By Mark Laherty
Last Sunday saw Who return to historical form. Demons of the Punjab, written by Vinay Patel, brings the TARDIS team to the Punjab in 1947 because Yaz is anxious to learn more about her grandmother’s past. But, as you may know, the Punjab in 1947 is a dangerous place to be. The Partition of India is on the verge of tearing apart the whole country and Yaz’s family. What’s more, she discovers her past-grandmother on the eve of marriage to a man Yaz has never even heard of before. Also: aliens.
It has been remarked by many time and time again that Yaz has gotten short shrift in previous episodes. Ryan and Graham gave speeches and mourned with dramatic flair while Yaz just sort of sat there. You’d nearly worry that this episode would be Yaz meeting her grandmother in the background while Graham pontificates about how it reminds her of his dead wife and Ryan climbs a ladder. But, of course, this is not the case. Yaz is very much the star of this episode and Mandip Gill is given plenty to get her teeth into.
Jamie Childs returns as director, but this doesn’t feel like a blockbuster action film like his work on the season premiere. The most memorable images are the simple visual metaphors that neatly encapsulate the episode’s themes. The language of the iconography, like fallen ropes and broken watches, is immediately understandable.
As far as plot goes, there’s only one notable gripe that I have: the aliens don’t need to be there. It’s not that they’re outright bad; they fit into the episode’s themes, a strength I’ll discuss more below. But they’re the least interesting part of the episode. This story’s strength is in how it presents the history and deftly ties it to contemporary concerns about radicalisation. Jumping into a pure historical might have been too much of a contrast for most viewers, though. Maybe next year.
The most popular mainstream take, the one that headlined a Twitter Moment (ech), is that Doctor Who has taken an educational approach and that this has divided viewers. This discourse has broken down along the conventional lines of the ‘culture wars,’ so I won’t bore you with it. This episode never feels like a lecture. Very little bad can be said about ‘Rosa,’ but it does have a few instances of feeling like the story hits pause to read from Wikipedia. There’s very little in the way of that here. The effect, as Andrew Ellard wrote, is more to encourage kids (and, being honest, grown-ups) to google the Indian Partition.
This is also, again, a noticeable return to the Classic Who form of historical: don’t get involved, just let history take its course. Some have expressed concern that this change occurred at the same time as the gender regeneration from man to woman – can’t a female Doctor be every bit as bombastic as a male Doctor? Perhaps, but the shift from arrogant to meek is exaggerated in this analysis. The Thirteenth Doctor isn’t so much overly apologetic as she is empathetic. No Doctor has been without this; you might just have missed it in Twelve, as he was brusque and no Mr Chuckles. Hopefully, this won’t come off as dismissive but I do think that writing the Doctor as kind is a reasonable idea.
One concern about Series 11 (and there are a few) is that it lacks an overall thematic focus. It’s well-known that showrunner Chris Chibnall at least claims that there’s no plot arc this year. While that, by now, is unlikely to be entirely true (‘Ghost Monument’ dropped an unsubtle reference to a “timeless child”), it’s very much the case that one can pick up any episode so far and watch it without context. This might be a welcome relief compared to the Eleventh Doctor era, which often ended episodes with, as Harris Bomberguy put it, “keep watching and maybe you’ll find out!”
But, without going on yet another tangent about the most over-discussed Scotsman of the decade, suffice to say that the Twelfth Doctor era didn’t have plot arcs in the same way. There was foreshadowing, like villains lurking in shadows, but nothing that would stop you from picking up the show halfway through a season; I’m sure of this because my aunt, who doesn’t even like sci-fi much, started watching Doctor Who halfway through a Capaldi season. Instead of plot arcs, what the Twelfth Doctor era had, especially Series 8 and 9, was a unity of crystal-clear themes and a strong purpose. Is that the case for the Thirteenth Doctor?
Not really. In trying to provide ten (or maybe 11) distilled shots of what everyone loves about Doctor Who, Series 11 feels relatively disjointed, hopping from genre to genre with little in the way of an overriding point. But, this episode pushes the season in the direction of being about something. This is an episode which is, in part, about loss: the loss that Yaz’s grandmother Umbreen endured during the Partition. This ties to the separation of a country and the coming together of two people, a Muslim and a Hindu, in marriage. It’s simple but it’s clear and very effective; fully expect it to pluck the heartstrings, especially as a feeling of inevitability sets in during the episode’s final act.
Better yet, as said above, it helps to draw the season together. The time given to Umbreen’s loss chimes with similar scenes with Graham in ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ and ‘Arachnids in the UK.’ Looking back on ‘Ghost Monument’ and recalling Angstrom, who lost her wife, takes on more meaning when taken as part of a whole thematic construct. It feels like this isn’t just a sequence of characters who happen to die because it’s a sci-fi adventure show. But, of course, we’re never too far from the season falling apart into a dysfunctional mess of unfulfilled potential. As Samuel Maleksi wrote, it’s a “thin line between the aesthetics of absence and an absence of aesthetics.” You need only look at the relatively humdrum ‘Tsuranga Conundrum’ to see that.
Wider concerns about the season are difficult to dispel, but this episode on its own knocked it out of the park. Its educational aspect is one important reason for its success, but another is that it’s clearly and simply about something. It’s too soon to say but this, like ‘Rosa,’ could go down as one of the best stories of Modern Who.