“Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab” Gives Yas Her Moment To Shine
Season 11×6: The TARDIS Fam travel back in time to visit Yas’s grandmother, only to be stuck on the wrong side of the tracks.
Yaaaassss for Yas!!! After sitting tight during some Ryan-heavy storylines, Yas finally gets her chance to shine! And shine she does in this family-focused episode.
It’s a history episode, with Yas and Friends traveling back in time to 1947 Pakistan to visit her grandmother Umbreen, and to meet Yas’s Muslim grandfather. Little do they know that they’ve arrived the day before partition, with the British about to breakup the subcontinent.
Having learned nothing about this in history class, this episode immediately led me down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia pages and educational tweets. Fascinating stuff.
Umbreen is engaged to her Hindu childhood sweetheart Prem. Prem fought in Siam during WW2 along with his brother Kunal, who died on the battlefield. Prem returned home to his patient fiancé and his newly-militant brother. He also is not Yas’s grandfather.
Yas is (obviously) shaken by this change of events. Her grandmother had never mentioned that she had a first husband. But there’s no time for wallow in confusion as dangerous aliens are afoot. The Big Bad in this episode are Thijarians assassins, the most lethal killers in the universe.
Or so they all think. After some running, some hiding, and some analog science, the Doctor learns the truth. The once fearsome Thijarians are now pacifists. Only two remain of their whole species, which was destroyed while many were off some murdery-assignment.
The two left behind now function as priests of sorts, bearing witness to those who die alone. Prem saw them standing watch over his dead brother. Now they come for someone closer to home.
Partition was a time of much violence. England, a Western country oceans away, decided where the division of Pakistan and India was to be. And the decision largely depended on religious regions.
This rift caused an uproar and is the cause for the tension that still exists between the two countries. Obviously, this is an oversimplification of the events. But the episode does capture the urgency that Umbreen, Prem, and their families face.
The two star-crossed lovers get married the day of partition right on the border, making Umbreen the “first woman married in Pakistan”. It also gives both their families pause. Umbreen’s mother continually tells her that the marriage is cursed. And Prem’s younger brother Manish has been indoctrinated and militarized into hating Muslims. He even engages in murder, killing a holy man the Doctor initially assumed was murdered by the Thijarians.
And that brings us to the theme of the episode: sometimes the monsters are humans themselves. Everyone once in a while, science fiction reminds its audience that no one tortured humans better than other humans. Manish kills a holy man because he’s so disgusted by his brother’s chosen wife. Prem is shot in cold blood defending his home, and giving Umbreen and her mother time to escape. He sacrifices himself, with humans as his destroyers. The aliens are only there to witness his death.
Family is clearly a major theme. Not just in this episode, but in this whole season. Bloodties are set up to be as important as chosen family. #NeverForgetGrace. Umbreen and Prem choose to be together, despite the misgivings of their blood relatives. The Doctor and Friends choose to remain together, even as they’re mourning those they’ve lost.
And again, this episode doesn’t shy away from the political. Religious affiliations, the humanizing of Muslims and the normalizing of brown faces might seem like nothing. But to someone like me, a Whovian Of Color, it means the universe. Especially knowing that writer Vinay Patel is only the second person of color to write an episode for Doctor Who.
The first was Malorie Blackman, who co-wrote episode 3, “Rosa.”
Maybe when I rewatch these episodes 5 years, or 50 years from now, it won’t matter as much. But for the moment, the current run is doing me just fine.