Demons of the Punjab.

TV For quite some time I've had an idea for how contemporary Doctor Who on television would handle the old stick of the pure historical. The Doctor plus companion(s) would land at some pivotal point in the past and as the tension rises and whatever tragedy they've stumbled into consumes them, there'd be an ongoing discussion about when the monsters would inevitably reveal themselves. Except they don't and it becomes apparent that we're watching nothing less than real history unfolding, untainted by any outside influences apart from what's stumbled out of the TARDIS.  How quickly the Doctor understood this to be an all human shit show was something I hadn't quite decided upon, but I thought it would be a great way of introducing the genre to newer viewers.

Demons of the Punjab, like Rosa before it, is as close as odds as we've had in a long while to being a pure historical and yet it still features "monsters" whom the Doctor and we assume must be up to mischief because of their transmatting and gothic appearance.  Except, it emerges, they're really not demons, at least not any more.  Initially seeming like Tim Shaw knock offs, it's powerfully revealed that due to the destruction of their home world, they've renounced violence and instead travel the universe remembering those who die alone and commemorating them.  As well as communicating the message that appearances can be deceptive, it also shows that people can change, that their fate isn't predetermined.  In times like these, this is just the sort of hope we all need.

Could you have written the story without them?  Sure.  A bit of expositional jiggery pokery perhaps via another character at the house to explain how the Doctor knows everyone's fate.  But I also think that over the short format, having these extra science fiction elements allows for this richer discussion of the themes.  That they often work best when they're not foregrounded as was the case here.  Indeed so focused was I on the raw drama of the Doctor and her friends being unable to intervene in Prem's death (cf, Father's Day) that when Kisar and Almak reappeared at the end, I'd almost forgotten they were abiding nearby.  Yet the closing moment, when Prem's face joined a thousand others was one of the post powerful images in the franchise's history.

This is a version of the show in which the edginess comes from the choice of story rather than the actions of its main characters.  Surprisingly Partitian hasn't been investigated much by Doctor Who.  Mark Morris's novel Ghosts of India had 10th and Donna pitch up in Calcutta during the riots and bumping into Gandhi, who we've also been told Clara Oswald had an argument with (according to Under The Flood).  Perhaps it was always felt to be too complex, too difficult to really enunciate to a family audience.  But as Gurinda Chadha's underrated docudrama Viceroy's House demonstrates, it is possible to cover this period of history within the limits of a 12A and that's also true of tonight's episode.

Vinay Patel's script is able to provide much nuance despite the limited locale and small number of characters.  Perhaps best known for writing BBC Three's Murdered by my Father, Patel puts the politics of the partition directly within the heart of the family, showing also how propaganda can warp a person's views to such a degree that they don't even notice that they've become racist and  even see their own sibling as the enemy.  That provides a grim reversal of the change in the assassin's creed, that an otherwise sweet person can become the opposite when their ideology is twisted.  Perhaps there'll be people watching this episode who see a similar change in those they know.  One could argue this is about Brexit.  Or perhaps it's just that these a universal themes.

Like Rosa, with which this shares many similarities, the story is about attempting to preserve history, but whereas that was about taking action to that ed, Demons of the Punjab is about inaction.  Which isn't to say the Doctor and her friends don't intervene, but we're very much in the realm of having them become part of a history which is already known in the future as per The Fires of Pompei (although it's odd that grandma doesn't remember seeing someone who looks exactly like her granddaughter on her first tragic wedding day).  It doesn't overplay this and we're once again offered a contrast to previous TARDIS teamers in that unlike Rose or Donna, when it comes to it, Yaz et al don't break the Doctor's wishes, that they absolutely understand why Prem must die.  The Aztecs argument is sidelined quickly.  Cue more Bradley tears.

Every element of the episode makes a statement, from Segun Akinola's superb score which avoided the kinds of geographical cliches that dramas set in India rarely do (please can we have the complete version of this title music on the soundtrack please?) to the absolutely gorgeous visuals.  But primarily its that we have this cast, telling this story, in prime time.  Even Viceroy's House offers a colonial perspective on these events.  This is purely from the point of view of those who were affected.  Notice too how in following the precedent of the TARDIS translation circuits rearranging accents, the Indian characters aren't forced to speak in a faux geographical accent, adopting a Yorkshire twang, increasing the immediacy of the drama, at least for those of us in the UK.

Good show all round and judging by the social media very well received.  At the risk of sounding like a scratched time-space visualiser, this really is turning out to be a vintage run of stories anchored by an incredibly strong central performance.  Although Jodie still doesn't look entirely convinced by the technobabble, she makes up for it with her sheer strength of personality, the wedding scene at the apogee of her ability.  Most Doctors ultimately become defined by their speeches and Thirteenth's words about her faith that "love in all its forms is the most powerful weapon that we have".  Too true.

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