NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Doctor Who” are present in this review
As much as Doctor Who has mostly done a solid job of re-tooling the show to accommodate an ensemble of companions, rather than just one main ally to The Doctor, it’s also true that Ryan and Graham have so far gotten a bit of heightened focus in contrast to Yas. We did meet Yas’ family during the events of, “Arachnids in the UK” a couple of weeks ago, but the death of Grace has led to many companion subplots focusing most heavily on Ryan and Graham, and how they most of all are taking in their new adventures with The Doctor. The Doctor herself may claim to be an especially big fan of Yas, and it’s looking increasingly likely that Yas is secretly her favourite of the three current companions, but Yas hasn’t really had a truly meaty story arc to call her own so far this season.
That finally changed with, “Demons of the Punjab”, a Yas-heavy episode that took the exploration of Yas’ family history to incredible new heights. This week’s mystery begins innocently enough to be sure, as Yas begs The Doctor to take her back in time, to discover the mystery of why her grandmother, Umbreen refuses to talk about a mysterious broken watch. One TARDIS trip later, and The Doctor and friends have arrived in 1947, right at the exact moment during which Pakistan is separating from India. This explains Umbreen’s big claim that she was the first woman to get married in Pakistan, but this also comes with a twist that Yas couldn’t possibly have anticipated; Yas’ grandfather was not Umbreen’s first husband!
At least, that’s something that viewers will quickly put together. Yas, instead, is left to look dumbfounded as she’s about to watch her grandmother marry another man named Prem, a WWII veteran, who coincidentally wears the same watch that later ends up broken by 2018. Yas is perplexed as to why another man is wearing her grandmother’s prized watch, and why Umbreen demands that it never be fixed, but she’s nonetheless curious about events. The tension of conflict hangs in the air as well, as current struggles between Hindu and Muslim people threaten to boil over with Prem’s and Umbreen’s controversial wedding, on account of Prem being Hindu and Umbreen being Muslim. Prem’s younger brother, Manish seems to be especially unhappy about the news as well, to the point of even voicing this aloud while Ryan and Graham help to entertain Prem on his, “Stag night.”
This is another example of Chris Chibnall’s new era of Doctor Who attempting to more openly tackle modern political and social justice issues, re-examined through the eye of earthbound history. We certainly got an especially heavy dose of this with, “Rosa” earlier in the season, and, “Arachnids in the UK” even went over some of this material the following week to boot. For the most part, “Demons in the Punjab” manages to be a pretty effective examination of these continued themes of tolerance and harmony that have pervaded much of Series Eleven of New Who up to this point as well. We even see these conflicts play out with just the right amount of alien influence, as mysterious ‘alien assassins’ called the Vajari begin to apparently kill people, including the man who would be officiating Prem’s and Umbreen’s wedding, while also appearing to possess incredible psychic and technological abilities. The exact nature of the Vajari threat proves very difficult to pinpoint as well, as The Doctor and her companions keep being stumbled by the mere presence of the aliens, while also warping in and out of their vague secret headquarters as they traipse around the nearby forest.
Again though, there is a twist here, and this is the stronger of the episode’s two major twists. Turns out, despite what even The Doctor has heard, the Vajari are not remorseless alien killers, but are actually the final remnants of a destroyed alien civilization that merely want to, “Witness” for other worlds. Their mission is to represent and document the unmourned dead across all universal civilizations, including Earth. Thus, they were only hovering around the body of the holy man because someone else killed him, and this also explains why information on the holy man was present in their lair. It’s a bit hard to believe that The Doctor would somehow be completely unaware of these history observers, but perhaps they simply wish to remain unseen, like a Doctor Who variation of the Watchers from the Marvel Universe. I suppose that’s fair enough.
This brings me to the weaker twist of the episode though, and one that does trip up a lot of the otherwise very strong storytelling. The Partition of India eventually comes to the doorstep of Prem almost immediately after he marries Umbreen, with Manish having summoned Indian nationalists to target his brother, after Prem seemingly betrayed his country to Pakistan. As with Rosa Parks a few episodes ago, The Doctor and her companions are also helpless to intefere with history here, forcing Prem to still be killed by the Indian nationalists in the end, in order to preserve the existence of Yas. This is a moment that hangs heavily on most of the right notes, but it is undercut a bit by this twist being painfully obvious. Just about anyone who is paying attention could piece together that Prem obviously dies shortly after the wedding, since he’s obviously too likable to be made into a believable traitor and/or villain that simply betrays his vows. Likewise, it would logically follow for Umbreen to preserve the broken watch as it is in the present, after Prem accidentally drops it during their wedding rites. The episode overplayed its hand with Prem’s death right from the get-go, so the show trying to create a shock out of The Doctor and her companions having to let him die doesn’t totally work, because most viewers will be expecting that.
That being said, the futile struggle against the dark history behind the Partition of India is another effective earthbound threat that’s rooted in real history, without relying excessively on alien influence. This very nicely helped to make up for some of the failings of last week’s disappointing episode of Doctor Who, which leaned into a very alien-heavy conflict that just ended up feeling contrived and sloppy. “Demons of the Punjab”, by contrast, felt smarter and better executed, once again delivering an alien presence that didn’t end up being what it seemed, while also once again forcing The Doctor and her companions to resign to the integrity of history, in order to preserve the greater good. Best of all though, it was great to finally get some especially extensive focus on Yas this week, since she’s the companion that’s so far felt like she’s had the least backstory in some respects. The fact that there wasn’t a blatant villain threat beyond the unchangeable mistakes of mankind also worked well in this case, and this was an advantage that this episode even had over, “Rosa”, which still incorporated a clear-cut baddie for The Doctor to go up against. Series Eleven of Doctor Who has sometimes suffered from having a heart that’s bigger than its brain, but in this case at least, there was plenty of earthly wisdom to go along with the social justice-fueled commentary.
- More welcome backstory for Yas
- Smart earthbound conflict rooted in real-world history
- Surprising alien presence with a solid twist behind it
- Umbreen's tragic watch story ends up being rather predictable