The partition of India sets the stage for a poignant, impactful episode.
With “Demons Of The Punjab,” Doctor Who finally gives us an episode focused on Yaz, heading back in time to visit her grandma during the partition of India in 1947. The focus on family and union against such a violent, divisive time makes it easily the strongest entry this season since “Rosa.” As with that story, there are universal tales of struggle and love against the evil people are capable of, with eyes on history that reflects the diverse cast.
The episode, written by Vinay Patel, starts with a birthday celebration for Yaz’s grandma, Umbreen. During the celebrations, she gives Yaz an old, broken watch, which she insists must never be fixed. Since Yaz can’t get anymore details from her grandmother about her past, she goes to The Doctor to travel back and see it herself. This is trickier and more dangerous than the usual adventures they go on though, since Yaz is heading back into her own family’s personal history.
Once the TARDIS lands in the Punjab region in 1947, Yaz is shocked to discover Umbreen engaged to a Hindu man named Prem, who is not her grandfather. He’s also the owner of the broken watch, working well in 1947. The two families have lived and worked side-by-side for generations. But her mother and Prem’s brother, Manish, disapprove of their relationship. They feel a Muslim/Hindu wedding is impossible with the new borders the partition will create. With the tension ramping up, some armored aliens suddenly appear. They appear to kill a local sadhu before Prem shoots at them and chases them off.
The Doctor, Ryan and Prem go after the aliens, discovering that they are part of the Thijarian, a race of the deadliest assassins in the universe. When Prem last saw them during the war, they were standing over the body of his older brother. The Doctor gets her hands on a substance that the sadhu was covered in, running as the Thijarian arrive.
Now, with a typical Doctor Who episode, you would think the aliens would be the bad guys with the TARDIS team needing to find a way to stop them. But when The Doctor confronts the Thijarian, she learns that they are no longer assassins. They reveal that while they were on a mission, their planet was destroyed. As their world died unacknowledged and unmourned, they have dedicated their lives to commemorate those who die alone. The Doctor learns that they are at Umbreen’s to mourn Prem, as his death is near. The Doctor knows she can’t interfere with the timeline, or Yaz will never be born. Instead, the team stays to make sure Umbreen is safe.
While earlier in the episode, Yaz barely stopped herself from blurting out that her grandmother can’t marry Prem and possibly changing the future, both she and the rest of the team let history play out. In a powerful performance by Mandip Gill, Yaz tears up during her grandmother’s wedding ceremony, seeing how happy the union makes Umbreen and Prem, and knowing it won’t last. The Doctor gives a lovely speech on the power of love and officiates the ceremony. During the reception, Manish leads a group of armed Hindu nationalists to attack the wedding reception, with the revelation that he also killed the sadhu. As Umbreen and her mother run across the border, the nationalists murder Prem.
In the end, the demons weren’t the aliens, but those who let themselves become consumed with hate and obsessed with societal divisions. The episode takes a sobering look not only at a horrible moment in history, but also on how harmful and consuming mob mentality is. As Prem says, “nothing worse than when normal people lose their minds.”
- Umbreen reveals that she her move to Sheffield was based on closing her eyes and pointing at the map. Of course, she learned that it’s less exotic than she thought! But it gave her a life, stability and her family.
- The Thijarian have the best alien design of the season to date, by far.
- Uhh, one of the team’s unaired adventures included a death-eye turtle army. I want to see that episode please!
- “My references to body and gender regeneration are all in jest.”
- The last wedding The Doctor officiated was Einstein’s. His parents didn’t approve either.