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DOCTOR WHO’s “Demons” Aren’t So Easily Defeated

DOCTOR WHO’s “Demons” Aren’t So Easily Defeated

The following recap contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “Demons of the Punjab”

In what seems possibly a new trend for Doctor Who in the most recent season of the modern series, Team TARDIS takes a journey into the recent past; a simple concept, and yet one that injects freshness into a series that has 55 years of stories under its belt. It’s not that the Doctor hasn’t previously visited the early twentieth century, but that it’s easier to feel a sense of triumph when the Doctor is telling a scared British girl that they’re going to survive the Blitz and win the war against the Nazis than when we’re hearing the announcement of Partition, through a radio on what has become the border of India and Pakistan.

It’s hard for Doctor Who to do episodes where there’s not a clear and distinct evil to be fought. Most of us who are drawn to the show are so because of its function as a fun, escapist show. We follow the Doctor because she is a light in a storm that makes us feel like we can find somewhere safer and better. While that is still true of the overall appeal of the show and not something I want to see change any time soon, sometimes there is something to be said for taking on the challenge of setting up a tale that can’t be so easily resolved. There’s a reason that “Vincent and the Doctor” is one of the most commonly cited favorite episodes of the modern series, and it’s the same reason that I think “Demons of the Punjab” could easily find itself mentioned among its ranks. It’s for sure a more somber episode than is typical for the show, but whether by secret plan or happy (sad?) accident, it is also a highly suitable episode to run on Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day, or Remembrance Day — depending on where you’re from, but a day to remember those we’ve lost regardless.

The choice of “demons” in the episode title and as the term used by characters in the story to refer to the seemingly malicious aliens is brilliant. A demon as a malevolent spirit is a concept that spans a variety of faiths and folklore, making it the perfect term for a monster in a story that deals with both love and violence across faiths. The metaphor for a demon as the destructive aspects of your national or personal history is hardly subtle and clearly intended to be noticed. And there’s the demon as the corrupter, the way it might possess a subject, destroying it from the inside to force an exorcism. Is there a better way to describe the way imperialism destroys not just from without but within, turning the peoples of an occupied land against each other by sowing the seeds of tribalism and radicalization?

It seems a very conscious choice by writer Vinay Patel that aside from the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and Graham (Bradley Walsh), there are no white people physically present in the events of “Demons.” By removing British occupiers from the story, relegating their presence to a distant voice on the radio, we take the focus off of them in the story and shift it entirely to the people who lived under their occupation. Namely, the citizens of the Punjab region who found themselves divided down the lines of faith and new borders drawn on maps by British forces. Where “Rosa” pointed its lens directly at the ugliness of segregation and the language of racism that saturated the time, “Demons” focuses on the drastic and heartbreaking changes that can happen to one’s home within a generation. It’s hatred that one can see grow within members of one’s own family, when sometimes home is no longer a recognizable place.

The more literal demons of the episode, a race of aliens who the Doctor recalls as an ancient species of assassins, turn out to be facing down their own demons. Survivors of an apocalyptic destruction of their home, they travel time and space no longer creating death, but standing vigil over the unseen final moments of all who die alone. My immediate knee-jerk reaction to this reveal was negative, due to my previous issues with the weak antagonists of this whole season, as well as the very close similarities to the most recent Christmas special. Having said that, I’ll add that there’s something intriguing about a Doctor Who where there’s not always an evil plan, possibly forcing some different choices out of the Doctor in future plots. Aside from feeling slightly recycled, the aliens’ now-sacred duties as the silent witnesses of the fallen were a touching and effective twist on the expected. It’s a contrast to the Doctor’s own stated intentions of observing the events without getting involved — a promise she never actually keeps, going so far here as to officiate a wedding.

And what of the Doctor’s demons? A frequent criticism I’ve heard of the writing for Jodie’s Doctor is that she says sorry to a degree more noticeable than her predecessors. It’s true that culturally women are driven to apologize more than men, but this is something about her that I don’t have as much of an issue with. This is the second episode in a row in which the Doctor is majorly wrong about something, a thing that the Doctor is guilty of from time to time. Where some Doctors would quip or deflect, or even grow frustrated, this Doctor is humble, and she apologizes. It’s the natural extension of the empathy and respect for others that this character has long since preached, and feels like the proper development for a character who just spent their last regeneration questioning if they were good. Maybe the best way to keep one’s demons at bay is to atone for them as they occur.

Images: BBC

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