Doctor Who Demons of the Punjab review: “an imperfect jewel but a romantic tragedy with immense charm”

Yaz gets her own Who Do You Think You Are? during the turmoil of the Partition of India

Doctor Who series 11 ep 6

★★★ An imperfect jewel, this one. A few rupees short of a ruby. Part romantic tragedy, part historical re-enactment, with a fantasy element in passing, Demons of the Punjab doesn’t feel much like Doctor Who, but at the same time it is quintessentially Who. For Yasmin Khan, however, it’s Who Do You Think You Are? – a personalised edition of the BBC1 genealogy show, courtesy of the Time Lord. Except that while WDYTYA? uncovers the secrets of deceased ancestors, Yaz has the temerity to nose into her grandmother’s past while the old gal is still breathing. What a snoop!

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Chris Chibnall has spoken of such episodes (including Rosa) as “global historicals”, harking back to the expansive reach of the very earliest Doctor Whos, when the 1960s Team Tardis joined Marco Polo’s trek across ancient Cathay or failed to halt the human sacrifices of the Aztecs. Those ambitious serials were recorded in the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios and Television Centre, never daring even to ponder a film shoot overseas.

Anyone familiar with the Punjab of the 1940s or the present day might say there’s something not quite right about the scenery in this Doctor Who, but I’m relaxed about it. It was filmed in Andalusia in high summer and, whether filtered or “doctored”, the golden glow of the location footage and the shots in the forest and the wide open, with the Time Lord running through a meadow of wild flowers, are just gorgeous. We even see poppies. Either by design or serendipity, it’s good timing for a first transmission on the centenary of the Armistice.

Where would you go if you had a time machine…? Most of us must have contemplated this idea. The first thought that always comes to my mind is to see my grandparents – all now dead and all of whom I adored – when they were young. So I am already on board with Yaz’s desire to do so. The top and tail sections when she’s sitting with her elderly Nani, Umbreen (Leena Dhingra), have immense charm.

To start: it’s the old lady’s birthday but she is the one doling out gifts; treasures from her past; love letters, a pressed yellow poppy and a broken wristwatch that must never be mended. “I’ve such stories I could tell you,” she teases. To end: Yaz now knows how the watch was broken 71 years earlier but wants her Nani to keep her secrets. I was expecting Umbreen to acknowledge Yaz appearing in her past and that she’s long kept that secret too, but happily there isn’t even a hint of it. The two women simply express their unqualified love for each other. It’s very touching.

Vinay Patel (a writer lauded for the harrowing 2016 BBC drama, Murdered by My Father) has done a terrific job of bringing the personal, the political and the historical together in a single tragedy. The Partition of India in 1947, as the Doctor informs her team and the viewer in an info-dump less clumsy than usual, means that “tens of millions are about to be displaced, more than a million are about to die”. Friends, family and communities will be torn apart.

Yaz’s forebears find themselves (OK, unlikely) living right on the new border, and the marriage between Moslem Umbreen and Hindu Prem serves to crystallise the turmoil of the day. Given the ferment, it seems odd that they blithely proceed with their nuptials but it explains why no other relatives or locals attend; one could also infer that an inter-faith union is already frowned upon, so people are staying away.

Yaz is thrilled to see her Nani as a young woman. I would have liked a beat, too, showing her curiosity in meeting Umbreen’s mother, her own great-grandmother. But the storytelling is condensed by the timeframe, the friction between brothers Prem and Manish rapidly reaching a head – and an execution. It’s a shame that yet again the Doctor offers scant moral guidance to the bad guy. As with the Rosa Parks incident, her team must not intercede; they turn and walk away as the gunshots are fired. History has to run its course – otherwise Umbreen’s life and family in Sheffield will never be. Yaz will wink out of existence.

The eponymous demons are largely superfluous, but all historical Who seems to require a sci-fi intrusion these days. These beings, remnants of the Thijarian Hive, once “the deadliest assassins in the known universe”, are a reasonable addition to the programme’s carnival of monsters but hardly original. They resemble the Judoon and turn out to be benign observers – witnessing, recording and honouring death. We need only look back to the Testimony in Peter Capaldi’s final episode for the same concept.

This time there’s enough to occupy all four of Team Tardis, and Yaz, who’s been under-served in series 11, becomes the focus. Mandip Gill shows tenderness and sensitivity and moments of impetuosity as a young woman surprised to learn the past is not as it’s been told to her. “I thought I knew my nan’s story. She inspired me… She lied to me.” Graham, the great sage, offers: “I honestly don’t know whether any of us know the real truth of our own lives, ’cos we’re too busy living them from the inside. So just enjoy. Live this moment.” At last – six weeks in – Graham and Yaz have had a conversation with each other.

The soundtrack is magnificent throughout, the score awash with mournful motifs or throbbing with a bhangra beat. Unlike the heavy-weather anthem that closed Rosa, the ethereal Indian makeover of the Doctor Who theme tune is an unexpected delight. To be replayed and replayed. Composer Segun Akinola and his team have impressed this year. There’s no word yet on a soundtrack album, but there has to be one, surely…?


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This article was originally published on 11 November 2018