Doctor Who: Revisiting DEMONS OF THE PUNJAB - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Revisiting DEMONS OF THE PUNJAB

Tony summons demons. Wouldn’t be the first time.

On the face of it, Demons of the Punjab seems like a straightforward Back To The Future job, of the kind beloved of Doctor Who Annuals and comic strips of the past: the Doctor, against her better judgment but swayed by sentiment and the power of time travel, indulges her companion in a trip to visit her own grandmother in the days of granny’s youth. Deeply irresponsible, of course – there’s probably even a paradox very nearly named after it, but what the heck, let’s give it a go or this episode’s going to just be us sitting around the Tardis being bored.

There’s even a somewhat heavy-handed clue to the dangers of what they’re doing in the form of a broken wristwatch – broken time? – which holds a mystery about Yaz’s family history.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty that’s beautiful here – the scenery, the understated performances from the likes of Amita Suman as Umbreen, Yaz’s granny-to-be, Shane Zaza as Prem, the Hindu bloke she definitely shouldn’t be marrying, and the simmering politi-geek anger from Hamza Jeetooa’s Manish – yes, yes, all sorts of yes, this is pretty inspired casting, and the characters work to both bring us into a world with which many viewers are likely unfamiliar, and involve us in the sharpened human emotions of a region being broken in two by politics and religion, a previous harmony being wrecked by law, borderlines and a heightened sense of the differences between people.

The immediate human dilemma is decently delivered – Umbreen is about to marry Prem, not only a Hindu, but also very distinctly not the man Yaz knows as her grandad. Experienced geeks heard his death knell immediately that was revealed – and experienced romantics understand that their love is doomed the moment it’s revealed that the broken watch is his.

But then, just when it looks like this could stand on its own two storytelling feet as a pure historical, showing us the creation of a wave of enmity among people – the demons arrive.

Now, these demons at first look like just what the…ahem…Doctor ordered in a series that’s been significantly lacking so far in actual alien gittery – they’re big and imposing and it seems they’ve killed a harmless holy man on the side of the road. Booo – bad demons.

Finding out they’re a race of perfect assassins is equally reassuring – we’re led to wonder who they’re here for, and why. How can events along the new border between India and Pakistan have enough interstellar impact to warrant sending the ultimate assassins to kill someone?

All of this delivers an extra twist of time travel, space travel intrigue to Vinay Patel’s script, giving the Doctor a chance to Do Something Doctory – and she does, constructing a complex piece of chemical testing kit out of what the Tenth Doctor would deride as ‘a kettle and some string.’ Meanwhile, the human tensions are deepened and sharpened well as Manish refuses to accept his imminent Muslim sister-in-law, even to the point of stropping off from the celebrations the night before his brother’s wedding.

The point of oddness in Demons of the Punjab comes in the form of an alien infodump when the assassins kidnap the Doctor and explain themselves. They’re reformed assassins, as it happens – and the audience’s shoulders immediately slump on hearing that. Yes, yes, it’s great, reformed alien killers now marking the passing of the lonely dead – it’s a thing of beauty, in fact, and a marker that even those previously steeped to the earlobes in the blood of others can evolve to be peaceful, respectful, universe-loving creatures. It just also means you have to cross off another episode on your ‘No Proper Villain’ Series 11 bingo card. They fulfil a purpose in the story, giving the human race something to which we can aspire, even as we’re shown during the time of Partition as being petty and violent and divided against ourselves by notional differences, but in some ways, it feels instinctively like Demons of the Punjab would have been a better, more rounded story had there been no requirement for potential alien aggressors. The benevolent, kind, alien example of how we could be is baked right in to the heart of the show – that’s inherently what the Doctor is supposed to be. Having the Demons underline that point not only raises a storytelling element that excites the audience, only to disappoint when the truth is revealed, it once again leaves the Doctor very little reason to be here, and very little chance to be the Doctor.

Once we know that the Demons aren’t the threat, but that humans are, and that the death of Prem is fixed just a little in the future and can’t be changed because it’s the only thing that makes sense of Yaz’s timeline, Demons of the Punjab essentially becomes a Rosa re-run – the Doctor and Team Tardis having to walk away, forced to not interfere with the more ghastly, gruesome realities of history, and in this instance, having to let someone they really like die for the sake of the bigger picture. Of the two stories, it’s difficult to say which is intrinsically ‘better.’ Rosa deals with a more well-known trigger-point in history, but the sense of history gathering its storm-clouds is better realised in Demons. The alien involvement, which many fans seem to find weak, is actually more intrinsic to Rosa than it is to Demons, but arguably the depiction of the rising human tensions is more effective in Demons. Both stories are eminently re-watchable and probably both deserve a place in the roster of epic Doctor Who, certainly achieving standout status in Series 11 as harsh human history lessons with warm beating hearts and a bit of mostly ineffective alien jiggery-pokery. Probably, on balance, the combination of a certain visual beauty, a music score that elevates the action and gives the episode a unique feel, and the closeness of the story in pure human terms to one of the members of Team Tardis, make Demons of the Punjab more pleasurably re-watchable even than Rosa, and while they’re mostly redundant, the Demons themselves stand as a wider underscoring of the point of Umbreen’s life – she goes on to travel far from home, find love again and have a life and a family she treasures, while the Demons show us the potential to move beyond the savagery and violence of our hot-headed years, to evolve into better people and better citizens of the universe. Ultimately, the real ‘demons’ of the Punjab are the forces of division, rage and violence, from which – if we work really hard at it – we can make it our destiny to move on.

Decades later though, it seems we still carry our demons with us, and that there’s still a lot of work to do.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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