Yaz finally takes centre-stage in an episode which reminds viewers of an historic event in touching fashion whilst throwing some aliens in the mix.
At last! After five episodes which have featured evil blankets, Rosa Parks, spiders crawling around a Trump-like hotel, and a Pting (?) chewing up a spaceship, it’s finally time for Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill) to take centre stage. The latest episode, ‘Demons of the Punjab’, explores her family’s heritage – in particular that of her nan Umbreen. In addition, this is the first episode not to be written by new showrunner Chris Chibnall. Instead Vinay Patel (Murdered By My Father) takes charge in a story which encapsulates this series’ biggest strengths but also showcases its weaknesses thus far.
Travelling back to India in August 1947 when the Partition came into fruition, ‘Team TARDIS’ encounter Umbreen’s past self (Amita Suman) and her fiancee Prem (Shane Zaza). They soon discover that demons haunt the surrounding lands and its up to the Doctor to uncover the truth of their visit along with Yaz uncovering details she never knew about her Nani Umbreen. Having reached the halfway point in the series, there are some emerging patterns shaping this brand new era of Doctor Who. There is a lesser emphasis on defeating monsters and more on adventures that link to contemporary themes (racism in ‘Rosa’ comes to mind). There is Chibnall’s trademark strong emotional storytelling to make each episode equally important to the last, but (although I mentioned this in my review of episode 1) the balance between humour and drama still leaves much to be desired. ‘Demons of the Punjab’ is another example of these emerging patterns.
Firstly, it visually looks fantastic: the show has always been renowned for transporting us back to certain time periods in stunning detail, but with the new cinematic style Series 11 has introduced, 1947 India is a visual splendour. The opening 10 minutes felt incredibly atmospheric and Segun Akinola’s score, his best of the series so far, helps the audience to be fully immersed in the time period with traditional Indian instruments used to their full extent. As well as the technical aspects, once again the story provides an emotional punch that was not expected in similar fashion to ‘Rosa’. Despite the episode airing on Remembrance Day, it’s hard not to find some moving coincidental links between certain story elements and the air date at certain points. For Whovians, there is a hint of 2005’s ‘Father’s Day’ which will leave some fans nit-picking as to why the Doctor would travel into a companion’s time stream after what happened with Rose. It does not spoil the enjoyment of the episode, but it’s an interesting point to consider and gives us another clue as to who Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor really is.
On the other hand, the same can’t be said about Yaz who assuredly gets the space to flesh out her character – both a relief but also bizarre. At times, it seems as though Yaz does not want the spotlight and so the dialogue could feel stiff between her interaction with her friends or family, which becomes evident during some humorous moments at the start with her grandmother. It’s another example of the show struggling to find its comic value again and although I’m loving the newfound maturity which Chibnall has been key in creating, the humour still feels as forced as it did in episode 1.
But despite these minor flaws, this series’ assets are still as strong as the premiere. Whittaker continues to excel in the role of the Doctor and Bradley Walsh is still as much of a likeable screen presence as he has been so far. When Walsh was cast as a companion over a year ago, many skeptics (myself included) questioned Chibnall’s choice of the day-time TV presenter but now, their decision is paying off week by week and a conversation between Graham and Yaz outside a barn is enough to explain why he is so lovable as a character. Also, Patel’s decision in setting a story around the partition of India was a wise and excellent choice. With this, there seems to be a return to the educational aspect which Classic Who used to be defined by in the early years and, in similar veins to ‘Rosa’, it’s refreshing to remind us of how these events have shaped the world today but without spilling over into indulgence. It’s a step away from the usual stories of Moffat and Davies but it’s an example of how the show is evolving with the new direction under Chibnall.
Series 11 is proving to be one of the show’s most consistent since series 5 just over eight years ago and ‘Demons of the Punjab’ is another episode that helps to solidify this. It might not have found its wit almost entirely yet, but with great writing and terrific performances from another splendid list of guest stars, it definitely feels as though Doctor Who has finally found its feet once again.
Doctor Who airs on BBC One on Sundays. Watch the trailer for the next episode here.