In Ann Kelso’s first voyage into history, she and the Doctor must face Plague Doctors, ghostly poets and a foe from the future.
In at least one regard, the Fourth Doctor Adventures Series Eight is proving to be a thoroughly modern affair from Big Finish. Since 2005, new companions get a relatively standard tour of the universe. They meet the Doctor in the present day before getting whisked off for an adventure in the future and an adventure in the past (not necessarily in that order). Jane Slavin’s Ann Kelso, having meet the Doctor in a contemporary adventure (well, 1978 anyway – appropriate enough for a ‘lost companion’ between Leela and Romana), and having visited the Planet of the Drashigs, travels back to 1852 in The Enchantress of Numbers.
First visits into the past more often than not involve meeting some famous historical figure. The Enchantress of Numbers rather pushes the definition of ‘celebrity historical’ however. After all, eponymous enchantress Ada Lovelace is hardly as familiar a name as Dickens, Shakespeare, Churchill or even Rosa Parks. But then, it’s very much the point of The Enchantress of Numbers that Lovelace has been unfairly forgotten by history. The script, by Simon Barnard and Paul Morris, is actually at its strongest when giving a potted history of Lovelace’s genuinely fascinating life. The only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, abandoned by him as a child, mathematical genius and creator of ‘poetical’ science. Caught between her disdain for her father’s legacy and her own chaffing at convention.
Ada Lovelace’s death robbed history of a genius who could have changed the world. Now strange forces want to see that history rewritten for their own dark purposes.
We meet Lovelace after she’s run up gambling debts testing a mathematical model for winning at horse racing. As a result, Ada has been exiled to the countryside by her husband Lord King. Though she still finds time to sneak out to count cards in games at the local pub.
Ultimately, the plot itself turns on Ada’s unrealised work on Babbage’s famous Analytical Engine. History records Babbage as the inventor of the computer. But if he was the world’s first computer engineer, then Ada was the first computer programmer. It was she that made many of the difficult calculations required in the design of the machine, and she whose extensive published Notes on the machine expounded its full potential. Moreover, Babbage simply saw it initially as an advanced calculator. But it was Ada – ‘the Enchatress of Number’ as Babbage called her – who saw it could change the world. She envisioned a future where machines could draw in masses of data to draw accurate but unexpected connections between apparently unrelated facts. She foresaw the question might arise of whether machines could genuinely think or merely create the appearance of it.
Ada died young, of cervical cancer at only 36, and left her work uncompleted. Leaving a whole version of history lost to us. Of course, this is Doctor Who and so forces conspire to bring this world of 19th century supercomputers to life. Strange masked men dressed like Plague Doctors stalk the land – with people, buildings and even entire neighbourhoods being erased from history in their wake. Meanwhile the spectral form of Lord Byron haunts his daughter. He claims to have an urgent message for her from beyond… one composed entirely of ones and zeroes.
The Enchatress of Numbers makes the best, most elegant, use of Block Transfer Computation yet.
The second half brings up an entirely different spectre from Doctor Who’s past – Block Transfer Computation. BlogtorWho confesses to being one of those fans who have a dislike for the concept, first introduced in Christopher H Bidmead’s Logopolis, of advanced mathematics being able to bring matter into existence simply by being spoken aloud. Almost an irrational prejudice, in fact. Indeed few things get my eye twitching spasmodically as Block Transfer Computation showing up in a story.
I’ll confess, however, that The Enchantress of Numbers is the least offensive use of it I’ve seen so far. Largely because it fits so well with Ada’s real life gift for analogy and the nature of her work with Babbage. After all, what else was the Analytical Engine in concept if not maths given pure physical form in brass? The particular nature of the intricate physical realisation of Ada’s work is appropriately elegant.
As Ada, Finty Williams leads a skilled guest cast who give warm, character filled performances.
As Ada, Finty Williams crafts a charismatic aristocrat that balances the pathos with a twinkle in the eye. She’s a good match for Tom Baker too. Their scenes together, whether gambling together or bantering about philosophy, are lovely fun. (Dare I say that if Big Finish ever feel themselves in need of casting a Romana IV they could do worse than calling up Williams.) In the limited space available, the rest of the guest cast also do good work too. The whole of Newstead Abbey’s gentry and servants feel warm and familiar but Barnaby Edwards’ Hobhouse is a particular delight. He calls to mind Downton Abbey’s Molesley as he tries to pass himself off as dusting the topiary maze in the middle of the night, or wrestles with the concept of sentient computer viruses from the 77th century.
This perhaps leaves less space for Jane Slavin‘s Ann Kelso though. Having being so well defined in her first two appearances, Ann is given largely generic companion material here. She even seems to pick up notions like computer viruses awfully quickly for someone from 1978. However, each scene she shares with Baker continues to be filled with the sense of two travellers who truly adore being in each other’s company.
The Empress of Numbers is not without its flaws. It introduces huge ideas but licks along at such a fast pace, particularly in the second half, that it sometimes lack focus. However it does cast a spotlight on one of the great underappreciated figures of world history. A more than welcome addition to the Fourth Doctor’s adventures.
The TARDIS lands in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, in 1850. Mistaken for a medic and his maid, the Doctor and Ann are brought to meet Ada Lovelace – the mother of computing and daughter of Lord Byron – who has recently fallen ill.
Written By: Simon Barnard and Paul Morris.
Directed By: Nicholas Briggs.
Tom Baker (The Doctor), Jane Slavin (Ann Kelso), Finty Williams (Ada Lovelace), Andrew Havill (Colonel Wildman), Eve Webster (Hettie / Lady Cleverley), Barnaby Edwards (Mr Hobhouse), Glen McCready (Edvard Scheutz / Lord Byron / Harry)