Warning: Potential spoilers for the episode ahead.
Six episodes into its run, Series 11 of Doctor Who saw it taking its second dip into history. The first, "Rosa", had aired three weeks previously, becoming the first home run episode of this latest era of the more than half-century-old program. How would this trip to the past fare, particularly in light of the less than well-received sci-fi adventure that aired the previous week?
"Demons of the Punjab" opens with the member of Team TARDIS who has received the least amount of characterization, Yaz (Mandip Gill), spending time with her family including her grandmother Umbreen (played by Leena Dhingra). When Yaz receives a wristwatch from her gran that has an unspoken story attached to it, it's enough to spark her interest in her gran's past. Convincing the Doctor to take her back in time, they use the watch to hone in on the younger Umbreen (Amita Suman). Only Umbreen is about to marry a man who isn't Yaz's grandfather, the partition of India is about to happen with tensions brewing between Muslims and Hindus, and there are strange "demons" lurking around the woods of Punjab. In short, it's got all the makings of a solid pseudo-historical story.
But does it add up to the sum of its parts? Writer Vinay Patel crafts what is, fundamentally, a compelling piece of historically-based family drama. Yaz had been the companion least well developed thus far, so the idea of using her family history as the reason to take viewers to a historical setting Who hasn't explored before is an inspired one. Being in the US, I confess that I know only the basic facts about the partition, the chaos it caused, and its lingering effects on India and Pakistan to this day. Watching this, seeing it play out in microcosm, piqued my interest, to say the least. In that regard, the episode fits the mold created for Doctor Who's historical stories way back in 1963 for it to be entertaining but also informative at the same time.
Just as important, it tells a compelling story involving one of its lead characters. Christopher Eccelston's Doctor in "Father's Day" told Rose Tyler that the past is another country and Whittaker's incarnation of the Time Lord teaches Yaz the same lesson here. She discovers a part of her grandmother's life she had no clue about, watches family tensions simmering to a boiling point, and learns just how it is the young woman in 1947 came to settle in the British city of Sheffield. Watching Yaz's reaction to events, the more prominent role given to her character is a welcomed addition. That said, Patel does fall into the trap other writer's of Series 11 seem to have fallen into of forgetting she is a police officer as a strange death occurs practically in front of her, only she shows little interest. The episode goes some way to readdress the balance, even with that issue.
Where it stumbles a bit, as did "Rosa" before it, is how it incorporates the genre elements into the historical setting. The titular "demons" feel oddly shoehorned into the plot, being largely superfluous despite the efforts made to make them more central to the exposition delivered. When who they are and what they want is revealed, it comes less as a surprise and more of "this again?" as it treads on the territory from a Moffat era episode that aired less than a year before "Demons on the Punjab" did. If there is a flaw to this episode, one thing that takes it down a peg, it's the inclusion of an SF element that no one seems quite sure how to handle.
Beyond that, the episode continues the trend of cinematic production values for Series 11. The location filming (done in Spain rather than on the other side of the world, though you'd never know) once more lends a heightened sense of verisimilitude to proceedings. That sense of reality if further aided by the superb production values of costumes and sets, giving it the feel of being there watching events unfold. Even the genre elements, which make odd bedfellows for the plot, are well presented visually. The icing on the cake is the evocative score from Segun Akinola which reaches its zenith with the haunting Punjabian influenced rendition of the Doctor Who Theme. Brought together under Jamie Childs direction and the result is one of the most polished pieces of Doctor Who in recent memory.
Though it ultimately suffers from the same flaw as "Rosa" earlier in Series 11, "Demons of the Punjab" is nevertheless one of its highlights. It's an evocative tale, largely well told, and brought superbly to life with some of the strongest production values the show has had in recent memory. It's also an example, even with the one or two issues it does have, of how Doctor Who can illuminate those moments in history that can be overlooked by a wider audience and speaks to the power of its format even after more than fifty years.