The episode of Doctor Who that went out on Remembrance Sunday featured meadows of poppies in Punjab and battlefield flashbacks to Singapore, as the series did its bit to ensure that the tremendous losses of colonial troops weren’t forgotten.
If ever a Doctor Who episode seemed doomed to go badly wrong it was Demons of Punjab. That it not only worked but was genuinely moving is a credit to the script by playwright Vinay Patel—astonishingly only the second person of colour ever to write for Doctor Who.
It all began with that time travel staple, the stopped clock—in this case a watch given to Yaz (Mandip Gil) by her grandmother Umbreen. Yaz had the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) trace it back in time—and stumbled upon Umbreen’s (Amita Suman) secret first marriage in rural Punjab.
As well as not being Yaz’s future granddad, Umbreen’s groom Prem (Shane Zaza) was a Hindu. By marrying a Muslim just as the departing British Empire carved India up into separate states for Hindus and Muslims, Prem set himself against his bigoted brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) who had taken Partition to heart.
With the benefit of 21st century hindsight, the clash between the brothers’ world views was settled in advance, with a cataclysm of ethnic cleansing that killed a million people and displaced ten million more. We learned early on that Prem wouldn’t survive, and the episode worked as a chronicle of death foretold.
Aliens with tusks, multiple eyes and a preposterous name only underscored the theme: this episode was about mourning, not explaining. Prem repeatedly asked, “What happened to you, little brother?” and got no answer. But he rightly didn’t flinch at pointing the finger upwards to blame India’s British governor Lord Mountbatten.
Though less overtly political than Rosa last month, Demons of Punjab raised equally probing questions about modern Britain and the imperial history it still hasn’t come to terms with.
It was fantastic to find out more about Yaz, a character who’s too often been sidelined, and to give Gil some acting to do. The episode certainly wouldn’t have worked without her, and there were a few cringe moments when well-intentioned lines from white characters didn’t quite take their context into account.
But all in all, where last week’s The Tsuranga Conundrum showed the dangers of playing it too safe, Demons of Punjab showed how taking risks can pay off.
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