The Enchantress of Numbers

Posted in Audio by - January 20, 2019
The Enchantress of Numbers

Released January 2019

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

At its core, Doctor Who is a programme meant to educate just as much as to entertain, whether through pure historical adventures on Earth or more far-flung adventures that serve as allegories to real-world situations. Over the course of time, those ideas have merged somewhat as science fiction and history have collided more and more frequently with the Doctor integral to ensuring history runs its proper course, but this format has arguably been most effective when the plot revolves around a person or event not widely known as is the case in ‘The Enchantress of Numbers’ by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris. Landing on the grounds of Newstead Abbey in 1850, the Doctor and Ann are brought to meet Ada Lovelace, the mother of computing and daughter of Lord Byron, as strange figures walk the streets and the future of humanity hangs in the balance.

The only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron and wife Anne Milbanke, Ada Lovelace is often regarded as the first computer programmer given her ability to think of the true potential of Charles Babbage’s proposed Analytical Engine beyond just simple calculations as originally intended. Of course, it was over a century after this proposal before the first general-purpose computers were built and Lovelace’s life took a tragic turn before she lost her life to cancer at the young age of thirty-six, but her incredible foresight and intelligence ensure her lasting legacy and present the perfect historical figure for the Doctor to cross paths with given the trajectory that the world since her time has taken.

‘The Enchantress of Numbers’ is at its best when delving into the personal history and psyche of this incredible woman whom Finty Williams imbues with such confidence and understated power. Here, she has been exiled to the countryside after accruing gambling debt while testing horse racing mathematical models, but her muddy clothing that nobody can explain or dares ask about hints that this secluded life is not so straightforward as some may believe. Yet while an immense atmosphere is built up by exploiting Victorian era customs and locales, what initially seems to be a fairly intimate story takes on a much more grandiose scope as the Doctor discovers that Ada has been seeing the spectral form of her deceased father. This is a woman who quite literally changed the future even if her vision was not brought to fruition in time for her to see, but the disappearances of people, buildings, and streets from the vicinity unexpectedly reveals a dark and dangerous time in humanity’s future that is looking to this crucial point in its past to irrevocably change the natural order of events and make Lovelace much more than just a footnote in history.

This is a story that works wholly effectively on its own as Lovelace’s past and importance to the future intersect, but the surprising inclusion of block transfer computation also ties into the deeper mythology of the programme given its eventual importance to this incarnation of the Doctor in particular. With mathematical information provided to create an object or event, there is no greater extrapolation of Lovelace’s own work for her to confront, and the immensely visual notions of figures reminiscent to plague doctors, sentient computer viruses, and growing topiary mazes highlight the unique shifting of timelines with resulting cauterization wonderfully as memories prove to be so fluid. Indeed, given the immense performances from all involved and the continuing wonderful chemistry between Tom Baker and Jane Slavin, the only aspect that doesn’t get full marks is the pacing that must get through so much in the second episode. This is not to say that the plot is rushed with shortcuts taken to any great extent since everything is introduced and explained in sufficient detail, but the first episode is much more deliberate and intimate which creates a bit of unbalance. Again, though, both halves work excellently, and the very polished end result leaves the audience wanting more while opening up a new chapter of humanity’s story, setting the bar extraordinarily high for the mid-series finale and proving to be a standout of this seasoned range as a whole.

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