Real and metaphorical demons come together in the sixth episode of Doctor Who’s eleventh season, which revisits the Partition of India and takes the story of the biggest mass migration in history to a wider audience.
The long-running BBC series is centred on the adventures of the titular Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), who has the power to travel through space and time using a device known as the TARDIS. In her expeditions, the Time Lord, an extraterrestrial creature, is accompanied by three human companions – Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole) and Graham O’Brein (Bradley Walsh).
In Demons of the Punjab, the Doctor and her aides land in the Punjab province on August 17, 1947, right in the middle of Partition and on the day when the Radcliffe Line, laying out the border between India and Pakistan, is set to be announced. The crew’s journey begins when Yasmin, a Pakistani Muslim living in Britain, is gifted a broken watch from her grandmother, who refuses to divulge its origins and insists that it must not be repaired. Eager to know more, Yasmin urges the Doctor to use the TARDIS to take them to the place where the watch came from and assumes that a journey to Lahore is in order.
What starts out as Yasmin’s quest for her roots turns into a ring-side view of one of the bloodiest chapters of the subcontinent’s history. The crew finds that they are not in 1950s Pakistan but in a sprawling farmland in Punjab that is about to be split right down the middle. There, Yasmin looks for a young Umbreen (Amita Suman), her future grandmother, who she learns is about to get married. To her surprise, the groom turns out to be not Yasmin’s Muslim grandfather but a Hindu, Prem (Shane Zaza), Umbreen’s neighbour and love of her life.
The Doctor senses the presence of extra-terrestrial creatures known as the Fajarians, an ancient species that evolved into the “deadliest assassins in the known universe”. Personal and political tragedies come together for Yasmin’s ancestors and neighbours who experience the myriad human cost of the Partition on their lives – displacement, threat of violence, communal divisions and broken dreams.
The episode, also starring Leena Dhingra and Hamza Jeetooa, was aired on November 11 and was written by Vinay Patel, in his first association with Doctor Who. The British-Indian writer has earlier scripted the BBC One television movie Murdered By My Father (2016).
This exploration of an internationally underrepresented facet of India’s history fits right into the new-look Doctor Who, which has striven for diversity in its casting and its plot, starting with the decision to make the Doctor a woman for the first time in its 37-season run (the show first aired from 1963 to 1989 and was rebooted in 2005).
Though reviewers have gushed about the episode and the Indian diaspora has welcomed it on social media, Indian viewers may have to remind themselves that the show is meant for an international audience and thus ignore the platitudes and superficial observations about the Partition’s futility. The phenomenal human toll of the division – in terms of lives lost as well as those displaced – does not come through in the episode, which is set in a picturesque borough in Punjab with hardly a soul in sight. The show also doesn’t adequately address Britain’s own demons – its administrative and moral culpability for the Partition – only tangentially referring to the colonial government’s role in the bloody chapter.
Realising that the scale of the Partition is impossible to communicate in a 50-minute fantasy-adventure series, the metaphor-heavy episode chooses to trace the broad contours and lasting impact of the tragedy through its effect on two families and its influence on Yasmin’s own identity. Still, a scratch on the surface is further than most international entertainment programming has gone. As episode writer Vinay Patel hopes, the episode will likely encourage curious viewers to dig deeper into this period in history.