The character of Indian princess Noor Inayat Khan makes an appearance in the second instalment of a two-part episode titled “Spyfall,” which marks the series premiere for the British sci-fi show Doctor Who. The twelfth series also sees the return of the first ever female Time Lord, played by Jodi Whittaker.
Often dubbed “Spy Princess,” the great-great-great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, Noor Inayat Khan, acted as a spy for the British in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Based in Paris as a wireless radio operator in 1942, Khan was the first female Special Operations Executive (SOE) to be sent behind enemy lines.
Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was a musician and Sufi teacher, who founded the mystical Sufi Order of the West. He is also known to have had a great impact on western classical music, in particular the music of French composer Claude Debussy. He was a firm upholder of religious tolerance and non-violence, and is said to have communicated these values to his daughter.
Shrabani Basu, historian and biographer, author of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan claimed that Khan “couldn’t bear to see an occupied country”, a notion that seemed to run in her family. It is said that Khan acted as a spy not out of a loyalty to Britain, but to oppose divisive and dictatorial fascist rule.
After evading capture for months, Khan was imprisoned and tortured before she was eventually executed at Germany’s Dachau concentration camp in 1944, by the German Gestapo.
In the trailer for the episode, Doctor Who comes face to face not only with Khan, but also Ada Lovelace – another powerful female historical figure. Lovelace was a mathematician, writer and countess who had pioneering insight on the potential of computing devices. She wrote the first algorithm, working closely with Charles Babbage on his invention of the mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.
The BBC series often features historical figures, some of which even become recurring characters (Winston Churchill, for example). “She’s a remarkable figure, and we just tell a tiny fraction of her. But there’s a whole story there where you just go ‘She was amazing,’” said Chris Chibnall, a writer on the show, about Khan (video above).