WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD…
Reviewed by Tim Robins
First UK Broadcast: Sunday 11th November 2018
Written by Vinay Patel
Directed by Jamie Childs
Guest starring Shane Zaza, Amita Suman and Hamza Jeetooa
“What’s the point of having a mate with a time machine, if you can’t nip back and see your gran when she was younger?” India, 1947. The Doctor and her friends arrive in the Punjab, as the country is being torn apart. While Yaz attempts to discover her grandmother’s hidden history, the Doctor discovers demons haunting the land. Who are they and what do they want?
Doctor Who continues to defy expectations this time with “Demons of the Punjab”, an historical story set at the time of the Partition India.
Actually, “Demons of the Punjab” didn’t defy all my expectations. I had hoped that there would be actual demons in the story, but I expected that the demons would just turn out to be some sort of racists. And so it proved to be. The episode rapidly dumped the apparently demonic Thijarans in favour of a conflict involving Yaz’s grandmother Umbreen), a Muslim who, as a young girl (played by Amita Suman), her first husband Prem (Shane Zaza) , a Hindu, and his younger brother Manish (Hamza Jetooa) who felt that Prem was betraying the Hindu faith and community by marrying Umbreen.
On the face of it, “Demons of the Punjab” looked like an opportunity to flesh out the moribund character of Yaz. But, while the story made the character more than one dimensional, I am still unable to find her credible as a police officer. In fact, I often wonder if Bradley Walsh’s Graham is being given her lines.
For example, when the travellers see the dead body of Bhkati, the Sadu who was invited to bless Umbreen and Prem’s wedding, flanked by the Thijarans and glowing with a strange, purple substance, Graham exclaims, “So do you think that’s what they used to kill him, some sort of fast dissolving poisonous dust?” To which a friend of mine retorted, “…says the bus driver!”
The moment reminded me of Yaz’s failure to identify herself as a police officer when a bodyguard pointed a gun at her in a previous episode. It is as if the production team can’t quite believe that Yaz is a member of Britain’s police, and, if they can’t believe it, then neither can I.
In the event, “Demons of the Punjab” explored Vaz’s ethnic and family identity, rather than the role provided by her job. The story was motivated by a mystery about Yaz’s ‘Nani’, Umbreen (Nani being a Hindi term referring to one’s maternal grandmother) played by Leena Dhingra. The focus of this mystery is a family heirloom, a broken watch, gifted to Yaz by Umbreen with instructions that it should never be repaired.
Thankfully, we were spared the kind of story told by Captain (Christopher Walken) Koons in Pulp Fiction. Instead, the Doctor used the watch’s energy signature to travel back to the time in which it was broken. That time happened to be 14th – 15th August 1947, the exact date the sub continent of India was partitioned to create the states of India and Pakistan.
The Partition, orchestrated by Britain in a desperate attempt to extricate itself from an Empire it could no longer afford, displaced millions of people, sixteen million by some estimates. Some fans have argued that this was an event which was more relevant to British audiences than the series’s American fan base. But the event should be relevant to Americans. After all, at the end of the Great War, President Woodrow Wilson, in return for America associating itself with Britain and its allies, produced a plan that bluntly called for worldwide de-colonialisation, emancipation and suffrage in the face of the global carnage wrought by competing empires and their old alliances. And if, like the USSR, the British Empire collapsed largely through debt, then that debt was owed to America who had loaned Britain $3.7 billion dollars during World War Two (a loan negotiated by the great economist John Maynard Keynes) .
My own ‘knowledge’ of the Partition of India, is based largely of news reels showing over- crowded trains and bedraggled lines of refugees walk among the occasional dead body. Post-partition, an estimated 200,000 to two million people were killed by members of Muslim and Hindu communities and by disease sweeping through refugee camps.
Writer Vinay Patel’s choice of the Punjab as the story’s setting was significant, because it was here where much of the violence occurred, helped by the availability of weapons and people who knew how to use them – demobbed soldiers returned from World War Two (in which two and a half million Indian troops fought on Britain’s side).
The Punjab also became a flash point because, during Partition, the Province was actually split in two by the so-called Radcliffe Line, named after the British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, who had been tasked with partitioning India. But Radcliffe had no real world experience of India and the maps and census data that he used were out of date (what could possibly go wrong?). As “Demons of the Punjab” showed, families even turned against themselves.
What was not explored on a programme scheduled for Sunday tea-time viewing, was the fact that some 100,000 women were raped for bringing dishonour to their community, a fate that might well have befallen a woman like the young Umbreen.
So “The Demons of the Punjab” really didn’t capture the sheer scale of the tragedy of the Partition. Patel has admitted that one lesson he quickly learnt as a playwrite was that what can be achieved on stage depends on the money that’s available rather than just the writer’s imagination. So Patel must have been well equipped to deal with a BBC budget that only stretched to location filming in Spain and a few sets that included Umbreen’s home in the Punjab, her flat in Sheffield and the Thijaran Hive.
It is all very well having a range of expensive anamorphic lenses to play with, but, so far this season, they have unsparingly revealed under populated stories and Spartan sets.
In “Demons of the Punjab”, even the TARDIS console room was mostly out of focus. Not for the first time, I found myself pressing my face towards the TV screen to see if the lenses were giving good Bokeh (simply put, the aesthetic quality of a blurred background).
I did notice that, even if the story didn’t wag its finger about the evils of Britain’s Empire, one of the crystal columns was wagging back and fro in the background.
(I hate the design of the TARDIS interior. It just looks like a ghastly car-crash of ideas).
I admit that my disappointment with the story was partly fuelled by my childhood imaginings of India and its history. Surely we would we get to see the Taj Mahal, or even Thugees (the worst kind of thug) or a tiger hunt or, less likely, animals that would talk and sing and dance as they did in Walt Disney’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book? And, this being Doctor Who, surely the pantheon of Hindu deities were certain to be revealed as aliens who had got above their station in life and were killing off the untouchables?
Patel’s own imagination was different to mine, but not lacking in ambition, even if “Demons of the Punjab” shows a conflict that spanned an entire sub-cotenant through the lens of two families and a handful of rogue militia. ‘The story must certainly have had personal resonances for him. Indeed, after the story was transmitted, Patel tweeted, “Had a slightly trippy, auspicious case of life imitating art – went home to see my grandmother before she goes to India next week… and she, knowing nothing of this episode, gave me my dead grandfather’s broken old watch”.
Interviewed for The Stage, Patel had noted that his own family’s migration to Britain from India and then Africa was unknown to him, a lacuna that spurred him to pen An Adventure, a three and a quarter hour family history, spanning decades and continents.
It is easy to imagine that Patel, like Yaz, had to confront some personal demons along the way because there is no telling what such investigations into the past will reveal and what implications they will have for one’s own identity in the present.
At heart, “Demons of the Punjab” was about identity and its discontents as well as the continuity of memory on which identity is built. Patel’s script also dramatised other aspects of memory – the silences, forgetting, and discontinuities that accompany traumatic moments. So public commemoration, including the building of monuments to the past and public services of remembrance, is often accompanied by private, personal tellings of history that are marked by silence and a wilful forgetting in order to contain pain and move forward in life. While Umbreen’s story is untold, her broken watch serves as a secret object of remembrance, tying her to a life not quite abandoned for the’ exotic’ realm of Sheffield, a journey that led to the ‘exotic’, hybrid identity of a British Hindu.
By the end of the episode, we come to see that Umbreen’s gift of a watch to Yaz has also gifted the young Hindu with another dimension to her own identity.
Umbreen’s marriage itself was a more public attempt to heal the lived trauma of the Partion and involved the bride and groom standing either side of the Radcliffe Line in a ceremony that incorporated Hindu, Muslim and Punjabi traditions. Indeed, “Demons of the Punjab” was replete with such symbolism. But, as Rona Munro’s Doctor Who story for the SeventhDoctor, “Survival” demonstrated, on television, symbolism rarely speaks for itself; it needs narrating.
In simple terms, it is all very well naming a holy man Bhakti, but if the audience doesn’t know that Bhakti is a Hindu word referring to acts of devotion, then it doesn’t really add anything to the drama. It’s a bit like McCoy’s time as The Doctor. We were told that there was a dark mystery about his past, but the way this mystery was dramatized was by The Doctor wearing a brown jacket.
The Doctor’s short-lived conflict with the Thijarans seemed like a separate story and a rather inconsequential one at that. They were also revealed to be good guys rather too early in the episode, a move that effectively drained the episode of much of its tension.
However, the Thijarans were richly symbolic. For instance, the Thijarans mirrored the time travellers’ roles as observers of history. But they were also a mirrored other aspects of the story. The destruction of their home world had created a Thijaran Diaspora (a displacement and dispersion of people from their place of origin). The Thijaran Diaspora therefore mirrored the Hindu Diaspora to which Yaz’s family belonged. Both Diaspora had led to the need to re-construction identities. The Thijarans had changed from assassins to witnesses of death.
In Patel’s cleverest move, the work of the Thijarans comes to mirror the shift in the object of history away from the lives of great men and the policy making of States to the lives and memories of ordinary people. This impulse to record and even resurrect the lives of the less than famous is exemplified by Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old, in which found footage of frontline soldiers caught up in the Great War has been colourised and dubbed to bring us closer to the personal experiences of the troops.
A quick, and admittedly partial, recollection of Doctor Who’s historical shows The Doctor hob- knobbing with the likes of Marco Polo, Nero, Richard the Lion Heart, Shakespeare and Dickens. So Patel’s shift in focus from lives of great White men to the popular memory of Hindu and Muslim Indians is itself significant.
The Thijarans bear witness to the otherwise unobserved deaths of those who die alone. At the same time, the life essence of deceased is kept on record in a kind of holographic memorial of floating holographic heads. What the Thijarans do for the dead, oral history has done for the yet to be dead.
In this way, the aliens create a science fiction equivalent of the 1947 Partition Archive which publishes on-line the life stories of those who witnessed The Partition. Not at all by the way, THiJari (sic) is also the name of an app that curates news magazines for Hajj and Umra (forms of pilgrimage).
It is hard to find common cause with those Doctor Who fans who feel “Demons of the Punjab” was merely a concatenation of poor acting, weak storytelling and moments of boredom. Yes, there was a point where I nearly shouted, “Enough of the wedding plans, already!” but, against this reaction, there was much I found personally meaningful. I too have investigated my families’ past and unearthed birth parents that were part of the post-World War Two, White, British Diaspora – following their dreams to America, Canada, Australia. My adoptive Mum’s family also had close links to British colonialism. Some appear to have worked alongside Cecil Rhodes, while one family member was involved in the marketing of Carter’s Curry Powder (frustratingly, I can find no actual history of the brand).
But was “Demons of the Punjab” actually Doctor Who? Patel is, as far as I can tell, a fan of the series. He even contacted Mark Morris, author of the Doctor Who novel Ghosts of India, to make sure that the two stories did not contradict each other. Patel has also written a play about George Lucas and the making of Star Wars.
To be frank, this season’s emphasis on domestic drama is not working for me, even on its own terms. For a start, I continue to be mystified by Graham and Ryan’s lack of grief for their wife/grandmother’s who died in the first episode. It’s as if the characters still can’t believe that she died. In similar circumstances, I know that I would hit the bottle or join a street gang (believe me, there are plenty of middle aged men who are up for a rumble at moments of loss).
Patel’s story certainly blended the spiritual with the science fictional in interesting ways. I sense that he may see writing partly as an act of devotion. That is an entirely appropriate attitude for a fan because the word fan is imputed to derive from ‘fanatic’ meaning one who belongs to a temple and is inspired by a god. The act of interpreting texts, known as Hermeneutics, has similar sacred origins.
Yet, like the rest of this season, the story didn’t quite ‘get’ Doctor Who’s necessary mix of horror, melodrama and science fiction quite right. Sadly, “Demons of the Punjab” all too often seemed like one of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s more tepid episodes.
Perhaps the programme, displaced in the schedules, is having an identity crisis of its own because, to my eyes, the season so far has been less Sci-Fi and more Sci-Iffy.
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications, including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip. He reviewed comics and films in posts and podcasts for the Mindless Ones until he became a net diva and forgot to name check the rest of the team at a San Diego Comic Con panel. The Mindless Ones gave him the nickname ‘Tymbus’
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