the Daleks, The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the MoonThe Angels Take Manhattan, even The Return of Doctor Mysterio. However, none of those stories engaged with the reality of American history like Rosa.

Similarly, Demons the Punjab is not technically the first Doctor Who historical to be set outside what is traditionally defined as “the West” – Europe and the North Americas. In some ways, like the return to Terry Nation scripting in The Ghost Monument or a purer form of historical in Rosa, this harks back to the William Hartnell era. The earliest Hartnell era historicals took the series outside the comfort zone of North America and Europe; Marco Polo took place in China, The Aztecs was set in Central America, The Crusade unfolded in the Middle East.

Broad in scope.

However, it is very much a statement of purpose for the Chibnall era that the two opening historicals are set outside of Britain, ignoring the way that previous eras would traditional make a point to feature a very bold and safe celebration of British heritage; Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, Queen Victoria in Tooth and Claw, William Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Code, and even Winston Church in Victory of the Daleks. In contrast, the closest thing that the eleventh season has to a British-themed celebrity historical, with Alan Cumming as King James I in The Witchfinders, is buried in the tail end of the season.

It is clear that Chibnall is making a very conscious effort to broaden out the perspective of the series. At least some of this is a practical effort to increase scale and production value, like shooting in Spain or South Africa to give the season a distinctive look. Some of this diversity is also reflected behind the scenes, with a heavy emphasis on diversity within the writing staff. However, there is a clear sense that, at this moment in time, Doctor Who needs to have a much broader perspective on history and culture. It needs to be willing to go places that it has never gone and to see things it has never looked at before.

In this context, creatures like the Thijarians and the “Testimony” (and even the Chibnall era’s conception of the Doctor herself) speak to the current social and political moment. Film and television have always reflected how audience members see the world, and that is especially true within science-fiction. As such, it makes sense that the increasing importance of observing reality at this turbulent moment, and the increasing opportunity of otherwise marginalised groups to be seen by the mainstream, should be incorporated into the framework of a series about a wanderer who travels through space and time.

To be fair, there is some indication that the Thijarians are a monster particular to the Chibnall era. More specifically, they seem to share some conceptual DNA with Stenza from The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument. They are an ancient warrior civilisation, very good at hunting. “One of the oldest species,” the Doctor explains. “Evolved themselves into the universe’s deadliest assassins.” Ignoring the shoutout to The Deadly Assassin, it is a premise that evokes the Stenza. They are a violent threat to the larger cosmos.

Arachnids in the Punjab.

More to the point, the design of the Thijarians evokes the Stenza. They are tall and muscly. Their faces are toothy. They stalk their prey. In fact, the establishing shot of the first Vajarian in Demons of the Punjab features a pan up a tree trunk, suggesting a hunter stalking its prey. It is a shot that very consciously and very overtly evokes the eponymous monster from Predator. It seems strange that the particular monster should haunt so much of Chibnall’s first season. As with The Woman Who Fell to Earth, it seems like Chibnall was banking on The Predator being a much bigger hit.

That said, Demons of the Punjab pulls two neat tricks with the Thijarians. The most obvious one is revealing that they are not the villains of this piece. This allows for a lot of running around and exposition in the first half of the episode, but without any of the awkwardness of the time-travelling space-racist in Rosa. The Thijarians are not causing any death or destruction on the border between India and Pakistan. They are not a problem to be solved, or a riddle to be confronted.

Again, this seems like another Chibnall era cue. A surprisingly high number of episodes in this season hinge on monsters that are not really monsters, or rather upon monsters without any moral capacity for monstrosity. The spiders in Arachnids in the U.K. were simply acting in accordance with their nature, just like the Pting from The Tsuranga Conundrum. There seems to be a conscious effort in the Chibnall era to avoid presenting the alien as inherently evil, which is a moral choice in the context of the Brexit and Trump era. The Thijarians fit with this approach to storytelling.

The Thijarians allow Demons of the Punjab to feel like a Doctor Who episode without displacing the real historical context of the violence between India and Pakistan. It is a deft touch, avoiding the clumsiness of Krasko in Rosa. There is something tragic in the way that Demons of the Punjab unfolds, as it becomes increasing clear that Manish will be the person responsible for the inevitable bloodshed at the end of the episode. It’s not the most innovative or radical piece of plotting ever, but it is efficient. Manish’s radicalisation is so clearly signposted that watching the cast catch up becomes a grand tragedy.

Prem time television.

There is something very effective about Demons of the Punjab, which pulls together the themes of the two big political commentary episodes of the season. Like Rosa, this is an episode that touches on the harm caused by racial divisions stoked by existing social systems. Like Arachnids in the U.K., this is an episode that understands that these things happen as a result of complex factors acting on individuals and locations. Demons of the Punjab might be set against the backdrop of the late forties, but it is an episode very much about the present day.

This is, after all, a story about borders and the harm that borders cause by dividing populations and creating civil strife. The Brexit referendum was fought on the notion of reaffirming Britain’s borders, of building a wall around a nation that still perceived itself to be “an island fortress.” That campaign has had lasting consequences; one pro-Brexit radical assassinated Jo Cox in the lead-up to the vote, while hate crimes have apparently increased significantly in the wake of the vote.

This is not unique to Britain. It applies as readily the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Trump was elected largely on his promise to strengthen borders – literally promising to build a wall and moving troops to the border as a show of force before the midterms. However, in doing so, Trump has just divided people. There are similar crises within Europe, with the election of far-right leaders in countries like Poland, Hungary and Austria, all fixating on the perceived integrity of their borders. This is all folly, of course. These borders just divide people, creating boundaries over which they might fight.

At its core, Demons of the Punjab is a story about radicalisation. Manish is a young man who has been swept up in a toxic fever that has driven him to violence. Explaining his brother’s extremist viewpoints, Prem remarks that “he spends too much time reading pamphlets and listening to angry men on the radio.” This seems like the forties version of reading 4chan or Reddit. He is an angry young man looking for meaning in his life like so many radicalised zealots. When the Doctor remarks that Mianish was “too young to fight in the war”, he insists “this is my time to fight.”

Family time.

Manish’s arc is familiar to modern audiences. He is a version of that lost and angry young male character who was characterised so effectively in films like Fight Club or American Animals, a young man looking for a cause against which he might define himself. Demons of the Punjab suggests that what was true in the late nineties and what is true now was also true in the late forties. Demons of the Punjab does take care to acknowledge the specifics of this particular case, with an emphasis on religion and history and culture, but it also embraces the universality of it.

The script acknowledges as much. When the Hindu militia ride up on the farm, Manish describes them as “the future.” At one point, as reports of violence escalate, Yaz wonders, “Who’s doing this stuff?” Prem tells her, “Ordinary people, who’ve lived here all their lives.” He clarifies, “Nothing worse than normal people who lose their minds.” Prem may as well be talking about the modern moment in time, the present as perceived by the audience rather than himself. It is arguably a more biting piece of social commentary than anything in Arachnids in the U.K.

That said, there is a sense in which Demons of the Punjab lets the British off the hook for this chaos. While the episode makes it clear that the border has been established by the British, there is very little explicit rumination on the violence as a legacy of British colonialism. Indeed, Prem only makes a passing (and half-joking) suggestion that the British cast members “might want to keep [their nationalities to themselves] for now.” While the Doctor makes a reference to an unseen adventure with Lord Mountbatten, she never seems to hold him accountable for his part in all of this.

There is a sense that Demons of the Punjab is being a little bit precious, wary of angering a segment of the public that has already reacted strongly to the casting of a female Doctor and the general interest in social commentary in the season to this point. The issues is compounded by the scheduling; Demons of the Pubjab aired on Remembrance Day, a patriotic holiday in the United Kingdom about honouring the dead which descends into hypernationalist fever at the best of times. Dark Water and Death in Heaven aired around the same time of year, gently poking the idea of a villainous force weaponising dead soldiers.

A marriage marred.

Of course, Dark Water and Death in Heaven had the luxury of approaching Remembrance Day from an oblique angle at a different time; armies of Cybermen are not Muslims and Hindu in the Punjab, and November 2014 has a very different political climate than November 2018. It is hard to blame Demons of the Punjab for shying away from the overt horrors of colonialism and the complicity of the British government in the horrors depicted within the episode. There would be a national outrage, and the tabloid press would be baying for the programme’s blood. To a certain extent, this avoidance is simply prudent.

At the same time, it also feels like cowardice. Rosa was perfectly willing to acknowledge the racism inherent in fifties America, implicitly commenting on the current state of the nation. However, Great Britain is currently going through its own existential crisis. Brexit is perhaps the greatest political and social crisis to face the United Kingdom since the Second World War, one informed by the nation’s trouble coming to terms with the reality of its colonial history. However, while the eleventh season of Doctor Who has repeatedly targetted Trump, it remains largely silent on Britain’s own nationalist crisis.

Nevertheless, it is good to see political commentary in Demons of the Punjab. It suggests something interesting about Chibnell’s first season of Doctor Who. While Kerblam! looks to be a slice of science-fiction allegory and The Ghost Monument featured some veiled allusions to the dangers of unchecked capitalism, Chibnall has most directly and overtly engaged with the modern political climate in historical episode that are played relatively straight. It was impossible to watch Rosa without connecting it to the modern wave of xenophobia sweeping the western world, and Demons of the Punjab is a story of radicalisation.

Generally, Doctor Who has tended to use its science-fiction elements and stories to make political commentary. The aliens in Aliens of London and World War III allowed Russell T. Davies to engage with the Iraq War, while the future setting of Bad Wolf played with the horrors of reality television. The Beast Below allowed Steven Moffat to decry the short memory of the voting public, while The Happiness Patrol was Andrew Cartmel’s commentary on Thatcherism. This goes back to the commentary on taxation in The Sunmakers or the European Community in Monster of Peladon.

The not-so-Deadly Assassin.

Even the historical episodes with allegories tended to load those allegories on to the shoulders of the alien elements; the monstrous capitalism tied to the creature in Thin Ice, the Brexit allegory involving the Ice Warriors in Empress of Mars. As a result, the pointed explorations of systemic hatred in both Rosa and Demons of the Punjab are interesting. Chibnall seems to be arguing (and perhaps fairly) that the most important lessons about the present moment are to be found in the past. It is a genuinely novel approach to Doctor Who, even if it is one with obvious drawbacks.

These drawbacks are suggested by the second interesting thing that Patel does with the Thijarians. The Thijarians begin Demons of the Punjab as archetypal Doctor Who monsters, created in the image of the current season’s biggest bad, the Stenza. However, they end the episode as an allegory for the Doctor herself. This similarity is suggested repeatedly over the episode, but most overtly in that late shot where the overhead view of the Vajarian ship cuts to a similar overhead view of the TARDIS to effectively twin the two locations.

Like the Doctor broke with the Time Lords, the Thijarians have broken with their own history. “We are changed,” the states. “Our past is no more. We are no longer assassins. We are witnesses.” This is an interesting twist of itself, a revelation that a particular species is not defined by one attribute forever and ever. This is similar to the use of the Ice Warriors in Monster of Peladon, suggesting that cultures can change over time. Things can get better. That is a very humanist approach, particularly at this moment in history. The past may be written, but the future is not.

However, Demons of the Punjab positions the Thijarians as observers. They are witnesses to history. They do not interfere. They have come to the Punjab because “millions will perish. Unknown. Unseen.” They have come to offer comfort and compassion. They do not offer justice or redemption. “Events sit as they will. We only witness.” Graham describes them as “aliens with compassion”, while the camera makes it very clear that even Graham knows that he could just as easily be talking about the Doctor. This is all very sweet and all very moving.

Far afield.

However, it does involve a fundamental reconceptualisation of the Doctor to a witness rather than a participant. This is an issue with the Chibnall era as a whole, where a lot of the episodes have ended with the Doctor either unwilling or unable to proactively punish those responsible. Ignoring the Doctor’s unwillingness to change historical events in either Rosa or Demons of the Punjab, Tim Shaw gets to retreat home in The Woman Who Fell to Earth, Ilin disappears without consequence in The Ghost Monument and Robertson just walks out the door in Arachnids in the U.K.

This is very pointedly at odds with how the Doctor has historically operated, typically being willing to upend entire societies in the pursuit of fairness and justice. Ignoring the iffy politics of the story, this characterisation can be traced back to The Ark at the latest. There are many examples of the Doctor changing entire worlds and toppling horrific systems on his journey; The Long Game, Gridlock, Planet of the Ood. The Doctor has toppled corrupt rules like Ilin and Robertson with a stray line of dialogue, as he did to Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion.

To be fair, the Davies era made a point to problematicise a lot of the Doctor’s interventions. Destroying the totalitarian government in The Long Game was a futile gesture, as a new regime was able to install itself in Bad Wolf. Toppling Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion allowed for the election of the Master in The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords. However, the show was also willing to call the Doctor out on his own inaction. In Planet of the Ood, the Doctor (rightfully) calls himself out for doing nothing to help the Ood escape slavery in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit.

That said, there is a valid point to be made concerning the approach of the Chibnall era. At this moment in time, it is important to illustrate to the audience that systems of injustice do not get magically toppled by a woman travelling in a time machine. These systems can only really be changed by grassroots action. Of course, none of the episodes so far have actually shown any grassroots activism defeating any of these systemic injustices. Instead, the season as a whole seems to adopt a rather bleak outlook, suggesting that there is simply nothing that can be done to stop these sorts of horrors.

A work of cart.

There is something potentially problematic in the fact that the first female iteration of the Doctor is the first version of the character to face this sort of hurdle, to find herself so powerless and so ineffectual in a way that her male predecessors never were. It is disheartening and disappointing, even if it is nominally more “realistic” in the sense that a show about a group of people travelling through time can be deemed to be “realistic.” It is perhaps more reflective of the world as it exists today, in contrast even to the world as it existed when the final season of the Moffat era was broadcast.

Of course, it should be noted that the show has always grappled with the question of how the Doctor should respond to real-life horror, dating back to The Massacre. However, in the past, the series has traditionally made some small gesture towards heroism and idealism. The Doctor might not have been able to save Pompeii itself in The Fires of Pompeii, but Donna could urge him to save just one family. It was a small gesture, but it was still something meaningful. More to the point, it suggested that the Doctor would not simply stand around and do nothing when confronted with that level of horror.

To be fair, there is an argument that the glibness with which Moffat responded to these sorts of hypotheticals in Let’s Kill Hitler and even The Magician’s Apprentice would be a lot tougher to pull off in the current climate. However, there was something potentially insightful in the Moffat era’s understanding that the Doctor was essentially a story, and that stories could have an indirect impact on the world. Extremis argued that the Doctor should always do the right thing and the kind thing, even if it was obvious that the world around him was fake, that stories about heroes have value even if they don’t change the world.

This is a much more interesting and engaging approach to the character than what seems to be emerging as a central thesis statement of the Chibnall era, the idea that “the Doctor has to stand around and do nothing while injustice happens because that is just the way that things are supposed to be and a fictional character in a box can’t really fix the world.” After all, Rosa was an episode where the objectively right thing for the Doctor to do was to render herself complicit in systemic racism. That’s perhaps the bleakest and most impotent approach to Doctor Who imaginable.

Holy unconcerned.

Demons of the Punjab avoids the worst excesses of this central premise with some deft plotting. While the internal logic of allowing Prem to die so that Yaz might be born is a little bit “icky” if any moral weight is applied to it – the unspoken implication being that Yaz as an individual is more important than Prem – it does at least avoid placing the entire history of India and Pakistan upon Prem’s shoulders. More to the point, while the Doctor stage-managed Rosa’s stand in Rosa, Prem is allowed a greater amount of agency at the climax of Demons of the Punjab, choosing to go back and face his brother.

There is some very good character work in Demons of the Punjab, which helps to elevate the episode. This applies even outside of the dynamic between Prem and Manish. The episodes continues to hint at the idea that Graham’s cancer might have returned that that he might have kept it from Grace and Ryan. This idea was hinted at with his anxiety over the “gene bomb” in The Woman Who Fell to Earth and his sympathy for the General’s decision to keep her health scare private in The Tsuranga Conundrum.

The early scenes of Demons of the Punjab add more fuel to that fire, as he describes visiting Pakistan as “another one off the bucket list”, suggesting a character keenly aware of his mortality. Later on, he explicitly talks to Yaz about the way that older relatives often keep secrets from those in their care. “Woman’s allowed to have secrets,” he states. “Even from her granddaughter.” Does he think he is allowed to have secrets from Ryan? He notes, “I don’t honestly know if any of us know the truth of our own lives. Because we’re too busy living them from the inside.”

In its own weird way, this recurring suggestion hints at one of the bigger themes of Demons of the Punjab. Does the past inform the future? Is our present dictated by what happened before? Is Graham living with a death sentence from his cancer diagnosis? In the opening scene, Yaz tries to talk to her mother about the importance of sharing history from one generation to the next. “If you don’t tell us, we won’t know,” Yaz tries to coax her grandmother into telling the story. Discovering the past is important in shaping our understanding of the present.

Graham: Everyone’s Granda.

This is perhaps the central argument of the revised Chibnall era historical as suggested by Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, the suggestion that our present is defined by the horrors buried in our past and that the best thing that one can do in this “post-truth” and “fake news” era is simply to bear witness to what happened as it happened. It is a rather grim and modest perspective with very little in the way of optimism or humanism. The Doctor can no longer hope to make the future better, only to gaze upon the past as it really happened.

It is revealing that one of the most consistent visual motifs of this season has been the idea of the funeral, of the Doctor mourning the dead while remaining powerless to change things. Grace’s funeral closed out The Woman Who Fell to Earth, while The Tsuranga Conundrum ends with the cast joining in a prayer of mourning for General Cicero. This is to say nothing of turning Robertson’s safe room into some monstrous tomb in Arachnids in the U.K. or the presentation of Desolation as a graveyard in The Ghost Monument. It makes sense that Demons of the Punjab would visually compare the TARDIS to a space-age mausoleum.

Demons of the Punjab is a great piece of television and perhaps the best execution of Chris Chibnall’s vision of Doctor Who. However, it is also very bleak.

You might be interested in our other reviews from Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who:

6 Responses

  1. I really, really liked it. This was definitely the best episode of the season so far, and hopefully bodes well for the next three episodes as well.

    • Yep. Really enjoyed it, despite my… concerns about the underlying philosophical position of the Chibnall era. (“We can’t change anything, so why both trying?” is a pretty crappy ethical thesis, whatever about “fixed points” and historical realities.) It is just a lot more confident and clever about what it’s doing than the earlier stories in the season. Quite looking forward to Kerblam!

      • I get your problem with the ethics of it, but it seems their goal is just to educate people about history, just like in the early Hartnell era. If it was on another planet, the Doctor would probably try her best to stop it. Here on Earth, they can’t really do that without being tasteless. Another problem is I don’t think the Doctor changing history for the better would really be that great of a message- after all, the Doctor would solve the situation through sci-fi jargon, which we in the real world can’t. She can do things normal humans can’t. Obviously it’s easy for her to fix things.

      • I completely understand that. And it’s a situation with no good answer.

        You can’t have the Doctor topple the British Empire, as fun as that would be, because it would break verisimilitude and belittle the real life suffering of those who died as a result. You can’t have the Doctor directly inspire social activists like Rosa Parks, because that diminishes the agency of minority groups who did struggle on their own without the guiding hand of a powerful white saviour. However, that leaves the option of having the Doctor just stand around and do nothing, which is an issue because the audience has seen the Doctor intervene in other cases where real historical factors don’t apply, so her inaction in these cases is especially pointed. (I’m talking historically here, though it’s as recent as last season.) It really does feel like a bunch of kids watching this could assume that the right thing to do on witnessing an injustice is just to stand by and accept it, which is less than ideal to me.

        This creates a Catch-22 situation though, because it seems like Chibnall (who is a much cannier writer than his critics often allow, even if he’s not as ambitious as I’d like) has realised the inconsistency that this would create between historicals and stories set in the present or the future. The last thing you want is that moment from Green Lantern/Green Arrow where an African American asks Hal Jordan why he can help blue people but not brown people. Here, you might have people wondering why the Doctor could topple Robertson but not Lord Mountbatten. So it really seems like Chibnall recognises that potential issue – how come the Doctor can help giant spiders but not actual black people – and decides that the proper response is to extrapolate the Doctor’s inability to combat injustice from the historicals to the rest of the show.

        The net result is a Doctor that feels largely passive to me, and largely ineffectual. I’m not decrying Chibnall. I understand what he’s doing. I understand why he’s doing it. I think he’d be doing this with a male Doctor as well, even if it’s unfortunate it’s happening with a female Doctor. It just… it is a really bleak worldview. And that’s maybe fair. The world is a bleak place. Goodness knows that Davies had a blisteringly bleak view of human nature. However, it’s unsettling to see that bleakness applied not only to the world through which the Doctor is moving, but also to the Doctor herself. I much rather the idea at the heart of Extremis, of a version of the Doctor who will do the right thing even when it accomplishes absolutely nothing rather standing passively by.

      • I don’t mind bleakness if it’s earned. I don’t mind earned cynicism, nor do I mind earned optimism. “Midnight”, “Torchwood: Children of Earth”, and The Twilight Zone’s “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” feel like earned cynicism. I don’t think Series 11 (or 37, whatever) earns its cynicism. It feels just as cheap as blind optimism. It ultimately feels less like a genuine worldview being espoused through art and more like a negative consequence of the type of stories they’ve decided to tell.

      • That’s fair, but I give Demons of the Punjab more credit than a lot of the rest of the season. One of the issues with Rosa is that it thinks it’s an inspiring story of heroism when it is (at best) a tragedy.

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