Mark Watches ‘Doctor Who’: S11E06 – Demons of the Punjab

In the sixth episode of the eleventh series of Doctor Who, Yaz asks the Doctor to help her learn the truth about her grandmother’s mysterious past. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Doctor Who.

Trigger Warning: For mentions of the Partition of India, imperialism, war

So, let me start out with two things I’m aware of: I only know sweeping generalities about the Partition of India, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of this episode or the lens it was written through. Just seconds before it was revealed through dialogue, I did figure out what was happening, but look: I am not an expert, so I want to tread carefully here as I talk about the episode. Basically? You’ll get nothing about authenticity from me because I don’t want to seem like anything close to an expert. In a general sense, this episode seems to get things right. And there is proper blame directed towards the British for creating and exacerbating this issue, rather than peddling in some of the more racist tropes I’ve seen over the years that address the Partition. 

Secondly: in terms of the structure of this episode, I’m aware that this doesn’t necessarily do anything revolutionary. Hell, in series eleven alone, we’ve seen a story where everyone has to let history happen rather than intervene and risk changing it. (“Rosa.”) We’ve also gotten stories where the antagonist was revealed to be… well, not much of an antagonist in the end. (“The Tsuranga Conundrum,” “Arachnids in the UK.”) This episode more or less combines those two tropes and devices in one story, since the Thijarians are not what they seem, and no one is allowed to stop the murder of Prem, which must happen so that Yaz’s grandmother leaves India for Pakistan and eventually makes her way to Sheffield.

AND GUESS WHAT, I STILL LOVED THIS EPISODE SO MUCH. I truly feel like I’m running out of ways to say the same things about series 11: the cast is phenomenal. I love the Doctor’s new personality. I love the cinematography. And the score. And the filming locations. And the shared theme across the six episodes thus far. And how new the show feels. And the depth given to the companions’ stories. Y’all, this is an intricate and intimate portrait of Yaz’s family, one that shows the tragic thing that Umbreen went through and how that event brought her to the UK, where she built a wonderful life. (Also, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t bring up the fact that this features a narrative that is rare: this story demonstrates the inherent absurdity and unfairness of xenophobia, specifically in Britain. You can’t divorce the Partition from British imperialism, and I don’t often see depictions of how empire can often lead people to seek out a better life in an imperialist nation. Basically: people who benefited from the British empire are too quick to complain about the influx of immigrants, but it’s their nation’s policies that displaced people in the first place.)

This is a sad episode, one that, like “Rosa,” does not shy away from depicting (or at least mentioning) the ill effects of the Partition. And while much of it is literal, it is through the Thijarians that Vinay Patel’s script also addresses the Partition in a more metaphorical manner. When Yaz meets her Nani, she is shocked to discover that she’s about to marry a Hindu man, one that Nani Umbreen has never mentioned. (Also, Umbreen’s family is Muslim.) Thus, we’re given a classic time travel conundrum: Who is Prem? Is the history that Yaz learned a lie, or did something else happen? I began to wonder if the presence of the Doctor and her companions influenced history in a way so that Umbreen and Prem did not end up together, but I enjoyed that, like “Rosa,” the events that happened here were not part of some time paradox or closed loop. Instead, this is an episode that addresses history in a remarkably personal way. 

Again: the fact that series 11 is so goddamn personal is why it’s knocking me off my feet. There’s a lovely scene in the middle of this episode where Graham gets Yaz to open up about how confusing this is. (And this is before they know what the Thijarians are here for.) Indeed, much of Yaz’s identity is rooted in the stories that Umbreen told her. But how could they be true if Umbreen left out such a huge part of her past? I loved how Graham walked her through her feelings. He didn’t invalidate them, first of all, and he admitted at the start that she was probably feeling all mixed up. But then he points out that it’s fair that Umbreen had her own secrets; shouldn’t everyone? And once Yaz accepts that she can’t stop Prem from marrying her grandmother, I could tell she took Graham’s advice: there was still joy to be had just being here, to celebrate with her grandmother. They’re traveling through TIME, y’all!

That joy quickly turns somber, though, and I still can’t get over how gut-wrenching it was to learn what the Thijarians were actually doing. Formerly known as the universe’s deadliest assassins, they had REFORMED. They no longer murdered anyone after their own world had been wiped out. That capsule that the Doctor stole? YEAH, IT’S ALL THAT REMAINED OF THEIR ENTIRE PLANET. And thus, the episode itself is given a new context: the Thijarians only appear to witness the deaths of those who died alone, to remember them, to mourn them. And look, this is already some heavy shit, but in this story, it’s just… christ, it’s so damn sad. Millions of people died during the Partition, and the ramifications of the carving up of India are still felt today. The Thijarians arrived to pay witness to one of the most lonely events in human history.

It’s personal, too. Yaz now joins Graham and Ryan, who have been struggling with the notion of grief and memory in series 11. That theme is another motif we’ve seen over and over again. The Doctor is living in a new body, one awash with memories of what came before, eager to find a way to live in the present. (And I still haven’t forgotten about that hidden memory mentioned in “The Ghost Monument.”) Graham asked to travel with the Doctor because his memory of Grace was manifesting in the home he shared with her. And in the previous episode, Ryan had to re-think his own memories of his father when his mother died. 

Who do these people become? We’re seeing a change in the companions, and the Doctor is one HUGE change. But the neat thing about “Demons of the Punjab” is that we know the ending. We know that Umbreen not only survives, but she goes on to live a huge, fulfilling life, that she marries a Muslim man, that she establishes a home in Sheffield, that she has two beautiful granddaughters, and that Yaz is her favorite. And because of Yaz’s travel through time, she can now remember Prem herself, even if her Nani does not know she’s doing it. She bore witness, and Prem’s story can live on. 

HI, THIS SERIES IS DESTROYING ME.

The video for “Demons of the Punjab” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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