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Saturday, 17 November 2018

DOCTOR WHO: ‘ROSA’ VERSUS ‘DEMONS OF THE PUNJAB’



If ‘Doctor Who’ isn’t being written to generate material for middle-aged folk to blog about, there’s no reason why it should be. In fact, I can more think of reasons why it shouldn’t
be. If it doesn’t always make much in the way of sense, that’s scarcely something new.

But it does need to entertain the people watching it. And as a writer Chibnall isn’t even good enough to be particularly bad. The word for him would be perfunctory. It’s like he makes lists of the sort of thing which might be expected to happen in a ’Who’ episode, then presses shuffle. If Davies and Moffat could aggravate through bad habits and lazy over-use of tropes, that was partly because we knew they were capable of more. Chibnall is best given up on. I’d rather write about that wall over there, quite frankly.

Yet there’s a twist in the tale. Up till now, in New Who the historicals have been a weak point. With few exceptions, they were dire celebrity cameos set in Theme Park Britain. Like those stagey re-enactments they always insist on sticking in documentaries, only with worse plots. Yet there’s two interesting episodes of this season so far, and strangely both have been historicals.

Both departed from standard ‘Classical’ storylines, with their togas, crowns and cloaks. And while the mixed-race Tardis crew might have looked like tokenism up until now, these involve minority folk penning the dialogue. ’Rosa’, about the Civil Rights campaigner Rosa Parks, was by the black writer Malorie Blackman. (Chibnall had a co-writer credit, but didn’t instigate the story.) While ’Demons of the Punjab’ was by the Asian writer Vinay Patel.

Stranger still, they’re so unlike one another they may as well be bookends.

’Rosa’ is exemplary, but it is alas a bad example. Segregation is surely a cut-and-dried example of racism as a structural phenomenon. But that’s just overridden here and it’s made the usual matter of individualised malevolence. The weight of the law becomes a cartoon Baddie Southern Policeman. The bus driver’s even willing to give up his day off for a chance to be racist. (The actual Parks asked her arresting officer “Why do you push us around?” To which he replied “I don’t know, but the law’s the law.” We got crappy muzak over that bit.)

And by a remarkable coincidence anti-racism turns out to be a matter of individual conscience. Had Rosa Parks happened to have walked home that night, Civil Rights would never have happened. Really? People had refused to move on the bus before her. The significance of her case was that she was connected to the Civil Rights movement, and they used the occasion to launch a city-wide bus boycott. Black folk made up the majority of riders, and their boycott had an estimated 90% participation rate. Despite heavy repression, it won. (Parks was constantly correcting the notion she was “old” and “tired” at the time. “The only tired I was”, she stated, “was tired of giving in.”)

Individual acts of conscience are not, and have never been, enough to challenge corrupt and oppressive systems. That always takes mass action. Yes, Parks was a figurehead of Civil Rights. But it pushed with its body. The irony is that, if not for the boycott, not a single one of us would know Parks’ name today.


It’s also exemplary of how bad a fit this sort of story is for ’Who’. In the one right decision, they realised the Doctor can’t get actively involved in the Civil Rights struggle. (Imagine her giving Parks a motivational speech about opposing racism. Actually, no, don’t.) But then the Doctor needs something to do other than watch. So they concoct a parallel story with the Alien Racist. And they become almost like Good and Bad Angels, one trying to cancel the other’s actions out so the main story can proceed as we know it.

He’s not so much poorly characterised as uncharacterised. As he tries to scupper the bus journey, he’s like Dick Dastardly, setting diversion signs and rolling boulders onto roads - but without the iconic appeal. His motivation is more arbitrary even than the bus driver’s. In fact there’s no motivation for racism, we’re just supposed to take racism as the motivation. Yet you can see the problem. Take him out of the plot, he leaves a hole. But put him back in, he just makes another hole.

This story could, in fact should, be dramatised. But it should be a straight docu-drama. Which could start off with Parks’ refusal to move, then broaden scope to the boycott, the counter-repression, then success.

Though if you were going to do it in ’Who’, the clue’s in the final scene where Parks is arrested. Dispense with the silly alien sub-plot and do the whole episode like that. Time travel becomes something like white privilege. It gives you a power, but one you can’t use for good. The Tardis crew have to ensure something happens which they really, really don’t want to see. Nobody would want to just sit back and watch this. Everybody has to. There’s something inherently conservative about stories which Restore Time’s True Path. It’s not something that can be avoided so it’s best played into.


There’s been relatively wide agreement about ‘Demons of the Punjab’. It’s not just met the faint praise of being the best episode of this season so far, it’s actually a good episode in and of itself. But unfortunately, they’re still sticking in the aliens. I agree with just one of those.

I suspected that this might be an above-par episode as soon as I heard the subject matter. Why would anyone pitch a story about the Partition of India to some ratings-minded BBC Exec unless it was a dream project of theirs?

But once made it has an advantage. The problem with Civil Rights is that people assume they already know the story and where they stand on it. There’s either the uphill task of breaking down all that just to get started, or the plain sailing of confirming prejudices. Partition is so poorly known its dramatic fresh territory, it presents opportunities rather than problems.

You could perhaps fault Patel’s summation of it. The decision to have no British characters bar the time travellers has upsides but also downsides. Despite the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ aspects of the story I’m skeptical there would have been many un-arranged marriages at the time, let alone cross-religion matches. (Though I’ll defer there to anyone more knowledgeable than me.)

But it does get over the key point. The ethnic violence and mob mentality was not some return to primitive savagery, stuff the British had been nobly keeping the lid on through their rule. In fact, till that point people had lived together peacefully for generations.

And Patel not only fills in a knowledge gap, but give it analogues for our times. Borders are arbitrary impositions on the landscape, which merely impose division. They don’t keep you safe, they do the very opposite. And the younger brother, radicalised by “the radio” and “angry men with pamphlets”, is a clear forerunner of today’s alt.right seduced into hatred by rabble-rousing rubbish on the internet. It’s the older brother, the one who saw war, who wants peace.


When the Doctor corrects “demons” to “aliens”, of course we’re with her. Only to find she has it wrong as well. Their early malevolent look is perhaps oversold, which makes the switch something of a trick. (They communicate by pushing their thoughts into people’s heads, then abruptly stopping when it’s time to turn good. And the line “or we will stand over your corpses” is asking to be misunderstood.) But overall it’s effective. In plot terms they turn out to be the very opposite of the Space Racist, they never had any intention of getting involved.

More to the point they’re not a bad example but a good one. In ’Who’, aliens are often demons - negative aspects of our self-image, Daleks the lust for power, Cybermen the drive to conform and so on. Every now and again it flips this to offset us. But this does something extra…

They’re former killers who have now dedicated themselves to mourning the unmourned. (“We are changed. Our past is no more. We are no longer assassins. Now we are witnesses.”) A switch which seems something we white British are yet to accomplish. They’re something we aren’t.

The Doctor gives the death toll as more than a million, it could have been near two. Accounts vary as to British culpability. But at a minimum the colonial authorities stood by and let the massacres happen. We - the white British - are not only unchanged, we are even regressing. It’s become fashionable all over again to see the Empire as something to celebrate, and leave the bodies unwitnessed. And if that keeps up our past will be more.

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