Doctor Who, “Demons of the Punjab”
Series 11, Episode 6
Written by Vinay Patel
Directed by Jamie Childs
Starring Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, and Bradley Walsh. Guest Starring Leena Dhingra, Hamza Jeetooa, Amita Suman, and Shane Zaza
Original Broadcast 11 November 2018 (50 minutes)
“Demons of the Punjab,” the sixth episode of Doctor Who’s Series 11, is a masterpiece that recalls the sensitivity and depth of “Rosa,” the similarly impressive third episode. It is also the first outing this season with no writing credit for showrunner Chris Chibnall, leaving Vinay Patel to do solo honors. That notion, of course, is false insofar as Chibnall, like Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat before him, maintains a watchful eye on all scripts and, when necessary, rewrites them. Considering Series 11’s high quality so far, Chibnall has kept his hand firmly on Doctor Who’s dramatic rudder and, in this outing, steers the program straight into an astonishingly realized political allegory about the United Kingdom’s 2016 decision to leave the European Union.
Patel and Chibnall clearly consider Brexit to be a calamitous event. “Demons of the Punjab” may be the first episode to center on Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill), the bright and charming companion who has so far received less attention than compatriots Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) and Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), but it also sees Yaz, Ryan, Graham, and Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor leave Sheffield, England after Yaz’s family celebrates her grandmother Nani Umbreen’s (Leena Dhingra’s) birthday. They go back in time, visiting the old woman in her youth, because Yaz wants to know if reality matches the stories her Nani tells about the early days of marriage to Yaz’s grandfather, particularly Nani’s boast, “I was the first woman to be married in Pakistan.” This risky choice takes them to the Punjabi countryside on 17 August 1947, better known as Partition: the day when India officially becomes independent of the British Empire and when the now-former colony divides into two neighboring nations, with Pakistan coming into existence as home to the majority of India’s Muslim residents while India remains majority Hindu.
Nani Umbreen has gifted Yaz her grandfather’s broken watch, which, the old woman claims, must never be repaired (although she refuses to explain why not). Yaz’s curiosity is more than piqued, leading her to convince the Doctor to journey into the past despite the Doctor’s prescient comment, “family history and time travel? Very tricky.” This warning stirs memories of Series 1’s masterful eighth episode, “Father’s Day,” the brilliant outing written by Paul Cornell that sees the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) agree to take his companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) back in time to 1987, on the day of her father Pete Tyler’s (Shaun Dingwall’s) death, so that Rose can catch a glimpse of the man who, run down in the street by a speeding car, died when she was only six months old. When Rose saves Pete’s life, a temporal paradox ensues that threatens to destroy the entire world. So, yes, family history and time travel are thorny, to say the least.
When Team TARDIS arrives in 1947 Punjab, they discover that the young Umbreen (Amita Suman), a proud Muslim, is scheduled to marry Prem (Shane Zaza), a proud Hindu, the next day. This revelation offers a personal problem for Yaz in that Prem is not her grandfather. Yet the watch belongs to him, so what else has Nani Umbreen failed to say? Even more serious is the enormous political problem that the Doctor voices when she realizes that Partition is upon them: “It’s not just the land that gets divided. Rioting in the cities, tens of millions of people about to be displaced, more than a million about to die.” As a summary of Partition’s disastrous consequences, this dialogue offers a quick historical précis not only for the Doctor’s companions but also for we viewers, while pointing out just how dangerous Yaz’s trip has become.
But Yaz will not be put off, as she has been in previous episodes. Mandip Gill’s smart performances have compensated for her sometimes underwritten character, but taking center stage this week produces a fascinating narrative about the unstated complications of individual and communal lineages. Patel’s script layers historical intrigue, extraterrestrial intervention, and family dysfunction into a cohesive whole that allows the cast’s performances to fly as high as they did in “Rosa.” Gill expertly plays the changes that Yaz must endure when discovering how her grandmother’s early life tragically fuses the personal with the political. Whittaker, Cole, and Walsh are fine, as usual, but the guest actors are as remarkable here as Vinette Robinson is in “Rosa,” etching unforgettable characters with the precision, grace, and humor of a theatrical company that’s given uncounted performances of the same stage play.
First among equals is Amita Suman as the young Umbreen, who is empathetic, resolute, and ready to embrace a more tolerant future after seeing her beloved Prem leave India to fight in World War II with British forces, but then return physically unscathed. Umbreen is more committed than ever to the project of building a pluralistic India that embraces Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs only to see Partition stoke the ethnic and nationalistic divisions that her commitment to Prem—and to the notion of justice—repudiates. Shane Zaza is terrific as Prem, projecting the weary dignity of a war veteran who’s lost too many people—including his older brother, Kunal—in the battle for freedom, a fight that failed to throw off the yoke of British colonialism as soon as he hoped. Zaza is as impressive in “Demons of the Punjab” as he is as Safiq Shah in the first two series of Sally Wainwright’s BBC drama Happy Valley, demonstrating once again that he’s among Britain’s most talented and hardworking actors.
Yet it is Hamza Jeetooa’s turn as Prem’s younger brother, Manish, that makes “Demons of the Punjab” soar in the same way as Vinette Robinson’s astounding turn as Rosa Parks makes “Rosa” indelible. Jeetooa’s first appearance sees the fresh-faced, handsome, and sincere Manish mock Prem in exactly that affectionate, edgy way that younger brothers (like myself) needle their older siblings. Manish is a fiercely intelligent and sensitive young man who gradually reveals himself to be a fiery Hindu nationalist spoiling to exile all Muslims to Pakistan and, in consequence, to stop his brother’s marriage to Umbreen. Patel’s complex writing ensures that Manish is no unthinking zealot, but rather a person whose political awakening occurs in the context of watching a global war against fascism that conscripts his two older brothers to fight for the freedom, liberty, and autonomy that centuries of British imperialism deny Manish’s country. These historical contradictions cause Manish to embrace Indian nationalism as a way to assert political and personal independence, so much so that he now wishes to ensure Hindustani purity whenever possible. No matter how much the Doctor or the viewer disagrees with this perspective, Jeetooa’s superb performance elevates Manish into perhaps Series 11’s best antagonist so far. He is not a villain, but he is also not a hero.
Thoughtful viewers might at this point wonder: Where have we recently seen similar political ructions? Brexit, you say? Full marks. The splenetic disagreements we have witnessed—and that British viewers have endured—for nearly three years about the United Kingdom’s impending withdrawal from the European Union make “Demons of the Punjab” a cultural text both of its moment and poised to become a timeless statement against the insanity that cultural, economic, and political bigotries breed whenever allowed to take root. Read this way, “Demons of the Punjab” is both a marvelous metaphor for Brexit and a troubling allegory that, by stepping away from current events to consider them from different perspectives (as the best science fiction does), evades some of those events’ worst implications.
Brexit, after all, is not merely driven by British nationalism, but by the anti-immigrant racism that typifies white supremacy (and if this statement seems like condescending criticism from across the pond, rest assured that America under the Trump regime is no better). This toxic stew permits all manner of hatreds to flourish, proudly and openly, as the online-comment sections of any British newspaper article about Brexit proves. To understand how vocal and how backward real-world Manishes are, moreover, simply peruse Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit for ten minutes. These dispiriting truths mean that “Demons of the Punjab” offers an enormous pitfall that must be clearly marked: certain viewers will watch this story about the disagreements, tensions, and hatreds besetting the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who experienced Partition—historically accurate hatreds that this entry tackles head-on—and say, “See, brown people hold similarly blinkered views!” to justify their own deplorable attitudes.
Granted, such regrettable possibilities exist whenever artists create work that resonates with their contemporary circumstances, yet “Demons of the Punjab” is a powerful rejoinder to the Brexiteers who employ both the referendum’s outcome and Prime Minister Theresa May’s inept management of the ensuing withdrawal to forward their racist paranoia. The demons of the title are the intolerance, nativism, and nationalism that this episode criticizes, not the ancient telepathic extraterrestrial observers known as Thijarians whom the Doctor recognizes as assassins. Yet Kisar (Nathalie Curzner) and Almak (Barbara Fadden), the Thijarian species’ only two survivors, tell the Doctor that, after discovering their homeworld destroyed and their civilization wiped out, they renounced their violent ways to bear witness across time and space so that no one need die alone. This new mission brings them to 1947 Punjab because they sense the oncoming bloodshed.
This development forecasts the episode’s final tragedy, in which Prem confronts a group of Hindu nationalists led by Manish. The resulting fratricide shakes “Demons of the Punjab” to its core, leaving the viewer bereft, thanks not only to Patel’s excellent writing but also to Zaza’s and Jeetooa’s heartfelt performances, to Jamie Childs’s expert direction, and to Segun Akinola’s mournful music. This scene is as intense a gut punch as Rosa Parks’s arrest in “Rosa,” even more so considering that the Doctor and the Thijarians can only honor Prem’s sacrifice rather than altering its outcome or preventing the murderous violence that will ensue.
As such, “Demons of the Punjab” is not a light hour of television despite the affection generated during the scenes with Yaz’s family that bookend the episode. Yaz comes to appreciate the historical traumas that Nani Umbreen survived to ensure a better life for Yaz, her parents, and her sister. Examining the implications of mammoth political events through the personal lives of everyday characters may be both an essential televisual and Doctor Who narrative strategy, but rarely has it worked better than in “Demons of the Punjab.” So drop everything and go watch it now. You will be happy you did.