The series wisely combines a few books from the same universe and does so well.
Ravka is a kingdom that is divided into East and West by the wall of darkness called the Shadow Fold. Inside the darkness, monstrous beasts devour anyone they can find, making travel between the two halves of the kingdom perilous. While on such a journey, cartographer Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is attacked by the monsters and discovers that she has the power to create light which repels the darkness of the fold. It turns out she is a “Grisha,” a group of people who can manipulate various elements, and the only known one that can use light. Naturally, she is considered a valuable asset to the kingdom and its head of the army General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) and taken to be trained. Her childhood friend, Mal (Archie Renaux), worried about her, sets out to find her. At the same time, a group of mercenaries, the Crows, set out to capture her for their own ends. The Crows consist of: Kaz, the mastermind (Freddy Carter), Inej, the former acrobat and assassin (Amita Suman), and Jesper, the sharpshooter (Kit Young). All of these groups are now on a collision course with the future of this kingdom on the line.
One of the things this show does correctly is that it assumes that the audience is already at least passingly familiar with this kind of setting. It’s a world where science is still at the beginning of the industrial age (there are trains and guns), but where certain people also have fantastic abilities that allow for other aspects of life to be completely different (mostly the military). Since you’ve probably heard of a setting like that before, this show wisely focuses on the aspects that are much more unique to this particular world and on the characters. It makes it feel like there was a lot more creativity in worldbuilding when a number of elements were just pulled wholesale from other series. It helps that, rather than being modeled after Western European kingdoms, the setting takes much of its cultural and fashion inspiration from Russian history.
The plot of the season roughly equals the plot of the first Grisha novel, Shadow and Bone, but has the addition of the Crows from one of the other books set in the same world. This is probably the best decision the show makes, because it gives us a decent B-Plot that feels more original than the central plot, gives the show a lot of freedom to expand the world in fun ways, and, most importantly, gets us three of the most interesting characters before we would have gotten to them if the show followed the book releases. Jesper is personally my favorite character in the series, a gunslinger who is apparently a criminal with a lot of anxiety issues who becomes an unstoppable force when he’s calm.
I’m not going to say this show is up there with The Witcher or Game of Thrones (pre-last season), but it tells an interesting number of stories that incorporate the more inventive elements of the world of Ravka. It showcases an interesting variety of powers of the Grisha, but also makes it clear that they’re becoming less important to the society every year as science grants people aspects of their abilities… and guns get better. The performances are all top-notch (again with a special shout-out to Kit Young as Jesper), the setting is elaborate, and the pacing is exactly what it needed to be.
This season of Doctor Who continues to try to push some boundaries. It’d probably get uncomfortable, or even boring, if they weren’t doing the episodes so well.
Yaz (Mandip Gill) receives a gift from her grandmother, Umbreen (Leena Dhingra): a broken watch that must never be fixed, but refuses to speak any more about it. Yaz asks the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to take her back to when the watch was broken, but Yaz doesn’t actually know when that is. The Doctor uses the psychic circuitry of the TARDIS to take Yaz, Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) back to India in 1947, where they immediately meet a young Hindu man named Prem (Shane Zaza) and a Hindu holy man named Bhakti. Prem takes them to meet a young Umbreen (Amita Suman), who shocks Yaz by revealing that she’s going to be married to Prem, a man who A) is Hindu, B) is not Yaz’s grandfather, and C) is wearing the watch that brought them there.
The Doctor finds out the date, which, unfortunately, is August 14, 1947, the day before the Partition of India (if you don’t know what that is, I will explain after the summary. I was only kinda familiar with it). The Doctor is beset by painful psychic images of demons. They find the holy man murdered and the wedding is delayed until August 15. The Doctor sees two nearby alien figures and assumes they committed the murder. She and the TARDIS trio try to track down the aliens, before she ends up being transported onto their ship. She discovers that the two aliens are Thijarian, a race of near-perfect assassins. The Doctor escapes and uses their technology to keep them away from Prem’s house, hoping that will allow the wedding to occur.
Yaz works on trying to figure out what’s happening with her grandmother while the Doctor tries to create a repellant for the aliens. However, after studying some of the material found in the alien’s ship, she is teleported back onboard. The Thijarians reveal that they are actually the last two of their race. The assassin planet, unsurprisingly, made a lot of enemies and was destroyed. Unable to mourn their dead properly, these two Thijarians vowed to become witnesses to all those who die alone throughout time and space. They were present at the death of the holy man, who they reveal was killed by Prem’s brother, Manish (Hamza Jeetooa). It’s revealed that they’re staying in order to observe the millions of deaths that will follow the Partition, including Prem.
The Doctor informs the TARDIS trio that they cannot interfere with Prem’s death, because otherwise Yaz won’t exist. The next morning, Ryan and Graham help Prem prepare for his wedding. Prem, a veteran of World War II, speaks sadly that so many Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus are fighting now over the Partition, something he feels flies in the face of what he learned from the war. The Doctor officiates the wedding on the border of India and the new country of Pakistan, making Umbreen the first woman married in Pakistan. After the wedding, Prem offers Umbreen his watch as a gift, but drops it, making it the broken watch from the beginning.
Manish leaves the wedding angry at his Hindu brother marrying a Muslim. The Doctor confronts him over the murder of the Holy Man, but Manish reveals he’s part of a Hindu Nationalist group that is coming to kill the Muslims. Prem tries to distract the group so that Umbreen and her family can escape, resulting in his death at the hands of a man he fought beside during the war. The Thijarians witness his death and honor him, as the Doctor and the TARDIS trio depart back to the present. Yaz meets with her grandmother again and asks if she was happy with how her life turned out. Umbreen says that she is, even with the bad times.
This season of Doctor Who is not afraid to take on social issues, obviously, and this episode is a continuation of that, but with a few interesting added elements.
First, let’s go ahead and address the Partition of India. So, this doesn’t get covered in American Schools much, but in 1945-47, the British Empire was set to allow India to be independent. At the time, there were large populations of Muslims in India’s Western half, while most of the rest of India was Hindu until you get to the Buddhists on the Eastern border. So, Britain decided to instead create two states, Pakistan and India. Pakistan for the Muslims, India for the Hindus (and everyone else). Unfortunately, a lot of people near the border of these countries weren’t happy about suddenly having their property or family living in other countries. Others weren’t happy that there were Hindus in Pakistan or Muslims in India. These tensions quickly came to a head in a series of violent riots that killed at least a few hundred thousand, but likely millions. It also created a massive refugee crisis, with over 14 million people crossing borders over the following 5 years.
Basically, this was a really shitty time in world history for a lot of people, with a lot of people working hard to make it worse. I think it’s pretty bold of the show to remind us that this happened and that much of the problems were caused by people who chose to make everyone different than them miserable or dead for reasons that were best described as “unreasonable.”
Second, I think subverting the villain in the episode was great. We’re introduced to a race of assassins, aliens who have spent their entire existence killing, only for them to have renounced it because, as violence begets violence, their race was inevitably destroyed. The beauty of this working with the theme of the episode so well overshadows my disappointment at the Doctor not having to deal with a race of super-assassins. It helps that the ultimate bad guy, Manish, is portrayed disturbingly realistically. He loves his brother, but, ultimately, he believes that killing all of the people against him is the only solution. He won’t pull the trigger, but he lets someone else do it.
Third, the fact that the episode is focused around a wedding, and an inter-religious marriage at that, gives it an upbeat air that serves to make it more devastating when it’s revealed to be doomed. Since we know WHEN it’s doomed, it adds a ticking clock until the Doctor finally accepts that there’s nothing to be done. Then, we have to see the Doctor going through the motions of helping Prem and Umbreen, fully aware of what’s going to be their fate. It makes her speech at the ceremony in which she calls them “the strongest people on the planet, possibly the universe,” through the power of their love, all the sadder.
Fourth, this was a great exploration of Yaz. I didn’t think she’d gotten her dues yet within the season, so this was a good way of expanding on her. You can even see that she’s conflicted about not saving Prem, even though it would result in her never being born. At the end, when she’s asking her grandmother if she had a good life, she’s basically asking if she did the right thing, which makes it all the better that her grandmother says that having Yaz made everything worthwhile.
I loved this episode. It’s not traditional Doctor Who (and, admittedly, I’m antsy to get some again), but when combined with “Rosa,” it’s becoming apparent that the show is getting better at doing episodes from history that still have relevance in the modern day. This one isn’t quite as powerful as the ending of “Rosa,” but it’s a better overall episode.