By JD Phillips
It would appear that this series has become two totally different shows. There’s the ho-hum, generic sci-fi DW like the last two weeks. Then there are the unbelievably powerful historical episodes like “Rosa” and this week’s amazing “Demons of the Punjab”. The latter, however, more successfully integrates the sci-fi elements and character drama.
I’ll start this with the obligatory praise of the core cast. I’m sounding like a broken record now but Jodie Whittaker is outstanding as the Doctor this week and the companions once again prove themselves to be the heart of the show.
While I could go on about the ensemble in general, I think this week it would be more important to talk about Yaz in particular. I’ve always been a huge fan of character-centric episodes of television. Ensembles are great but sometimes it's nice to shine the spotlight on one character to make that one shine. They really do a great job of this with Yaz this week. She wants to know more about the sweet life of her grandmother and ends up with much more than she bargained for.
In the end, she winds up sharing her grandmother’s pain as well as her love. She also has to live with the cruel fact that she only exists because the love of her grandmother’s life was cruelly taken by his own countrymen. The story is beautifully heartbreaking and excellently framed around the broken watch. That frozen moment in time when they were happy and married. The only moment where that was true.
The show once again proves that history itself can be just as terrifying a monster as any Dalek or creepy statue. Once again our heroes are stuck in a situation where they cannot save anyone without permanently damaging the timeline. The difference in this episode though, is that the scifi macguffin works much better.
The Thijarians are the best aliens created by this season, so far. They were an instantly frightening presence that took a surprisingly beautiful turn. The master assassins turned witnesses for the dead was a really powerful idea and a very successful red herring. I didn’t figure out that Manish killed the holy man until the Doctor did. It was a great twist that should not have been as surprising as it was. I really hope that the Thijarians return in later episodes. (There has to be a Thijarian present at the 13th’s inevitable regeneration.)
The setting for this episode is one of the best the show has ever done. While the 50’s Americana setting was big, they went small for 1947 Pakistan/India. By showing only a small farm they were able to frame the conflict more closely around character rather than setting. All four of our guest stars were given lots of inner life and reasons for their actions and opinions. Even the traitorous Manish avoided straw man status by only following what he truly believed to be right, however misguided.
Unlike “Rosa” though, none of these conflicts were resolved in any way. There was no justice for Prem. No scene with a Bill Clinton medal at the end. This leaves it to weigh on the audience. It’s a beautifully tragic moment only made the more heartbreaking when the Thijarians add his face to the thousands of others who also died just as needlessly as he did. That moment was a wonderful example of how sci-fi elements can really drive home the underlying themes of an episode of television. Hopefully, the show can learn from itself when it goes back to another harder science fiction episode. I would’ve liked more of that in the last couple of weeks.
“Doctor Who” delivered its most powerful episode since Peter Capaldi spent an eternity punching a hole in a glass block this week. It was not only a great example of what this show and this season can be but it will undeniably go down as one of Jodie Whittaker’s finest episodes. This may very well end up being her “Vincent and the Doctor”.
Full credit to writer Vinay Patel for giving us such a beautiful, tragic, and sadly educational hour of television.