Timestamp #288: Demons of the Punjab

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Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab
(1 episode, s11e06, 2018)

Timestamp 288 Demons of the Punjab

Bearing witness.

Yaz is home celebrating her Nani Umbreen’s birthday. Each of the women gets an heirloom gift – Najia gets a stack of handwritten letters, Sonya gets a photo of her grandfather and a pressed flower, and Yaz gets a broken watch that must never be repaired – and Yaz has a burning desire to travel back in time to learn more about her grandmother.

The Doctor is skeptical about taking personal trips, but Graham quips that this team is no stranger to risk. The Doctor apologizes for that run-in with the Death-Eye Turtle Army before setting course for Pakistan, 1947. Shortly after arriving, the Doctor gets a telepathic shock before meeting a man named Prem and his ox-cart. The Doctor is shaken but accepts a ride to escape the troubles on the road ahead. As the cart pulls away, they are watched by an armored being.

The team arrives at a small home where they meet Umbreen as a young woman. Yaz stumbles over herself as they learn about Umbreen’s upcoming wedding to Prem, but Yaz is confused because Prem is not her grandfather. They also note that Prem is wearing the watch that Yaz was given in the future.

Against the Doctor’s better judgment, the team decides to stay. They learn that they are watching the Partition of India in action. The Muslims are forced into Pakistan, the Hindus get India, and tensions rise across the region because of how the British handled the situation. Additionally, Umbreen is Muslim and Prem is Hindu. The tense moment is exacerbated as two supposed demons appear, sparking another telepathic shock for the Doctor as they lead everyone to a dead Hindu holy man named Bhakti. They warn the Doctor not to interfere before Prem shoots at them. Prem explains that he’s seen the demons before and questions the Doctor’s team about their true intentions.

They watch as a purple powder vanishes from the corpse. The Doctor scans the area while Yaz and Graham lay the body to rest. The Doctor, Ryan, and Prem find a transmat doorway in the forest and are teleported into an underground ship. The Doctor determines that the demons are Thijarians, an ancient species that evolved into the deadliest assassins in the universe. Prem last saw them in the midst of World War II when his older brother Kunal was killed. The trio is forced to leave the hive ship when the Thijarians return, and Ryan and Prem are separated from the Doctor because of miniature transmat devices scattered through the forest. The Doctor confiscates the devices and a canister of the purple powder as she runs.

Back at the family farm, Umbreen continues to argue in favor of her upcoming marriage despite the family’s insistence that it be canceled. Yaz struggles with the history she’s seeing because it doesn’t align with the reality she knows. Graham consoles her and asks that she live in this moment and watch as history gets sorted out. As the Doctor, Ryan, and Prem return, everyone is gathered in the barn. The Thijarians follow and threaten everyone with death, but the Doctor uses the transmat devices to lock them out so she can formulate a plan. The Doctor asks for oil, tree bark, saucepans, nine containers, ox spit, a biscuit, and chicken poo to create a “demon repellent” to analyze the powder. She also tries to scan the powder but the substance overloads the sonic screwdriver.

The women and men are separated for pre-nuptial rituals. Umbreen asks the Doctor – a woman with a respectable title – to officiate the ceremony. The men play cards as Prem argues with Manish, a Partition sympathizer. Later on, the Doctor discovers that the powder is a dense amalgam of genetic material before the Thijarians break the transmat lock and take the Doctor back to their ship.

The Thijarians explain that they are no longer assassins. Their world was destroyed – the remnants are left in the powder jar – and they have become witnesses to honor the living in their moments of death. The millions who will die in the wake of Partition will be forgotten in history, and they have come to bear witness to their sacrifices. They reveal that Prem will die next and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. They also explain what happened to Bhakti.

The Doctor returns to the barn and reveals what happens to Prem on the day of his wedding. Despite the coming pain, Yaz and the team decide to stay and celebrate with her family. As Ryan and Graham see to Prem’s final preparations, Prem mourns for those around him who have lost their minds – Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs who lived in harmony are now divided in a frenzy – and Graham comforts him with the knowledge that the best they can be is good men.

The ceremony takes place on the new border, making Umbreen the first woman married in Pakistan. The Doctor uses her sonic screwdriver to drop the rope border, speaking of the certainty Prem and Umbreen have in each other despite the uncertainty in the world around them. The certainty of love and hope. Umbreen uses the border rope to bind her hands to Prem’s, formalizing the ceremony.

Later on, Umbreen offers Manish reconciliation, but Manish rejects it. Prem offers Umbreen his watch but it falls to the ground, which Umbreen declares as their moment in time. The Doctor follows Manish as he grabs a rifle, asking if it was what he used to kill the holy man to stop him from marrying Umbreen and Prem. It is interrupted as men arrive on horseback to take the land by force. The Doctor warns the newlyweds to run and Prem asks Umbreen to gather some essentials. Yaz discovers a map of the world with Sheffield marked as a place where Umbreen wants to visit.

Prem offers to stay behind and distract the raiders while Umbreen and her mother escape. As the Doctor and the companions watch from the distance, Prem stands in defense of the land and confronts his brother Manish. A fellow soldier named Kanon draws a rifle on Prem as the Thijarians arrive to watch over the proceedings. A shot rings out as the travelers walk back to the TARDIS.

In the TARDIS, the Doctor confirms that Umbreen survived and reached Sheffield. When she returns home, Yaz and Umbreen talk about family history. Umbreen is happy about her life and where it has taken her, and she offers to talk about the watch. Yaz asks her to tell the story another time.

This powerful historical story is centered on the hidden and forgotten parts of our individual histories. I love the stories where the “bad guys” aren’t what they seem, and just like in Twice Upon a Time, the mistaken identity of those who honor the fallen and forgotten is beautiful. The episode also puts the audience in the same position as the Thijarians. We cannot interfere, but instead, we can only watch as this family goes through the turmoil.

It’s also really nice to see a British television series pay tribute to a time when the Empire really screwed up the geopolitical landscape with arbitrary lines on a map. This story takes place in 1947, and even now – 76 years later – the politics of the region are still a source of contention (to say the least). Leave it to a show about compassion and being the best of humanity to show the personal devastation associated with the Partition.

It’s touching that the episode premiered on Remembrance Sunday (November 11) and the centenary of the armistice that ended World War I.

I really liked the end credits version of the Doctor Who theme. This version was inspired by Indian music and performed by Shahid Abbas Khan, who was also featured throughout this episode’s soundtrack.

We get another nod here to adventures not seen on the television screen. The name Death-Eye Turtle Army alone makes me want to know what happened there.

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Kerblam!


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

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