DOCTOR WHO Review: The Doctor Squares Off Against “Demons of the Punjab”

Yaz (Mandip Gill) has thus far been last among equals for the current TARDIS team in the new Doctor Who season. Though Gill has quickly established herself as a hugely appealing presence with comic timing to spare, episodes this season have largely broken down the group dynamics so that the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) handles the plot and action, while the heavier emotional material is the province of Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) as they deal with their shared grief and unsure current relationship.

That’s left Yaz as a floating utility player without much of a defined role, but “Demons of the Punjab” puts her front and center in another strong episode for what’s shaping up to be an exceptional season, that spider-bullshit excepted.

The episode opens with Yaz attending a family gathering celebrating her Nani Umbreen (Leena Dhingra, radiating warmth in a short amount of screentime), the self-proclaimed ‘first woman to be married in Pakistan’, during which Nani gifts Yaz a broken watch that was given to her by her late husband. Yaz has questions about the watch, her grandfather, and the rest of Nani’s experiences as a young woman and an immigrant, but Nani refuses to divulge anything more about what’s implied to be a tempestuous moment in her life.

But oh snap crackle pop, Nani, ’cause now Yaz has access to a time machine. And while The Doctor initially balks at Yaz visiting her own family’s timeline, she just can’t say no to her bestest bestie and aims the TARDIS for Nani’s wedding in 1957.

Only oops, the TARDIS drops them off ten years earlier than Nani’s wedding to Yaz’s grandfather.

Double oops: Umbreen (Leena Dhingra) is still getting married, to a man, Prem (Shane Zaza) who is decidedly not Yaz’s grandfather.

Triple oops: It just so happens that the TARDIS has dumped the crew on the same day that the partition of India and Pakistan is taking effect, an event that will result in millions of displacements and deaths.

Quadruple, bonus round oops: there are, of course, aliens running amok, discovered pawing over the body of a local holy man who was on his way to marry the Muslim Umbreen to the Hindu Prem. Prem recognizes the creatures from an encounter during World War II, having found them also studying the corpse of his brother. The Doctor quickly identifies the pair of uglies as the Thijarian, a race of intergalactic super-assassins. But who is their target?

There follows a bunch of shoe leather with The Doctor, Ryan, and Prem running around the woods, getting zapped around with teleportation devices, etc., with The Doctor eventually rigging the devices to keep the Thijarian away for a few hours. Much more interesting is the material back at home, as Graham helps Yaz grapple with all the elements of her grandmother’s life that she never knew before, all while troubles brought on by the partition ferment in the background, rumors of trauma and tragedy appearing in bursts over the radio.

Umbreen and Prem, we learn, are childhood sweethearts kept apart by the turbulent world of the early 20th century. Their families have been neighbors and friends for generations, but the partition threatens to divide them permanently along religious lines. Prem’s younger brother, Mannish (Hamza Jeetooa) is especially eager to make the nation-splitting divide a local concern, immediately running out to start drawing up boundary lines.

But episode writer Vinay Patel doesn’t wait very long before deploying the big twist of the hour: the Thijarian are not killers. Well, OK, they were killers, but one day the pair of Thijarian we find in this episode returned to their home world only to discover the planet disintegrated into lonely ruin, the millions dying unnoticed and unmourned. From then on, the remaining Thijarian dedicated their lives to wandering the stars so they might bear witness to those who would otherwise die alone, commemorating the lost and lonesome and in this way honoring all life. Which now begs the question: Who are they here to witness?

The answer is as painful as it is expected:

They came for Prem.

As with “Rosa”, The Doctor and her Companions are faced with a tragedy that they cannot stop. If they save Prem, it alters history and erases Yaz from existence. Unlike “Rosa”, Patel does not expend a lot of energy on timey-wimey shenanigans to keep the timeline in place. Instead, once the reveal of the Thijarian mission is revealed, the episode slows down and lets you watch as all our time-displaced travelers grapple with what they know and what they must allow.

There’s another mystery to resolve, but Patel barely attempts to disguise it. Shortly after the beautiful inter-faith wedding (performed by The Doctor, who has some experience with weddings, having conducted Einstein’s [“Non-denominational,” she admits]), Mannish storms out in an angry huff. The Doctor goes to confront him and reveals that she knows he killed the holy man in a fit of anger over a Muslim marrying a Hindi.

Mannish flees to join a group of men he had previously summoned to drive Umbreen and her family off their land. Prem advises his new wife and her family to flee while he goes to calm Mannish down. But Mannish, a young man desperate to do something great with his life, radicalized by angry voices over the radio, cannot be calmed down.

As the TARDIS team watches from a distance, the Thijarian appear and advise them to go. They do, shots ringing out to mark the sorrowful way. Later, the Thijarian commemorate Prem’s visage to their memorial, director Jamie Childs’ camera rising with Prem’s face up and into a limitless expanse of the dead, a starfield of sorrow.

Yaz returns home to speak with her Nani, now knowing more about her life and journey than she ever could have imagined. No , longer burdened by hunger for the past, Yaz is at peace enjoying the present, thanking her grandmother for all she did for the family, for the weight and sorrow of her heart that she carried on anyway.

Episode Thoughts:

-Another strong, somber outing for the new season. The episode both highlights an under-represented but hugely important moment in history, and, with the radicalization of Mannish, it ties historical trauma into our own current geo-political situation, depicting in frightening detail the way an eager mind can be perverted and twisted to terrible ends. The tragedy of “Punjab” stings all the more for the decade-plus of new Who showing again and again that time can be rewritten, with “Everybody lives!” as a recurring episode theme. Moffat, in particular, never met an inescapable death-trap he couldn’t cheat his way out of, but there’s no such hope for Prem, and Patel never tries to pretend otherwise. Whittaker and the rest of the cast (Walsh in particular) do outstanding work showing the toll this knowledge takes on our time-trippers, and it renders the final minutes of the episode unspeakably powerful.

-Speaking of Walsh: I have never seen him in anything before, and I guess he’s more known as a presenter and host over in Britain, but his Graham is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Companions ever. Walsh plays Graham as a man who lives always with his heart on his sleeve, and that openness to both sorrow and joy is hugely affecting.

-The Thijarian are a great idea with an interesting design that only kind of works. The giant heads and immovable mouths made me at first assume they were helmeted, but that turns out to not be the case. The Doctor immediately assuming them to be hostile only to be shocked at their benevolent motivations recalls Peter Capaldi’s Twelve making a similar misjudgment in “Twice Upon a Time”, though Thirteen is properly apologetic. A nice touch: Once she understand their motivations, Thirteen at once performs their genuflection.

-After one especially absurd run of Doctor-babble, she admits: “I’m talking to cover up my latent worry.”

-”And I don’t know that any of us know the truth of our own lives. ’Cause we’re too busy living them from the inside. So just enjoy her, Yaz. Enjoy this now, and figure it out later.”

-Nani Umbreen mocks the henna tattoos on Yaz’s palms, which were, of course, painted by Umbreen herself in another life.

-The Doctor is excited by her own henna, admitting that she never got to experience things like this as a man, a statement that is…perplexing, let us say, to the residents of 1947.

-Special shout out to new series composer Segun Akinola, whose soaring compositions capture both the beauty and the sorrow of the Thijarian’s mission.

-The new TARDIS team has been traveling with The Doctor long enough to know that she’s not the most reliable pilot and the TARDIS is not the most reliable ship. Apparently there was an incident involving space-turtles.

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