If you watch one episode this series so far to see the new Who in action, make it this one.
After last week’s solid, somewhat campy, but overall “meh” episode I was looking forward to a return to form for the show but I was never expecting to have a ride like this one turned out. If there was ever a story in which Chibnall’s choice of a more serious, almost Battlestar like tone could shine it was here.
After all the adventures with aliens or otherworldly threats so far Demons of the Punjab instead goes for a very human contained story and is all the stronger for it, along with giving us our first Yaz-centric episode. The foe this time isn’t a space invasion but is instead focused on the effects of one of the most momentous events of the decline of the British Empire, the Partition of the former Raj into India along with East and West Pakistan (the former of which would later become Bangladesh), which we see through the eyes of an intercommunity group now separated suddenly along ethnic and racial lines.
For most of the episode the writing skilfully distracts the audience, pushing two bat-like creatures as evil assassins interfering with the marriage between Yaz’s Muslim grandmother Umbreen and her Hindu husband to be Prem, with the only other source of tension being Prem’s brother Manish who airs increasingly extreme Indo-Hindu nationalist views, while the ongoing Partition itself is happening in the cities far from their rural pocket. Much of the episode sees the team chasing these high-tech creatures through the forest and their ship, putting together gizmos to work out what’s going on while ignoring the scant radio reports of armed mobs roaming the streets.
Instead it’s only as the episode draws to a head that the viewer is left with the situation reversed, with the only “demons” in the Punjab being the extremists on either side of the new sectarian divide that sees Prem’s own countrymen, including a man he served with during the war, murder him for sheltering Muslim Pakistanis. Unlike with Rosa, where the awkward questions over humanity’s darker tendencies was partially dodged with the use of a future space-racist here the individuals are all contemporary, playing a fictionalised snapshot of the cruelties that millions undertook or suffered during that time and the weight of the piece is all the greater for it.
This reversal of foe also sees the show employ the plot device that the team can’t interfere with the course of events, having known from the start that Prem wasn’t Yaz’s grandfather so has to die for her to exist, which makes the inevitability of what happens all the more heart-breaking as they spend days connecting with this person. This isn’t the first time the show has used this moral quandary but it’s the most effective in my view.
I can’t tell if the timing of the episode, airing on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War, was deliberate or not but given the usage of poppy imagery at times and the key focus on “remembrance”, with the assassin’s later revealed to be yet another group who “witness” and commemorate the lost dead, I can only presume it was and it uses that theme beautifully. I can only say that the final scenes of the episode left me speechless at what the show put together, with a haunting soundtrack and visuals that left me almost in tears.
Despite the complex subject matter and largely somber tone the episode still finds time for brief moments of levity, especially during the marriage preparation scenes, which never feel too intrusive. Lines such as the Doctor’s mention of their sex change and the set up of Umbreen moving eventually to Sheffield in the belief it was “exotic” payoff as intended and break up the pace of the episode just enough to prevent it feeling too dark or grim and is welcome for it.
Outside the plot the continued well-crafted nature of the show comes through well, with both costuming and set design beautifully rendering this tiny corner of the subcontinent in what I presume is South Africa. It’s here however that the shift to a more atmospheric music style really proves itself with a previously mentioned haunting soundtrack that really adds to the emotion of many scenes throughout without distracting you from it with major pieces or modern inserts.
This was altogether a truly wonderous and emotional episode that emphasised the show at its best in what it can be storytelling wise, a gripping and human story of suffering and quiet heroism that will no doubt come to be seen as one of the modern classics.