Monday, 12 November 2018

Demons of the Punjab written by Vinay Patel and directed by Jamie Childs


This story in a nutshell: Yaz is heading into her own family history, a dark page of the past… 

Oh Brilliant: Family history and time travel are very tricky, says the Doctor, probably remembering the result the last time she acquiesced to this kind of demand. There was a moment when the four travellers left the TARDIS and headed into the forest where my brain was screaming ‘oh yeah, this is Doctor Who.’ After a five-episode run that has done some unconventional things, it is lovely to get back to basics. The Doctor loves poking around alien spaceships and has look of wonder on her face throughout. I love that this Doctor has no qualms about expressing her childlike joy at experience new things. Capaldi’s Doctor was a little too reserved to unveil his lust for new experiences and Matt Smith could push the boggle eyed wonder a little too far. I’ve been waiting for a ‘they’re under my protection now!’ moment from Whittaker since she took on the role and she doesn’t disappoint. She’s such an approachable Doctor that when her teeth are bared it really makes me sit up. ‘I never did this when I was a man’ says the Doctor, and a million fanboys faint. The Doctor getting a henna tattoo is a glorious moment, the series subtly acknowledging the gender of the lead without having to get into any politics. The Doctor officiating a wedding ceremony in the Punjab, get in! It’s a beautifully written sequence that Whittaker rightly plays a little awkwardly but with plenty of heart. This isn’t the Doctor’s natural place but she makes the most of it and makes the moment count. Especially given what is coming for the couple. The whole scene is touched with beauty and tragedy, it’s a wonderfully complex wedding. When she has a rifle pointed in her face she walks straight towards it and keeps making her point. 

Graham: How does Bradley Walsh manage to sneak into an episode that isn’t about him at all and snatch the two most affecting scenes of the entire piece? He’s a very generous actor, standing back as part of the ensemble with the odd line but when he is given the opportunity to shine he grasps it with both hands. It’s such an honest, unforced acting style too. It’s hugely impressive. Graham telling Yaz to enjoy this moment with her grandmother and worry about the implications later is valuable advice to anybody who overthinks. It’s a wonderful discussion about how incredible it is to travel with the Doctor without ever pushing the sentiment. I can barely write about Graham calling Prem a good man and hugging him before his wedding…because it might reduce me to tears again. 

Yaz: How delightful that Yaz should step from the fug of mediocrity that she was given for the majority of the first half of the season and emerge as a fully rounded character with her own mind and wishes thanks to the efforts of this one episode. Her family dynamic seems much more realistic with the additional of her grandmother (and maybe because Chibnall isn’t the sole writer of them anymore) and the request that she makes of the Doctor seems much more reasonable than Rose’s in Father’s Day (of which many people are comparing this episode to) because meeting her grandmother should in no way change the timeline if handled properly. I’m so pleased they didn’t go down the route of Yaz and her grandmother not getting on, instead it is a respectful relationship from the start. They suggest that she somehow she has imprinted herself on her grandmother (after all she is her favourite grandchild) but I’m really happy they didn’t attempt the ‘you were there!’ revelation at the climax. She's such a warm character here, totally at home in the series. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Don’t read the filthy bits’ – with one line Yaz’s grandmother becomes a real person rather than cardboard cut out family member just there to provide a little backstory.
‘Today India is officially cut into pieces.’
‘Traipsing through the forest alongside the British looking for the enemy.’
‘I heard gangs in the distance’ ‘It’s a long way away…’
‘We didn’t change when a line was drawn.’
‘We’ve lived together for decades. Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. And now, we’re being told our differences are more important than what unites us.’
‘My baby brother, what happened to you?’ Prem’s relationship with his brother throughout this episode is superbly handled, carefully written and acted. This was the moment that broke my heart the most. When Prem looks into his brothers’ eyes and sees a stranger, somebody who will turn to violence in the name of his faith. It’s one of the most important moments in Doctor Who because it shows that human beings can turn out to be the biggest monsters of all, if they think they have a good enough reason. 

The Good: How phenomenal has this season looked? Some of the visuals have more than rivalled the Hollywood genre shows that people binge on Netflix, which was rather the idea. Whilst Doctor Who has never been one to triumph visuals over storytelling (cough cough the eighties), television is an increasingly competitive market and it seems in this day and age people demand something gorgeous to look at as well as intellectually stimulating and engaging material. The sweeping shot of the TARDIS arriving, the Doctor departing and taking in the magnificent scope of the Indian landscape quite took my breath away. Running through the field of poppies couldn’t be more appropriate on Remembrance Sunday, and it’s visually striking too. A huge round of applause for the music, which managed to be both understated and epic and involved instruments we simply aren’t used to hearing on the show. It was the most atmospheric score I can remember in ages. Murray Gold’s music wowed me for many years but like any composer you get used to their styles over time (stand up Dudley) and one of the many refreshing changes this season has been the use of a new composer who is brining a unique musical charm to the adventures. Whilst last weeks score lacked urgency and rarely matched up to the madness of what was going on, Punjab’s score is absolutely perfect. I’d love to have it in isolation. ‘Pakistan is being crated for Muslims, Hindus have India’ No it isn’t anywhere near as simple as that but essentially that is exactly what was happening and it is extremely worthy to teach both kids (who probably will have heard very little about this) and adults (who have shied away from an apologetic page of the past) a valuable lesson about dividing land, faith and people. It’s an unfortunate chapter for human history, one where the demons present were the people and how they behaved. Religious intolerance was exacerbated and led to widespread slaughter. In today’s troubled times, it’s a period of history we should look back on and try and learn something from. The flashback to Prem’s wartime experiences is excellently shot, and necessary. It offers a glimpse into his life beyond the events of this episode and shows a man who has had a complicated life. It adds shade to his character, and makes his death at the climax more affecting. How many Doctor Who episodes get to pause for a hen and stag party? A wedding in the heart of open conflict, with the bride and groom on either side of the religious divide. That’s a potent idea at the heart of the episode and having the reports of the oncoming fight lead in to the wedding service really drives home the powerful mix of love and war. How there is no real villain in the piece until the climax is impressive, especially when you are talking about a religious divide. The aliens aren’t what you think they are and the episode goes to great pains to be respectful of both Muslims and Hindus. Prem’s soul being saved and sent up to the heavens with the others should be remarkably trite but it’s simply beautiful. I had goosebumps all over. Fantastic music. 

The Bad: Do we need aliens in the historical stories? Is it a necessity? Some of the time I would say definitely not. Could I have done with a genuine exploration of Hitler’s regime rather than that nonsense with River Song taking priority – oh definitely. Do I think that the trip back to Charles Dickens at Christmas would miss something without the Gelf – for sure. I do love the pure historicals of the Hartnell era for their passionate storytelling, focus on character and their local colour and Demons of the Punjab reminded me strongly of that era. However, it does also shove in a couple of aliens, suspected of being up to devious shenanigans, but ultimately they are pacifists and respectful of the dead. If they aren’t going to be the main thrust of the story, do we really need them? Actually on this occasion I would say yes. Doctor Who is a genre show after all and so doesn’t need to make excuses for including science fiction elements. The Thijarians contribute a great deal to the emotional strength of the climax, giving us fair warning of a major character’s death and present to ensure that his life is celebrated and will always be remembered. How the story convinced me these guys are up to no good and then pulls the rug out from underneath me so spectacularly when revealing the Doctor was wrong and that they are in fact benevolent is very well done.

The Shallow Bit: Indian guys are hot. Indian women are beautiful. I was having bad thoughts throughout this episode and I don’t mind admitting it.

Result: ‘Maybe you’re my enemy now for the mess you’ve just made of my country…’ This is really different, and it is so rare that I get to say that about a Doctor Who episode. The way it was shot, the pacing, the subject matter and the focus on the intimate details over the sweeping politics of the time. I have never seen an episode of the revived series quite like it. The visual of a country being torn apart violently is a powerful and a great setting for a drama. Doctor Who could never hope to capture the scale of the conflict in 45 minutes and so focusing instead on a family that are torn apart by the events taking place was an inspired idea. It allows us to get intimately close to the historical sweep without ever really seeing it. And because Patel is an expert at getting us to care for his characters it means we are devastated as something as pure as the faith that each individual in story has threatens to tear them apart. It also leaves room for the regulars to have some beautiful moments with the guest characters; Graham talking about why he loves travelling with the Doctor, the hen/stag party, and the wedding itself which emotionally is an unusually multifaceted sequence for this show. Jodie Whittaker is on fire at this point, still enjoying playing the Doctor as part of an ensemble but getting some very strong, dominant moments. I particularly loved her threats to the Thijarians and how she confronted Manish at the climax. She’s a contradiction of knowledge, vulnerability and governance. I’m enjoying her very much in the role. Whilst the entire cast are excellent (I did question Leena Dhingra’s delivery at times, but I enjoyed the character and felt for her so I’m considering that a success), I’d like to single out Shane Zaza who gave an unfussy, beautiful performance as Prem. He’s effortlessly likable but also complex and interesting and that makes his fate all the more upsetting. How this episode manages to make the death at the climax so powerful despite the fact that we have early warning that it is coming is masterful. It is because of what that death represents. For the country, for the characters that have met him and for Yasmin’s grandmother. I don’t think an episode has gotten me this personally involved in an age. I haven’t even mentioned in my summary how beautiful this episode looks and sounds; the location work, music and direction are all quite beautiful. An out and out classic in the middle of Chibnall’s first season, and an episode that works all the better for his understated, character focussed style. Doctor Who hasn’t brought tears to my eyes in years: 10/10

6 comments:

Doug Horton said...

I agree 100%. Fantastic episode. Everything really came together. More like this please!

Dovid M said...

I agree as well.this episode was phenomenal. By far the strongest one this season (interesting, I may as well point out, that it's the first one where Chibnall isn't credited as a writer.) This is definitely the kinds of stories I can see this version of the show doing and I love it.

I do have to agree with a lot of people about the aliens. The concept of a race who honors those who die alone is fascinating and they could've been in the story as background entities who the doctor meets. Maybe they show up occasionally and are just kind of there to represent a theme. I don't think we needed them to be mistaken for assassins since it kind of makes the rest of the episode feel like it failed to deliver on what it promised it'd be.

That's a nitpick though, while I think it would've been stronger if a few things had been shuffled around, it was amazing.

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Matthew Hollingshead said...

I haven't been this affected by a DW story since 'Vincent & The Doctor' (& that was really only for the gallery scene at the end). Incredible writing, acting & music, everything. I'm so overjoyed at how strong an episode this was, in every way. What a time to be a fan.

Anonymous said...

Good one. Acting from guest artists not consistently strong although the actors playing the brothers were great. Thought it was lovely and I was more than able to overlook some obvious flaws. Along with Rosa, two nice episodes in an otherwise extremely disappointing series. Given how truly drab the Chibnall penned 'monster of the week' episodes have been, really pleased that this series has showed that historical episodes can be highlights. Although Chibnall has failed as a writer, so far his choices of guest writers has been top class!

Anonymous said...

Spot on review. And bad boy Manish is so sexy.