There’s a lot to like about this one. But, paradoxically, the strengths of the episode have the side-effect of laying bare its weaknesses. It all leaves me still struggling to summon up the level of enthusiasm I feel I ought to have for Doctor Who. That’s not a good feeling, half way through the series.
Set at the moment of the Partition of India — which I knew shamefully little about — Demons of the Punjab takes on the Hindu/Muslim divide head on, by having an inter-religion marriage taking place the day after the line is drawn. To make things worse, the younger brother of the Hindu man who is about to marry a Muslim wife is a zealot who wants the new border to be as hard as possible.
Into this already incendiary situation come the Thijarians, a race of assassins whose motives in this time and place are not initially clear.
And the great thing here is that, as it turns out, these guys are not the eponymous demons. I liked the reveal of why they were really there — even if some of the running around, getting captured and escaping that led to that point was rather more 1970s-Who than it realy needed to be. And I very much like that the actual demons were shown right in the publicity image, where anyone could have made the connection had they been thinking along the right lines:
Yes: it turns out that the demons are us, when we let prejudice get the better of us. I know this is not a new message, that it’s one that will leave some people rolling their eyes. But it’s a message that can hardly be neglected in these times of Trump and Brexit. It’s worth reminding ourselves every now and then that Doctor Who is watched by, among others, children: that it can be an important formative influence on how they think and feel: after all, while Alex Wilcox used to be a Liberal Democrat policy maker, his best known work is still How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal. This stuff matters, even if it’s in some sense old hat to many of us.
So for, so good. But how much does this have to do with the Doctor, and her trio of companions?
Not very much at all, as it turns out. There’s really not a lot for the Doctor to do: she doesn’t even discover the Thijarians’ motives, they just come right out and exposition-dump it on her. And unless I’m forgetting something, literally nothing that the Doctor does has any effect at all on what eventually happens. She doesn’t save anyone; she doesn’t change anyone’s mind. Events unfold exactly as they would if she weren’t there: which raises the question of what the point of the whole exercise is.
Also, six episodes in, I’m still waiting for a distinctive character to emerge from Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor — something that is more than an assemblage of wacky tics and look-at-me cleverness. With most of the preceding Doctors, I think we had a clear sense very early on of who they were: by the end of Doctor Chris’s and Doctor Matt’s second episodes (The End of the World and The Beast Below), and by the end of Doctor David’s very first episode (The Christmas Invasion). It took much longer for Doctor Peter to settle in, though — if indeed he ever did really establish an identity, rather than continually contradicting his own character from episode to episode — and Doctor Jodie is not really doing much better.
But more serious still is the growing problem of the companions. I welcomed the notion of a three-person team because when there is only a single companion so much rests on the Doctor-companion relationship; and also because Amy and Rory travelling with the Doctor worked so very very well. But here we are, now, having seen Ryan, Graham and Yaz for more than five hours, and none of them has really done anything, or shown us anything about who they are beyond central-casting stereotypes.
Yaz is particularly frustrating in this regard: as a young Asian female trainee police officer, her backstory is absolutely replete with interesting implications. Does she feel insecure in her job? Does she feel the need to assert more authority than she really has? Do her Asian friends feel that by joining the police she’s betraying them? Are her family traditional enough to find her career unsuitable for a woman? Does she find the Doctor inspiring as a female role-model? How does experiencing Partition-era India make her feel about her own cultural background? I have no idea what the answers to any of these questions are. Because the show is simply not interested in exploring them. So why even have a young Asian female trainee police officer?
Demons of the Punjab was written by Vinay Patel, so I don’t feel it would be really fair of me to keep having a go at Chris Chibnall for its shortcomings. But the complete lack of interest in the supporting cast seems very much in keeping with his own writing. What seems to be happening is that, with three companions around, they are occupying just enough screen-time to prevent the Doctor really owning the space, but not enough to actually be interesting.
I think they should kill Ryan. Get the TARDIS crew down to a more manageable size, and see how the dynamic between Graham (who will now have lost two people he loves) and Yaz pans out.
Better still of course would be to write some good scenes for the characters.
- DOCTOR WHO: ‘ROSA’ VERSUS ‘DEMONS OF THE PUNJAB’ by Gavin Burrows. (Sample observation: “It’s like [Chibnall] makes lists of the sort of thing which might be expected to happen in a ’Who’ episode, then presses shuffle.”)
- Demons of the Punjab Review by Elizabeth Sandifer. (Sample observation: “a refreshing lack of any significant flaws […] but there’s no real reason the Vajarian need to be here.”)