Doctor Who, “Demons of the Punjab”

Despite the obvious historical milestone of introducing the first non-spoof female Doctor, the Who accomplishment Chibnall’s era may be most noted for in the long run is reintroducing the no-win historical. Prior to this season, the closest we’ve come to a past-history episode in which the Doctor and friends don’t set anything right but simply observe and leave is “Father’s Day.” “Fires of Pompeii” comes close but ends with saving one family. “Vincent and the Doctor” doesn’t save Van Gogh from his inner demons, but it kills a great big outer demon and takes him on an art gallery victory lap. Even “Rosa” requires the Doctor and friends to stop a would-be history-changer, but it does set the stage for the climax of this story with the teeth-gritting “let them arrest her” scene. In “Demons of the Punjab,” the Doctor once again participates in events by marrying Prem and Umbreen, but ultimately need not have even done that — the conflict between Prem and Manish was unchanged, and we end with the Doctor and friends walking away from a murder they do not even attempt to stop or prevent.

The only apparent reason for them to refrain from trying (even to effect a Moment-like solution like rescuing Prem and convincing him never to see Umbreen again, which would have been a pretty interesting scene) is that it would risk wiping Yaz from existence. Of course, time might still find a way; perhaps Prem would have died later, allowing Umbreen to remarry and have Yaz’s mother on schedule, or maybe Prem would take Yaz’s grandfather’s place and Yaz would have turned out a little differently. But it’s still jarring, if inevitable, to watch the Doctor (perhaps remembering “The Waters of Mars”) sacrifice Prem’s life to save Yaz’s.

Then again, there might be one more reason: the Thijaran Assassins-turned-Undertakers literally block the way, and would presumably have taken action to protect the timeline even if the Doctor didn’t. Their presence makes this a disorienting watch the first time through — I was entirely taken in by the Doctor’s incomplete knowledge of them and expected them to be legitimate adversaries. The second viewing shows that the story plays fair; their forbidding but curiously non-aggressive behavior makes sense given what we learn about them. Their reformed nature is awfully convenient but not quite absurd, and their design is pretty terrific. I would not be shocked to see them return as a plot device, grim reapers creating some eerie foreshadowing.

The specifics of this historical setting were unfamiliar to me and piqued my curiosity about the Partition, which is what a good historical ought to do. The sense of the Doctor and friends caught up in a great crisis they can at best hope not to be swept away by is something that dates back to the Hartnell years. Here the crisis demands a great deal of imagination from us, what with the small cast, the rural setting, and the only-alluded-to mobs and rioting. There are odd moments in the script, too, occasionally awkward lines and on-the-nose dialogue making the story jolt along when it could have sung. We’re maybe one more draft away from solid here. Having to jam in the “demons” probably didn’t help; while they provide the red herring that throws suspicion off Manish and eventually the certainty that Prem can’t be saved, they do take up a lot of time that could have fleshed out the characters. The awkwardness of the full TARDIS is even more apparent here; in the Hartnell days, the stories were long enough to give four leads plenty to do, but here Graham and Ryan are mainly along for the ride (and to make it even stranger that Umbreen either doesn’t remember Yaz or keeps a poker face about her). I don’t expect this crew to last intact past the end of the season.