“Tread softly. You’re treading on your own history.”
For the second time in this latest series, Doctor Who has taken a trip back into Earth history, and continued the trend of delivering some of the most compelling stories in the show’s run. Like Malorie Blackman’s ‘Rosa‘, the story delivers a look back at a period which has great personal meaning for writer Vinay Patel, and has a great richness and texture which manages to not only provide great drama, but also gives the audience an insight into a time which is still relatively recent, but about which they may know very little.
We return to Sheffield, and see more of Yaz (Mandip Gill)’s home life, introducing us to her grandmother (‘Nani’), Umbreen (Leena Dhingra). Her gifting to Yaz of a personal effect – a broken watch – spurs Yaz to ask the Doctor to take her back in time to see her Nani when she was a young woman. Using the TARDIS’ telepathic circuits to travel back to when the watch was from, the quartet find themselves thrown into a turbulent era, with the Partition of India providing a dangerous backdrop to what ends up being for Yaz a painful and revealing look into a family secret as she meets the young Umbreen (Amita Suman).
As with ‘Rosa’ earlier this series, there’s a sci-fi element to the story, with the titular ‘Demons’ appearing in visions to the Doctor, appearing to be a malevolent force. Once she identifies the alien species in question, the Doctor recalls that they are a mythical race renowned for being ruthless assassins, and pits her wits against them to try and stop their plan. However, it’s refreshing to see that the Doctor is mistaken, and that they actually have a far more benevolent purpose in being there, one which – when revealed – leaves the time travellers once again as prisoners of history, as they have to stand by and helplessly watch events unfold with tragic consequences, in order to preserve Yaz’s existence in the timeline.
Mandip Gill is finally given a chance to show her range, as Yaz is sent on a real emotional journey throughout the episode, from the shock at realising her Nani had not only married someone before her grandfather – as well as a Hindu, despite being from a Muslim family – but also the tragedy of seeing the marriage cut short on the wedding day. Gill really shines, and helps add a further layer to Yaz, who is an extremely likeable character, but had sometimes been in the background compared to other Team TARDIS members Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh).
The story hinges on the rift between two brothers – Prem (Shane Zaza), the groom of Umbreen, and Manish (Hamza Jeetooa), his younger brother. With Prem having been away fighting in World War II, Manish had grown distant in his absence, and sets in motion a chain of events which makes the true purpose of the ‘Demons’ all too clear, and heartbreaking – they are there to honour the souls of those who die alone, having lost their own planet and saw their race die unmourned, deciding to mend their ways. Prem had already seen the ‘Demons’ before on the battlefield, and was unaware that their return was to mourn his passing, as a victim of the unrest following Partition.
Again, like ‘Rosa’, the sci-fi part of the tale is really a means to an end, and a device which really isn’t the most important part of what we see – it’s a brave move not to have it overshadow the personal story that Vinay Patel is telling, and the role of the ‘Demons’ amplifies the tragedy of what the audience – as well as the Doctor and friends – realises is inexorably coming once their true purpose is revealed. With the episode sandwiched between two sci-fi stories, it’s a welcome decision to see the historical setting giving us a more sedate, measured pace of storytelling.
The whole episode is beautiful to look at, with the Province of Granada doing a magnificent job doubling for the Punjab, and director Jamie Childs makes the most of the exotic setting, in contrast to Yaz’s home of Sheffield, which bookends the story. Full credit must also be given to Segun Akinola’s continuing work as the series’ composer, as he manages to evoke the setting and culture perfectly through his music, even going as far as giving us an Indian-inspired spin on Ron Grainer’s famous Doctor Who theme over the end credits.
Jodie Whittaker also continues to shine as the Doctor, taking the audience along with her bursts of manic energy and enthusiasm, while managing to also carry off the more serious moments as required by the story. Her portrayal of the Doctor’s realisation that she has misjudged the ‘Demons’ is genuinely moving, and we also see her struggle with having to tell Yaz that Prem must die in order to protect her and avoid her never being born. By the same token, Whittaker is a joy to see in action as the Doctor officiates at Prem and Umbreen’s wedding, carrying off every beat perfectly.
With another historical episode coming up in two weeks, it will be interesting to see if it can continue the series’ winning streak with this type of story. It would appear to be very tough to live up to the exceptionally high standards which have been set here. Doctor Who‘s recent trips into the past have managed to deliver on the very Reithian principles of informing and educating the audience which were very much the driving force behind the series when it originally began in 1963, and it would be very welcome to see this continue in the future, particularly if they’re to this high standard. This is the ideal format for telling big, important stories of this type, while managing to still make them grounded and relatable for the audience. More, please.