Almost every Doctor Who episode this season has centered on the concept of family. As Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and her companions have traveled through the universe, they’ve encountered plenty of familial drama, from Yaz fighting giant spiders with her mum to Ryan and Graham learning how to navigate their relationship after Grace’s death. As I mentioned in an earlier recap, even the Doctor herself is getting in on it: A lot of the past Doctors have been insistent loners, picking up an occasional companion or two on their travels through time and space. This Doctor has a whole crew aboard her TARDIS, and she’s established herself as a sort of quirky aunt, leading her younger family members on adventures. So far, the Chris Chibnall era of Doctor Who seems intent on exploring exactly what it is that makes a family a family — and what do its member owe to each other?
This theme continues with tonight’s episode, “Demons of the Punjab,” Vinay Patel’s moving exploration of Yaz’s family history. We already met Yaz’s parents and sister in “Arachnids in the UK,” but here, we go a little further back in time to meet her grandmother, Umbreen. In the present day, Yaz and her gran are close, but she knows little of her history — with the exception of a mysterious broken wristwatch her grandmother gave her. Yaz begs the Doctor for a quick trip to Umbreen’s past, just to learn a little bit more about her reticent grandmother. Despite her misgivings about meddling in personal timelines, the Doctor gives in.
“It’s a risk,” the Doctor cautions.
“Oh, like none of our other trips have ever been risky,” Graham says.
“I have apologized for the death-eyed turtle army!” the Doctor retorts. “Profusely!”
And so the Doctor, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan travel to 1947 India — right in the middle of the Partition. In 1947, Umbreen is a young Muslim woman living in an area that will soon become the India-Pakistan border, sparking catastrophic divisions and violence. At the moment, however, she’s more concerned with her impending marriage to her childhood sweetheart Prem, who is Hindu and not Yaz’s grandfather. And when the local holy man, who was supposed to officiate Prem and Umbreen’s marriage, winds up dead and surrounded by sinister-looking aliens, it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong in Punjab.
Doctor Who has always been fascinated by the intersection of the historical and the personal, and “Demons of the Punjab” is no exception. The Partition of India hangs like a specter over the wedding festivities, as Brem and Umbreen try to figure out how to build a life for themselves when everything around them is so in flux. Adding to the chaos is tension between Brem and his brother Manish, who was left behind when his two older brothers went to war. Their eldest brother died, while Brem remains haunted by what he saw. Manish, meanwhile, has become radicalized in the absence of his brothers.
Once the Doctor tracks down the “demons” haunting the nearby woods, she identifies them as the Vajarians, a race of interstellar assassins. When the holy man turns up dead, she assumes they’re here to wreak havoc, but the truth soon comes into picture: When the Vajarian homeworld was destroyed, they abandoned their previous lives to travel throughout the galaxy, honoring and paying respects to the dead throughout history. The idea of an alien race bearing silent witness to the lost and forgotten is very Whovian, and there’s something distinctly Doctor-ish about the idea of mourning the unmourned and “honoring life as it passes.”
As such, it soon becomes clear that the Vajarians are only here to witness death, not cause it. The real murderer is Manish, who killed the holy man and has invited extremists to the newly established border. (Just as with “Rosa,” the real villain wasn’t aliens but human prejudice.) Brem is destined to die in the conflict, allowing his bride of only a few hours to escape. To save Brem is to rewrite history, potentially erasing Yaz from existence. Just as in “Rosa,” the Doctor and her companions are forced to stand by and let the past unfold without interference. You can see the anguish on Whittaker’s face when she turns her back and hears the gunshot, and it’s clear that letting Brem die goes against everything in her basic programming — but there’s nothing she can do about it. (It reminded me quite a bit of the 2005 episode “Father’s Day,” in which Rose and the Doctor have to allow her father to die to preserve history.) It’s a somber ending to an already emotional episode, but it also makes for one of the season’s most memorable storylines yet.
Odds and ends
- Segun Akinola took over as the show’s composer this season, and “Demons of the Punjab” is a particular showcase for him. Akinola’s style is definitely a departure from Murray Gold’s sweeping orchestral melodies and big themes, but he’s imbued each episode with both emotion and a delightful sense of otherworldliness.
- The Doctor delivers a particularly lovely speech when officiating Brem and Umbreen’s wedding, the kind of speech that will probably be quoted in Whovian weddings to come: “Love in all its forms is the most powerful weapon we have. Because love is a form of hope, and like hope, love abides in the face of everything.” (This also isn’t the first wedding the Doctor has officiated, she reveals, having previously done the honors for Einstein.)