Warning: The following contains spoilers from the latest episode of Doctor Who. Read at your own risk!
Over the many decades of Doctor Who, fans have seen the TARDIS venture backward and forward across all of time and space. This week’s episode, titled “Demons of the Punjab,” sends the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her new companions traveling to a time and place they’ve never been before: 1947, on the eve of the Partition of India.
This event, which officially divided British India into two new self-governing countries (India and Pakistan) along Hindu-Muslim religious lines, was at once the fulfillment of decades’ worth of Indian aspirations for independence, and an act of extreme political violence that led to the displacement and death of millions of people. It’s likely, however, that many Doctor Who fans have never heard of it before. So though “Demons of the Punjab” does contain aliens and sci-fi elements, they’re not quite at the center of the story. When the Doctor and her companions arrive to witness the wedding of Yaz’s (Mandip Gill) grandmother after hearing her say she was the first woman married in Pakistan, they at first think the wedding is about to be sabotaged by alien assassins. But the aliens, it turns out, are only there to bear witness to the many nameless people who are about to be killed in the upheaval of Partition — people like Yaz’s grandmother’s fiancé.
EW spoke with Vinay Patel, the writer of the episode, about his inspirations for “Demons of the Punjab” and his hopes that it gets more people to learn about the Partition of India.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you pitch the idea for this episode?
VINAY PATEL: When I got hired to do this job, we had to come up with some ideas to pitch. I always thought this was the sort of story I’d love to do on Doctor Who. It turned out that [showrunner] Chris [Chibnall] also wanted to do an episode about the Partition, so that was a nice coincidence. I think it’s also because last year was the 70th anniversary, so that really put it into a lot of people’s heads. It’s what I thought Doctor Who is really good at doing, illuminating these bits of history. Partition felt like this massive event that people didn’t really know much about, so this felt like the perfect conduit through which to explore the story.
Most Doctor Who time travel stories tend to focus specifically on English history and its great heroes, like Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria. But here, the focus is an event connected to England, but it also challenges English assumptions about their own history and role in the world. Was that intentional?
Yeah a lot of Doctor Who history episodes are focused on these great figures like Queen Victoria or William Shakespeare, and I liked the idea of doing a story about people on the ground who are affected by a period of history but aren’t really rich or famous or well-known enough where they can just shake it off a bit. Because the greatest tragedy of Partition is that the people it affected were people who are not remembered or acknowledged, making them nobodies. To focus on them felt like a really exciting thing and an important thing to do, rather than focus on the viceroy who would’ve been in charge at the time.
It’s funny because the Doctor even has a line about knowing [the last Viceroy of India] Mountbatten, like “I’ll take it up with Mountbatten the next time I see him!”
Yeah, I figured the Doctor probably has met those figures before. From past episodes and radio dramas and all that stuff, they do show the Doctor meeting those famous men of history, so you want to acknowledge the Doctor has that experience while also saying “actually that’s not the story we need to tell about this time period.”
The thing about Doctor Who history episodes is that there are always aliens involved. Like, you can go see Shakespeare, but you’ll have to save him from alien witches. But while there are aliens in this episode, they aren’t the bad guys or even the prime movers of the plot. The episode title is “Demons of the Punjab,” but is it safe to say those demons are not scary aliens but rather the social forces that caused people to turn against each other in this horrible way?
Exactly. That title is a little bit of a misnomer. The expectation is, when you go back in time, what’s the alien element? Doctor Who hasn’t done pure historicals for a long, long time. So how do we balance that sci-fi element and the expectation of monsters with an event that is itself quite monstrous in terms of the things that people did to each other? The worst thing about Partition in this episode can’t be the actual monsters. In the depth of my soul, that felt like the absolutely wrong way to approach the episode, especially if it’s going to be people’s first encounter with that period of history. It felt like, if you’re gonna use a sci-fi element or monstrous element, it should serve the greater story of this moment we’re trying to tell.
On a lighter note, I love the scene the night before the wedding when the Doctor is getting henna tattoos with the other women and exclaims, ‘I never did this when I was a man!’ How are you guys thinking about the Doctor’s headspace as she figures out her new gender?
As Chris has said, it’s not a massive deal in terms of the Doctor because the thing that makes the Doctor is that personality and that drive to help people. So we don’t want to make a big deal of it, but it felt right every now and then to acknowledge the experience of the Doctor who might have been male being completely different in this situation now that she’s female. That is one of those situations.
This episode focuses a lot on Yaz and her family history. Now that we have three companions in the TARDIS, how do you try to give them all moments with each episode?
Yeah, that’s probably one of the hardest things about writing the show. It’s something Chris always drives us to make sure we’re doing. You don’t want to lose any characters in these scenes, so try to make sure they’re all doing something at least. Also, these companions are our conduits into those worlds, so you can’t really neglect them too much because you need them to be the way that we discover what we see here. Whether it’s an alien world or something like Partition that you don’t know about, our eyes and hearts are going to sit with them. Keeping them active and doing lots of hopefully fun stuff is a part of the challenge.
You couldn’t have intended this when you wrote it, but this episode comes in the wake of some pretty nasty stuff in the U.S., including a synagogue shooting and mail bombs that as far as we can tell were done by people who (like the younger brother in this episode) have been radicalized by inflammatory media. Is the dangerous radicalization and mob thinking shown in this episode something you’ve been sensing in the air lately, or was it just something that felt evergreen?
When I first started writing, I was writing a lot of stuff about the latent rise of white nationalism in the UK. I grew up in an area of southeast London that was the home borough of the BNP, this fascist/white nationalist organization that was targeting brown people like my family. It’s just always something that sat at the heart of me. I was 19 when the 7/7 bombings happened in London, and that was the first time I realized how quickly people are willing to “other” people. It doesn’t have to have a long lead-time, it can just happen in the blink of an eye when the situation changes due to a traumatic event. Everything I’ve ever written, that’s sitting at the heart of it.
When I look at the times around me now, there’s polarization. I’m really interested in American politics and I keep an eye on it, so I see there are lots of things reflected there that are kind of in the air here, too. Whether that’s because of Brexit or just the way our political parties are headed at the moment, it’s hard to push that out of whatever you’re going to write. What was interesting to me about doing research around Partition was there was a lot of beating people up and saying “this part of identity is the most important thing now.” That’s the kind of thing that very quickly breaks families and breaks communities. I’ve seen little versions of that happening here, so it felt natural to draw a little bit of that out in a way that you hope will speak to the audience watching here and say, there is no good end to this. It’s not the prime thing with it, but definitely, it’s part of the texture of the episode.
Here in America, we have this heroic narrative around World War II, that it was this great victory over evil. What I like about the war’s presence in this episode is that it reminds us how a decent amount of World War II was not fought by Americans and white Europeans but by colonial subjects, and that it did not feel very heroic to the people who participated in it. Some of its aftereffects, such as Partition, were a little more malevolent than we like to remember and the meaning of the war was actively contested, as we see in the final confrontation between the brothers at the end when they both try to use the war to justify what they’re doing. How did you approach that?
I find that there’s a slight myopia around World War II. It wasn’t just England that fought that war, it was the British Empire, and that did include the colonies. I think people tend to forget that quite easily. What happened in that context is that India gets pulled into that war, and for them, it’s like, what does Nazi Germany mean to them in that moment when they’ve been trying to fight for their independence for the last 100 years? They had also fought in World War I and this idea had been floated around like “hey, if you help us out we’ll get you your independence.” So I think it was a slightly more reluctant thing than “yes we must fight this great enemy.”
The leadership of people in India had different views. You had elements in India who were like, “well this doesn’t mean anything to us, and this is actually the perfect time to fight off the British. They’re saying they’re fighting an anti-colonial war, but they have colonies, so this is the chance to push them off and we won’t get another chance like this.” That was a way more contested thing within the colonies, just because of their status in relation to this mother country which was allegedly fighting to protect people from an invading, malevolent force that was trying to subject other people to their will, when that was exactly what was happening in the British Empire at that point. I find that to be a really under-explored thing, especially the feelings. How did it feel to be a person called into that war when you can’t even draw on the nationalism of “yes I’m doing it for the Empire”? Instead, you’re like, “if I do this maybe my country has a better chance of getting free, maybe I can help pay for some of my friends back home, maybe I can look out for my brother who I signed up with.” It was always for those personal reasons they were doing it, and getting able to touch on that a little bit felt really important to me, because I don’t think people think about it very often.
I hope this episode is like a springboard. My greatest hope is that people see this episode and then break out their phone and start learning more about Partition, since we can’t tell the whole thing within a 50-minute episode of Doctor Who.