I have mixed feelings about Demons of the Punjab. That is probably due in part to my own circumstances; I’m not in a great place at the moment and wasn’t really in the mood for bleak historical character drama. This might seem better after a more timely rewatch. It was a lushly made and well-acted drama, and top marks for (along with Rosa) finally showing some non-European history in the revived show. But the core of it annoyed me.
Romeo and Juliet is an old story that has been told many times across many cultural divides. From that point of view, this was familiar territory. That’s not necessarily a problem. Unfortunately, also familiar was the lack of subtlety, the Whiggish certitude that sees history as tending inexorably towards our liberal democracy. People in the past, in this perspective, divide into two categories: those who thought exactly like us, and the villains: the idiots and reactionaries who worship at the altars of nation and religion, who can’t see the way things must inevitably work out.
Yet if history – and time-travel – is to have any point, it is surely to help us to understand those who are not like us. Here, too much was left unexplained. British rule in India was barely alluded to; Partition was inadequately explained or contextualised. Partition and population transfer occurred in several parts of the world in the forties and fifties, seen as the lesser evil compared to leaving large ethnic minorities that could lead to a pretext for war on a par with German expansion in the thirties. I don’t expect all this to be included (it’s a science fiction drama, not a history documentary), but some kind of context from the Doctor would have been good. Moreover, we don’t get any idea of what separated Hindu from Muslim in real terms. Ritual and religion are a very postmodern British thing here, something you pick and chose and only bring out at life cycle events. We don’t see how religion affects people’s day to day lives in traditional societies. People in the past, we are told, did stupid, brutal things, but we don’t really understand why because the writers of drama of this kind can’t – or aren’t interested in – entering the mindset of people who professed beliefs the writers don’t share. The historical weight of intermarriage across religious divides is not adequately portrayed. The decision seems to marry across denominational lines is obvious, even frivolous here, which would not have been the case in reality. While the racism of the Deep South in Rosa was familiar enough to us to seem unbearably threatening, the violence here, while every bit as bigoted, felt cursory. It’s just the type of thing that happens in stories like this so we can congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come in eighty years. Compare with how The Aztecs (in 1964) managed to make human sacrifice seem normal and opposition to it unworkable.
While watching this I kept thinking of George Orwell. It was only afterwards that I remembered the exact quote I was looking for. Writing in Wells, Hitler and the World State in 1941, he wrote, “Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them. The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a Fascist streak in themselves.”
Well, creatures out of the Dark Ages have again come marching into our present again. To understand them is to understand the darkness in ourselves, but it’s easier to say, “We’re different; it could never happen here.” For a programme that so far this year has tried to be about empathy and understanding , that is disappointing to say the least.