India has popped up time and again in BBC’s Doctor Who over the course of its 55-year-long run. The Taj Mahal appears several times in the backdrop of unfolding news stories and in passing references. Mahatma Gandhi is a recurring fixture, with the titular Doctor – a time-travelling extraterrestrial – meeting him (in the BBC-published book Ghosts of India) and his likeness (as a statue at Madame Tussauds in Spearhead from Space and as a hologram in The Eleventh Hour). Demons of the Punjab, episode 6 of the show’s 11th season, goes beyond the superficial to deliver a compelling, emotionally-charged account of a day in Partition-era India. It’s bolstered by some masterful writing by playwright Vinay Patel, who brings to the table his own experiences as the grandson of Indian immigrants. Demons of the Punjab also marks the first time that a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) writer has received a solo writing credit for an episode.
Piqued by her grandmother’s declaration of being the “first woman married in Pakistan,” Yasmin Khan, a Pakistani Muslim from Sheffield travels back in time to the day of her nani’s wedding. It’s August 17, 1947, the day the Radcliffe Line separating the Punjab and Bengal provinces of British India is drawn. What follows is a family’s quest to carve out moments of happiness and affection while contending with the terrors outside.
If you’re looking for a historical primer on the Partition and the after-effects of its destruction, you might be disappointed. The episode references the impending bloodshed and toll on human lives – “Tens of millions of people about to be displaced. More than a million about to die,” explains the Doctor – but none of the brutality is actually shown unfolding in the idyllic fields of the Punjab. Unsurprising, given that Doctor Who is, after all, a family show. The burning of villages, ransacking of homes, the roar of the frenzied mob, and fast-approaching communal violence only get fleeting mentions over the radio.
Perhaps recognizing that 50 minutes isn’t enough time to comprehensively tackle such a mammoth subject, the episode chooses to focus on the emotional toll the historical event could have had on a single family – how fraught with tension a Hindu-Muslim wedding could have been in a divided India, how trembling hands from having to bury a body hours before a mehendi ceremony could affect the intricate design, how a game of teen patti could become an opportunity for brothers to really lay their cards on the table, with the elder rebuking the younger for becoming indoctrinated through pamphlets and “angry men on the radio”. While borders are drawn and redrawn, walls go up between family members. Makeshift fences splitting the Punjab in half are as divisive as the ideologies being propagated.
The antagonists initially appear to be the Thijarians – an ancient alien race of former assassins – but when the sounds of violence draw closer, they come from “ordinary men, who’ve lived here their whole lives.” The monsters (of hostility and suspicion) are within.
Some of the episode’s most moving and alternately chilling moments are set to British-Nigerian composer Segun Akinola’s tabla and shehnai-infused soundtrack, crafted by musicians of South Asian descent. The show’s theremin-heavy synth theme, which plays as the end credits roll, is replaced with a more melancholic Indianised rendition.
— Doctor Who (@bbcdoctorwho) November 12, 2018
With Demons of the Punjab, Doctor Who solidifies its commitment to diverse storytelling. This season also featured an episode by Malorie Blackman, the first black person and only the eighth woman to have written one for the show. Blackman’s Rosa is a powerful chronicle of the civil rights struggle in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, culminating in the moment Rosa Parks decides not to give up her seat on the bus, forever altering the course of history. It ends with the sobering reminder that it took 44 years for Rosa’s work to be recognised – a pointed remark that’s not lost on fans of the show, who are only now seeing the Doctor be played by a woman for the first time in its 37-season run.
Demons of the Punjab is not without its flaws, most notably the kid gloves with which it handles British culpability in one of the bloodiest chapters of Indian history. “I’ll make a note of your thoughts and pass them on to Mountbatten if I ever bump into him again,” says the Doctor when the British are accused of “carving up the country slapdash in six weeks.” While the personal tone of the episode works for the most part, it comes at the cost of not addressing the bigger picture. Where it might succeed is in sparking off a larger conversation about identity, the refugee crisis and how patriotism has come to be redefined. Fun fact: one of the books Patel referenced during his writing process is The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan, which opens up the interesting possibility that the character decides to write a book about her roots at one point.
Here are a few of the (many, many) books I read during research for #DemonsOfThePunjab. Some non-fiction, some poetry, some short stories, some novels. The Manto will stay with you forever. pic.twitter.com/Kpdatp6RT3
— Vinay Patel (@VinayPatel) November 11, 2018
“Big moment, you won’t forget this in a hurry,” says a young man early on in the episode. He’s right. Having released on the 100th anniversary of another major historical event, the armistice that ended the First World War, Demons of the Punjab is a timely look at the price of radical nationalism, which succeeds in what it set out to do – ensure we don’t forget our past in a hurry.