Doctor Who Series 11, Episode 6
“Demons of the Punjab”
Posted by Sage
What do you owe someone else when their heritage is also the story of the worst day of your life? It’s that question that makes Yaz’s nani Umbreen the most compelling character in this story, which is compelling (and gorgeous) all around.
Doctor Who has added two stories so far this year to the great historicals that the show’s produced over time. This one uses Yaz’s fascination with her enigmatic grandmother to educate viewers about the Partition of India. Neither my United States private nor public school history classes went in depth on the subject. In fact, I can’t remember learning about it at all. If I did, I guarantee it was told to me from the point of view of the imperialists. All they are in this narrative are voices on a radio, the crisis seen through the eyes of the inhabitants of one family farm, still freshly smarting from the previous crisis.
You can’t blame Yaz for her desperate desire to know her grandmother. She brags about her accomplishments during tea, then neglects to explain how she was the first woman married in Pakistan. She’s lived a life. She’s carrying secrets. And those secrets are a part of Yaz’s history. “If you don’t tell us then we won’t know,” Yaz says. But though Supreme Cinnamon Roll Graham points out that everyone is allowed their secrets, even if they are someone’s nani, it turns out that Umbreen is keeping these details to herself not because she doesn’t want to share her life with her child and grandchildren, but because they’re extremely painful.
So there’s an element of the episode that stings from the start. Umbreen didn’t offer this information to Yaz, so she finds a way to get it herself. We love Yaz, she’s a good person. But she’s being selfish in this moment, and she clearly didn’t watch “Father’s Day.” Being that the rest of the TARDIS fam are utter softies (“I’m too nice.”), they are (on Graham and Ryan’s part, at least) more than willing to take a trip to the Umbreen’s past. And truly, I’m surprised that the telepathic circuits aren’t utilized more often. It’s so seductive, the idea of being able to trace a memory or an object overlaid with memory to its source. In a crowded TARDIS, it creates a bit of a plot hole. I don’t believe for a moment that Ryan wouldn’t want more information with his dad or time with his mum, or that Graham wouldn’t sneak back to have a look at Grace in her youth. Not that any of that really matters, but hey, what are Doctor Who fans good for if not nitpicking? (My head canon for why Umbreen doesn’t seem to recognize that her granddaughter looks exactly like the random distant cousin who showed up on her wedding day is that she’s realized it was her. She’s not a close-minded woman.)
I can empathize with Yaz’s initial shock, when she realizes that he beautiful, headstrong nani is about to marry a man who is not her grandfather. But it’s only the first bombshell of their arrival in the Punjab. They’ve arrived right as the borders to divide India and Pakistan have been announced. (“We’re in Pompeii and it’s volcano day” vibes.) Umbreen is happy and determined, ready for her life to begin. They were close to starving during the war, so it wasn’t a future she always thought that she’d see. But she and her family (minus Prem’s brother Manish, who’s all doom and gloom) falsely assume that they’re too remote to be touched by the conflict – that because they decline to get involved, they won’t be. To some degree, Manish is right. Ignoring the growing unrest was never going to save them.
Meanwhile, there are literal angels of death hanging around. The Doctor knows the Thijarian race as the universe’s perfect assassins, so naturally when they find them hovering over the body of the holy man who was set to perform Prem and Umbreen’s wedding ceremony, she assumes that they killed him. But we immediately know that there’s more to it than that, since Prem remembers seeing them on the battlefield, standing over his older brother, also dead. They changed their M.O. completely when she wasn’t looking, as they reveal in a scene that’s a little too long-winded and preachy for my taste. (The detail that killed me, however, was the Doctor promptly raising her hands in respect when they told her their story. It’s the least that she could do after using bits of their ancestors in an otherwise charmingly witchy science experiment.) The Thijarian rebranded as protectors of the unacknowledged dead throughout time and space. Tragically, though Prem had people who loved him, he becomes one of them. Umbreen and her mother couldn’t have laid him to rest – they just ran.
They don’t have the inability to interfere with the future, they tell the Doctor. But they do know what’s coming. One of the reasons I wish that the reveal of this information had been handled a little more cleverly is that the Thijarians represent renewal and transformation, and the idea that your past does not need to dictate your future. Their powers are vast and now their mission is noble. It’s a beautiful concept that those who do harm can choose a peaceful path. And though it’s not made clear whether they offer any comfort to the dying, they do ensure that they are seen and remembered.
Yaz, the Doctor, Ryan and Graham – they change nothing. There’s nothing that they can do to stop what’s coming for Prem, and even if they could, it’s entirely possible that they’d wipe Yaz out of existence in the process. (The Doctor is NOT PREPARED for a universe with no Yaz, so just jot that down.) But in a way, they’re doing what the Thijarian are going to do. They’re witnessing. They offer comfort and companionship. Those scenes where the women and the men split up to prepare the bride and groom are especially poignant, because the time travelers know that they’re sharing precious, fleeting, happy moments.
In this episode more than any other yet, the value of having an older human in the TARDIS than we’re used to was readily apparent. Graham has exceeded all of my expectations and added so much more to this series than I could have imagined. (Please, please may he not be killed off in the finale.) He doesn’t talk down to Yaz and Ryan, because he’s kind and humble, and also because none of them, no matter their age, came to this impossible journey fully prepared. But he has this life experience that they’ve yet to acquire, and his pep talks are already legendary. “It’s only later she’ll decide how to tell it,” he gently tells Yaz when she can’t reconcile the grandmother she knows with the young woman they meet. “And I honestly don’t know whether any of us know the real truth of our own lives, ’cause we’re too busy living them from the inside. So just enjoy it, Yaz. Live this moment and figure it out later.” He’s the one to suggest that Bakti get a proper burial as soon as possible. And his backstory colors that moment he has with Prem before the ceremony. As far as Graham is concerned, he’s not even supposed to be alive. It’s devastating to him to have to watch a young man with so much life left to live be struck down in his prime.
It is quite possible though, that the fam’s visit changed one thing. Who would have married Umbreen and Prem if the Doctor hadn’t volunteered? So that’s the gift. Yaz’s grandmother got to make it official, which may have eased some of her future hurt. And Prem got to have that last peaceful moment before he became a casualty of someone else’s vision of a perfect world. The Doctor never met anyone who wasn’t important, no matter how short their time was cut. So she puts everything she has into a nondenominational speech that may as well be 13’s mission statement.
The peace is short-lived, however. “There’s nothing worse than when ordinary people lose their minds,” Prem says. But it never occurred to him, even though he knew that he had been irrecoverably changed by the war, that his brother had been radicalized to the degree that he was willing to sacrifice his own flesh and blood to his ideals. His older brother still loves Manish, despite the how their politics (and his personality) had changed, and he doesn’t want to believe that he’s capable of actually hurting them. He knew and fought alongside the man who actually pulls the trigger. When the Doctor confronts Manish, which she does even though she knows that she can’t save Prem, she asks him if he “scared himself” when he had to fight. Because Manish is just a pawn in someone else’s game – specifically the men sleeping soundly back in England while the nation they just divided starts to attack itself. There’s no power like convincing somebody else that your battle is also theirs. Manish may say that it’s Prem who has blinders on, but he has no idea how he and the rest of his compatriots are being used.
And again, the Doctor and her companions just have to walk away.
But I’m so grateful to this episode and Vinay Patel’s script for giving both Umbreens their privacy. We’re spared the moment when young Umbreen learns what happened to Prem, all we know is that she escaped with her life, moved to exotic Sheffield, and fell in love again. And Yaz knows now not to pry – that her grandmother still deserves to keep Prem’s memory and that tragedy to herself. None of us owe all of ourselves to anyone, especially when just moving forward is hard enough.
Timey Wimey Observations
- Go read and listen to critiques of this episode by South Asian Doctor Who fans! Our friend and Reality Bomb co-host Joy Piedmont recommends this episode of BBC Radio Asian Network’s Big Debate Show for a start.
- Watch this one again. Look at older Umbreen’s face when she says the watch “must never be fixed” in the first scene. Lay down. Cry a lot.
- Love the crew calling the Doctor their “mate.” That’s what she is.
- LET GRAHAM SING AT THE WEDDING.
- “We both feel safe” is the biggest lie ever told when it comes to enforcing borders.
- “Tread softly, you’re treading on your own history.”
- “Gold star for Ryan! Oh wait, was I rewarding points? Oh, I forgot about the points!”
- “Also: confiscated. See ya!” 13, your 10 is showing.
- PREM’S SINGLE TEAR.
- Also Prem…could get it.
What did you think of “Demons of the Punjab”? Let us know in the comments!
Featured Image Source: BBC