Broadcast Date: 11 November 2018
Written By: Vinay Patel
Stunning visuals, a historical story that blended in science-fiction elements and a very strong emotional core at its heart makes “Demons of the Punjab” my standout episode of series 11.
*Warning: This review contains spoilers*
Firstly, I’d like to apologise massively for anyone who was waiting for the remaining reviews of series 11; other projects and priorities got in the way. However, with series 12 fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to take a second look at the last few episodes of the series, including the seasonal special “Resolution”, and to review them with my honest thoughts.
This series of Doctor Who had several major missteps and poor elements but one thing that the writers got spot on nearly every time was its historical episodes. “Rosa” brought us a strong sense of history and the civil rights movement, “The Witchfinders” felt more like old school Who with horror elements, and this episode is probably the best one of them all.
Watching this episode for a second time, I was nonetheless stunned by its use of visuals and music. The TARDIS lands on the proposed border between Pakistan and India in 1947, deep into the countryside, and the first few minutes provide some beautiful shots of scenery, as the protagonists head towards a farm as the sun is setting. It is made so much more when the music kicks in and the viewers are transported to this area in an immersive way that has been very rare for the show to get right. There is a second scene in the last few minutes of the episode, as a killed character’s virtual head is sent up to the top of a spaceship to join the countless many who were killed. This was a heart-tugging shot in itself but the music created a haunting yet respectful moment that was incredible. I wish that those who made the episodes were more consistent because when they get everything right, they can create some stunning scenes.
The second reason why this historical episode is taken up to a new level is the massive emotional core at the heart of it. It is true that “Demons of the Punjab” overlaps with several elements in “Rosa”: the right to love and be freely, the moral quandary of getting involved in fixed points in time being two of them, but it doesn’t have that sheer personal touch for me. The episode starts with Yaz (Mandip Gill) and her family throwing a birthday party for her Nani, who gives her a broken watch precious to her. Yaz immediately asks The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to take her back to the time she received the watch. Viewers of the show know that meddling with fixed events in time around family members is dangerous, and Yaz is put in a terrible position as her Nani is about to marry a man who is not her Grandad, yet is a good man who she clearly loved. I’m glad that the other members of the TARDIS team take a back seat to allow Yaz to shine. But for me, her best moment comes in the last seconds, when she returns from 1947 to see her Nani. Telling each other that they love them, it felt far more real and more beautiful than any plot this season and it really summed up the episode so well.
The science-fiction elements were also handled much better than in other stories this season. Immediately after leaving the TARDIS, The Doctor gets attacked by psychic energy coming from who she believes are the assassin race, the Thijarians. Investigating them feels like good filler for the first half hour of the episode and I’m so glad that the writers took the aliens in a different direction, that they witnessed the death of their race and now bear witness to those who die alone and unknown to the history books. This really allows the human historical drama to take centre stage, plus allows for that beautiful virtual head moment I stated above. Coming back to this series, I had forgotten who annoying The Doctor was with the overuse of her sonic to detect plot details left, right and centre, but that is a minor qualm of the series and doesn’t in any way dampen my love for this episode.
“Demons of the Punjab” is one of those great historical episodes of Doctor Who that is tied together with the beautiful connection of Yaz and her Nani. Alongside stunning visuals, haunting music and a plot that feels very real and human but science-fiction at the same time, this episode is my favourite of this series and is probably one of my favourites in the modern Who era.
Star Rating: 5/5
What did you make of “Demons of the Punjab”?
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Next time sees the TARDIS crew go undercover in the biggest delivery company in the universe, in “Kerblam!” You can read my review on this episode very soon.