Now look. Doctors are supposed to help people - save people, if they can. But they can’t always do that. Sometimes they do just have to stand back and let what will be, be. It’s not that they’re not actively *trying* to help, just that the world needs them to *not* help for ...continuity. Right?
Because it’s becoming increasingly the case that the Thirteenth Doctor is not exactly what you might call “A Life-Saving At Great Personal Cost American TV Doctor”. She’s more of a “Medieval Barber-Surgeon Who Tries Putting a Few Leeches Down Your Breeches Before Giving Up And Suggesting the Plague is Spread In The Air And It’s Probably Your Wickedness at Fault Only God Can Help You Now”.
Going back to The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances - still perhaps my favourite double episode of NuuHuu - the Doctor experiences a moment of transformative joy when he realises he can save all the WW2 gas mask-faced victims, history will still work out, and for once “Everybody lives!”
Four Doctors later and Thirteen seems destined to look sad on the sidelines in order to preserve history as faithfully as possible, when perhaps some creative alterations could be tolerated by the great timey-wimey. I mean, I’m not saying it’s a bit Harold Shipman-y to be a time cop rather than a time anarchist, just that if I was offered a large syringe of diamorphine from this Doctor I might take a raincheck.
I know, I know, it’s the broader issue of being faithful to the devastation of the Partition of India and the sectarian violence that followed, not just Yas’ personal history, which is after all a complete creation and could conceivably be mucked around with, in the same way that Fry became his own grandfather in Futurama.
And of course Doctor Who began as a show designed to teach kids about history, and I don’t know enough about those early years to say how much the Doctor did or didn’t interfere with timelines and events, big and small.
However. This probably was my favourite episode so far this season, for a couple of key reasons. So let’s get into it.
S11, E6: Demons of the Punjab
First reason - CRUMPET.
Yes, Prem was not only a legitimately good actor, but a legitimate one-man advertisement for the Kama Sutra. I’m sorry if I’m fetishing or exoticising but I think I would be a more terrible person if I didn’t stress to you that I am incredibly shallow about good-looking men of all colours and creeds.
The second reason is because I got weirdly emotional about the bond between Yas and her Nani, because of my own Gran, and her links to the British Raj and India.
My gran was the daughter of a Parsi businessman from Mumbai. Parsi means “Persian”, and they were Zorastrians who fled what’s now Iran to western India to escape religious persecution by Arab Muslims (Islam being the growing religion around the turn of the first millenia).
My great-grandfather, the spectacularly-named Rattonshaw Khambatta, married Eva, an English girl from Warwickshire, after meeting her at a London hotel (he was a precious metals trader; she was the receptionist). They had a bunch of kids, including Patricia in 1925.
The children spent their very early years living between London and Mumbai in a life of relative luxury. Gran vividly remembers summers in the hills outside the city, where chaps would go hunting, and you had to have a man keep fires and mongooses around your cabins all night to keep the tigers and snakes away. One of her earliest memories is standing up at kindy delivering a poem to mark the birth of Princess Margaret in 1930 (my Gran is a year older than the Queen, and is known herself as Queen Pat). The 30s were the last full decade of the British Raj, the system of government implemented after the 1857 Indian Rebellion against the British East India Company.
I’m getting carried away with history, aren’t I?
Point is - Yas and her Nani Umbreen just hit me in the feels. Of course, I don’t claim to be Indian, or Parsi - I am far, far too white (the Polish and Irish in my genetic mix won out, and I am so… very… pasty). My grandmother grew up pretty irreligious; she tells Mormons who turn up to her home in Vanuatu that “When you get to my age, sonny, you’ll realise religion is the cause of all the bloody problems in the world”. She’s not been persecuted for her beliefs, and remains stubbornly faithful to the “greatness” of Great Britain and Empire - the very one that caused so much devastation in the country of her father’s birth. She’s the kind of person of whom Twitter would probably not approve, and yet as a five decade veteran of service to the Red Cross (honoured with an MBE), has probably done more to help people than the most virulent hashtag.
Plus there’s the World War Two connection with Prem’s background as a soldier - my Gran served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, and just this week marked Armistice Day in Vanuatu.
Plus my Gran’s older sister, Monnie, married a Pakistani man named Taj and converted to Islam, and still lives in Karachi today (and she’s 97 now!).
I guess there were just enough personal connections there to warm me to this episode, even though I wasn’t quite happy with the Doctor’s personal role in it.
But let’s do some actual recapping for a bit.
Yas begs the Doctor to go back to her Nani’s youth, based on a broken watch she has been given with the cryptic proviso that it must never be fixed. The Doctor, despite being fully aware of how dangerous messing with her companions’ personal timelines are, agrees to nip back to the watch’s origin point, thinking it will be Lahore in the 50s.
But the TARDIS reads different “psychic but not actually psychic” information from the watch, and takes them further back to August 1947, and the Partition of India.
The Doctor gets some spooky demon visions, and is almost run over by CRUMPET, ahem, sorry, Prem, a charming young man carting home half the Keukenhof Gardens for an Important Impending Event.
Yas is thrilled to meet her grandmother Umbreen as a take-no-shit young woman on the verge of tying the knot, but alarmed to discover Prem is the intended groom. He’s not her grandfather; and he’s a Hindu, when her family is Muslim.
With it looking increasingly likely that Yas’ Nani had a secret first marriage, and the realisation they’ve landed right as a border is being drawn between India and the new country of Pakistan, putting a literal as well as a figurative divide between Prem, his soon-to-be-Muslim in-laws and his Hindu-loyalist brother Manish, the Doctor’s aims of a quick one-hour visit and speedy getaway vanish.
Things get more complicated when the Demons that appeared in the Doctor’s mind turned up to stare creepily at the whole lot of them, then disappear, leaving the gang to discover the Holy Man dead in the forest. Prem doesn’t want his family or Umbreen to know there’s demons about - and that he’s seen them before.
Yas and Graham go back to the farm to discuss preparing the Holy Man for burial; while the Doctor, Ryan and Prem search for a hidden alien ship the Doctor’s suspects is nearby. Prem makes some salient points about Britain making a mess of his country by carving it up; the Doctor promises to pass that along to Lord Mountbatten. Don’t worry, Prem, the IRA got him in the end. (Too soon? Sorry, Prince Philip, if you’re reading).
The trio is whisked inside the vessel, where Prem ‘fesses up about his war time experiences, and how he saw the samedemons standing over the body of his dead older brother Kunal. He’d buried that trauma along with all the other wartime stuff, but confronted with these spectres in his home, he starts to lose it a bit.
It turns out the vessel is a “hive” full of key information about the demons. It turns out they’re aliens called the Vajarians, who are known as ruthless intergalactic assassins, but whose name is too close to “Vajazzle” for me to really feel threatened by them.
The Doctor grabs their lunch box full of purple dust and that summons the Demons to the spaceship, and they aren’t best impressed. The Doctor manages to sonic them away, but gets separated from Ryan and Prem who seem to keep bouncing all over the forest. The Doctor realises the aliens have put transmat locks around their craft to discourage curious onlookers. She gathers them up and eventually rejoins the rest of the gang - including Yas and Graham, who’d just been having a sweet moment about how it’s important to just enjoy the mindf**k that is running around with her your Nan and aliens in 1947 India.
The Doctor uses the transmat lock thingies to create a barrier around the farm - we see her planting one in some poppies, one of a few deliberate inclusions of the flower, relevant as both a pointer to the opium trade that operates in this part of the world, as well as to Armistice Day, on which this episode aired in the UK.
Umbreen is determined to go ahead with the wedding, despite the death of their celebrant (was he in the “Book of Celebrants” from last week, I wonder?), and her mother’s insistence that the match is cursed. Way to go, Mum. She declares they will have a night of celebrations before an early-morning Vegas style ceremony.
The Doctor decides to study the purple dust, but it overloads her sonic with too many inputs, something that’s “never happened before”. Wasn’t it just last week that the tiny alien overeater gobbled up the energy from her sonic? Surely that was too many inputs in its own way?
Whatever, the delay meant the Doctor had to resort to a primary school style chemistry set, complete with ox spit and chicken poo.
The group are then called to take part in pre-wedding rituals. The sex-segregated scenes are quite sweet, including the Doctor being amazed by receiving henna body art. “Never did this when I was a man!” she enthuses, to strange looks. Yas says “Oh Doctor, you and your jokes” and the Doctor walks it back by saying she’s a comedian. Does this mean Yas (and by extension Ryan and Graham) know about the Doctor’s previous incarnations? Has she explicitly told them, or is it just a random bit of banter that keeps popping up that they just dismiss as part of the Doctor’s overall oddness?
There’s a lot of talk about hopes and dreams of a life together, and a decision to have the Doctor officiate at the wedding, something she hasn’t done since Einstein, apparently (Why Einstein, in particular? And since when could a Doctor just marry people? It’s not like they’re a ship’s captain at sea).
Over in the blokes’ camp, Prem is losing at cards to Manish, but winning at being a more reasonable person. Manish has been reading and listening to the 1947 equivalent of Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones, and Mark Latham’s Twitter feed, and is getting a bit too intolerant for Prem’s liking. It really is a men’s camping trip, because it’s all a bit… in tents.
Meanwhile the Doctor’s chemistry experiment has found that the purple dust contains a gazillion bits of DNA and other stuff in a big soupy mess. The Demons turn up and snatch the Doctor back to their spaceship, where they reveal their true intentions.
It turns out the Vajazzlers swore off both the genital bejewelling and assassin job when their home planet burned to a cinder. To make amends for their race having unwitnessed deaths, they travel the galaxy witnessing every death they can. They are the ultimate Dark Tourists, but apparently in this case it’s very noble, and not at all a little bit creepy and possibly unhealthy.
They are in India because over one million people are about to die - including Prem, in just a few hours’ time. The Doctor begs a reprieve, but the Vajazzlers can’t change time, they just ride the time waves, surf on it, hang ten on a corpse, then get barrelled out of there, dude.
They show the Doctor who killed the Holy Man; then spin her back to her to the barn and the gang. She reveals that Prem has to die for Yas to exist - but, I mean, does he? Yas just needs a different man to impregnate her with Yas’ Mum.
Next up is the wedding, with Prem having a sense of foreboding doom about India’s slide into chaos, when for centuries Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had all lived together. Yeah, look, I hate to be a downer, but that’s not really very true. There’s been religious clashes on the subcontinent for hundreds of years - look at the Mughal Empire or the reign of Tipu Sultan for starters.
This is not to excuse the Britain for its imperial march into India, but you can’t say the East India Company and others didn’t exploit some fractures that already existed in society. Of course they were able to make things a whole lot worse, but I daresay there’s probably not a lot of God’s green earth untouched by arguments of whose God (or Gods) it actually is.
“All we can strive to be is good men,” is Graham’s only plea, tearing up with the knowledge that this not only CRUMPET, but brave and wise young man, is soon to be lost.
Umbreen chooses the stream marking the new border as the site for their wedding, because she wants to be the “first woman married in Pakistan”, an echo (or foreshadow?) of the line Nani said to Yas at the start of the show.
The Doctor symbolically undoes the border rope using her sonic screwdriver, a gesture that absolutely could have been done by simply untying the rope WITH HER HAND. There was something about that particular use of the sonic that just BUGGED me.
The Doctor delivers a suitably saccharine speech before Umbrine invites Yas to tie their hands together. At the reception, Umbreen makes a point of thanking Manish for all of his hard work through drought and the war, keeping both of their families alive. But Manish proves race and religion is no barrier to being a stupid egotistical nationalistic twit, as they exist everywhere in the world. He rejects Umbreen’s thanks, and says none of this symbolism will matter when the future turns up.
The Doctor runs off to talk to him, and Prem gives Umbreen his watch to keep forever. But as he hands it over, it falls to the ground and smashes, stopping the hands. Umbreen’s mother is convinced it’s more evidence of a curse, but Umbrine is positive - it’s their moment, frozen in time.
Finally, the eventual confrontation happens. A gang of armed men on horseback turn up, with Manish ready for them. They walk in very slow motion towards the farm, allowing Umbreen time to collect her personal belongings for an escape (and to explain to Yas that she intends to go to Sheffield one day, because it’s so exotic).
Prem bids her a farewell, saying he will catch up to her and her mother after he buys them some time talking with Manish. Then he strides off alone to meet his fate.
Somehow the Doctor and gang manage to walk around to the other side of the field where the confrontation is happening and watch from the bush.
Prem refuses to let the men through to check the land, to remove anyone who “shouldn’t be there”. Manish tries to plead family and blood with him, that Prem and Kunal fought in the war for their rights to live independently. But Prem actually saw the face of war, and intentional bloodshed is not something he can counter.
The Demons flash into existence in front of Team TARDIS, and declare they will watch over him now. The Doctor and crew are left to turn and walk away as the sound of a gunshot rings out. It’s an odd and quite helpless moment; I understand the pathos, but in the wider context of the Doctor wanting to help people, wanting to save people, it’s hard to digest.
I figured perhaps the Doctor might snatch him out of there, the Demons’ time waves be damned, and place him somewhere else for safety. Or Yas might rush forward to defend him, or and in doing so accidentally get him killed while trying to jump in and take the bullet… or something, anything, a bit more sci-fi than walking away and not looking as a man is shot.
And where was the responsibility of the moment on Yas? There was no real weight of her realising that she was allowing a man to die in order that she be born. And yes, her mother and sister to exist as well, but still, there was no moment of seeing her process that eventuality - at least until a quiet moment on the TARDIS with the Doctor where she confirmed Umbreen got out and survived.
It’s a selfless act by Prem, to die, but it’s also a selfish act by Yas, to let him. Not in a cruel, monstrous way, but in that complex way that time travel demands. Nor did the Doctor seem that upset at herself for letting Yas go back and witness those events, despite her initial flimsy warning about messing with your own timeline. Of course, something was always going to go down, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting for them to rescue Prem and take him somewhere safe, but explain that for Yas, he could not ever find Umbreen again? Wouldn’t that have been interesting to see Yas wrestle with the knowledge that she actively divided her grandmother from her first true love a second time; rather than just accepted Prem’s death, sad as she was about it?
There was a nod to it with the coda, when Yas asked her grandmother if she was happy with how her life turned out. Of course she was; because she could never know the alternative. A long life, with health and people in it whom you love and love you are always good measures. But Yas could have had knowledge that she had to hide from Nani Umbreen; while their lovely moment of bonding at the end hit me in the feels because of my own Gran and her crazy series of life events that led me to be here on this planet, I couldn’t help being tantalised by the prospect of Yas never being able to communicate what she really knows with her Nani.
Sidenote: If I could go back in time and hang out with my Gran during the Raj, or the war, or just as she met and married my Grandad…. you’re damn right I would. For now I will have to settle for her amazing photographs.
In a similar vein to last week’s recap, I have some plot-and-mechanics questions that I’m a bit puzzled by. Any insights welcome!
How did Nani Umbreen not happen to remember that Yas was at her first wedding? I mean, it’s possibly Nani hasn’t met the Doctor in the present day - as you would expect her to remember the strange English woman who officiated at her ceremony - nor Yas’ other new friends. But she’s clearly definitely met Yas. You would think that would be a thing? But it doesn’t seem to be a thing.
The Doctor said the Demons witnessed the death of those who died alone. Prem’s brother Kunal was a prime example; cut down on a battlefield, they stood guard over him while he perished. The Holy Man was walking at a slower pace to the wedding ceremony, and was presumably shot from a distance by Manish in the forest. But Prem was shot in front of Manish, his brother, and four members of an intolerant gang, one a former comrade-in-arms. He wasn’t alone, and one assumes Manish watched it happen. Maybe he even shed a brotherly tear. So why did the Demons turn up for Prem?
Why was the Doctor not able to immediately discern how the Holy Man had died? I would have thought a gunshot wound would be somewhat obvious. She gives him a going over with the sonic, and says “it’s not reading clearly” and all they pay attention to is the purple dust seeping off his body. Again, a gunshot wound would be fairly clear.
The Doctor gives a bit of a Doctor-y speech to the Demons during their first meeting - “I know what you are, what you do, and I won’t let it happen here!”. But it was undercut by the fact that the Demons turned out to be not the actual villains. Where was the Doctor’s speech to the roaming packs of gangs?
...and I’m sure I’ll think of some more. In the meantime, what did you make of this episode? Let me know in the comments here or on the socials. Until next week!
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