Director: Mark Tonderai
Screenplay: Chris Chibnall
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Runtime: 50 Minutes
Series 11 - Episode 6
If last week’s episode felt like it was lacking in the sense of dramatic or even thematic weight of Whittaker’s first few adventures, then Demons of the Punjab is going to drop kick any sense of complacency right out of viewers. In fact, this might be one of the heaviest feeling episodes of the series in recent memory, almost solidifying Chibnall and co.’s drastic new take on the show and its direction going forward.
That is not a criticism though, because much like the critically adored episode Rosa, we find the companions approaching a turbulent point in history in which they must tread lightly so as to not disturb the future. Specifically, the personal future of Yaz, who finds herself visiting her grandmother Umbreen (Amita Suman) at a young age in 1947 India during the country’s partition after it gained independence from British rule, in an attempt to discover her lineage and why her grandmother won’t discuss her past.
That’s pretty heavy stuff to be dealing with as a backdrop of a BBC family series, and as the Doctor stresses the horrifying significance of this event to the characters and why they should be worried, with mob riots and mass casualty fallout out of the conflict caused by the partition, guest writer Vinay Patel’s decision to contain the frame of the story to something so small and explore it through that is probably the best approach they could have come up with.
It’s strange to consider the very landscape of this depicted India and Pakistan border feeling so alien to British audiences – this is a beautifully designed and directed episode by new series regular Jamie Childs – but it feels like an essential piece of historical storytelling shining a light on the “unacknowledged dead”.
This being the statement made by the red herring alien baddies, the Monks the Vajarians, who are talking about a specific individual but might as well be a metaphor for the entire cataclysmic event itself. The Monks the Vajarians are fun designs, with a backstory that might be alluding in some form to the earlier villains of the series, the Stenza, making a return.
The real antagonistic force turns out to be the little brother of husband-to-be Prem (Shane Zaza), Manish (Hamza Jeetooa). A young man whipped into a frenzy of extremism by pamphlets and “angry men on the radio” (well, that’s uncomfortably prescient). Not necessarily crossing a line, but it does allow for some solid drama even if both performances are kind of struggling to sell their characters as much as the dialogue is.
It’s nice that in the midst of this conflict, what it ultimately becomes is a love story between Prem and Umbreen defying their positions as Hindu and Muslim and choosing to marry anyway in the face of differences tearing apart unity. Culminating in a pretty harrowing tragic finale that feels like the inverse intention of the climax of Rosa, where the heroes must solemnly walk away as history plays out with little hope of resolve to anything beyond bearing witness to the pain suffered by generations before. Leaving an innocent man to die in order to keep history as one.
As great as it is to have a Yaz centric episode, though, this still doesn’t quite feel like the showcase that Mandip Gill probably deserves as the most promising new companion, even if Gill is putting in tremendous work and her to-and-fro with Graham giving fatherly advice is sweet. As the passive observer here, she mostly has to stand by and give support as events play out. Ryan doesn’t really get anything to do, but given the amount he’s afforded so far, it’s okay to let that slide even if it does show the difficulty of handling such a large supporting TARDIS cast in such a small story.
Whittaker gets some great quippy moments too as the rambling officiator to the ceremony that turns almost sickly sweet (let’s hope to see some rougher shades from her Doctor by the end of this series), and her sonic once again malfunctioning lets her get all practical again with a homemade laboratory.
Demons of the Punjab is about as strong as this run has been so far, as we watch the hardening the mould of the new series’ direction and focus on human drama and conflict, even in the face of a now established formula waiting to be tipped over. Is this the long-term gain by Chibnall? That’s anybody’s guess at this point, but it’s a confident and different episode that treks across its potentially dangerous ground with relative ease.