Originally published November 12, 2018
The current series of DOCTOR WHO is unlike any of the others in its 55-year history. Its episodes now air on Sundays rather than Saturdays, the latest incarnation of the Time Lord known simply as The Doctor is played by a woman for the first time (Jodie Whittaker), and rather than having only one traveling companion, she has three; all of whom are of varying ages, backgrounds, and life experiences. One of them is Yasmin “Yaz” Khan (Mandip Gill); the first South Asian lead in the show’s history.
In last night’s episode, “Demons of the Punjab,” Yaz learns more about her family history when she and the others travel back to 1947 Pakistan. There, she meets a younger version of her grandmother (Amita Suman), who’s a day away from marrying a man who’s not her grandfather (Shane Zaza). But when it is suspected that aliens are responsible for killing the holy man who was to initiate the wedding, tensions increase and lives are suddenly at stake; even more so upon the travelers discovering that they arrived the day before the deadly Partition of India.
The act of exploring one’s family history is not the first time for DOCTOR WHO, but if there is one thing the Doctor has learned from previous experiences is that stepping on too many butterflies is extremely risky. What makes this episode interesting is that even though she, Yaz, and the others go on about how they’re getting involved with the timeline they were otherwise just visiting, similar to the “Rosa” episode from a few weeks ago, they’re actually guiding the events along in happening. Yaz, despite her initial confusion, helps her grandmother, a Muslim, marry her Hindu fiance Prem, despite the tragically short time their marriage lasts.
The writer of the episode, Vinay Patel (who’s also one of the first non-white writers on DOCTOR WHO), puts it best in the following behind-the-scenes feature on how the Partition of India is a history that a lot of people really don’t know about, and how deadly its effects were on those who were unlucky enough to be there. It’s sadly beautiful then when the Doctor finds out that the aliens – the last of their race – actually devote their lives to being witnesses for those who otherwise die alone. The villains, as it goes, are none other than humans – Prem’s brother, Manish (Hamza Jeetooa), being one of them – who are too caught up seeing only the differences between Muslims and Hindus.
These are the kind of stories that are being featured nowadays on DOCTOR WHO, and it’s honestly a refreshing sight to see from such a beloved sci-fi show. There haven’t been too many stories like this prior to the current series, and one can only hope for future episodes to be just as top notch and nuanced.