DEMONS IN THE PUNJAB
Huh. We've got very mixed feelings about this one. On one hand, it's undoubtedly one of the strongest entries in the Chibnall era thus far, and oh, the sweet relief of a writer who isn't Chibnall (although he's likely put his fingerprints all over it nevertheless). But on the other, the parts that are strong aren't Doctor Who, and the parts that are Doctor Who aren't strong. And the non-Doctor Who parts aren't faultless either.
We all know that if you have a time machine you're not supposed to gad about spectating on your own history and tidying up the messier bits. Not one line, etc. Remember what a big deal that was in Father's Day? Angst abounded at the very thought of time twiddling, and the Doctor only reluctantly agreed to it because it was such an intensely emotional thing for Rose.
So is this Doctor equally anguished? Pah! Not a bit of it. A teeny tiny mystery arises about a watch, Yaz decides she's entitled to every fact about her grandmother's past, and back they go. "I'm too nice!" wails the Doctor, something we've said more than once. And boom! We're back to the time of Partition.
Now, we're not holding ourselves out as experts on Partition. Pretty much everything we know about it comes from watching a bunch of Indian and Pakistani films about it. But what we will say is that this is some way, way powerful material. As with the history Rosa is based on, it's so strong that it would be difficult not to let it steamroller everything else.
Difficult? Actually, probably impossible. There's no doubt that Demons Of The Punjab does a great job of conveying at least an idea, if necessarily brief and G-rated, of the problems Partition caused, and it does it in a way that grips the viewer's emotions and squeezes relentlessly. In that way, it's extremely successful.
But this very success causes problems of its own. First of all, the death of Prem is shocking and powerful. We'd also argue that it isn't Doctor Who. This isn't something you can prove by citing previous episodes and such. It’s not as if there hasn't been death in Doctor Who before; after all, on occasion they haven't hesitated to wade in and slaughter everyone in sight, leaving only the TARDIS crew bloodspattered and reeling. For us, though, Prem's death just doesn't feel like Who. It's feels far too real, and real-world, to fit comfortably in the Whoniverse. (It's a judgment call, though, and your mileage may vary.)
Added to that is the effect the real-life material has on the SF aspects: as in Rosa, it makes it all look a little bit silly. Who cares about a couple of giant crows waving their manicures about when someone is organising his own brother's murder? And that's not helped by the utter pointlessness of the TARDIS crew. They can't change history, so they don't. Why are they even there? You could snip them out without changing a thing. Even the conflict with the aliens turns out to be just a misunderstanding. And the aliens are pretty much as surplus to requirements as the TARDIS crew. So they honour those who die alone? Frankly, so what? it would have been nice if this were just a tiny bit more original, and if it made more of a difference to anything.
The necessity for the TARDIS crew to more or less stand around and gawp does nothing for two of the problems dogging this series so far: Tripping Over Companions and Who The Hell Is Yaz?. it's nice that Yaz gets what should be an episode that fleshes out her character and lets her shine, but love Mandip Gill's performance though we do, at the end we didn't feel we knew Yaz much better than we did before. Meanwhile, Graham and Ryan couldn't look more obviously spare part-like here if they tried. Graham gets a small slice of his standard heartbreakingly wistful stuff plus a good gag about ox spit, and Ryan… is there. We like his delivery of the crumbs he's handed, but we can't help wishing he and Graham had nipped off to the Eye of Orion for a holiday breakette and left Yaz more space in what's supposed to be her own story.
As for the other characters: sure, there's some great stuff in here. Prem in particular springs to life in one episode in a way Yaz hasn't been able to all season. Manish, too, beautifully delivers the hotheaded idealist without tipping it over into frothing at the mouth. Umbreen strikes us as a bit modern, in that standard NuWho way, for someone from 1947, and we have our doubts about the historical accuracy of some aspects of her story, but again we're no experts in this area so we're not going to insist on this. We do wonder, however, why a village in which everyone knows everyone else and is therefore no doubt all up in said everyone else's business is quite so sparsely populated, especially when it comes to the wedding stuff. That seems more (accidentally) SFy than anything else here.
And the Doctor? Like the rest of the TARDIS crew, all her running around and gasping for breath between every sentence (if you haven't noticed this, warning! What is heard can never be unheard and it's likely to irritate the bejeezus out of you forevermore) can't disguise her pointlessness. The terribly dramatic half-inching of the aliens' pink dust and belting through the poppy fields adds up to a big fat zero. And as for the humans, we're not buying that no matter how desperate to get married Umbreen and Prem were they would have jumped to the conclusion that some random foreign doctor was able to officiate a marriage. When the Doctor does give it a go, rather than being inspiringly emotional, it's actually pretty cringey, and Umbreen and Prem being forced to make up the rest themselves just makes her look like an eejit.
There's the potential here for us to have really liked this episode. All they needed to do was snip out the anachronistically modern stuff, the SFery and the TARDIS crew and make it part of some other series altogether.
WHILE MY SITAR GENTLY WEEPS
Love, love, love the musical score for this. It manages to be atmospheric and appropriate without sounding like a pastiche.