Demons of the Punjab: close, but no sonic screwdriver

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 then 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 backstore 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.

 


SEE ALSO:

  • 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.”)
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7 responses to “Demons of the Punjab: close, but no sonic screwdriver

  1. ‘So why even have a young Asian female trainee police officer?’

    It’s fine with me when they use a random generator for things like age, sex, disability, race and occupation. In the context of DW it doesn’t necessarily need to mean anything or contribute to the story. They’re (supposed to be) having exciting adventures through space and time, who cares about things like what they did back on Earth?

    Unfortunately in the current series there’s little to capture the imagination, so I can understand the mind drifting to “hmm, I wonder what life is like for young Asian female trainee police officers in England”. But surely Doctor Who is capable of showing us much more exciting stuff than that.

  2. Well, KG, I disagree fundamentally with you on this. Great fiction happens when extraordinary things happen to ordinary people: in other words, the ordinary people are just as much a part of the equation as the TARDIS, the Daleks and arguably even the Doctor. Rose taught us that, introducing a strong companion focus in New Who, which was one of the big ways it was an improvement over the old series. We see the Doctor’s world through the companions’ eyes, and that means the companions have to be interesting in their own right, otherwise they’re just ciphers.

  3. Oh, I don’t think the companions are unimportant as characters by any means. But Rose being young, female, white and a shop assistant (I had to look that last bit up) weren’t really factors in that, were they? OK, maybe being female and straight were necessary factors for the somewhat romantic nature of the relationship with the male doctor. But for me the important thing was that she had personality, and an interesting relationship with the doctor, and was put into fantastical situations that allowed us to explore those things.

    Looking back at my comments, it sounds like I’m trying to be the PC police, which would be a bit ironic. I actually hated Rosa because it interrupted my cool robots-and-aliens-and-alien-robots show with boring history and racism.

  4. You make an interesting point about Rose — although actually I go even further than you in that I don’t think the female-and-straight was necessary, since the interesting part of the Doctor/Rose relationship was its otherworldliness, not the conventionally romantic aspect. In fact, in the first series, this was played so ambiguously — and was consequently so interesting — that I was really disappointed when I read an RTD interview that spelled out that it was a romantic relationship.

    Anyway, your assessment of what was interesting about Rose is dead on. I think having three companions changes the equation, though. If we’re served three flavours of ice cream, we expect them to taste different. In this case we’ve been served three very different flavours of companion, but they all taste the same. (And the thing that they all taste of is not interesting.)

  5. I’ll give more background as to why I don’t mind the characteristics-by-dice-role approach:

    Red Dwarf was on when I was a kid, with the mixed-race Craig Charles as one of its leads. At least as I remember it, his race was never ever a factor in any of the stories (although being a Scouser may have come up in a fun sort of way). It was just normal and irrelevant.

    In what I think was my first encounter with racism, I very clearly recall a fellow student at my school going on about how Craig Charles was black, clearly considering that to be a bad thing. The unanimous opinion of the rest of the class (30-odd kids) seemed to be that this wasn’t important at all and the racist kid was a weirdo.

    I’m not saying that everyone should STFU and pretend that there’s no racism, sexism, etc. in the world, but this experience made me feel pretty strongly that it’s probably helpful to have diversity in the people on screen and have it just be normal and irrelevant.

    If you’ve ever seen the Supergirl TV series: That’s exactly what I don’t mean (at least going by the first couple of episodes, which is all that I could bear).

  6. Oh, hah, I’m reading my backlog of your blog and just saw that you explicitly (and with similar terminology) call out the characteristics-by-dice-roll approach in your next entry.

    Anyway, ignore me, I’m looking forward to your review of It Takes You Away. I have strong opinions on that one, and am very interested in your take.

  7. The Red Dwarf story is interesting. I just wish I could say the same for the companions. I suppose we could cut the production team some slack by choosing to believe that they are deliberately making an anti-racist point by completely ignoring all the cultural and personal differences between the three companions. But I’m afraid Occam’s razor suggests otherwise.

    (I’ve not seen Supergirl.)

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