Doctor Who: Terrific Although Rocky – Delivers Inherent Sincerity
I think one of the biggest problems of this season of Doctor Who has been the fact that Chris Chibnall has been behind every episode of Jodie Whittaker’s run so far. It’s not that I hate the direction in which he’s been taking the show – as I’ve been saying the last few weeks, I really enjoy the warmer, more joyful edge that he’s brought to Doctor Who, and the effort he’s putting in to giving us some silly, fun little stories around a Doctor who feels genuinely new.
But there’s no doubt that the last couple of episodes – especially the one immediately prior to this – he’s been fraying a little around the edges, losing some direction, chucking it all in the pot and coming up with some macaroni cheescake rissotto pie situation as a result. It’s telling that the best episode of this season by far, Rosa, was the only one that was co-written by someone other than Chibnall – his ideas are solid, but they need someone else there to finesse them into actual direction.
So when I saw that this week’s episode, Demons of the Punjab, didn’t have Chibnall’s name in the credits at all, I had to admit, I was a little excited. Demons is written by Vinay Patel, the man behind the critically-acclaimed Murdered by My Father, and is the second historical episode of the season thus far. And, like Rosa, it’s taking on a period of history that the rebooted show hasn’t delved into too much before: India, 1947, on the brink of historical division. Oh, and plagued by demons, because what’s this show without a little of the supernatural side?
The Doctor and company travel back to visit this period in history so that Yaz (whose name I only realized I was spelling wrong last week, so thanks for everyone for the heads-up on that, you bastards) can get a better grasp on the history of her grandmother and her heritage at large. And honestly, one of the things I love most about historical episodes of this show, at their best, is the way they can use horror and sci-fi as a drape to allow a story to explore the truly terrifying, very human fears of our pasts. The aforementioned and unflinching Rosa did it spectacularly, and Demons of the Punjab had a lot to live up to. So, did they pull it off?
Well, I would say broadly that they did. The “demons” are swiftly revealed to be nothing more than red herrings for the actual plot at hand, as aliens who honour the unmarked dead of various conflicts across various points in time. In this story, they have come to honour Prem, the betrothed of Yaz’s grandmother, as his inevitable death at the hands of his own brother approaches.
And this is the kind of storytelling in Doctor Who that really works for me. What starts as a romp for a fun Jodie as she tries to track down the aliens and figure out their motives ends as a very human tragedy, a newly-formed family torn about by the partition of India and the harsh societal lines it drew between countrymen. Like all great historical horror, it focuses not on guns or monsters or spaceships, but a distinctly mortal fear: of dying unknown, of your death meaning nothing.
The cutting reality of this small story, of watching people die without note and the underlining of the point that this happened over and over again in this conflict and so many others, is a powerful thing, a rich story that delves into diverse topics like the stories we make of our lives and the experience of immigrants to Britain. It’s also genuinely brilliantly directed and scored, and really feels luxurious in the sheer expense chucked at the whole affair.
Obviously, this being Who, it wouldn’t be right if it wasn’t also a little bit shit: there’s some tremendously terrible acting in this episode, courtesy of Prem for the most part, that undercuts what should have been some of the more impactful moments of this episode, and the attempts to boil down the complexity of the conflicts at the heart of this story leaves it feeling a little rushed in places. The reveal of the aliens as red herrings really hinges on the viewer buying into the rest of the story being told here, and for some people I could see it landing as cheap if they’re not sold on the somewhat shaky acting and by-design concertina’d plot.
But overall, I really appreciated the sheer ambition of telling a story like this. Delving into weighty subjects in a show like this one can feel after-school-special, but a tight focus on the humanity of the people against the backdrop of cataclysmic historical happenings keeps things just about on track, helped along by another tender performance from Whittaker (and Bradley Walsh, since we mention it). Demons of the Punjab isn’t perfect, but it’s something fresh for this season – and proof that Chiball might work a little better when he takes a step back and lets someone else take the reigns for a while. With season eleven, Doctor Who seems as though it’s best going forwards by looking backwards.
What did you think of this historical episode? How are you enjoying the season so far? Let me know in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter or Tumblr! If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to check out the rest of my Doctor Who recaps right here, and also check in with my other recapping projects – I’m currently covering the first Harry Potter book as well as the current seasons of Riverdale and American Horror Story. If you want to read some of my fiction, please check out the ALPHA FEMALE erotica series (eighteen-plus, obviously), available on Amazon now. As ever, if you want to see more stuff like this, please consider supporting me on Patreon!
(header image courtesy of RightsInfo)