Once again, the new season of Doctor Who reaches for a pure historical drama and very nearly succeeds with its sixth episode, “Demons of the Punjab” — even if one of the guest characters has to put a fine point on just where the injustice lies this week. Nevertheless, the episode is very much a Classic Series episode if one trades in Daleks or Cybermen for an all-too familiar human impulse to hate.
The story sees The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) take Yaz (Mandip Gill) on a pilgrimage to her Grandmother Umbreen’s (Amita Suman) home near what will be the border between India and Pakistan. In fact, Umbreen plans to marry a Hindu man, Prem (Shane Zaza), just as the British declare a separate country for Muslims in what once was part India. Her Muslim heritage causes great distress for Prem’s brother Manish (Hamza Jeetoa), who has been swayed by the tied of anti-Muslim rhetoric on Indian airwaves in 1947. Meanwhile, as the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) arrive on the scene, they discover an alien presence is also in the area apparently on a mission of murder.
But, ultimately, the aliens are just Doctor Who window dressing for the most familiar opponent in The Doctor’s long journey: intolerance. That said, they’re brilliantly realized and their story is surprisingly tragic. It also seems their mission to witness the unobserved dead hearkens back to the 2017 Christmas Special, “Twice Upon a Time,” in which a massive supercomputer witness death and absorbs the details of the each ending life. Is it possible these creatures are the real architects of that altruistic device? We’re told they spent eons as the universe’s greatest assassins, so there is something fitting if all the death and violence they caused led to one of the great repositories of knowledge in the known universe.
And, it seems, they end up creating a starker contrast to Manish, the real demon loose in Punjab. In regards to the hatred brewing inside him, Doctor Who pulls few punches — right down to realizing him as someone who can still deeply love his brother and yet hate the women he loves. Because in real life, hatred is not as simple as the Daleks. It’s often messy and complicated and, like a fixed point in time, unavoidable.
The messiness and inevitability are at the very heart of hatred and over the course of the story, we see it poison Manish more and more as he finally announces his wish that Prem died during the war instead of their older brother. Even in his final moments, Prem cannot believe Manish would choose hate over him. And yet, it happens.
Despite the depressing aspects of the plot, the episode is quite beautiful with Yaz finally getting a little more characterization. That said, she’s still the most distant of The Doctor’s new friends as we learn more about her Nan than Yaz. Ultimately, all we have of Yaz is biographical data without a hope or wish or even a good why for her travels. But there’s still time to learn about her.
Meanwhile, Ryan and Graham take a back seat and behave more like Classic series companions. Which, really, makes sense. There’s only 50 minutes to tell a story and, thankfully, this week’s episode focused on the right things.
Also, as we’re keeping track of Classic Series episodes this season takes inspiration from, reiterating the notion of fixed points in time goes back to the 1963 story “The Aztecs,” in which The Doctor tries to warn Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) about meddling with the Aztec culture they encounter. Here, though, the inevitability of events is all the more tragic as The Doctor has the knowledge, but is completely incapable of altering the outcome. And that, more than anything else these days, is the greatest tragedy of the Time Lord. Her immense knowledge is sometime no protection against that which must transpire and the hate which often fuels the things she fights against.
Luckily, though, the season’s seventh episode, “Kerblam!,” allows The Doctor to interfere in a more positive way, even if a few tragic deaths still occur.
Upon receiving a delivery from Kerblam, the biggest online retailer in the galaxy, The Doctor discovers a distress message in the packing slip. The TARDIS changes course to Kerlbam’s central processing hub where she, Ryan, Yaz and Graham go undercover to learn the truth about a fully-automated warehouse legally required to employ a 10% humanoid work force. And while the show has equipped itself to make an incisive critique of working condition at the real world’s biggest online retailer, “Kerblam!” side-steps this for a story inspired by the 1975’s “The Robots of Death.” In fact, if the episode had made a few pointed connections to that earlier story, it would’ve been perfect.
In lieu of social commentary, the story is a fun mystery with the suspect list ever changing from middle-managers, to the computer, to the least likely culprit of all. But that real answer elevates “Kerblam!” from what could be a perceived as a fairly standard episode of the show into something a bit more intriguing and unsettling.
As we’ve mentioned before, new showrunner Chris Chibnall and his writers have Russell T. Davie’s knack for bringing characters to life in a very short time; even if said characters quickly end up dead. We see it again in “Kerblam!” with Dan (Lee Mack), Yaz’s partner in the stacks, Kira (Claudia Jesse), the young woman The Doctor and Ryan meet in the fulfillment center, and Charlie (Leo Flanagan), Graham’s partner in maintenance. Creating a slight romance for Kira and Charlie diverts attention from the janitor as a possible suspect and his eventual reveal as the mastermind behind the disappearances at Kerblam is genuinely good plotting. Nevertheless, Kira’s death feels like a bit of a short-change as the story lacked the time for The Doctor and Ryan to adequately grieve.
Back on the plus side, Ryan and Yaz’s trip through the dispatch chute was a nice nod to the Classic Series, as was Charlie’s robophobia — even if the word takes on a different meaning from its use in “The Robots of Death.” Additionally, the show seems to have finally found a way to give Team TARDIS equal time by splitting them into two groups. It’s an old trope outlined by writers like Terrence Dicks, but it is surprisingly effective in the New Series for dealing with the three companion problem.
Nonetheless, “Kerblam!” may be the weakest of the stories told this season thus far. It has a lot going for it, but coming on the heels of “Demons of Punjab,” it seems a little too slight. It also strengthens the sense that Chibnall is more at home writing or producing historical episodes; which is definitely something the show should lean into after years of “clever” traps across time and obscure alien threats. In fact, the current production team’s ability with the historicals is so strong, they could easily deliver an episode with no aliens and make a fantastic episode of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who airs Sundays on BBC America.