Time travel and family history don’t mix. We learned that the hard way, all the way back in that Nu-Who season 1 episode ‘Father’s Day’, when Rose asked Nine if she could go back to the day her father died, and hold his hand while he passed. The human urge to ‘interfere’ proved too much for Rose to resist, because of course it bloody well did — what were you thinking, Nine? The resulting paradox brought chaos, which was only resolved when Rose and her dad let history play out the way it was meant to.
So when Yaz asks the Doctor to let her go back to see her grandmother when she was young, the Doctor admits that she “could” but she “shouldn’t”. She does anyway, proving that it’s not just humans who never learn. Even when the only method of navigating to the right time and place involves getting the TARDIS to work its telepathic mojo on her grandmother’s broken watch, the alarm bells don’t go off. Hey, Doctor, remember when Rose did that as well and her head nearly blew up? No? You’ll just give the standard “one hour, no interfering” instruction like it’s all going to be OK? Sigh.
Thankfully we didn’t have an apocalyptic paradox to deal with, but my goodness, we had a stunningly moving story of love and loss, set against the tumultuous landscape of India on the eve of Partition, in 1947.
At its core, this was a story about stories: The stories we tell ourselves and each other, the stories we hide in the margins, and the stories we are never ready to tell. Nani Umbreen tells Yaz, “I have such stories I could tell you…”, but she doesn’t. She wants to keep her secrets. And what are stories, but secrets with context? Is it ethical for Yaz to use the magic of time travel to discover her grandmother’s secrets? Is it like the sci-fi version of reading her diary? At the end of the episode, when Yaz tells Nani Umbreen to tell her the story another time, this is an act of kindness to spare Umbreen the pain of narrating it, but because Yaz knows the big secret already, it’s kind of moot. This was probably my only peeve with the episode, so I’m getting it out of the way now, because the rest was just spectacular.
Team TARDIS arrive in 1947 the day before Partition and the day before Umbreen’s wedding to The Lovely Prem. This is hugely symbolic; Umbreen and Prem’s relationship represents unity between Muslims and Hindus on the very day that they are due to be separated. Yaz is hugely thrown by this news, and as we know that The Lovely Prem is not her grandfather, we know almost immediately that he is going to die. Interfering could have huge consequences for Yaz.
“You could interfere yourself out of existence. Tread softly… You’re treading on your own history.”
It’s not just the threat of never existing that looms over Yaz’s head; we’re reminded that this is a dangerous moment, that tens of millions of people are about to be displaced and that this is not a safe time to be here. (We’re also reminded of the awful way that the British tried to ‘solve’ problems, especially between those of different religions: It’s the old ‘draw a line on a map’ trick! It’s literally never worked, Britain! It’s always made things worse! Jeez.)
So that’s two types of peril already. A third comes in the form of the “deadliest assassins in the known universe”: The Thijarians. Referred to as ‘demons’ by Prem, they are suspected of killing Prem’s older brother in the war, and killing Bhakti, the holy man, leaving mysterious purple dust on his body. The Doctor nicks their stash of this purple dust from their hive, and thanks to some sci-fi silliness with transmat doors and locks, they escape the hive and manage to keep the Thijarians away for a short time. Just enough time for some mad science…
“I need oil, water, tree bark, a saucepan, nine containers, an old newspaper, a touch of ox spit, a chicken poo, and a biscuit.”
The Thijarians are really unhappy about the Doctor nicking their special purple dust. And it’s no wonder… These aliens look like a cross between Admiral Akbar and the Ood. They might dress like Hela and have a fearsome reputation, but that resemblance to the Ood should have been a clue: They are the good guys! What the Doctor was really did at the hive was steal the precious remains of their ancestors, not a toxic substance or a weapon. Fortunately, they explain themselves and give her a chance to say sorry — which she does. And as it turns out, the aliens are the real Roses of the story; they are the ones making sure that people don’t die alone, lost, unacknowledged and unwitnessed. They are the ones holding the hands of the fallen, offering comfort, bearing their pain, honouring them. Unlike Rose, they know that “the fixed force of time cannot be stopped”. They are witnesses, nothing more. And they are here for The Lovely Prem. Once again, the real Big Bad of the episode isn’t an alien threat, but a human one, and like the aliens, and like the episode with Rosa Parks, all Team TARDIS can do is watch.
“Ordinary people, whipped into a frenzy to be part of a mob. Nothing worse than when normal people lose their minds. It’s like we learned nothing in the war. I don’t know how we protect people when hatred’s coming from all sides.”
The opposition to Umbreen and Prem’s marriage is like a microcosm of the wider conflict. Umbreen’s mother is still trying to talk her out of it. Prem’s brother does the same, except his objection turns violent. But our star-crossed lovers will not be discouraged; against all the objections, the only thing they are sure of is their love for each other. They call upon the Doctor to officiate the wedding, and if there’s one thing the Doctor loves, it’s love. (OK, she also loves biscuits.)
“Love, in all its forms, is the most powerful weapon we have, because love is a form of hope, and like hope, love abides in the face of everything. You both found love with each other. You believed in it, you fought for it, and you waited for it. And now, you’re committing to it, which makes you two right now the two strongest people on this planet. Maybe in this universe.”
We all know love isn’t enough to save Prem, or prevent the casualties of Partition. But it’s still worth having anyway. Even if just for a moment — a perfect moment, frozen in time forever on the face of the broken watch.
Prem sacrifices himself to give Umbreen and her mother a chance to escape. Team TARDIS can’t bear to leave him to face Manish’s gang alone, but our friendly neighbourhood demons arrive, to assure the team that they “will watch over him now”. A gunshot rings out as they walk away.
Prem’s image joins countless others in the alien hive, like a hi-tech Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier, to be watched over forever, seen, acknowledged and honoured. It was a perfect episode for Remembrance Day, even showing some poppies gently moving in the breeze, and reminding us all that when the world is dark and dangerous, “all we can strive to be, is good”.
The Doctor officiated at Einstein’s wedding!
It’s a shame we never got to see the killer turtles…
On her new henna tattoos: “Never got to do this when I was a man!”
Adorable Graham gives us more pep-talks, absolute belters this time. (Please don’t kill him off Chibnall. You took Grace away, and that was mean enough.)
“We can’t have a universe with no Yaz!” As the quietest member of the team, Yaz hadn’t had as much to do as the others, so it was great to see Yaz given a chance to shine this week.
This episode was written by Vinay Patel and directed by Jamie Childs. Childs directed the opening episode of this season and will be back for episodes 9 and 10. Based on his work so far, this bodes well!
Header Image Source: BBC