It’s November 11th, 2018. Ariana grande has debuted at number one with “Thank U, Next,” while Rita Ora, Calvin Harris & Sam Smith, and Halsey also chart. In news, midterm elections lead the Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives, but not the Senate. Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigns, which is really to say he’s fired because Trump doesn’t appreciate his failure to protect him from legal probes. The Camp Fire begins in California, eventually becoming the most deadly and destructive fire in the state. And Jo Johnson resigns from the cabinet and calls for a new Brexit referendum, a move that surely makes him popular with his older brother Boris.
While on television, an overtly political story in Demons of the Punjab. Of course, the question of the Chibnall era’s politics is a complex one. As the last three posts ought make clear, the “Chibnall is woke” argument is at best a desperate oversimplification. As the next one will make clear, at worst it’s an egregious misreading. And yet it is true that the Chibnall era regularly engages in a sort of earnest “look at all the diversity we’re putting in” approach to the series. And more to the point, when it does this it tends to take the job seriously—there’s a tangible uptick in quality—a certain “this actually went through a second draft” crackle that is absent in, say, its season finales. All of which is to say that Demons of the Punjab is almost completely unique in the Chibnall era, in that it is a perfectly good episode of Doctor Who. Were I in a good mood about Doctor Who, this would probably be an upbeat, relatively happy entry. You could reasonably expect that of me. What follows is, in fact, slightly unfair. But this is the Chibnall era, and even its best leaves a bitter taste. So allow me to present the case for the prosecution. Because at the end of the day, Demons of the Punjab explains more about the era’s most fundamental weaknesses than it does about its strengths by dint of removing all the unforced errors so that the more fundamental misconceptions can stand alone.
Broadly speaking, this is an episode of Doctor Who that should have existed before 2022. It is actively embarrassing that Doctor Who has taken this long to go to the Indian subcontinent, just as it is actively embarrassing that Yaz is the first Desi companion. An episode that deals with the horrors inflicted by the British Empire in real and honest terms, where the words “British Empire” and “India” are used instead of “Earth Empire” and “Solos,” is massively overdue.
But of course, Demons of the Punjab doesn’t use the words “British Empire.” Or any other kind of empire. It’s not quite a complete amnesia—we hear a radio announcement that specifies the Partition as being done by Lord Mountbatten, Umbreen talks about “men without a clue,” albeit without explicitly mentioning who they are. Most significantly, Prem gets a line to the Doctor about how “maybe you’re my enemy now, for the mess you’ve just made of my country. Carving it up slapdash, in six weeks” that comes after explicitly identifying her as British. (More puzzlingly, he also suggests at one point that they keep it to themselves that they’re from England, which feels like a big ask for the white people with English accents.) This isn’t going as far as trying to pretend that it’s not British imperialism that is ultimately responsible for all the tragedy we see here, but it’s also very much not about that imperialism either. It’s a story about an imperialist horror that treats it much like any other historical horror, not too differently from how one might treat a flood or a volcano.
Is this defensible? I mean, you probably want to read a non-white writer on Doctor Who for definitive hot takes like that. It’s certainly unusual—read other genre fiction about racial trauma and the question of culpability and responsibility is foregrounded in ways that it simply isn’t here. That’s not to say that these works are about the question of blame—simply that a trauma that is inflicted by other people, for their profit, on racial grounds is substantively different than one inflicted by an ornery tectonic plate.
Where this becomes troubled within Demons of the Punjab is in the handling of Manish. There’s much to like here, most obviously the degree to which his destructive Hindu nationalism is set up to read easily as a critique of Narendra Modi’s politics. But the absence of any real presence of, you know, the British Empire there becomes no real sense of how Manish was radicalized to the point of killing his own brother beyond the deliberately vague and present-day paralleling “pamphlets and angry men on the radio.” With no discussion of larger structures or, really, of any British malfeasance beyond “carving it up slapdash, in six weeks” (and note, looking back at that line, the explicit “you’re my enemy now,” with its tacit erasure of any mess made of the country prior to Partition) Manish comes perilously close to being a character who serves to position all the blame for the violence and radicalization on the colonized. One gets the vague impression that the problem with Partition was that in Britain’s carelessness it overlooked how violent the people of India were.
I’d accuse this of all being frustratingly reactionary, except that the reactionary position on colonial horrors is to outright ignore them, hence the fashy dipshits who complain about this episode being woke propaganda or whatever. The vacuousness involved here—it is important to acknowledge that Partition was bad, but nothing actually follows from that fact aside from the emotive response—is more accurately diagnosed as a centrist liberal position on colonial horrors. Which is the same frustration we’ve had with Doctor Who since roughly 100,000 BC, so there’s not a huge amount of point in suddenly deciding that it’s a dealbreaker. But never has the radical potential been so prominently right there, so obviously a thing this specific story and concept wants to be used for, and yet so conspicuously, loudly avoided. (This is not a record Demons of the Punjab will hold for very long at all, but we’ll get there soon enough.)
In many ways, it is productive to compare this to Kinda. We noted back in Arachnids in the UK that Chibnall’s underlying model for Doctor Who appears to be the Davison era. And here we have perhaps the most idiosyncratically specific parallel: one of the rare highlights of both eras is a first season episode that is about imperialism, but not in an especially satisfying way. Like Demons of the Punjab, Kinda opposes colonialism while granting key premises. Demons of the Punjab does better than Kinda’s fundamentally ghastly “but the primitives are enlightened,” not least by not having any characters that could be described as “primitives,” but the two stories are clearly of a type. More to the point, however, they both feature a conspicuously inactive Doctor. Admittedly Davison’s Doctor at least gets to come up with the idea of using mirrors to contain the rubber snake, whereas Whittaker’s Doctor is left with literally nothing to do within the story when the passive Doctor model of the Davison era finds itself juxtaposed with the “the monsters aren’t really monsters” trope to leave the Doctor in a position where all she really does in the story is figure out the plot and explain it to the audience.
It’s commonly observed that this would have worked very well as a pure historical. And there’s a real merit to this—when that argument is made elsewhere there’s usually a failure to appreciate exactly what a Doctor Who story is doing. The Fires of Pompeii, for instance, certainly could have worked as a pure historical—Steve Lyons basically did it—except that part of the narrative function of The Fires of Pompeii is that it has a giant lava monster for the kids. Demons of the Punjab, however, is one of the most adult-oriented Doctor Who episodes of the new series—certainly the most adult-oriented episode of the Chibnall era. The Thijarians are clearly not here to to appeal to the kids. Indeed, they come perilously close to simply existing to make sure this story has aliens. Their only contribution to the plot is to introduce a cheap “fixed point” explanation for why Prem has to die and to reveal that Manish killed the holy man; the former is unnecessary, the latter could easily have been attained through other means. Except that were they not here the Doctor would have literally nothing whatsoever to do.
Which is, I would argue, where the “passive Doctor” approach shows its limits. I mean, above and beyond the fact that it keeps not working, we can see here the extent to which it’s fundamentally flawed and unworkable. Because when you put a Doctor who is conceived as a relatively passive element of a story instead of as a moral center in a story about a historical trauma with moral dimensions there’s fundamentally nothing for her to do. Indeed, this isn’t just true of historical traumas. The passive Doctor means that the Doctor becomes a tricky figure to use in stories with any sort of clear-cut moral stakes.
Kinda handles this by concocting a story where the only thing that straightforwardly needs moral condemnation is a giant snake monster, and even that’s just a manifestation of everyone’s inner darkness. But that’s not true of Demons of the Punjab. Perhaps this is partially a matter of structure; Kinda had four episodes to build its world, and so is able to sketch something that has room to hold ambivalences. And, again, we shouldn’t pretend that Kinda’s racial politics are anything to aspire to in 2022. Or, frankly, that they were in 1982. But Demons of the Punjab, with fifty minutes, barely has time to paint a family in anything more than caricatures. And so its ambivalences aren’t artfully constructed gaps in the larger whole; they are the larger whole. I remain one who isn’t inclined to criticize the pacing or structure of the new series, but the simple fact of the matter is that modern Doctor Who is a lot better suited to moral clarity than it is to poignant ambivalences.
And this, perhaps is the key thing to remember. There are other ways to handle Partition than this. No, of course we can’t reasonably expect the Doctor to bring down the British Empire, and 1947 would be a strange year to do it anyway. But there’s a wide gulf between “bring down the British Empire” and “leave all moral points in subtext,” and there were places on that spectrum this story could have occupied if it wanted to. But it doesn’t. Instead it seems like all it really wants to say is “the Partition happened, and it was bad,” all very much in the passive tense.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with bearing witness as an aesthetic goal. One can very easily imagine a drama about Partition that does a powerful and compelling job of depicting its horrors by simply bearing witness to lives and how they’re torn apart. The problem is that such a drama is a piece of social realism, not a piece of action-adventure sci-fi whose normal emotional mode is melodrama. And it’s not entirely clear why this particular story is being done in an action-adventure sci-fi show.
Is that a problem? I mean, the whole point of Doctor Who is that you can do anything with it. This is, obviously, included in “anything,” and it should have been included a lot earlier than it was. But the result doesn’t manage to exploit the potential of Doctor Who or of the premise. As with Rosa, it feels like its primary goal is to be able to say that Doctor Who has done a story about Partition. It’s not trying to be interesting, or bold, or ambitious—its only apparent aesthetic goal is being Important.
And look, fine. This story tackles a topic that would be easy to do badly and doesn’t fuck it up. It holds together as fifty perfectly watchable minutes of television that actually possess aboutness. It no doubt meant that a significant number of kids who would not otherwise have known a thing about what their country did to India will now have at least a vague, hazy idea that Britain did some fucked up shit. To be quite honest, it’s genuinely hard to write a bad review of this and not be a fucking fascist. You can ask for more. I’d argue that you probably should ask for more. But you’re not gonna get it from the Chibnall era. In context, this is a triumph, but let’s not forget how much work “in context” is doing there. It can have the gold star it so obviously wants. Just don’t expect me to enjoy giving it.