STORY 282: DEMONS OF THE PUNJAB
Demons of the Punjab was meant as another historical story, this time teaching about the Partition of India. Its heart is in the right place. Its execution leaves a great deal to be desired.
Yazmin Khan (Mandip Gill), having attended her grandmother's birthday, wants to get a look at Nani as a young girl, in particular to find out the mystery of the broken watch she gifted Yaz. Albeit reluctantly, The Doctress (Jodie Whittaker) takes her and the rest of her 'fam': Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) to 1947 India.
Unbeknownst to Team TARDIS, they have come upon Umbreem (Amita Suman) and her fiancee Prem (Shane Zaza) at the best and worst time. The best because they are a day away from getting married. The worst because India is to be separated into two separate states: Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Yaz is in for a few surprises: Prem is not her grandfather, and he is Hindu about to marry the Muslim Umbreem.
If that all weren't enough, Prem's brother Manish (Hazma Jeetooa) is a fervent Hindu nationalist vehemently opposed to Muslims and India. We also have strange figures the very isolated group thinks of as demons, blamed for deaths. A little investigating reveals that these figures are Thijarians, an alien race who were once master assassins but now serve as witnesses to those who die alone.
They inform Her that Prem is fated to die.
The Doctress then performs the wedding, allowing Umbreem the boast of being the first woman married in Pakistan on Partition Day itself. It, however, is not meant to be, as Manish brings men to kill his own brother rather than have this 'satanic' union. Umbreem and her mother manage to escape and eventually go to Sheffield, which Nani Umbreem (Leena Dhingra) finds is not as exotic as she first thought but which has given her refuge and more importantly her family.
Vinay Patel's script as mentioned has good intentions and an actual plot rattling around it. However, I could not help thinking that it was in some ways a lost opportunity and in other ways a bit of a whitewashing of history.
Partition was a pretty brutal and horrific situation. The exact number of deaths will never be known but they range from 200,000 to 2,000,000. While it might have seemed like a good idea to boil down Partition to this small group, the fact that it was so small is a major detriment. It makes Partition a very quiet situation, with no real tension.
Perhaps worse, it suggests, however opaquely, that Partition was a once-sided matter. Manish was motivated by anti-Muslim feelings, but there is never a suggestion in Demons of the Punjab that Muslims were just as capable of brutality and killing as Hindus. Partition was a free-for-all, and by making only Manish and his Hindu partisans the villains it may lead some to think Muslims were the sole victims.
Moreover, as Demons of the Punjab puts it, the actual plot makes little sense. Prem and Umbreem had known each other since childhood. This suggests that Manish as Prem's little brother must have also known Umbreem. His radicalism is just there. As he was the only person in walking distance who opposed the intermarriage, the stakes feel very low.
I could not help think it might have been better if there had been a whole community of Hindus and Muslims where we see the growing fear, paranoia and hatred between certain members grow. That would have made the increasing dangers for our subcontinental Romeo and Juliet more palpable. I imagined a scenario where both sides blamed the other for the 'demons' until the Doctress convinced them that the Thijarians were a common threat that had to be met with a united front.
Going into the Thijarians, it is now par for the course on Doctor Who to A) have the aliens be 'the last of their kind' and B) not be actual villains. They seemed superfluous to the story, essentially added to give Demons of the Punjab a sci-fi veneer. They could easily have been removed from the story without it affecting anything.
Again, a wasted opportunity.
As a side note, I was surprised that the Thijarians weren't Armenian.
The performances could have been better. The guest cast save for both Umbreems seemed rather quiet and uninteresting. Of particular bad note were Jeetooa and Zaza as the feuding brothers. They seemed to have no real emotions, though both were rather fond of making speeches. The conflict between them seemed as intense as that of people arguing over how cold a bowl of porridge is.
The main cast was also pretty bad save for Walsh who is the only Companion worth anything. His character at least realizes and understands the situations they face be it danger or loss and behaves like an actual human. It was an interesting decision to have a more Yaz-focused story given that she is a pretty dull, lifeless and useless character. Gill did better here than she has done before but not enough to make me care about her character.
Cole was so detached the Thijarians had more emotion to everything. Congratulations to making Ryan more boring than Yaz.
As for Whittaker, she does have a nasty habit of making a scrunchy-face whenever she appears to be thinking. She also has a very idiotic manner of thrusting her arm whenever using the sonic screwdriver, like a wand, as if She's afraid that She may be electrocuted while using it. Whittaker is just not that good of an actress to get past her manic Tennant/Smith mashup of a performance.
Finally, I love how their wardrobe never causes anyone in 1947 rural Pakistan/India to question why these people are dressed as they are. Then again, they don't question what two whites and one black person are doing running around in 1947 rural Pakistan/India. I would have thought Graham was in greater danger from Manish than Umbreem, but there it is.
The Indian-inspired score was nice.
Demons of the Punjab is a bad history lesson because it is incomplete. It gives almost no context to how Partition came about, how it affected the population and suggests that it was one-sided. Again, there's a story, a good story, rattling about it somewhere. Pity they could not find it.
"We can't a universe with no Yaz," She states, which a statement that has no sense to it. Why She has a fixation on Yaz we can only guess at, but I am perfectly fine living in a universe with no Yaz.
Next Episode: KERBLAM!