Doctor Who 11.6 – Demons of the Punjab

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A tale of family, faith, love, murder and mourning, examined by Victoria Walker

So, we’ve reached the first episode this series that Chibnall had no hand in writing (or at least, no credited hand). Demons of the Punjab has been my favourite episode so far. Vinay Patel has pulled off a moving, thought-provoking episode that tackles the issues of family and religion, whilst also presenting a compelling and poignant tale. That’s not to say it was perfect, of course, but it’s been one of the closest so far.

One of my main concerns heading into this episode was that we were in danger of another Rosa: an episode that relies very heavily on the events it is based around, and thus becomes a slightly lazy morality tale from a storytelling point of view. There was also the worry this would end up as another interference plot. Those are generally low stakes, and largely uninteresting. I am over the moon to announce that that fear was never even close to realised. I have decided that historical episodes of Doctor Who are always best when they do not focus on the event in question but use it as a backdrop and factor in a wider story. The Partition of India informed most aspects of the supporting cast’s characters, but it was not the focus of the episode. Whilst it can be argued that the combination of opinions amongst the supporting cast was slightly strange and seemed to be simply to provide a cross-section of opinion, it was not unbelievable.

I’ve noticed multiple mentions of other, off-screen adventures the Doctor and the current companions have been having. That sort of thing is in danger of becoming a double-edged sword. These mentions are important. They give the universe and the lives of our cast scale and help create the impression of an expansive universe. Mentions of off-screen adventures are nothing new and are an important factor of any expansive universe like the Doctor Who one. You can’t show every little thing that happens to the characters, and sometimes these small pieces wouldn’t fill an episode anyway. However, there is always the danger that mentioning so many of these will lead to some questioning. Why were we shown Arachnids in the UK when we could have seen the Death Eye Turtle Army? A writer should really strive to show the most important and interesting parts of their subjects lives, and whatever those turtles are sounds far more inventive and interesting than larger than average spiders.

You can’t talk about an episode of Doctor Who without talking about the aliens, and the Thijar were an interesting lot, to say the least. To a certain extent, they felt like they were there simply to fill the alien quota. On the other hand, it was an interesting path Patel chose to take with them. I suppose I quite like the fact that they were simply observers, and humanity was the issue. The jury is still out on whether I like their design or not. If they had turned out to be cosmic assassins, as they were introduced, the design would be overwrought, even for Doctor Who. As mourners, however, the all-black was not bad, necessarily. The spiky shoulder pads were threatening, insofar as the idea of death itself is threatening. One supposes that it is fairly refreshing to have a main alien who is not belligerent, and it doesn’t subtract from the atrocity of the event we are witnessing.

Speaking of which, I would be a liar if I said Prem’s death did not make me cry a little bit. That was how you make a death in Doctor Who impactful. Other deaths this series have been invariably throwaway, or out of nowhere. The buildup was beautiful. The tension between Prem and Manish built throughout the episode and came to an explosive finish. Umbreen and Prem’s wedding was a gorgeous moment, compounded by Manish rejecting the union. Manish came across as immature without being childish. I could ramble for ages about how well thought out the plot of this episode was done, and I would never do it justice. Whilst the first third of the episode felt slightly contrived, and slightly rushed, it was more than worth it for the sheer punch to the gut that the final third provided. To put the end in perspective, the Mansfield auditorium is usually pretty abuzz with discussion as soon as the credits start to roll. This week, everyone sat in silent contemplation for a little while.

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