Doctor Who: ‘Demons of the Punjab’ – A Review

A solid story, that’s probably about another draft away from greatness.

 

Right, review’s coming a bit late this week. You can blame a university writing retreat for that. But without further ado, let’s just jump straight into it!

Demons of the Punjab is a good enough episode, on its own. However, the placement of the episode within the series itself is where the problems start to show themselves a bit more. Well, a lot more.

The premise of a companion getting the Doctor to take them back to an event in their family’s history is not exactly alien to Doctor Who. One could think back to 2005’s Father’s Day with Rose Tyler asking the Doctor to take her back to the day her father died. While it wouldn’t be unfair to say Demons of the Punjab is not on the same level as Father’s Day, to directly compare the two will only end up being unfair to both.

Much like Rosa earlier this series, the choice to focus on an event in history that is unconventional for Doctor Who helps quite a lot. It means the comparatively bare-bones approach to the narrative and plot is brought to life by the sheer uniqueness of the setting.

Additionally, rather than tackling the nitty gritty of the Partition of India – which would have been very difficult to do in a 50-minute episode of a family show – I like how they scaled it down to focus on one family, with their dynamic/conflict directly mirroring the larger political context. Especially where one is obviously influenced by the other, but on a much more personal level.

It helps that the side characters for this episode, despite being fairly simple, are a likeable group of people. And most importantly their emotional connection felt real, both with each other and the audience.

Minor nit-pick – I know the TARDIS translates their Punjabi into English for the Doctor and co., but must it also give them English accents? I know it’s for the convenience of a largely English audience, but you don’t hear American accents getting translated when Doctor Who visits the US. (I suppose at the very least it isn’t another The Talons of Weng-Chiang incident. Now that is a Doctor Who story that hasn’t aged well.)

And on a much more literal level, it’s nice to not have a Chibnall script this series, either as a writer or a co-writer. Not a malicious thing against him or anything like that, I simply mean that it’s nice to have a change. (Side-note: As the current showrunner, Chibnall would have had a very slight influence on the script nonetheless. You know, final edits, deciding its place in the series, keeping tone consistent etc. Minor but important things.)

The opening half is quite clunky in terms of setup and exposition. A lot of the dialogue feels like a character’s… well, like the character is being interrupted to give them more exposition. It very rarely comes across as natural.

But once it gets going, it really builds to a lovely and emotionally resonant finale.

If you’ve been keeping up with the series however, it does seem a touch familiar.

This is where I’m going to split this review into two parts. Because Demons of the Punjab is fine, I would even consider it a good episode. Definitely in the upper half of the series so far. But the moment you consider its place in the series at large, that’s when the problems really show themselves. And it’s frustrating.

To put it simply, this episode has the exact same ending as Rosa. The Doctor realises that, in order to keep the future as it is, they have to let the bad thing in the past happen without getting in the way.

The annoying thing is though, in each episode, this said ending is done really damn well. When you look at it as part of a series, that’s when you can see the show running in place.

And perhaps that’s the root of the problem, and the reason why series 11 hasn’t been clicking for me so far. Because, in fairness, we haven’t had a completely horrible episode yet. Sure, The Ghost Monument, Arachnids in the UK, and The Tsuranga Conundrum weren’t amazing, but they hardly come close to being truly bad episodes of Doctor Who.

I think it’s when you string these stories together, in a line, that you see just how aimless it is. From Rosa to Demons of the Punjab, all we’ve managed to do is to go in a circle. This series isn’t building on its foundations, you can’t feel the characters moving forward episode to episode.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than with the Doctor, who despite being portrayed amazingly week by week by Jodie Whittaker, just can’t seem to win. There’s no sign of this being a plot thread or leading up to anything. This version of the Doctor just can’t seem to save the day. And no one seems to notice.

It’s tricky to explain, but I’ll do my best. Out of the 6 episodes so far, I’d say that there are only 2 where she is the hero that saves the day. And even then, one of those (Rosa) is about her trying and failing.

It just bums me out that this version of the Doctor doesn’t seem to have much of a presence. The Doctor is a force, she should be able to jump in and change someone’s life forever within 5 minutes. Here, she just comes and goes without leaving much of an impact. At this point, she really deserves a win. A proper, all out, ‘Doctor Who saves the day’ win!

And it doesn’t even need to be much. Some of the nicest moments in Doctor Who are of the Doctor just being kind. In Twice Upon a Time, the Doctor can’t stop World War 1 from happening at all or end it early. But they have the chance to save one life, so they do.

Similarly, in Vincent and the Doctor, the Doctor brings a depressed Vincent Van Gogh to a modern gallery to show him his legacy. Amy thinks the experience is enough to prolong Van Gogh’s life and result in many more art pieces. It doesn’t, Van Gogh still commits suicide at the same point in history, mere weeks after their adventure. The Doctor explains that a life is made up of the good and the bad, and when they can’t save the bad, they can always add a little more good.

I think that’s the key with Doctor Who. But that’s not what’s been happening in this series. So far this Doctor just seems to accept the bad, without trying to inject any of the good. This Doctor is a bit too accepting of failure, without trying to fight it.

One of the weakest episodes of modern Doctor Who so far was Series 8’s In the Forest of the Night. Now that episode had a plethora of problems, but one of the biggest was how the big world-ending disaster came and went without the Doctor having to do anything. And even then, it didn’t matter because the Doctor just gave up very quickly. The Doctor was not a presence in that story at all. Now, I’m not saying any of the episodes this series are on the same level as that. However, it’s the same basic issue.

The Doctor is a powerful force, treat her as such.

That was quite the spiel, so I thought I’d bring us back to focus only on Demons of the Punjab. I do after all say at the beginning that the story is probably only about one more draft away from greatness. All it would have taken is one simple change to the episode’s structure.

As is, the episode opens with a family celebration where Yasmin’s grandma gives her a gift of an old, broken watch. She refuses to tell Yasmin of its significance and randomly adds that she was the first woman to be married in Pakistan. This then leads to Yasmin getting the idea of asking the Doctor to travel back in time to her grandmother’s past to learn the significance of the watch. It’s an awkward opening to say the least, and it takes the episode a little while to shake off the awkward effect left by this opening.

Now, picture this instead: the episode opens with a private moment between Yasmin and her grandmother. She still hands the watch over to Yasmin as a gift, but this time, she tells the story. The rest of the episode plays out largely the same, but from the perspective of Yasmin’s grandmother during this time period. The Doctor, Yasmin and co. can still play their part but in a slightly smaller role (think of those episodes you’d get in the Davies era, like Love and Monsters and Blink, where the Doctor plays a minor role). I think it would be possible to have just as emotional an ending, maybe even more so given that Yasmin’s grandmother would play a larger role in this version.

Plus, there’s a lot more you can leave ambiguous. And I think it would be enough to make it a more unique and interesting standalone story. For instance, it wouldn’t be clear whether Yasmin had already been on this adventure, or if it takes place after her grandmother had told her about it. You can play around with whether her grandmother has figured out her time-travelling antics or not. Most importantly, it helps streamline a narrative that worked well because of its scaled down cast of characters. And it would have been easier to give the Doctor her hero moment, especially when you would have been able to see how said moment affected Yasmin’s grandmother.

Bear in mind, this is just me having a bit of fun spit-balling ideas. I’m not saying I could have made a definitely supreme version of this story. Or that this simple change would have fixed all the problems with the story or even the series at large. I’m simply throwing a few of my own ideas into the mix, just for a bit of fun, and with the hope of being more constructive.

Demons of the Punjab was good; in my estimations so far, it’s second only to Rosa this series (So clearly the historical episodes are doing something right). There are still problems, and they may not be the result of this story in particular, but instead a side-effect of the mechanisms of the series grinding into place.

Next week’s Kerblam! looks like a lot of fun. Beyond the, quite frankly, excellent title. I am loving the design of the robot delivery man, it’s made for the creepiest trailer thumbnail this series so far!