Doctor Who Season 11, Episode 6 recap: Love and war

Photo credit: Doctor Who/Ben Blackall/BBC -- Acquired via AMC Press Site
Photo credit: Doctor Who/Ben Blackall/BBC -- Acquired via AMC Press Site /

In the best episode of Doctor Who Season 11 so far, The Doctor and friend visited 1940s Pakistan, where Yaz got an illuminating lesson in her family’s history.

Throughout Doctor Who Season 11, the show’s had one consistent problem. It failed to provide much characterization for new companion Yaz Khan (Mandip Gill). And despite chronicling a rather painful chapter in her family’s history, this episode continued that trend. While we now know a lot more about Yaz’s origins, her ambitions, anxieties and goals remain ambiguous. Whereas the other two new members of the TARDIS team feel like fleshed out characters, Yaz is still a well-meaning cipher.

As the season is now more than halfway over, Yaz’s breakthrough probably won’t happen until next season. However, aside from that continuing frustration, this was a very strong episode of Doctor Who. In fact, it’s easily the best installment of season 11 so far. And though not written by new showrunner Chris Chibnall – Vinay Patel scripted the episode – “Demons of the Punjab” featured all the qualities that have typified his freshman season. It’s heavy on character, light on plot and has a strong element of social commentary.

But, in a refreshing change of pace, this episode lacked the meandering quality that has plagued most of this season. And it ended with a tidy resolution that brought the episode’s thematic and narrative concerns to a satisfying conclusion. Hopefully, this installment will herald a strong back half of the season.

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Photo credit: Doctor Who/Ben Blackall/BBC — Acquired via AMC Press Site /

“Oh right, none of our other trips have ever been risky”

“Demons” began at a birthday party for Yaz’s grandmother Umbreen (Leena Dhingra). Feeling mournful, Umbreen distributed her prized possessions, including giving a broken watch to Yaz. Curious about its significance and Umbreen’s refusal to discuss it, Yaz asked the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to take her to visit Umbreen in her youth. Arriving in 1940s Pakistan, the TARDIS team found a younger Umbreen (Amita Suman) and discovered that she was engaged to an Indian man named Prem (Shane Zaza). However, Yaz noted that Prem is not her grandfather.

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Although this episode was likely intended to give Yaz some much-needed texture, it failed in that aim. But it did succeed in showing why her character seems so thin in comparison to the rest of the main cast. She doesn’t seem to want anything and she doesn’t seem to care about anything even.

Other than feeling smothered by her family, she has no real motivation for joining the TARDIS team. And she hasn’t expressed any thoughts or feelings of outside about the wonders of time travel in six episodes.

One could argue that her lack of expressiveness is indicative of the problem, but she doesn’t come off as depressed. If anything, she’s the most enthusiastic of the new companions but her enthusiasm seems disconnected from motivation.

It’s still not clear why she wants to travel through time. Or how she feels about the Doctor’s rules regarding changing the fast or learning too much about the future. Or for that matter, how she views the Doctor and the rest of the team. As such, she seems like the most insubstantial main character Doctor Who has introduced since its revival in 2005.

Photo credit: Doctor Who/Ben Blackall/BBC — Acquired via AMC Press Site
Photo credit: Doctor Who/Ben Blackall/BBC — Acquired via AMC Press Site /

“My references to body and gender regeneration are all in jest”

Eventually, the group discovered they had landed the day the British official partitioned India and Pakistan. While getting to know Yaz’s family, the group encountered some aliens the locals referred to as demons. And found the body of a local holy man seemingly murdered by them.

Uncovering the visitor’s ship, the Doctor learned they were members of a race of stealthy assassins called the Vajarian Hive. The group escaped and the Doctor created a barrier around Prem and Umbreen’s home. Prem’s Indian nationalist Manish (Hamza Jeetooa) brother objected to his brother marrying a Muslim.

Although “Demons” once again gives short shrift to Yaz, it did a good job confirming certain aspects of the new Doctor’s personality. One, she is a rather socially awkward and anxious person. Throughout the episode, she failed to make convincing small talk with anyone and frequently babbled to hide her concern about various dangerous situations.  And two, she has a very dry and sardonic sense of humor. After three seasons of the socially indifferent and imperious Twelfth Doctor, this new characterization is very refreshing.

Vinay Patel also did a good job establishing this week’s supporting cast. Though no one individual was given a lot of screen time, all of their appearances were well handled. Prem, who was haunted by his experiences in World War II and in the changes in his home country, was a suitably empathetic character. And Manish was both sympathetic and risible as a young man who had tragically fallen under the sway of a violent ideology. On the strength of this episode, I really hope Patel becomes a fixture of the Doctor Who writing staff.

“I don’t know how to protect people when hatred comes from all sides”

The Vajarians kidnapped the Doctor and revealed that they were not assassins but observers who witness the passing of the solitary dead. And that they were in Pakistan to witness Prem’s passing. The Doctor told the group what was going to happen and they agreed to leave after the wedding.

After being married, Prem gave Umbreen his watch, which decades later would become Yaz’s. Prem confronted a mob led by Manish, who confessed to killing the holy man for heresy. Though Prem was killed, his sacrifice allowed his family to get to safety. Upon returning to the present, Yaz asked her Umbreen if she had any regrets about her life and her grandmother said no.

In addition to being a thoughtfully, well-paced episode of Doctor Who, “Demons” really solidified the show’s new format. True Chris Chibnall’s word, the series is really committed to telling stories that educate as well as entertain. While this approach might’ve come off as hokey, the emotion and honesty in both of the season’s historical adventures have precluded that possibility.

Most notable that time travel is much less a feature of the series. Obviously, the TARDIS gets the group where they need to be for that week’s adventure, but the timey-wimey temporally knottiness of previous seasons is now over.

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Moreover, the series storytelling style has been significantly overhauled. Though the Doctor is still the show’s protagonist, she is no longer the sole driving force. And befitting her always moving forward approach to life, Doctor Who is less interested in clear-cut resolutions.

The audience is told thing work out for that week’s supporting cast, but the details are left ambiguous. That approach can make individual episodes feel unfinished, but it does feel more true life. On balance, these changes are for the better. And ideally, the series biggest flaw, the weak characterization of some of the supporting cast, will be resolved sooner rather than later.

Did you enjoy “Demons of the Punjab?”

Doctor Who airs on BBC America Sunday at 8 pm.