Doctor Who builds on the messaging foundation laid with “Rosa” in “Demons of the Punjab,” making it clear that to this program intolerance is real evil. Instead of racism, this time it’s religious intolerance that divides. Instead of the American South, the action is set on the new border between India and Pakistan during the 24 hours surrounding Pakistan’s birth as a nation.
The episode opens with Yas (Mandip Gill) and her family celebrating her Nani’s (Leena Dhingra) birthday. Nani wants to share some of her mementos with her daughter and granddaughters while she’s still alive, and she gives Yas a broken man’s watch that belonged to her husband. She tells Yas that it must never be fixed. She also shares that she was the first woman married in Pakistan. She refuses to say more.
When next on the TARDIS, Yas begs The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to take her back to Pakistan in the 50s so she can see what her grandmother’s life was like and get to know more about the woman who shares so little. The Doctor resists at first, reluctant to risk meddling in Yas’ family time stream, but of course she gives in eventually.
The Doctor uses the watch Nani gave Yas as sort of a destination key for the TARDIS’s telepathic GPS. Instead of leading them to Lahore in the 50s, as Yas had expected, the watch takes them to a farm on what is just becoming the India/Pakistan border on the day of Partition, August 14, 1947.
On this farm, they do find young Nani, Umbreen (Amita Suman). It is the eve of her wedding to Prem (Shane Zaza), whom Yas recognizes immediately is not her grandfather. Although The Doctor has only agreed to visiting young Nani for one hour, the questions raised in that time about her grandmother’s past make Yas determined to stay until she has answers. The Doctor concedes, largely because she’s detected an alien presence in their midst.
It quickly becomes clear that although Umbreen and Prem are deeply in love, his Hindu faith and her Muslim faith make their match controversial. Because of the moment in history, this controversy extends beyond Umbreen’s disapproving mother and Prem’s disapproving little brother, Manish (Hamza Jeetooa), to the newly divided countries whose populations will be segregated by religion.
Umbreen and Prem move determinedly towards their nuptials, despite the holy man who was to officiate being murdered en route to the wedding, ostensibly by the aliens lurking in the woods. In lieu of friends supporting them, the couple welcomes the newcomers as their wedding guests and The Doctor as their new officiant. The Doctor and Yas soften the harshness of Umbreen’s mother, and Graham (Bradley Walsh) and Ryan (Tosin Cole) soften the hostility of Prem’s brother.
When she isn’t getting henna painted on her hands, The Doctor is seeking answers about the aliens. She sensed the intruders as soon as they landed, and everyone present saw two creatures standing over the body of the holy man when they found him. Prem recognized them as the same “demons” he’d seen standing over his older brother’s dead body in WWII.
The Doctor tracks down the alien craft and enters it with Ryan and Prem. She uses her sonic to unlock its controls and discovers that the aliens are Thijarians, a race The Doctor hasn’t encountered directly before. She does, however know of their reputation as the assassins of the universe.
Tension builds through the night as the wedding party fights prejudice from within and the fear of alien assassins without. As the ceremony nears, The Doctor has a showdown with the aliens and is shocked to learn that the Thijarians have changed their ways. They are not on Earth as assassins, but as witnesses. Their homeworld and people were destroyed while they were out killing others, and in honor of the millions who died unwitnessed, they have devoted themselves to bearing witness to the deaths of others throughout the galaxy.
The Doctor is humbled by their ability to change and the mission they have chosen. She asks why they are there, and she learns that they came to witness the death of the holy man, the deaths of the thousands who will lose their lives in the riots incited by Partition and the death of Prem. Since the Thijarians have already witnessed the holy man’s death, they can reveal to The Doctor who killed him.
The Doctor returns to the wedding party with the knowledge that Prem will die, that they cannot meddle in this without risking Yas’s very existence and that Prem’s brother is the murderer who killed the holy man.
The wedding goes forward in a meadow on the new Pakistan/India border, and afterwards when Prem is giving his bride his watch as a gift (in accord with a Muslim tradition), he drops it. Umbreen says that the broken watch now marks their moment in time. They retire to the farmhouse for the wedding meal, and Umbreen thanks Manish for everything he did to care for the people in their area during the war. She asks if she can feed him to symbolically repay him for his good work.
Manish cracks. He shouts that he didn’t work to feed her, but to feed his own people. He makes a comment about how they don’t know what’s coming and storms out.
The Doctor follows him and confronts him about the holy man. She learns that Manish has called the authorities on his brother and Umbreen, and that they’re about to be penalized for their mixed Muslim and Hindu household.
A posse arrives on horses, and Manish rushes to join them with Prem’s shotgun in his hands. Prem sends Umbreen and her mother, and The Doctor and her companions, away, encouraging them to run for safety while he tries to reason with his brother. The Doctor and company stay close enough to see him fail, and they’re turned away by the Thijarians in time not to witness Prem being murdered at his brother’s direction.
When Yas gets home to modern-day Sheffield, she has a new level of understanding and compassion for her grandmother. She began the adventure selfishly wanting access to her Nani’s memories and explanations for the things Nani had chosen to leave out. After experiencing a moment in Umbreen’s young life– one that had already seen war, drought and famine before losing her husband of one hour to a government-sanctioned hate crime– Yas expresses appreciation for her grandmother and says she isn’t in a hurry for Nani to share anything she doesn’t want to.
My one big hangup for this episode: Why didn’t Nani recognize Yas? I spent the whole episode thinking the reason Nani wouldn’t talk about the past when she gave Yas the watch was because she didn’t want to spoil for Yas that she was at the wedding. Did I misread that?
Looks like I’ve found my “hot take” for this week’s AnyWho.