If you learn nothing else from 55 years of Doctor Who it is that people are people, no matter if they are blue, or encased in metal, or are sentient mollusc planets escaping their own universe, or humans living in India in 1947. Thus, I don’t understand the outcry about the focus on Yaz’s family in the episode Demons of Punjab. I don’t recall an outcry at Rose visiting an earlier iteration of her family. This concept of family, the familial, and familiar is the point. What Doctor Who consistently does is transform the scale of space and historical events like war into stories about individuals we can relate to. Millions dying is a concept few can fathom, but showing a couple in love amid political turmoil, or a gun pointed at a single man in defiance of hate is immediate. Personal. We understand and can depict brothers fighting each other more easily than armies pitted against each other. Mostly. And this is history, political decisions in London meant death and displacement for millions. If these same critics resent people who look like Yaz being in Sheffield, they need to take it up with the British Empire.
Some are angry Doctor Who has turned into a social justice program, but really, they are angry they have just realised The Doctor was ALWAYS a warrior fighting for social justice. They may spit out the words social justice warrior like it’s a crime to want better, but wanting better is what education is about. And this program was established as an educational one. Having said that this episode doesn’t dwell on the culpability of Empire (as it could have). Nor does it focus too much on the damage of war, so much as the show us the personal links each of us can form to the past. The reason we were born here, or there, the reasons our parents encountered each other, and their parents before them, were shaped by global political forces as much as personal choices. Yaz is from Sheffield because of a random quirk of Umbreen as much as Partition. For me, when I think of Umbreen, I’m reminded of the woman who waited out WWII for my grandfather, only to lose him when he met the woman who would become my grandmother once he got off the boat on return from New Guinea.
Who Do We Think We Were
I’m not a fan of Richard Dawkins but he’s right: genes are selfish. And often so are their carriers. As children we can barely imagine our parents before us because we see ourselves as the reason for them. And as descendants, we imagine we are the culmination or purpose or reason for centuries of relationships because we are NOW. Since our lives apparently justify all that went before, we want our ancestors to have been happy, because their paths ended up with us, who vindicate this now-ness. And dammit we are worth it (?). This is circular and pointless, because while some of our ancestors might have imagined future descendants they can’t know us. But I can tell you our ancestors weren’t always happy: for all the worst reasons of history (which still occur today). Had my grandmother been able to pursue her dream of being a milliner perhaps she might not have married the man off the warship who became my grandfather. Perhaps many of our ancestors sacrificed happiness to support their survival. Thus, of the many demands time travellers can make, to demand our ancestors be happy is perhaps the most childish and unreasonable. Sure, I hope they were happy (unless they were evil), but that they lived should be enough. And FYI, while I won’t have direct descendants, any future family tree plotters should know: I had moments of joy but also despair. It’s called life.
The medium is the message
This episode addressed the contemporary idea regarding the power of media to radicalise individuals. Manish learns to support Partition and knows what is coming and helps fulfil it, via the radio. His perspective is contrasted to that of his brother Prem, who through his war experience, sees how people can cooperate to reach common goals, while his new bride sees how neighbours, Muslim and Hindu, can work together so all can benefit. Meanwhile, Manish’s radicalisation results in murder. Thus, partition is achieved, not only as a border between nations but also as a rending apart of communities, families and lovers and between the living and the dead.
Speaking of which
Once again, the dead are attended by aliens who explain their role is about acknowledging those who die alone, but sorry, they are wrong. The holy man, Prem and his brother, none of them die alone. They die facing their enemies. What happens is these individuals die unacknowledged by those responsible for unleashing the forces of hate. That’s why aliens attend. But these aliens also symbolise us. They view death as we view this story. The aliens also stand for the writers who present these stories anew to us. Because while Umbreen and Prem might not be historical individuals, they represent all who faced hard choices, lost everything, and especially those who did not survive turmoil not of their making. Since the passage of time renders us strangers to the future, and since so many are forgotten within a couple of generations, stories can literally restore something of us. The aliens thus also represent the impulse to narrative and memorialise. These memorialists must be alien because currently too many humans see history as linear and simple, when it is three-dimensional, fractured and even more complex than we care to tell it. So, while I get the criticisms of the alien assassin’s subplot as sub par, they perform a role, standing apart from humanity to show us ourselves, because honestly, we can be pretty bad at that.