What I Like About Who: No. 10

This is the tenth column in a weekly series from Rob Hull, Figures and More. Check back Mondays for a weekly journey through time and space, or read all of our adventures here

We’ve officially reached the second half of season 11. And, we start with another historical, it appears that the same unflinching realism that was brought to bear previously in the amazing Rosa, will be brought to bear here as well, as Doctor Who weaves an alien incursion tale around a pivotal moment in Middle Eastern history. And, just like Rosa, this episode is designed to make you think after it’s over.

It is also designed as a much-deserved backstory vehicle for Yaz. Viewers get to delve deeper into Yaz’s family history and discover her big family secret. It starts when Yaz’s family is celebrating the birthday of her Nani Umbreen (Leena Dhingra). She gives Yaz a watch that she says belonged to her husband. The only problem is that the name of the person who gave her the watch is NOT the name of Yaz’s grandfather. Uh Oh!

What a mystery. If only Yaz had a way to go back in time to solve it. Oh, wait a minute, she does. After a short bit of wearing down, Yaz convinces the Doctor to take her back in time to see her grandmother when she was younger and solve this family mystery. Easy, peasy, right? Home in time for tea? Shame on you for thinking that! This is Doctor Who after all. And, it turns out that things are not quite so straightforward in this situation either. The TARDIS uses the telepathic circuits to take Yaz and the rest of Team TARDIS to the time and place most closely associated with the watch. Which, in this case, turns out to be India in 1947.

But, this is not just any old place in India in 1947. We meet the younger Umbreen (Amita Suman) on the day in 1947 when the new boundaries will be established between India and the newly created nation of Pakistan.

Umbreen says that she was the first woman to get married in Pakistan, and now we know why: She was married on Partition Day. But, it’s actually even more complicated than that, because she is a Muslim and the man she is marrying, Prem (Shane Zaza), is Hindu. Their marriage is about to divide their families alongside the country—particularly, Prem’s Brother, Manish (Hamza Jeetooa), but more about him later.

Now, I know what you’re saying: “This is Doctor Who, where are the monsters? The episode has Demons in the title, where are they?” Well, they’re coming, but they’re not quite what you expect, as has been the case so often this season already.

The “Demons” in this episode are members of a race called the Thijarians, and they certainly look menacing enough. In fact, they look like they go to the same tailor as the villain Shredder from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. But, as is so often the case on this show, nothing is ever quite what it seems. It turns out that Prem has seen them before, which is what connects them to this story. But, even the Doctor has it wrong this time, because although they were once a race of assassins, their entire planet was destroyed, causing them to renounce their old ways. They are now a race of witnesses, traveling around witnessing deaths that might otherwise go unwitnessed. They mark those whose death they witness with a strange purple dust, which turns out to be the remains of their race.

The Doctor encounters them because they communicate telepathically, and she accidentally intercepts a message. She begins to investigate when they are found near the body of Bhakti, the Sadhu who was supposed to marry Prem and Umbreen. Wow, the officiant has been killed and demons are sighted nearby, how much more cursed is this marriage going to get? Anyway, the Doctor is now in full interference mode, and she finds the alien’s ship. After a spirited game of tag featuring some neat portable teleport eras, she learns the aliens’ true intentions. As a token of their goodwill, they show the Doctor their recording of Bhatki’s death. And, it reveals that he was killed by…..any guesses?

That’s right, those of you who said Manesh, gold star! Yes, it turns out Prem’s brother is a bit of a religious bigot. There is no sugar coating it here. The scenes between Manish and Prem as Prem tries to reason with his younger brother are downright uncomfortable, and they SHOULD be. This is what Doctor Who does best, turning a bright spotlight on uncomfortable subjects while showing us a future they have become a part of history. Manesh killed Bhakti because he could not fathom the idea of two religions being joined. Umbreen’s Muslim faith is considered repulsive and “wrong” to him. He gleefully marks the border between India and Pakistan, with no regard for the feelings of the rest of his family. And, in the end, he calls armed militants on his brother, preferring to see him killed rather than living the life he desired. He represents the worst in us, and I hope I never see his type in person.

The story was extremely strong, but like most episodes, it all depends on Jodie’s performance. And, again, in this episode, she is more than up to the task. The Doctor fluctuates between reluctant, curious, furious, funny, and sympathetic. A wide range of emotions for any actress, to be sure, which make it all the more remarkable when you consider the ease that Jodie switches between all of these roles. Likewise, this is Yaz’s moment to shine, and Mandap Gill makes the most of it, showing the same strong will and stubborness as her grandmother all those years ago.

All in all, this was a well-written episode about a part of history that is not often detailed on TV. It is also an unflinching look at the beginning of a very old enmity that continues into the present and sadly shows us how little we have advanced in the time since. The same prejudices that fuel this episode are still very much alive in the here and now. But, if Doctor Who is about anything, it’s the hope of a better future. So, just keep on hoping alongside the Doctor and hopefully, we’ll all get there one day.

Next Week, we’re off to the largest retailer in the Universe: Amazon, er, I mean Kerblam!


DID WHO KNOW?

  • The Doctor has done his very best in the past to keep his companions from visiting their own pasts. One of the times he did relent, Rose Tyler tries to save her father from dying and almost caused the destruction of the entire space-time continuum.
  • The aliens in this episode are similar to the Testimony, from Peter Capaldi’s final episode, Twice Upon a Time.
  • The TARDIS’ telepathic circuits were last seen during the Twelfth Doctor’s era, and were last used by Clara Oswald to find where Danny Pink’s body was after his death in Dark Water/ Death in Heaven.