'Doctor Who' Gracefully Wrestles With Personal And Political 'Demons Of The Punjab'

Fifty-five years ago, Doctor Who was created as a children's educational program: a sci-fi series that took British children on whirlwind adventures to the far reaches of time and space with the express purpose of making history sexy. Along the way, that original intention got lost as the series — like most sci-fi franchises — got bogged down by a dense mythology and cohorts of child fans who had turned into adults. As the series entered the 21st century, Doctor Who had to compete with sleek, modern sci-fi series like Battlestar Galactica or Firefly, leading it to often reimagine itself to appeal to "mature" sci-fi fans who craved complex storylines (though still keeping its signature weird, campy flair).

But Chris Chibnall and co. seem intent on bringing us back to Doctor Who's roots. As with this season's "Rosa," "Demons of the Punjab" is here to educate and enlighten its viewers about a certain time period or person, aliens be damned. Well no, there are still aliens, but they're secondary to the all-important historical lesson that Doctor Who has to impart.

Love in the Time of Partition

Arriving in 1947 Punjab after Yaz persuades the Doctor to let her see her grandmother Nani Umbreen's past, Team TARDIS stumble into a flower merchant who agrees to takes them to Umbreen (Amita Suman), now a beautiful young woman on the eve of her wedding. But something is off: the man who Umbreen is set to marry, the flower merchant Prem (Shane Zaza), is not the man that Yaz recognizes from the old pictures, and the farm on which Umbreen lives is not the bustling city of Lahore like she had been told. Even more confusingly, Prem is Hindu even though Yaz's entire family is Muslim — a difference that becomes all the more stark when Team TARDIS realizes that they have landed right in the middle of the Partition of India, which divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan and violently displaced millions of people. One of which would soon be Yaz's grandmother, Umbreen.

Trouble follows in the form of two demon-like creatures, who the Doctor first spots in a painful and unnerving vision, and who seem to be the culprits in the mysterious deaths of several people related to Prem — first his older brother in World War II, then the Holy Man who was supposed to marry Umbreen and Prem. But that's not the only trouble that is brewing: a familial conflict has spawned around the impending nuptials, as Prem's radicalized younger brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) spends his time happily celebrating the British division of their homeland and seething about their union, while Umbreen's mother is convinced that their wedding is cursed by demons.

The demons — who look like a cross between Lovecraftian creatures and Power Rangers — naturally aren't demons but aliens. And alien assassins no less. The Doctor immediately jumps into action, throwing away her own warnings against Yaz to not interfere in order to protect the planet she loves so dearly. But, like I mentioned before, the aliens end up becoming secondary to the story of the real-life human tragedy that arises in the wake of the Partition of India.

Lies My Grandparents Told Me

I'm going to be drawing a lot of comparisons to "Rosa" this review, because "Demons of the Punjab" is an episode that closely and purposefully mirrors that history-making episode. Like "Rosa" forced Ryan to reckon with his place as a black man dealing with racism of both the past and present, "Demons of the Punjab" is all about Yazmin's past and future struggles. Or rather, the past and future struggles of Yazmin's grandmother.

The episode kicks off with a sweet scene at the Khan household, as Yazmin's Nani Umbreen hands out gifts to her children and grandchildren while cryptically teasing of her tortured past. "The stories I could tell you," Nani Umbreen (Leena Dhingra) declares, which piques Yaz's curiosity and kicks off Team TARDIS's latest adventure. The Doctor is naturally reluctant to take Yaz into her own family history (understandable, considering her messy track record with other companions hoping to Back to the Future their own past) but finally concedes while Ryan and Graham are surprisingly game. Finally, after six episodes of Yazmin mostly getting shoved off to the side in service of Ryan and Graham's storylines, Mandip Gill's character gets her time to shine. Kind of.

Immediately, "Demons of the Punjab" recalls another all-time great Back to the Future-inspired Doctor Who episode, "Father's Day," the season 1 episode that centered on Rose (Billie Piper) coming to terms with her father's death. It was an intimate, character-driven story that used sci-fi as a vehicle to examine the mundane tragedies, and triumphs, of life. "Demons of the Punjab" takes this premise a step further and interweaves complex sociopolitical threads with a doomed 20th century romance. All centered around Yaz, the constantly underserved member of Team TARDIS. But the problem with Yazmin is that she remains a still-undefinable character. At the beginning, I pegged her as the "action girl" — the affinity for leather jackets and no-nonsense attitude lent to that archetype. But six episodes since the season 11 premiere, I still couldn't tell you who Yazmin is, which is even more egregious considering this episode is ostensibly about her. She loves her family, but they irk her enough that she wants to...run away in time and space. She is frustrated when her Nani won't tell her about her past, so she goes back to 1947 to find out exactly what happened. And in an episode in which she plays a central role in bringing about the conflict, Yaz ends up taking the backseat yet again, spending most of the episode in either a state of confusion or bashful admiration.

A Tale of Two Brothers

While it sounds like I'm roundly criticizing "Demons of Punjab," make no mistake — it's a potent, powerful hour of television that manages to frame a historical tragedy around a doomed romance. Whether it's a good episode though, is up for discussion. The episode, which is written by playwright Vinay Patel, clearly carries the burden of educating viewers on the bloodstained history of the Partition of India, punctuated by a stunning emotional climax between Prem and his brother Manish. There's none of the artifice of a typical Doctor Who episode, with each scene carrying as much weight as the most accomplished prestige picture. But as a result, all the other elements of this episode end up suffering a little for it.

Not just Yaz, but the aliens of the episode, who appear and disappear as quickly as they explain their career pivots from assassins to "witnesses" of historic deaths. Even maybe Umbreen herself, who presents a noble figure willing to shed traditions and religious differences in the name of love, but ends up mainly as Yaz's shaky connection to the central conflict between Prem and Manish. The episode's payoff is amazing and could go down in history as an all-time great Doctor Who moment, but with a weak foundation based on circumstance and shoddy characterization, it feels slightly hollow.

Another episode of television that came to mind as I watched "Demons of the Punjab" was Master of None's breathtaking episode "Parents," which deftly portrayed the lifelong struggles of immigrant parents in a half-hour of masterful TV storytelling. "Demons of Punjab" gracefully conveys the horrors of the Partition of India and hammers in the tragedy with a Biblical story of two brothers on two sides. But most of Umbreen's hardships, all her struggles, feel like an afterthought. Much as the inclusion of the Doctor and Team TARDIS feel like an afterthought to the central plot — if you were to remove them from the episode, things would turn out no different. So as much as I appreciate the show returning to its roots by passionately portraying topics to educate its viewers, I do hope that it remembers that it is still Doctor Who.

Tidbits in Time and Space

  • The Doctor's statement that "We can't have a universe with no Yaz," seals the deal on Yaz being her favorite.
  • It's confirmed that the Doctor once officiated Albert Einstein's wedding.
  • Doctor quote of the week: "Love in all its forms is the most powerful weapon we have. Because love is a form of hope. And like hope, love abides, in the face of everything."
  • While I still miss the bombast of Murray Gold's scores, this episode's Indian-infused drums in the score and the mournful vocalized version of the Doctor Who theme are stellar.