[CW – descriptions of torture, references to trauma and alcohol]
Let me tell you the story of a man.
That man was born in 1926, in the North of France. Saw the war pass, and, no doubt, inspired by the tales of heroism that he heard during it, decided to try his luck in the army. And he had a decent career, as he entered the 1950s, met a lovely wife, and had a lovely little baby boy.
And then, things started to happen in Algeria. Bad things. It was not “a war”, that, everyone was very clear about. Even in the history books, it wouldn’t be described as such for decades – these were the “Events” of Algeria. What that man knew was that the nationalists there, after losing the latest round of elections, had decided to try their luck at armed struggled. Throughout 1955, grim tales were heard – dozens of European settlers and those who took their side being slaughtered with axes, machetes and pickaxes, in the little villages. Fair and proportionate retribution of course follows, with little planes dropping little bombs over the hamlets deemed guilty, those in which bad apples might be hiding. 5000, 7000 killed, about? A strong signal. Also, the start of a cry for vengeance.
Then, just as he was headed there as a soldier, leaving his newborn son and wife behind, things got really nasty. Fighting broke in the streets of Algiers. François Mitterrand, future President of France, then Minister of Justice, merged the police forces of the colonies and of the metropole, essentially allowing for a complete takeover of the colonial justice system. Which then, obviously, as the city was falling into chaos, descended into systematic brutalisation. A bunch of people, maybe 4000 – “General Bigeard’s shrimps”, as they were called – were thrown off helicopters and into the Mediterranean, their feet having been encased in concrete beforehand. To hide the torture, you understand – can’t have brutalised bodies just be found by the media, that would look bad. Loads of people were just arrested and carried to very cozy little villas to be “interrogated”: not just locals or revolutionaries; if you were a white intellectual with communist sympathies, leaning a bit too far to the left, or a bit too pacifist, chances are you’d be questioned as well, by both soldiers and General De Gaulle’s informal, secret police services. One of the people working there was called Jean-Marie Le Pen; he later became the leader of France’s mainstream far-right party, which is still headed by his daughter Marine today.
In Paris, demonstrations were organised in support of Algeria’s independence. In 1961, the most important of those was repressed by chief of police and former Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon – his men and a number of far-right militias killing possibly up to 300 people, shot, beaten to death, or thrown in the waters of the Seine.
Of course, I don’t know what the man saw of all these things. I just know what he did when he returned home.
If “The Tsuranga Conundrum” was the episode which attempted to solidify a definition of the Doctor in the Chibnall era, “Demons of the Punjab” feels like the biggest movement of the era so far towards a coherent political and aesthetic ethos.
It’s largely due to the continuity, one could argue. And really, it makes sense: because this is an episode which is all about the past; so, while it develops a storyline about the origins of one of its lead characters, it also directly echoes and completes two very specific stories from the series’ recent past.
First off, this is very clearly intended as, if not a sequel, at least some sort of a companion piece to “Rosa” – a BAME writer tackling a very political subject, the end credits switching to a one-off theme, and, most importantly, this same focalisation on reconstituting a fractured history, trying to make sense of bits and pieces of information you’ve acquired. Except, that, well, “Rosa” always looked at things from a certain distance: Rosa Parks, the character, the icon, is relevant to Ryan and Yasmin’s lives, in how they interact with the world around them, but they don’t necessarily have a personal connection with her, and that shows, down to the fact the final scenes are scored not by a rearranged version of the Who theme, but by a pop song, something exterior to the diegesis of the show. Here, though? It’s something deeply, deeply personal – not just in the way the plot is hooked to Yasmin’s very existence, but also the fact we are looking at a tragedy which happens under the direct influence of the United Kingdom. America, as far as Who is concerned, has always been kind of a space of projections – it appears for the first time in a serial, “The Chase”, which is all about joyful metafiction, and then Steven Moffat uses it, through series 6, basically as the embodiment of a certain type of epic storytelling against which he then positions his vision of Who. It’s not that the take on Rosa we saw was invalid or anything: but the episode itself very clearly understood that it was about narratives being built. The life of Rosa Parks became the central stake in a game of conflicted interpretations.
On the opposite side, “Demons of the Punjab” is very simple. We know what is happening, we know what is going to happen, there is no way to reinterpret the events or shift their significance. Meaning is not constructed – it is revealed. Instead of a jumble of dates and information and timelines to put together, the narrative is conjured up by a singular object, the broken watch, which unfolds into a vast personal and historical tapestry. It’s less a matter of political philosophy, and more, well, Proustian reminiscence, where the prelapsarian wonders of the past, and then their destruction by petty passions and world politics, are brought up by a simple object or act – or rather, it’s a modern reinterpretation of that sort of storytelling, one that proves actually inclusive of minorities. Even when Who erred near that territory before – “Listen” springs to mind, complete with use of the telepathic circuits, it was still a privileged reserved for middle-class white people going through their midlife crisis. Not that there aren’t still any undercurrents of white privilege floating about in series 11: the Doctor’s insistence that she knows Lord Mountbatten, or Graham’s naïve comments are prime examples of that – but that’s undermined by both the newfound femininity of the Doctor, and the way Jodie Whittaker acts the scenes. She injects the tragedy with a sense of vitality, of bubbling, explosive life, which at the very least sells to the viewer why she and her gang would be trusted by Indian people in 1947.
It also provides a coherent moral impetus for the Doctor’s lack of active participation in the events: the events we witness, the characters we see, are tied to the past, a product of it, and changing anything would lead to their destruction. That’s also retroactively true of “Rosa” – yes, she is a symbol, and one that might have been veered away from her original meaning, but she is nevertheless an important figure in how people understand race and their relation to it; and rewriting that, especially under the guidance of a white woman, would effectively be redefining the edges of peoples’ selves, their very identities. It’s not so much that the past is locked in, something unchangeable, cruel, and cold – indeed, “Demons” is such a punch to the gut because all that violence could have easily been avoided. But it’s that changing that past would effectively violate the characters’ agency: and if we can draw a moral line for the politics of time-travel within Doctor Who, it’s that they should always favour this sense of agency (which means both refusing easy “but History say they should die!” narratives, and the straight-up reformatting of personal narratives by an ideological mind, as progressive as it might be; it’s not like the Who expanded universe wasn’t full of horror tales about altering a person’s deep self, from audios to the wonderful Kate Orman and Jon Blum book, “Unnatural History”). After all, this past is what sets the parameters of the struggle – and learning about these parameters, about the shape of the universe and the exact form of the darkness it contains, might be the best strategy to actively fight it and develop a sci-fi activism, both within and outside the diegesis.
The Doctor’s relative passivity is where the second major reference to past stories comes in, and that is of course with the multiple references to Steven Moffat’s writing. In a way, it is an answer to the moral praxis posited in series 10, that “without hope, without witness, without reward”: it’s a celebration of Hope, as the Doctor’s speech while she officiates the wedding would tell you; and above all it’s celebrating the action of bearing witness, of contemplating and understanding the past. Which is, let’s be clear, in itself a political act: it is not passivity – especially when that past has been obfuscated and mangled by the writers of history book, and by the tropes of the media used to depict it. Especially when you consider how the story reinterprets what is essentially a conceit already used in “Twice Upon a Time” – in that story, the Testimony is essentially an abstract idea, “memories held in glass”, but, if you take it at face value, you end up with a foundation of enlightened humans creating a way to preserve their own memories and existence. It is beautiful – but also poetically self-centered in a way Moffat’s take on Doctor Who often is, all politics of metatextuality. And indeed, an unwanted but real implication of that episode’s text is that you have only human, or at least human-adjacent (Nardole) persons being saved into the Testimony. The Thijarians, on the other hand, have adopted a system that not only looks a lot more inclusive, but is not just built into the lore of the show as some kind of metatextual mechanism: it’s something they have chosen, an act they accomplish, repeatedly, of their own volition, in the real world. The move from the abstract into a dark, empty reality, so typical of Chibnall’s era, is once again repeated: the Thijarians don’t put memories in glass, they just, well, very literally give a face to the faceless; and, if you want to interpret the end credits that way, the episode literally gives a voice to the voiceless, ready to sing along.
That’s where one of the most important themes of the story comes in, really – rituals. The Chibnall era shows us a reality which is at best confusing, and at worst a living nightmare, from the dark recesses of industrial noir to historically accurate peaks of human suffering and misery. It’s miserable and chaotic – and characters need to make sense of it. Graham says so: we can’t know the truth of our own lives, because “we’re too busy living it from the inside” (a very important difference from the Moffat era, which was all about characters having a deep understanding of the narratives of their lives, with their attempts to stir it in a given direction being the thematic cruxes of the series’ arcs). Hence why some would feel the needs for rituals, which are, in their simplest understanding, elements of structure – something which gives a shape, a form, a specific tempo and temporality to a life. What’s admirable is how the episode understands and portrays these rituals: there is a notion of faith and religiosity to the proceedings, yes, but it’s second to an all-encompassing, flexible joy. The Muslim woman performs the Hindu ritual and vice-versa; the Doctor enjoys the rituals of femininity while still easing in her new gender. There is a tendency to see rituals, traditions, especially when they belong to a different culture, a different race, or a different social class, as a gateway for violence, for events to come spiralling down and for “ordinary people to lose their mind”. And the episode acknowledges that yes, under the influence of populism, or the one, more insidious, of a slithering colonialist spirit whose wounds have still not healed, it can be the case – but these habits, this stability, can teach us something else, something better. It can be a vector of love – so Umbreen says as she talks about Prem being the only stable part in a life of confusion. If we chose these habits correctly, as the Thijarians did, as the couple here does, they can be our moral framework, the thing that is going to actually teach us to be “good men”. Once again, a Moffat reference – but it’s not in relation to the Doctor this time, just about an ordinary, doomed man, trying his best against desperate circumstances; in a way, dying in a way not too different from Twelve, shot by an enemy embodying the worst of collective thought, in a green lush land, enemy brother at his side. We’ve moved on from the show giving you an example of moral life, to trying to actively engage with what it means in the real world, actively advising you. It’s educational TV in more than one way, it’s not just about history – it’s about morality.
Which really is where you’ve got to, speaking of rituals, kind of make an act of faith towards the series. Which adopts pretty unconventional, if not outright flawed, positions towards the classic positions of screenwriting, both in general and relatively to previous eras of Who. I personally choose to make that leap and consider the dynamics we are seeing as a deliberate action, a way to show a certain kind of morality in action. There hasn’t been, really, any conflict between the members of the TARDIS crew so far, and “Demons of the Punjab” does not change that – compare it to the relatively similar “Father’s Day”, the differences are staggering. That can be seen as a flaw – but it’s also, in many respects, a way to teach unity: while the threats this series have only been external, they also have been pointedly systemic, with the cooperation and friendship between the characters as their saving grace, their way to re-enchant their lives and triumph against the bad guys. It’s, quite frankly, dramatically unsustainable for too long, and I don’t believe it could last into next series: but it’s also something new, and that I’ve personally found both beautiful and necessary for the narrative of the series.
Because you cannot show the effect of systemic evil if you don’t have something good in the first place. The beauty and warmth of friendship, the thrills and pangs of love – uncomplicated and beautiful. If you’ve got to show the darkness, raw and evil, you’ve got to set them against that light: not because the viewing audience should be spared and treated kindly; but because that’s only there that you realise their true depth. When fundamentally good, uncomplicated people face losing everything to the all-consuming fire.
Because that’s what colonialism is. That’s what it does to people. It’s a system of oppression, but what does “system of oppression” even means?! That’s just words, if you take them outside of their context.
No, the reality of it is that it’s a thing which crushes lives. Millions – billions even, of individual lives, all beautiful, and worthwhile, and worthy of remembrance. They might have been complicated. They might have been beautifully simple. Doesn’t matter. No one gets spared. Maybe the TARDIS family this year feels artificial: but there’s power in this artificiality; in conjuring up a diverse, lovely, sweet family which can actually resist the traumas of loss, of capitalism, of colonialism. Because, well, if your family has interacted with these systems, chances are you have a traumatic story in there in it somewhere.
I know I do.
The war – sorry, the “Events”, eventually ended. The man returned home.
He was not the same. Of course he wasn’t. PTSD. Which I assume wasn’t the best-understood thing, in the day – the care wasn’t optimal. And anyway, no one really wanted to help these people too much, or think about them too much, really. France, had, after all, lost. The UK had let go of its empire, but we had to be beaten into submission, or at least to the point where the chaos was becoming unbearable. It was a national shame, which we obviously tried very hard to cover up. We still do. A nasty thing to be brushed off. The Algerian soldiers who had fought for France were left there, to be massacred by the successful revolutionary government. And the man, well, he was abandoned in a different way.
He self-medicated. Alcohol. Loads of it. Enough to lose all chances to hold a steady job and make his wife and kid terrified of him, creating trauma, wounds that would never heal.
Eventually, he was just … whisked away. To a mental institution. Not really for treatment – just so that he could die in silence. Which he did. 1976. He was fifty years old. He’s buried not too far from where he was born, in a former mining town, now deserted and grey.
There’s probably no one in the whole wild world who knows the details of his story. His wife died of old age, just after the turn of the century. His child was hurt enough to never speak of him again. His descendants would never know who he really was – what he liked, what he disliked, his quirks, and secrets and shames. In a few years, he will be completely erased – a blur where history once stood. And no one will ever come in a magic time machine, collecting the broken pieces of his life and arranging them in a pattern that actually makes sense.
His name was Adrien Dubois.
He was my grandfather.