My history teacher in high school once recommended me a book called Montaillou, written by the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. In it, Ladurie examines the lives of the residents of a small Occitan village in the early 14th Century from the records of a local church register. Through examining the lives and beliefs of the villagers of Montaillou, who were broadly adherents of the medieval Christian heresy known as Catharism, Ladurie takes a microscopic look at the much larger historical episode of the Albigensian Crusade, the Catholic Church’s medieval inquisition against the Cathars which resulted in the movement’s all but complete annihilation. For its time it was a novel method of historical analysis, examining events and movements at the sweeping macro level by plunging down to the micro level and looking at what was happening “on the ground”, where the people were.
In what it was trying to do, Demons of the Punjab reminded me a bit of Montaillou. Demons of the Punjab was about what happened when Yas’s grandmother tried to marry a Hindu man at the frenzied height of the Partition of India. But it was also about the Partition of India itself. Prem, a Hindu living on the newly-created Indian-Pakistani border, got himself killed for marrying a Muslim woman. His Muslim widow, Umbreen, fled to England. There were many, many more Prems and Umbreens – up to 2 million people died in the Partition of India, and 14 million were displaced. The point is that the hate-fuelled violence that erupted along the new border wasn’t confined to Yas’s grandmother’s farm in the Punjab – what Partition did to Umbreen’s family is a microcosm of what was happening millions of times over all over that border.
There are surely many ways Doctor Who could tell a story about the Partition of India, including ways a lot less subtle and gentle than the approach taken in Demons of the Punjab. But I think the Montaillou approach to historical storytelling tends to work much more effectively than the sledgehammer approach of driving the Tardis straight into the thick of the action, given that Doctor Who is a show so focussed on individual human lives. And, as writer Vinay Patel told Radio Times, fifty minutes isn’t enough time to do justice to the full trauma and magnitude of Partition – but, for a look at the microscopic level of the effects of Partition on one family, Demons of the Punjab is a pretty solid effort.
The history teacher who recommended Montaillou to me also taught me about the Partition of India when I was 15. I was fortunate enough to have had a history teacher who thought such historical episodes were worth teaching to Australian schoolchildren – to whom the relevance of such episodes is tenuous at best – simply because they were interesting. I think I was one of the few outside the Indian Subcontinent who actually learned about the Partition of India in school – certainly in Australia, where most of us at school are nourished on a bland and uninteresting historical diet of Australian history, World War I, World War II, and, if we’re lucky, a bit of British history.
No Australian school student has ever enjoyed the experience of learning about Australian history – and the history teacher I’m talking about once told me he thought Australia was the country with the most boring history in the world. Being taught by this teacher about Ancient Rome, the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the Albigensian Crusade and, yes, the Partition of India, made me a much keener student of history than did learning about Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit to Australia in 1966 (no offence, LBJ). Which is why I think it’s a good thing that Doctor Who is taking up the mantle of teaching the interesting and important history those in the audience who never had the fortune of being taught by Mr McRoberts never learned in school, but who instead had to endure soporific lessons about Australian foreign policy in the 1930s.
Anyway – could you tell that this episode was the first of Series 11 written by someone other than Chris Chibnall? It feels different to what we’ve been watching for the past few weeks, which, as I’ve been complaining, has felt, somewhat disappointingly, much like the same show Steven Moffat produced for the previous eight years. It seems like it took a debutant Doctor Who writer to do what the showrunner wouldn’t and make a Doctor Who that feels distinctly different. It’s not a radical shakeup, but the pacing, the plotting, the tone and even the dialogue makes this feel like a different kind of Doctor Who. It feels more earnest, and somehow more human than what we’ve been seeing so far. This, I’m sure, is due to how Vinay Patel sees this as a story about the Partition of India first and a Doctor Who episode second, and this is actually the closest Doctor Who has come to a pure historical since Black Orchid in Peter Davison’s first season: neither the Doctor nor the otherworldly intruders in this episode actually did anything other than passively observe historical events happening, which put those historical events themselves under the spotlight in this episode.
So, the “monsters” in this episode – spooky, terrifying, wraith-like beings called Thijarians – weren’t actually the monsters in this episode. The monsters in this episode were humans, prejudiced and radicalised into committing acts of evil. It’s not the hottest of takes, but there’s no doubt it’s always worth repeating. Because this was the angle the episode decided to take, I wondered if it wasn’t also partly a predictable dig at Brexit, given that it was all about how awful it is to divide people up along ethnic and religious lines and how silly all these divisions between people and imaginary lines on the map are anyway. But, no – perhaps Brexit was floating somewhere in Vinay Patel’s mind when he was writing this script, but it’s clear this is supposed to be a story about the Partition of India long before it’s anything else, by a writer who has clearly wanted to write this story for a long time. Even Remembrance Sunday got a more prominent look in before Brexit, in the form of those Thijarians whose sole mission and purpose in life is to honour the forgotten dead of the universe (which was a nice touch to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of hostilities in Europe, even if you could hardly call this a “Remembrance Day special”).
Yas gets a lot of screentime this week, which I’m hardly going to complain about. And it’s about time, too – she’s been most likeable companion of the bunch (I can see Graham becoming irritating) but also the least developed. What we learn about her isn’t especially staggering – nothing on the level of a broken home or a dead wife: she loves her family and admires her grandmother, which is boring, but it’s also refreshingly wholesome. It’s refreshing to have a companion who’s just normal and healthy and happy and boring, for once. Because even Steven Moffat’s attempt at introducing a boring, “normal” companion somehow still left the fandom asking whether Bill Potts was a regenerated Susan Foreman. Yas is properly boring (which, again, is a good thing), as we learned in this episode. And this is, really, all we needed to see to tick Yas’s “development” box, at least for now.
I think this is the strongest episode of the series yet, overtaking the previous favourite of The Ghost Monument. Like that episode, Demons of the Punjab thrusts in the direction of a very original interpretation of Doctor Who, and a very fresh vision of what this show can be. None of the six episodes we’ve seen of Series 11 so far have been weak, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the scripts that have been the strongest, in my opinion, have been the ones that have done something ambitious and different. Strong but otherwise unambitious scripts like Arachnids in the UK and Rosa, which might have topped the series ratings as late as Series 8, just don’t do it anymore. I’m sorry to keep repeating this point every week (frankly, it’s getting boring on my end, too), but Doctor Who has to do things differently if it wants to survive. Demons of the Punjab, therefore, is an assured step in the right direction.