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Bearing Witness to Love and Hate in Doctor Who’s “Demons of the Punjab”

(Image by BBC)

Every family has their secrets—and some are too painful to talk about. When Yaz’s grandmother Umbreen gifts Yaz with a shattered watch but won’t tell her anything else about it, there’s just one thing to do—travel back in time. After all, she tells the Doctor, “What’s the point in having a mate with a time machine if you can’t go back and see your nan when she was young?”

Graham and Ryan are down for another trip, so the Doctor lets the TARDIS scan the watch and take them back to the exact time period it’s from. That lands them in India 1947 on Partition Day, the day when British Rule was dissolved and the country was broken into different countries, based on religion. Umbreen’s family and their farm lies right next to the Radcliffe line, marking the borders between India and Pakistan. Furthermore, it’s Umbreen’s wedding day, but she’s not marrying Yaz’s grandfather and there are teleporting “demons” hiding in the forest.

While the Doctor insists they must tread lightly here, the group continues to get sucked deeper and deeper into the day’s events. When the holy man who was to marry Umbreen (a Muslim) and Pram (a Hindu) is found murdered, Pram recognizes the demons from World War II—he saw them standing over his brother, who died in battle. Once aboard their ship, the Doctor identifies the “demons” as the Thijarians, an alien race known throughout the universe for being expert assassins. The crew also finds a vessel of matter that was on the holy man when he died and they head back to Umbreen’s farm with it, nicking other alien tech meant to keep them away. The Doctor is able to use this same tech later on to keep Umbreen and her loved ones safe—or so she thinks.

While the Doctor, Ryan and Pram all go to the forest to investigate, Yaz and Graham stays by her grandmother’s side. There she finds a woman who is brave and not willing to back down when it comes to being with the person she loves. As her mother and others continue to tell Umbreen that hers and Pram’s love is cursed, she fervently believes it’s the only certain thing in her life. Yaz tries to grapple with why her grandmother would leave this out. Graham reminds her that Umbreen isn’t her man just yet and that as time goes on, it’ll be up to her how she’ll tell her own story.

“I don’t know if any of us know the truth of our own lives,” Graham says. “Because we’re too busy living them from the inside. So just enjoy this moment…and figure it out later.”

Once the protective barrier is in place, the Doctor explains she’s bought the families enough time so Umbreen and Prem can marry peacefully. Prem’s younger brother, Mannish, doesn’t seem to think any of this is a good idea, with a not-so-quiet rage burning in him as both groups of men and women prepare for the next day’s events.  

The Doctor continues to analyze the matter she took from the Thijarians before each group heads off for hen and stag night activities. The women are decorated with henna and Umbreen says she sees her life mapped out with Prem. Her mother disagrees and points out the danger that is heading their way due to the Partition, while also pointing out they don’t even have a priest to marry them. Umbreen counters that the Doctor is respectable and could marry them, and she agrees (having married Einstein in the past).

Over at Prem’s house, Mannish’s true feelings become known: he does not approve of Prem marrying Umbreen and says she has no place in Prem’s life or their new country. Prem counters that they all have a place here and no lines drawn can change that.

The Doctor and Team TARDIS gather to try to piece together the events of the day and analyze the matter, which the Doctor surmises is dense with all kinds of DNA. At that moment the Thijarians teleport in and snatch the Doctor and the matter back to their ship. It’s there, she learns their true purpose. Having sought to kill others throughout the universe, they returned home to find their own planet gone (save for the matter stored in the vial the Doctor stole). Now they do penance throughout the stars, bearing witness to deaths of those who have no one with them. That’s why Prem saw them in World War II next to his brother and the deaths that will follow due to Partition Day are what have brought them to this moment in time, with Prem as the next soul to be witnessed and collected. The Thijarians also reveal who killed the holy man before teleporting her back to her companions.

The Doctor explains that Prem’s death is a fixed point in Umbreen’s timeline and if it doesn’t happen, Yaz will cease to be. Yaz implores the Doctor to let her stay by her nan, to keep her safe and Ryan and Graham agree.

Ryan and Graham help Prem prepare for the wedding as Mannish hasn’t been seen since the night before. He doesn’t understand how people could let differences separate people who have lived together side by side for decades. Graham tells Prem all they can do is to strive to be good men.

Prem and Umbreen marry on the Radcliffe line, with Umbreen declaring she is the first woman marrying in Pakistan (an antidote she does tell Yaz years later). The Doctor intones that love is powerful and the fact that Prem and Umbreen have seen their love through so many obstacles will only make them stronger. The union finalized with Yaz helping Umbreen and Prem tie their hands together as is custom in Hindu tradition.

Back at the farm, the families celebrate together, with Umbreen thanking Mannish for tirelessly working in the fields with them. When she offers him a bit of food, he refuses, and his true nature finally coming to the surface, saying he worked it only for his family, although he does not wish to claim Prem as is own. Mannish runs off, with the Doctor following. In the moments that follow, Prem gives Umbreen his watch as wedding day gift only to drop it, cracking it on the ground. Umbreen’s mother likens it to another bad omen, whereas Umbreen sees it as special—it’s a moment of their lives frozen in time forever.

The Doctor confronts Mannish, as he is the one that killed the holy man and he has signaled the ever-growing mob to come here. The Doctor runs back to the wedding party to warn them. While Umbreen and her mother say they won’t abandon their home, Prem instructs they pack anything essential for escape. Yaz helps and sees a map hanging in the hallway. A pin marks Sheffield. When Yaz questions Umbreen why, she says she randomly picked a place she wanted to end up.

Returning to the rest of the party, Umbreen begs they all leave together but Prem knows he must buy them more time. He instructs Umbreen to go on ahead, letting her know he’ll be right behind her. Team TARDIS stays behind with Prem, watching from a distance as he faces down a mob of once friends and family, standing firm that this is not what he fought for and that all are welcome.

The Thijarians materialize, signaling it is their time to bear witness. The Doctor and her companions turn away, grimacing at the gunshot they hear. Back aboard the TARDIS, the Doctor confirms that Yaz’s grandmother escaped.

Returning home to the present day, Yaz visits her grandmother and asks her if she was happy with how her life turned out. Her grandmother says she is happy and asks Yaz if she really wants to know about the watch. Yaz shakes her head, asking her to tell her another day.

Much like the so-called “monsters” featured in “Twice Upon a Time,” the Thijarians are here to help, not hurt. And like we saw in “Rosa,” the other historical adventure of the season, the true villains are not an alien race, but the human race. Prem says the violent mobs are formed from “ordinary people who have lived here all their lives…nothing worse than when normal people lose their minds.”

Vinay Patel does an excellent job of distilling down the political events of Partition Day,  showing the complex emotions in people freshly divided not just by lines on a map but also within themselves, between doing what is right or wrong. The Thijarians also mirror and reflect how hate can destroy others and those who hate from the inside out, leaving them with nothing in the end except regret for their past deeds. The Thijarians have at least learned from their transgressions—it’s hard to say if the human race has. Millions were killed in Partition day, and others displaced, losing their homes and loved ones.

As this season continues to slowly unravel, I am beginning to sense the overarching theme is to honor and learn from the past, lest we continue to repeat it. As long as we move forward with love and hope, the evil that lies within others will never prevail, no matter how hard it tries. And while there is so much evil in the world, love is the only thing that can balance it. 

As the Doctor says on the banks of the Radcliffe line:

“Love, in all its forms, is the most powerful weapon we have. Because love is a form of hope. And like hope, love abides in the face of everything.”

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Rachel Stewart has written fandom commentary for sites such as FangirlConfessions.comNerdy Minds Magazine, and ESO Network, among others. She has published work in the anthology “Children of Time: The Companions of Doctor Who.”


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Written by Rachel Stewart

Rachel Stewart is a staff writer at 25YL. She has written fandom commentary and critique for sites like The Sartorial Geek, FangirlConfessions.com, Nerdy Minds Magazine, and ESO Network, among others. Her work has also appeared in the print anthology “Children of Time: The Companions of Doctor Who.”

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