Each week the Blogtor Who team give their first thoughts on the latest episode of Doctor Who. Here’s what we thought of series 11 episode 5, Demons of the Punjab.
Needless to say, this article contains massive spoilers, so only read on if you’ve already watched Demons of the Punjab.
You can read more about the team behind Blogtor Who on our About us page.
Doctor Who returned this week with Demons of the Punjab. This beautiful moving story written by Vinay Patel about the India Pakistan partition of 1947 is the best episode of series 11. The Doctor transports her companions back in time to learn the tragic history of Yaz’ family as it is torn apart by the bloody aftermath created by the division of the countries. This is a different Doctor Who. One where the Doctor doesn’t fight the alien threat but rather bears witness to the murder of young hero and the devastating loss for his young bride. Patel’s touching and personal tale was performed by a brilliant cast. In particular, Shane Zaza broke my heart as he approached his younger brother and neighbours for the last time. And as the Doctor and her companions walked away from the destruction of the family, I wept again. Finally, Segun Akinola’s background score was perfect. He is sure to receive many a nomination for his episode’s composition
While Rosa dealt with history through the major characters of the day, Demons of the tells a typical story as lived by millions at the time. Events depicted here happened seventy years ago, but the themes of ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance and nationalism depressingly could have come from yesterday’s headlines. In retrospect, the title Demons of the Punjab, not in the Punjab, foreshadowed the true monsters here being human, not alien. Indeed the Thijarians here being simple witnesses, rather than evil makes them a little perfunctory. This feels like a story that would have been even stronger as a purely historical and I wouldn’t be surprised, or disappointed, to see genuine pure historicals appear next season.
Despite the sense of melancholy that hangs over much of the episode, it’s surprisingly light in places. Vinay Patel writes high-quality banter between the companions, and it was particularly nice to see Graham and Yaz paired up in some scenes – the two having astonishingly little interaction up until now. This is an episode that will hang in the air long after the haunting Asian take on the Doctor Who theme that plays it out has faded.
I think we’ve found the high point of the series. Rosa was an incredible episode but it has to be acknowledged that the villain was a bit plain. Demons of the Punjab looks at similar themes but gives the villain dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place on a conspiracy theorist forum. The result is a subtly prescient story that doesn’t bash you over the head with the relevance of its subject. Finally, we get some real development for Yaz as a character and some beautiful performances from Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh. Jodie Whittaker feels like she’s been given a lot of space to work within crafting her Doctor over the last three episodes. So it was great to see her put in a situation where her newfound femininity is actually given a bit of acknowledgement and exploration. An all-around superb episode and one that’ll hit a lot of favourite lists in the years to come.
Demons of the Punjab is absolutely one of the best episodes of this series so far. In terms of the current series, it’s up there with Rosa (and as a History student, I’m not sure that’s a complete coincidence!) This episode had a real emotional weight to it, of the likes we haven’t quite seen over the previous 5 weeks, not least because it felt as though the stakes were the highest they’ve been thus far. Writer Vinay Patel did a stellar job of conveying the tragedies that accompanied the partition of India in 1947, an event which I had little to no knowledge about before this week. It was utterly heartbreaking to see neighbours and families turned against each other to such a painful degree. The guest actors absolutely shone in this episode. Its strength was only intensified by that of this week’s villains (who turned out to not be so villainous after all). The Thijarians were utterly sinister when we first encountered them and became all the more intriguing once we were told the real reason they were there – definitely one of the most memorable aliens of the series to date. Elsewhere, it was refreshing to see Graham and Yaz interact one-on-one and to see the Doctor alone and at her most serious, particularly as she declared Earth to be ‘under my protection’. I feel as though this episode will stay with me in much the same way as The Woman Who Fell to Earth and Rosa have – the closing scenes which saw Prem’s inevitable death had me on the edge of my seat. The music continuing over the closing credits was a truly sombre moment, even if it was slightly broken by the trailer for next week’s wildly contrasting episode.
Demons of the Punjab has a gorgeous cinematic look and feel to it. If last week’s episode left this reviewer a bit cold, then this week was the absolute opposite. Like Rosa, this historical was educational and compelling. Also like Rosa, the Doctor and the TARDIS crew’s role was to not interfere while history played out. Hindu Prem and Muslim Umbreen marrying on the day of the partition in India show love and bravery in the face of the kind of dangerous nationalism and ‘othering’ of ones neighbours that is still so horribly familiar today. Again this series, the monsters are the humans we meet; the alien Thijarians being present in order to bear witness and to honour those who die alone and their presence foreshadows the millions of deaths to come. Graham continues to be an absolute diamond of a companion; his compassion is a much-needed counterpoint to the hatred and bitterness of Manish and his compatriots. I must single out Segun Akinola’s incredible, beautiful score here. A wonderful episode that will stay with me for a long time.
You can watch Demons of the Punjab now on BBC iPlayer.
The next episode of Doctor Who – Kerblam! – on BBC at 19:00pm on Sunday 18th November.