Doctor Who series 11: Demons Of The Punjab review

Yaz dodges butterflies in a historical Doctor Who that deftly handles this year’s running themes. Here's our Demons Of The Punjab review

This section of the review is free of spoilers. If you venture below Daphne the spoiler-squirrel, beware…

It’s a tricky business, this live television malarkey. Doctor Who’s shift to a Sunday timeslot means that, for many, it’s tea-time. Or bed-time, or bath time, as the case may be. That’s why we’ll be devoting the first few paragraphs of these reviews to a spoiler-free summary that aims to give a flavour of what you’ve got to look forward to, even if you can’t watch the episodes as they air. Below your friendly neighbourhood spoiler squirrel, on the other hand, all bets are off. Much like Team TARDIS, you’ll need to tread lightly this week…

11.6 Demons Of The Punjab

This time around, there’s a fresh face penning the script – BAFTA-nominated writer Vinay Patel – and a renewed focus on Yaz, a companion who’s had relatively little to sink her teeth into so far this year. Even so, fans who’ve been dissatisfied with the episodes to date shouldn’t come in expecting a completely different show just because someone besides Chris Chibnall takes the writing credit. Demons Of The Punjab is still a 2018 Doctor Who episode, and that means it’s continuing to focus on the same narrative themes and messages, not to mention a heavy focus on character over complicated plots. It also carries through a couple of the same gripes, which we’ll get to post-Daphne.

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That said, there’s a cohesion to this week’s adventure that helps carry events forward without as much of the confusion and floundering that the Doctor and her companions have been subjected to thus far. There’s a very simple, grounded story at the heart of tonight’s outing, steeped in an important historic occasion. For the most part, the script is pacey and the direction is tight, helped along by some excellent location shooting and camera work, though the brakes do rather get slammed on earlier than they probably should – the last ten minutes practically crawl by comparison.

In short, while this is not a tale that’s going to leave you befuddled by complicated time-travel antics (and it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s not what this refreshed Doctor Who is about) it’s a heartfelt and purposeful piece of television that’s very likely to get the living room talking, questioning and Googling as the credits roll. By no means a faultless episode, then, but one of the best so far. 

Daphne!

From now on, here be spoilers…

The biggest criticism, as alluded to above, is the one that ultimately bogs down the final ten minutes of the episode. Annoyingly, it’s once again the supposed baddies of the piece who are to blame. To begin with, the inhabitants of the Vajarian Hive present us with the most imposing aliens we’ve seen this year – insectoid assassins who can debilitate you with a migraine just by saying hello. It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Doctor physically staggered by psychic prowess, and their effortless teleportation helps make the Vajarians feel all the more threatening. When they dodge a rifle blast early on, there’s an ambiguity to their methods and movement that you can’t immediately pin down, which is exciting. Are they speedsters, projected illusions or something else?

It’s a promising debut for a new and mysterious alien race, and that’s why it’s all the more disappointing when we bump into the first of this year’s recurring motifs: the villains aren’t really villains. Zoe wrote an excellent piece a few days ago that examines the merits of a Doctor Who where the extra-terrestrial influence isn’t unilaterally malevolent, and it’s well worth a read if you find yourself missing the bug-eyed monsters of old. All things considered, though, I found it hard not to be disappointed by the real nature of the Vajarians, who act as witnesses for those who would otherwise die alone, for a very simple reason: we just did that.

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Indeed, it was Jodie Whittaker’s very first on-screen appearance as the Doctor that likewise introduced us to The Testimony: glass-bodied aliens from Twice Upon A Time who snatch people out of time and space in the instant before their death so that their lives can be recorded and preserved. It’s one step beyond merely attending someone’s final moments but it’s pretty much the same dynamic in both episodes – we expect predators, and we later found out that they’re historians. Given the production schedules, it’s possible that Twice Upon A Time aired after Demons Of The Punjab was already outlined and locked down, but it’s a strange duplication of intent that’s going to feel even weirder when the episodes are lumped together in a single Blu-ray boxset. 

Unlike Rosa, this episode could legitimately be described as a “pure historical” – granted, there are aliens observing events, but if they’re not attempting to change anything, does it matter whether or not they turned up in a hive ship or in a big blue box? If we don’t consider the Doctor’s attendance at every major point in humanity’s development (including Einstein’s wedding, apparently) to be intrusive, then perhaps it’s time we start to redefine what our so-called-pure history actually looks like. At the very least, it’s a fair bet Captain Jack was there for most of it.

In some ways, this is a revisitation of the TARDIS’s trip to Alabama, though it counterpoints many of the lessons Graham, Ryan and Yaz learned while meeting Rosa Parks. Here, plenty of clues are left to suggest that once again, something is perverting the course of human history. The Doctor and her companions seem almost obligated to interfere because, they’ve decided, there are space-based shenanigans going on behind-the-scenes, which is normally a handy excuse to run around saying hello and eating other people’s biscuits.

And then… there aren’t. It’s just humans – messy, conflicted homo sapiens – left pointing guns at a groom on his wedding day. If Rosa detailed one person’s struggle against oppression, Demons Of The Punjab is the chronicle of a shameful decision; a day when fear and anger bubbled over and stole the life of a man who grew up by, and fell in love with, a woman who was suddenly an outsider. Worse still, at least as far as Team TARDIS are concerned, this horror is no more right or wrong than that fateful bus journey – or at least, it’s equally “correct”. Here, as with Pompeii or the Dalek invasion of Earth, the Doctor’s sympathies land on the wrong side of history.

Poor Yaz, though. In Arachnids In The UK we met her family. Now we get to see several of her ancestors as main characters – and still, it feels like she basically had nothing to do. Despite being a police officer, she still doesn’t get to go off hunting aliens in the forest or actively engaging in any plan to defend the farmhouse. True, we learn plenty about Yaz’s family, but once again we fail to see that family used as a lens through which we learn more about Yaz. Her heart-to-heart with Graham was very much appreciated, and at least he didn’t try to fist-bump her, but still we’re left to wonder: who is Yasmin Khan? What are her drives and her fears, her strongest qualities and her shortcomings? It can’t even be said that she gained a newfound appreciation for her Gran, because that level of curiosity and devotion was clearly there already.

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Elsewhere, for better or worse, it was business as usual. Jodie Whittaker’s true potential to be an ancient, lonely Time Lord flashes through when it can – like, for instance, her heartbroken expression when Prem tells her he has to face some demons alone and leaves her in the barn. It’s a rare and appreciated moment where Whittaker gets to properly emote, reacting silently to what she’s seeing rather than liveblogging it with a stream of manic dialogue.

If there’s one character dynamic that didn’t quite work this week, it’s the relationship between Prem and his younger brother Manish. Hamza Jeetooa doesn’t have an awful lot to work with here, since the script can’t find too many reasons to include him in scenes, and so we have to settle for simply being told that there’s something off about Manish rather than getting the chance to reach that decision for ourselves.

All in all, while it’s hard to ignore the damp squib of the episode’s last ten minutes or the fact that its aliens are pretty much Steven Moffat’s Christmas leftovers, the underlying strength of this story and the confidence with which it’s brought to the screen help elevate this episode above to one of the best this series. While it inherits several of the problems that have mired this year in controversy, it has an easier time papering over the cracks thanks to an intriguing alien mystery, a very relatable human cost and a setting which proves that, fifty-five years on, Doctor Who still has a lot to say about history and the people that made it. As for the rest of this series? We shall bear witness…