Discussing Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab

Doctor Who Demons of the Punjab

The Doctor—against her better judgment—decides to take Yaz back in time to learn more about her grandmother. In “Demons of the Punjab,” the TARDIS Team confronts more of the darkside of humanity.

I’m joined again this week by Hannah Long (@HannahGraceLong) and Jenna DeWitt (@Jenna_DeWitt).

If you need to catch up, previously, we discussed “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” “The Ghost Monument,” “Rosa,” “Arachnids in the UK” and “The Tsuranga Conundrum.”

This week, Jenna, Hannah and I split the questions and answers.

Hannah: People often accused Steven Moffat of creating companions without home lives—Amy’s family had been swallowed up by a crack in time, of course, but Clara’s family were barely present and Bill lived with a one-dimensional foster parent. Meanwhile, Russell T. Davies gave his companions vivid families and backgrounds pre-TARDIS travel.

The Chibnall era has focused on family, but it also seems intent on giving companions glimpses into their own cultural histories. Did this episode help give Yaz some depth and context?

Aaron: If we have to choose between the two approaches, I much prefer Davies’ background and established homelife to Moffat’s perpetual orphans (though I think each can work for different characters.) So I’m constantly wanting to know more about how each of the companions made the decision to step on the TARDIS.

This is definitely the most we’ve gotten to see from Yaz and definitely gave depth to her character, but I’m not sure it still gave us any reasons for why she’s running away with the Doctor.

Usually a companion is driven by something to leave the security of their ordinary life behind for trips through time and space, even if it’s just my life is boring like Rose or the lack of familial connections like many during Moffat’s run.

Yaz has a loving family and a seemingly good life. What is she trying to escape? I hope we find the answer to that question.

Jenna: Agreed. I am still curious as to what Yaz meant when she sort of grumbled about her family in “The Ghost Monument” after seeing some happy domestic scenes in subsequent episodes. Just a young adult thinking her sister is typically obnoxious and her parents are dorky? Or something more?

On the whole, I love domestic Who. It connects the everyday person with this wild world. Some of the companions (even Moffat’s) best moments are when they are exploring family connections and their ordinary home setting. It helps them become more real, which is the point as the companions’ purpose is to be a sort of stand-in for the viewer.

When the Doctor explains things to them or introduces new worlds to them, she is really introducing those concepts and worlds to us. And likewise, the human companions shine with the beautiful messiness of humanity, teaching the Doctor and us about ourselves.

When companions are rooted with a sense of origin and home and a life outside of and before the Doctor, they are more relatable and fleshed out as characters.  

Hannah: This episode’s villains ended up being taken in a different direction than I was expecting.

First they appear to be random murderers, then seem intent on assassinating Prem, but as it turns out, they’re almost exactly like the Thirteenth Doctor: travellers, refusing to interfere in history, but bearing witness to history as it happens.

How do you feel about their role in this episode? Did you think they fulfilled any particular story or thematic purpose?

Aaron: There have been several episodes in recent seasons in which we learn the threatening alien is not the real villain after all. The repeated turn has been that humanity is the real enemy to ourselves. It can be an effective turn if not overused, as it was in Moffat’s last season.

In a sense, I thought they fit in the overall context of not judging others without understanding them first. We had the conflict between the Hindu and Muslims within one family and on a large scale with the separation of India and Pakistan. This gave us the monster version of not judging a book by its cover.

Jenna: Yes, I also think it is important in a story like this–where the damage from that moment in history is still very much a real thing and India’s divisions are as strong as ever–to acknowledge that people can change.

Groups that have a reputation for destruction and violence can become the compassionate and protecting guardians. I think if the Thijarians were just previously unknown to the Doctor and then revealed to be docile witnesses, it would still be an important lesson about prejudice, but not nearly as effective as having their backstory of being assassins in the past and now being the opposite.

Even those famed for their violence can choose to become peaceful memorializers instead.  

Aaron: This show borrowed an idea from previous Doctor Who episodes by taking a companion back to a pivotal point in their family timeline, including one of my favorite New Who episodes—“Father’s Day.” But that comparison brings out a point about how a time traveling show handles the past, tradition, and the like.

In Father’s Day, the church building offered a safe haven from the Reapers because it was the oldest building in the area. There was a sense that history and tradition were aids to the time travelers. Whereas this week, tradition seemed to be cast as a hindrance to the progress of love between the couple.

How did you think this compared to previous trips related to a companion’s history? And how do you feel the time traveling show handles the role of tradition in our lives?

Jenna: I know it was a very brief moment, but oh my heart when the aliens remind the Doctor that fixed events can’t be undone! She’s learned that lesson in such a heartbreaking way over and over, but for this Rose-lover, it was a meaningful callback.

As far as tradition goes, I thought there was an interesting and historically important point as we discuss global politics and such. It’s true that it was against tradition for an interfaith marriage, but these families had also been neighbors for generations!

I think we forget when we get so focused on the larger dynamics (Hindu vs. Muslim, race vs. race, language vs. language, whatever) that in rural areas, especially, people live together in harmony and aren’t as divided.

Thus, it’s there, where relationships aren’t between faceless strangers but generational neighbors, that the most personal hurt can be caused and damage done. These people know each other. They have starved together and fought together and labored together.

It is true to life, but so heartbreaking, when forces claim we should “keep to our kind” and “not lose who we are and what makes us different” at the expense of peace.

I think on the whole, Doctor Who can be respectful of tradition, particularly religion, but I also can’t get the Ninth Doctor’s “It’s a different morality. Get used to it or go home” out of my head from “The Unquiet Dead.”

The Doctor doesn’t try to (though inadvertently might, as we saw with the aliens this week) subvert people’s traditions and beliefs, but he/she also doesn’t always place human traditions at the top of the list and doesn’t hold tradition in a place of priority in comparison with other values.

Which is kind of central to the character to get him to leave Gallifrey and go out interfering (I mean, *ahem*, exploring), giving us a show.

Hannah: Like Jenna said, the show can be inconsistent in how it deals with tradition. On the one hand, the Doctor is a natural rebel, running away from home to break all the rules of his people. It’s never clearer than when the Second Doctor is on trial for his life for breaking the laws of non-interference.

At the same time, the Doctor remembers his training in the Academy. He knows there are laws of time and that generally, he mustn’t interfere. Different incarnations have been more or less conservative in how they treat tradition. The Ninth Doctor had a massive chip on his shoulder. The Thirteenth Doctor, on the other hand, seems more open to traditions like the prayer at the end of last week’s episode.

As for tradition in this episode, I think the circumstances were different than in Father’s Day. In that episode, the main conflict is about Rose saving her father. In this, the entire historical period pivots around conflict between religions. Inevitably, going against the traditional radicals is going to be anti-tradition. But I’m not sure that it’s tradition writ large that’s the enemy so much as a new, hyper-radicalized version of it.

Hannah: In the series’ second historical episode, it travels to an obscure moment in history—or at least, a less prominent moment for much of the show’s Western audience.

Doctor Who has swung between the extremes over the years—focusing on well-worn moments like Rosa Parks’ protest and the moon landing—as well as less familiar events like the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

What are the pros and cons of visiting obscure vs. notable moments in history from a story perspective?

Aaron: The benefit of visiting moments like Rosa Park’s protest is that it grants the viewer an immediate sense of connection. You know a lot about those people and that moment, so you can easily get drawn in emotionally. Everything has to be earned when you create fictional situations or use lesser known moments.

I appreciated the historical approach this week much more than “Rosa,” even though I felt much more emotional weight during the climax on that Birmingham bus. This made me want to learn more about those events, as opposed to feeling as if it cheapened them in any way.

Plus, this week took the large event and made it small. The national crisis became about one family and one couple, whereas Rosa took one person and made it national (even universal). I think both can work, but I’d prefer the way “Demons of the Punjab” had it.

Jenna: Yeah, I think a balance is good: making the famous moments more relatably domestic (to return to that theme for a moment) and making the more domestic moments from history more well-known.

It’s important to see both: making this huge, mythic figure central to history like Rosa Parks more human, with a job and facing daily prejudice and a sense of humor and friends, but also making this huge event like the partition, where millions and millions of people were affected, more understandable by focusing in on these two families out away from the main action of the event.

The two episodes actually weren’t that far apart in time, so doing it Viceroy’s House-style, in the room where it happens, could have been repetitive, but instead of one moment that changed everything, this was so much more personal.  

Jenna: We see Manish grow more and more radical throughout the episode. In in the end, his radicalism ends his brother’s life. We see radicalized youth even today, in India as well as here.

Not even Umbreen’s speech of honor and forgiveness can change him. Is there anything we can learn from this episode about when divisions end in deadly hatred?

Hannah: I’m not sure the episode offers any solutions to how to persuade a character like Manish. Prem, who Manesh obviously still cared for, probably represented his best shot at redemption, but in the end, he didn’t change.

It’s a surprisingly downbeat ending for Doctor Who, which in the Moffat years was far more indulgent of the Doctor’s ability to sweep into a situation and save the day, changing history or even bringing about resurrection on several occasions.

On a smaller scale, in ”The Zygon Inversion“ the Doctor manages to talk down Zygon terrorist Bonnie.

I still want there to be hope for characters like Bonnie and Manesh, but I like that the story recognizes there are some things that can’t be fixed by talking fast.

Sometimes there are problems the Doctor can’t solve; there are fault-lines through the human heart that are beyond human…or Timelord…fixing. Restoring this understanding brings back a sense of gravitas and tragedy that could often be missing in Moffat’s obsession with happy endings.

To quote the Doctor…actually, in a Moffat episode, “You need a good death. Without death there’d only be comedies. Death gives us size.”

Aaron: As Hannah said, it may not give us a solution, but it does provide some perspective—there is evil in this world and people are often persuaded by it.

I thought about “The Zygon Inversion” as well and the contrast this episode provided. While I loved the Doctor’s speech and ability to pull success out of a hat in that moment, I’m glad it doesn’t always work out that way on the show—since it doesn’t always do so in real life.

Jenna: If you could go back in your family’s history, when would you choose? (I’d want to meet my great-grandmother who was a poet and one of the first female journalists in New Mexico.)

Hannah: I would like to visit my great uncle Berlin in the 1930s. He was such a kind and vivid character, as I knew him, but a fire destroyed all records of his younger life.

He told wonderful stories about his childhood (which I wrote about here)—raised by a devout father who was born during the Civil War. But he was also raised alongside my granddad, who was a year younger.

My granddad had a difficult childhood. That experience echoed down the years into our family history, and I wish I could see more of it to better understand him.

Aaron: That is a fantastic question and one that makes me wish I knew more about my family’s history. I don’t know enough about my grandparents and older.

But I would love to see my parents when they were younger. They grew up in seperate, but nearby towns and met at a dance. My dad went away to fight in Vietnam, so it would be compelling to see him in that context and know some of the things he went through.

Next week:

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.