DW: The Enchantress of Numbers Review

dw the enchantress of numbers

What happens when you take a historical person like Ada Lovelace and place her in a plot not unlike The Terminator? Unsurprisingly, given how I phrased that specific question, you get this! Seriously though, the idea of using the woman who, for all intents and purposes, invented computer code in a story about machines going back in time to change history was a great one, but does the story do the idea justice?

Synopsis:

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.

But the travellers are not here by chance. Something odd is happening on Earth, and they’ve determined that this place is the centre of it.

Strange figures are walking the land. Strange figures wearing bird-like masks. What do they want with Ada? And how will it change the future of humanity?

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

Cast of Characters:

The Doctor (Tom Baker) – The Doctor has become rather confused. He can understand if he misremembered someone’s name or misplaced an object in his vast TARDIS, but he’s starting to find people, and even large buildings seemingly vanish from history…

Ann Kelso (Jane Slavin) – Ann isn’t sure what’s going on, but she’s more willing to believe The Doctor has had a memory lapse or two than entire buildings just vanishing into thin air… surely?

Ada Lovelace (Finty Williams) – Ada Lovelace has been exiled to the countryside after coming up with a mathematical formula to predict horse racing. Here she has begun to truly understand her love with numbers and calculations, though that seems to come at the cost of the being haunted by the spirit of her dead father…

Colonel Wildman (Andrew Havill) – Colonel Wildman is one of the guests living with Ada, and has been tasked with keeping her in line and away from gambling… a job he hasn’t done a very well…

“Lord Byron” (Glen McCready) – A living piece of code given form thanks to Block Transfer Computation during the 77th Century’s “Block Transfer Wars”. It’s task is to change history enough that it becomes attached to all computer code throughout human history, thus giving it an advantage in its own time…

The Plague Doctors – A living computer anti-virus, The Plague Doctors are erasing anything that has come in contact with what is only known as “Lord Byron”. If they could just stop the virus itself, however, there would be no need for any loss of life…

Plus more!

The Good:

dw the enchantress of numbers cover

Every time I see a Plague Doctor it always blows my mind that they were real, and someone didn’t actually think about  how unnerving they looked…

As I said in the opening paragraph, the core idea of the story is a fun one, mixing such an important (yet not well known) figure in computing with a Terminator-style war with machines from the future. Ada Lovelace herself is played brilliantly here, very clever, but also a thin-line of mischievousness, sneaking out to do some gambling at a local pub, a further “misuse” of her talents. When The Doctor arrives the two have a great back and forth relationship, especially when they team up in the aforementioned gambling arena.

The big bit of continuity here is Block Transfer Computation, an idea that, despite the comparatively small chunk of Doctor Who I’ve covered for the site, I’ve talked about a few times before. The ability to make anything a reality by reciting numbers, maths giving things physical form, has always been an interesting, but challenging idea to get across. So powerful is this skill that it does make you wonder why it’s practically never used in the wider universe, especially now we know that in the 77th Century Earthlings are able to use it, causing a “Block Transfer War”. Maybe the war was so bad the knowledge was intentionally lost? Either way, I’ll forgive it, as I did enjoy both the Terminator-like plot, and the idea of a computer virus and anti-virus coming to life and causing havoc.

Yes, a virus created during the Block Transfer Wars has gone back in time and tried to manipulate Ada Lovelace (by looking like her dead father Lord Byron) into incorporating them into her earliest codes, codes that will become the basis for all computer code, therefore meaning they’d have control of humanity’s machines and computers throughout time. Future humans sent a force of anti-viruses that look like Plague Doctors (in order to blend in, though they were a few 100 years off, which The Doctor rightfully points out that in the 77th Century it would be hard to separate a few hundred years that happened thousands of years ago…) to stop it. The Plague Doctors erase things that have come in contact, or have been altered by, “Lord Byron”, which is what has led The Doctor and Ann to follow  the clues and arrive at Lovelace’s door. It’s a really good idea, very sci-fi but also pleasantly historical.

The ending is rather simple, in that The Doctor leads “Lord Byron” to a spot where the anti-viruses can erase it, therefore undoing all that has been done already. History returns to normal, which sadly includes Ada Lovelace not getting any real recognition for many decades after her death, but hey-ho… The Doctor can’t change actual historical points in time after all…

The Bad:

With a lot of the story having Ada as a pseudo-companion of The Doctor, Ann was sort of left in the background, interacting with the manor house staff and mysteriously understanding the idea of computer programs and computer viruses despite being from 1978 (a few years before the phrase “computer virus” was even coined) It’s a shame given its only her third story, but she still filled the “generic companion who either asks questions or answers them for others” role well, it’s just unfortunate after two stories of her taking a bit more action she showed no real sign of her tougher, policewoman side.

The Continuity:

“Block Transfer Computation” was an idea created for the Fourth Doctor’s final story, “Logopolis”. Coincidentally it also appeared in recent Twelfth Doctor comic “The Phantom Piper”, which featured historical code cracker Alan Turing in a similar role…

Overall Thoughts:

The Enchantress of Numbers is a solid story, with a fun sci-fi concept layered on top of an equally interesting historical figure. The Doctor is on fire with Ada Lovelace, but Ann Kelso has less to do in her third outing, which is a shame. Overall though, it’s a strong third story in a box of strong stories… (The next story is Part 1 of a 2-parter that continues in February, so I’ll be reviewing the story as a whole then!)

4 Star Listen

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