Doctor Who screenwriter Vinay Patel was named a Bafta Breakthrough Brit in 2016 (Getty)
It’s yet another important step in the show’s 55-year history, but for Patel, the writer behind episode six Demons of the Punjab, it’s one he is more than happy to take.
“I didn’t realise that was the case until Chris announced it at Comic Con!” the 32-year-old tells RadioTimes.com. “I guess in the making of it I didn’t really think about it.
“In one way, it’s kind of shocking it’s taken that long, but in another way, it’s in the DNA of the show. The first episode of Doctor Who was directed by a gay Asian man. It’s a continuation of that legacy. I hope there are more [BAME writers] in the future.”
In Demons of the Punjab, the Doctor and her companions visit Yaz’s grandmother in India in 1947 on the day the borders between India and Pakistan are confirmed and the country is partitioned.
The partition of India is a particularly traumatic historical period for Doctor Who to confront, but it’s a story that Patel felt needed to be told.
“I always wanted to do this because it felt it was a period of history that the audience, particularly a British audience, might not know a whole lot about,” Patel says. “But there are so many compelling and rich stories from that time. I’d known about partition for most of my life so I just wanted to bring that to a wider audience.
“With a more diverse cast, we get to tell more stories that people who may not be of that background can learn about and identify with.”
“I’ve always been interested in Asian stories”
After graduating from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama with an MA in writing for stage and broadcast media, Patel’s first full length play, True Brits, made its stage debut in The Park Theatre in 2014. The play charted the life of a young British Asian man through the lens of the 2012 Olympics and the 7/7 Bombings.
Vinay Patel’s 2016 BBC3 drama Murdered by My Father (BBC)
The play drew the attention of BBC execs, and saw Patel land his first TV writing job with moving BBC3 drama Murdered by My Father.
The critically acclaimed show earned Patel a Bafta nod for Best Single Drama, while Adeel Akhtar’s powerful performance saw him beat Benedict Cumberbatch to the Bafta for Best Leading Actor in 2017.
Patel’s most recent play, An Adventure, also draws directly on Indian history of the 1940s and 50s. Written as an ode to his grandparents, Patel says the play and his Doctor Who episode do have some crossover.
“I’ve always been interested in Asian stories,” Patel explains. “A play that I’ve written had crossover of India in the 1940s and later in the 1950s, so I was already looking at that sort of history for other things.
“I used a lot of original sources stored at the British Library, but also looked at some Indian sources as well. I had a range of history books written about it so I looked at British and Indian historians for that. There’s a wealth of literature from that time,” he says.
“I made sure I did all my factual stuff first obviously, but also tried to get into the feeling of those characters,” he adds. “I just basically immersed myself in stories that were around it.”
“You can’t tell the whole tale of partition in 50 minutes”
Despite all that research however, Patel still had anxieties about the episode. How do you tell a story about partition – one of the most violent and controversial periods in Indian, Pakistan and British history – within a family show like Doctor Who?
“If there was one thing keeping me up at night more than anything, it was figuring out how to tell this story in a way that didn’t feel like it was disrespectful of the seriousness of it,” Patel admits. “In one way, you need to show violence and horror graphically in order for it to stick with people.
“For now, Demons of the Punjab could be a way of opening the discussion,” he suggests, “to bring the story out to a larger public and the ramifications of partition that still affect the subcontinent to this day.”
Patel faced the additional challenge of balancing the episode’s historical elements with the series’ classic sci-fi elements.
“A part of me was like, ‘Oh my God, I get to write a monster for Doctor Who!’” he laughs. “But it’s about balancing that with how these elements work within the seriousness of the topic.”
“It was always about the story of partition first with me,” he continues, “and then finding a way of making the monster work around that, rather than the other way around.”
Doctor Who series 11 guest star Shane Zaza (Getty)
However, Patel is pleased with the final result, thanking his guest stars – including Happy Valley’s Shane Zaza, above – for bringing the story of life.
“You can’t tell the whole tale of partition in 50 minutes, especially when you have other elements in it,” he explained. “But I feel we did a good job of making this episode the story of the people who are our guest characters, and that felt important of me.”
Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor in Doctor Who series 11 (BBC)
The writing team for Doctor Who series 11 only discovered that Whittaker would be taking the reins from Peter Capaldi as the first female Doctor when fans did. However, Patel says that the Doctor’s gender didn’t change how he approached writing his episode, adding that Whittaker was a “real leader” while on set.
“Chris had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted the personality of that Doctor to be like,” he explains. “I was delighted to hear it because it sets a precedent. Jodie is amazing. It was one of the big joys of writing for this series, getting to see her perform.
“She is super lovely, really fun and a real leader as well. She’s had this sort of magnetic charm over that whole cast and crew, and that’s exactly who you want the Doctor to be.”
For now, Patel is working on a range of other projects, but would certainly return to Doctor Who if given the chance.
“If they were to have me back one day, I would love to write something massive and in space,” he laughs. “I grew up watching sci-fi. It was always the genre I loved more than anything else. The idea of doing something really, really out there – I would be really excited by that.”
Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Sundays
This article was originally published on 9 November 2018