When I first read the episode’s summary, I was a bit disappointed. Doctor Who was going to air on Armistice Day; and not just any Armistice Day, the 100th one. I was looking for a tribute, and I feared that I would only get another episode full of political correctness. A first level reading of the episode might just prove me right, but what I’m interested in is the second level reading, which turns Demons of the Punjab into a tribute not only to those who died during wars, but also to those who survived and to their descendants.
It starts with the memories of an old lady, Yaz’s grandmother, who is reluctant to share some events from her past. Now this is more common than you may think. Many people, who went through a traumatic experience such as a war, won’t tell you everything about it. Either because some events are too painful to talk about – and we can easily imagine this is the case for Yaz’s grandmother – or because they are the kinds of things you just don’t talk about to protect your family, just in case a new conflict arises.
I could easily relate to Yaz, as I always wondered what kind of man my grandfather was during the war. I never got a chance to know him, sadly, and my grandmother told me her side of the story, but she never told me about my grandfather’s. Was he the hero I was hoping he was? Was he a simple bystander, trying to keep a low profile?
I suspect that everyone would have reacted like Yaz. You get to travel in a time machine, surely you would want to experience first hand what it was like! You would want to know what you might consider to be a family secret, you want to be a witness.
It took me about twenty minutes to realise that the episode I was watching was a proper Armistice Day tribute. It was only when I spotted red poppies that I started watching the episode differently, starting with the choice of Partition Day as a background story. I live in an area that had its borders moved depending on who was victorious during wars. We became Germans in 1871, French again in 1919, then Germans again in 1940 and French again after WW2. Depending on whether the land was German or French, it could become tricky for a German and a French to get married… just like it was for Yaz’s grandmother (in her case for religious reasons). Defining a border has consequences, and no one is safe, because everyone is concerned. As Demons of the Punjab demonstrates, even in a remote farm tensions between family members can arise. How many families were broken over political disputes during WW2? How many family members betrayed each other?
This alone might explain the reluctance of survivors to speak freely and openly. There might be consequences just around the corner, but those who haven’t experienced war can’t understand, and Yaz pictures that fact perfectly. At first, she wants to know everything about her grandmother’s past, claiming that it would be the only way for her story to be remembered in the future; but then, once she witnessed those events, she understands and respects her grandmother’s will to keep some things untold.
And that brings me to the Thijarians. After losing everyone and everything they cared about, their calling changes. The assassins become witnesses. After having spread death, they seek to honour the dead. It’s quite interesting to note that they have multiple sets of eyes, and one could theorise that they might represent different people in one entity: the one who fought the war and became a witness, and the one who becomes the depositary of those memories, and whose duty is to keep the memories alive, to pass them on to the next generation. The aliens represent us, those who didn’t experience those terrible conflicts, but who should honour and respect those who did.
Another interesting scene is this shot of a field full of red poppies, while some voices can be heard in the background. Forget it’s 1947, and try to listen to the words as if it were 1917 or 1944. Isn’t it amazing to realise that these words fit every single conflict? Because it doesn’t matter which conflict we are talking about, events tend to be similar in each case.
Demons of the Punjab is not just a sci-fi episode involving some historical facts and aliens; it’s also a lesson of love and hope, as the Doctor states. The episode conveys a strong message. Remembrance is a tribute to those who have fallen, but also to those who witness history being made.
And I would like to conclude by sharing a personal story with you: 73 years after WW2 ended, I discovered that my grandfather was the hero I hoped he was. Now, I’ll be able to pass on his memories to the next generation, so no one will forget him.
What about you? Are you a witness, or a proud keeper of your family’s history? Let us know in the comments below or on social media.