From Paris to the Punjab: Religious Intolerance and the Time Traveller's Plight in BBC's Doctor Who

Published October 24, 2019 by Professor Danny Nicol

Danny Nicol reflects on the portrayal of religious intolerance in one of Britain’s top TV dramas.

Doctor Who is the world's longest-running science fiction series. In it, an alien (the Doctor) has adventures with mainly human companions, travelling in time and space in a ship called the TARDIS. Last autumn viewers with an interest in interfaith relations were entitled to a strong sense of déjà vu. The episode "Demons of the Punjab" (2018) strikingly echoes a Doctor Who story broadcast fifty-two years earlier, "The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Eve" (1966). Despite the gap in years, the two stories bring together two themes: the horrific human costs of religious persecution and the limits of the time traveller's legitimacy to change the course of history.

In "The Massacre", the Doctor and his companion Steven become embroiled in Catholic-Protestant conflicts in Paris in 1572 befriending various sympathetically portrayed Huguenots being persecuted by the Catholic French state. Indeed the story emphasises the strong connection between Church and state, between religion and politics. Ultimately learning the exact date, the Doctor grasps that the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre against the Huguenots will take place the next day. He ushers a reluctant Steven into the TARDIS as the massacre begins, insisting that none of their new friends can be saved.

"Demons of the Punjab" is set on the new India-Pakistan border in 1947. The Doctor (now regenerated into female form) takes companion Yaz back in time to the wedding of Yaz's grandmother. To Yaz's surprise, the grandmother (a Muslim) is marrying not her grandfather but a handsome Hindu called Prem. The Doctor finally realises that Prem is destined to die at the hands of his co-religionists as he argues for tolerance. Poised to encounter a hostile posse of Hindu extremists which includes his brother, Prem tells the Doctor "these are demons I need to face alone". The TARDIS crew leave as he is shot dead.

Both adventures take part abroad, so ostensibly "The Massacre" is a drama about France and "Demons of the Punjab" concerns India and Pakistan. Yet the BBC's mission is to construct the British nation. Doctor Who often acts as a metaphor for contemporary Britain. "The Massacre" is perhaps something of a smug tribute to modern British religious tolerance and Protestant superiority, whereas "Demons of the Punjab" could be read as a response to present-day concerns over Islamophobia in Britain.

In a fine display of even-handedness each religion being portrayed as having its tolerant members and its hotheads. The Protestant, Catholic, Hindu and Muslim contingents all contain their more bigoted as well as their more peace-loving adherents. The Doctor is portrayed as epitomising tolerance in "Demons", by officiating at the wedding which combines Hindu and Muslim rituals.

Many Doctor Who adventures have been set in Earth's past. Few, however, have engaged so forcefully as "The Massacre" and "Demons of the Punjab" with the question of the limits of time travellers' meddling in history. Why do horror-tales of religious persecution especially lend themselves to dwelling on the restrictions which time travellers should place on themselves? It is precisely the extreme brutality of religious intolerance and its senselessness that prompts the Doctor's companions to press for interfering in human history.

The climax of both stories is more poignant than usual. This is due to the unspeakable brutality of religious persecution combined with the impossibility of rescuing the victims. It is telling that despite the gap of half a century between the two stories that the moral remains remarkably stable: in both "The Massacre" and "Demons of the Punjab", the real monsters are human.

This article was written by Danny Nicol who is Professor of Public Law at the University of Westminster and author of Doctor Who: A British Alien? (Palgrave, 2018).

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