Thursday, 24 January 2019

The Enchantress of Numbers written by Simon Barnard & Paul Morris and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it About: 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?

Teeth and Curls: Never let it be said that the TARDIS isn’t at least 50% more reliable than a coach. I like the idea of the Doctor and Ann being on a mission from the get-go. These 4DAs often seem to rambled on without a sense of purpose and it kicks off this story with a feeling of drive. The Doctor is beguiled by the Countess on her reputation alone. He designed a labyrinth once by mistake, it was just a doodle really. He was mistaken for a God because of it and he was suddenly, inadvertently responsible for a great legend. Or maybe he’s joking about that. Tom Baker is never better than when he has a moral crusade to deliver and his insistence in the final episode that human history is not meddled with sees him deliver some of his best work for ages.

Bobby on the Beat: Ann is curiously muted in the first episode of this story, even piping up at one point to point out who she is and if anyone cares. The Doctor usually introduces his companions so it’s a bit of an oversight. Maybe he had forgotten she was there as well. Ann’s pretty unlikable, throwing her weight around I a house where she is a guest and accusing the Countess of untoward behaviour. You aren’t an officer of the law here, love, so start treating people with a bit more respect. She never leaves home without her sandwiches, whistle and torch. She doesn’t drink wine with breakfast.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You may be a great inventor but you’re a lousy businessman!’
'Alls fair in love and block transfer wars.’

Great Ideas: Poetic science is the science of a civilised society. Byron’s virus spreads and replicates and infects and kills. Ada Lovelace will write the worlds first piece of computer code and her genius goes unacknowledged for almost a century. A virus that has travelled from the future and can change history, the computer age may start decades before its time. If it works all computer language in the future will be based on her code. It would mean humanity with machines at the helm. The first time I sat up and paid attention was the mention of block transfer computations. But when I thought about it for a second this is a Doctor Who story involving mathematics as a key factor. That’s probably the most predictable route you could have gone down. It does at least explain the magic that seems to be occurring elsewhere in the story. When you can play about with the building blocks of the universe, disappearing buildings are the least you can achieve. A temporal expedionary force sent by humanity to cure the machines virus.

Musical Cues: The music seems to be suggesting that this is some sort of jolly knockabout comedy set in the past but if that is the case then neither the actors nor the director have been to the same tone meeting because it’s played far more seriously than that.

Standout Scene: There’s a moment where the story treads on Inception’s toes and the landscape starts folding up. I would have loved more of that.

Result: This is the oddest of stories, one which I initially had an allergic reaction to (episode one) but then someone in second episode everything clicks into place and suddenly makes and the whole piece is singing. There’s much to commend about the story, especially the writer’s choice of Ada Lovelace to centre this story on. She is a woman of no real historical importance but it is clear that she was an extremely important mathematician at the time and someone who could have changed the course of human history if her contributions to science had been recognised at the time. A woman of repute and ability that Finty Williams brings to life with some aplomb. I felt there was a lack of energy and wit in the first half of the story, the production seemingly suggesting this was a knockabout comedy but everybody, even Tom Baker, playing their roles as though they are taking part in a sombre drama. We’re three stories into Ann Kelso’s season and I’m deeply unenthusiastic about her so far. Between Jane Slavin’s detached performance and some desperately unattractive writing (her default setting is either to have a moan or to be bossy), I’m not feeling the love for this character. The extras insist on telling me that Slavin has worked with Baker on and off for years and they have a fine rapport…well it’s a shame that none of that spills over into the audios. Like I said though the last episode bucks its ideas up considerably and suddenly witty lines are being delivered with aplomb, the pace is intense and the story has taken on a whole new dimension when the entire timeline of human history is at risk by a maths programme from the future. A story written by Barnard and Morris, directed by Nick Briggs and starring Tom Baker should be the crème de la crème of the 4DAs. This isn’t that, but it is above average, intelligent and eventually an engaging piece. Any story where a ghostly Lord Byron makes an appearance has got to be worth a listen: 7/10

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