14 Jun 2003Marco Polo, by Paul Clarke
12 Oct 2004Marco Polo, by Graham Roberts
08 Aug 2007Marco Polo, by Shane Anderson

I've just watched ‘Marco Polo’ as part of my Who marathon, thanks entirely to Loose Cannon, who have provided a superb recon. I should just note that there are some fans who will insist that a story cannot be judged based on its soundtrack alone, or even a recon – I don’t agree, since the heavy dependence on dialogue of Doctor Who at the time easily allows most of the missing stories to transfer fairly easily to audio, especially with narration or captions to cover the action sequences. However, if anyone out there does stridently insist that I can’t judge an incomplete story without having seen it as first broadcast, then read no further and wait until I get to ‘The Keys of Marinus’.

Anyway, ‘Marco Polo’ is an interesting story for several reasons. Firstly of course, it is the earliest missing story and is completely missing (not even clips survive), which have given it a near-legendary status. This is helped by the fact that the soundtrack has not yet been released on CD and is (at least my experience) harder to get bootleg copies of than the other missing episodes. Secondly, it is the first historical, and also the longest. Finally, as I have noted previously, the relationship between the TARDIS crew members has now been established by the previous three stories, and this allows individual supporting characters to really shine in Doctor Who for the first time. 

‘Marco Polo’ has four major guest characters of note: Marco Polo, Tegana, Ping-Cho, and Kublai Khan. Polo himself is a superb character, essential noble and seemingly keen to gain the friendship of the travelers, for whom he develops respect, but unable to fully do this due to his theft of the TARDIS. Desperate to return home to Venice, he insists on presenting the ship to the Khan to try and negotiate his freedom from service, but in doing so he denies it to the Doctor and his friends. His resolve prevents him from relenting and indeed he does present the TARDIS to the Khan, but he struggles with his conscience throughout, knowing that he has acted unjustly. The problem lies partly with the fact that he doesn’t understand the TARDIS – he believes it is a caravan that flies, but doesn’t understand just how advanced it is, assuming that the Doctor can build a new one and offering to grant the travelers safe passage home. It is this plot device that keeps the Doctor and friends on Cathay, since Polo manages to separate them from the TARDIS as effectively as any lost fluid link, and it makes their troubles greater in many ways – unable to convey their urgency to Polo, they make frequent attempts to regain the ship, refusing to give Polo, who is otherwise well-disposed towards them, their word that they will not make further such attempts. This places them in a quandary when it becomes clear that Tegana is not all he seems, since Polo cannot fully trust them and is more inclined to believe Tegana’s accounts whenever they accuse him of mischief. Ultimately though, Polo returns the TARDIS key to the Doctor in the court of Kublai Khan, during the confusion after Tegana’s defeat. Ian has by this point tried to tell him the whole truth about the TARDIS, to which Polo replies that he if believed Ian he would give them the key back, realizing that the travelers could find no other way home. After the travelers are instrumental in Tegana’s defeat, Polo finally realises that Ian was telling the truth, and gives the Doctor the key beneath the Khan’s very nose; in a story concerned with the theme of going home (the Doctor and his companions, Polo, and Ping-Cho are all motivated by a desire to do so) Polo realises that, even if the Khan will not let him return home to Venice, then at least the travelers can go home. 

Tegana is the first real single villain in Doctor Who – the Daleks are a race of monsters, and Kal and Za’s struggle for leadership and survival is hardly the same as the sort of scheming villain that will recur in Doctor Who. The Warlord Tegana is an excellent villain, cold and ruthless, but cunning enough to hide his true intent (to kill the Khan in the name of his own Lord, Noghai) from Polo at least. Even before we learn of this, he is established as a threat – when the travelers first encounter Polo’s party, it is Tegana that they meet and his is keen to kill these supposed “evil spirits”. Polo saves them, but Tegana threatens them at every turn, responsible as he is for all the various ills that befall Polo’s caravan. Derren Nesbitt brings great presence to Tegana, who is a softly spoken, commanding character; he easily convinces Polo that he, and not the travelers, is lying when they try to accuse him of villainy on several occasions, and he convinces Polo to let him ride back for Ian and Ping-Cho, both of whom he intends to kill, despite the TARDIS crew’s and Ping-Cho’s warnings that he is up to something. Tegana is also quick to improvise to cover his actions, casually explaining that he was delayed at the oasis by bandits and easily fending off any suspicions. He is ruthless too, prepared to kill even Ping-Cho, since she is in his way. He also unhesitatingly dispatches his allies, including Acomat, when the need to maintain secrecy arises. Presumably he is also very dedicated, given that he could not reasonably expect to stay alive for long after completing his mission. His penultimate encounter with Polo, when he casually and easily ruins Polo’s hopes of the Khan letting him return to Venice, shows him swiftly discarding his façade in order to get the Khan alone, at which point he tries his assassination attempt. When Polo out-fights and disarms him, rather than answer to the Khan, he almost definitely commits suicide, impaling himself on a sword – a fitting end for one of Doctor Who’s earliest villains.

Ping-Cho’s importance stems mainly from her friendship with Susan, which draws her to aid the travelers, partly due to their sympathy at her plight – she is being forced to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. Like the TARDIS crew and Polo, she is keen to return home, but simply to afford marriage – once her husband to be dies, she happily remains in the Khan’s court. It is interesting to speculate that this is also in part due to the influence of Susan’s tales of her travels, which might well have encouraged Ping-Cho to experience the thrills on offer at the court of Kublai Khan. The Khan himself is the fourth guest character of particular note, due largely to his relationship with the Doctor. The two old men, one crippled by gout and the other with a bad back, riding to Peking in the Khan’s state caravan and playing backgammon provide one of the most memorable parts of ‘Marco Polo’ and also demonstrate the first stirrings of comedy in Doctor Who, something which Hartnell had extensive experience of in his previous career and which he is capable of excelling at later in Doctor Who. The Doctor’s first meeting with the Khan, as he reluctantly attempts to kow-tow and his howls of pain prompt the equally-pained Khan to question whether he is being mocked, are played purely for laughs. The later backgammon scenes are also witty, with the Doctor winning an absurdity of prizes but failing to win back the TARDIS – the Khan however tells Polo after the travelers have escaped Peking that he would have won it back at some point anyway. The details make the Khan’s character – he’s the most powerful man in Cathay, but he’s a gout-ridden old man who is henpecked by his wife and is a self-proclaimed bureaucrat. Nevertheless, when facing death at the hands of Tegana, he seems to face it defiantly (as far as I can tell from the recon) and once saved by Polo he coldly informs Tegana that those who oppose him must be humbled and that Tegana must be put to death; interestingly though, he says this in the same way that he says Noglai must be humbled for rising against him, by enforcing harsh conditions of peace. On neither occasion does he seem motivated by revenge as such, but rather by a need to maintain order, suggesting perhaps why he is so well-respected by even the Venetian Polo.

One other interesting thing I realized about watching ‘Marco Polo’ stems from foreknowledge of ‘The Aztecs’ – despite being in a period of history that Ian and Barbara know of from history books, the Doctor at no point that we see warns them not to interfere. Despite this, the TARDIS crew is directly responsible for saving Polo’s caravan on two separate occasions, suggesting that had they not been present Kublai Khan would have died at Tegana’s hand. It is possible that the Doctor does not mention this because he does not consider it interference if the course of history as he knows it is maintained, however accidentally; on the other hand, it is interesting to speculate that if history originally ran differently and Noglai came to power, but the Doctor and his companions inadvertently changed its course. Probably not, but the idea did intrigue me. 

Finally, ‘Marco Polo’ owes its legendary reputation in large part to its sets and costumes. Thanks to the recon, we can at least see these even though no clips survive and they are certainly impressive. Although nearly all of the action on screen takes place at way stations and camps due to the lack of location filming which would have perhaps allowed conversations on horseback, the use of Polo’s voice-over and illustrated maps of the journey manage to convey the sense that the Doctor and his companions have been traveling for weeks, which of course is the intention. It works well in creating the illusion of a journey despite the fact that really ‘Marco Polo’ is filmed on only a few sets with no actual traveling on screen. Overall, ‘Marco Polo’ is well deserving of its classic status.

Filters: Series 1 First Doctor Television

Marco Polo is not the greatest story the programme ever made but it is the most charming. The leisurely pace, the long journey, the gradual sumptuousness of the sets and Marco’s narration all contribute to a unique atmosphere never seen again. It is not powerful like The Aztecs but it seeps into your heart.

This story is very well written and constructed. The characters Marco Polo and Ping Cho add considerably to its charm and Tegana’s scheming provides the plot and suspense. All three characters are nicely rounded and develop as the story progresses. The excellent episode title The Wall of Lies is virtually a summary of the plot, for all characters interacting with Tegana are confronted by it. Marco is fooled by it until the very end but the TARDIS crew have their suspicions from a very early stage. One of the story’s clever tricks is showing how Tegana’s lies pit Marco against the main characters and Ping Cho – this results in many quiet triumphs for Tegana, e.g. when Marco splits up Ping Cho and Susan and when Marco seizes the TARDIS. It also drags the audience in, for Marco is a kind and honourable man whose sense of duty and yearning to return to Venice are twisted by Tegana for his own selfish ends. Who can fail to remain uninvolved when Marco writes in his journal how pleased he is with Tegana when he finds Susan and Ping Cho in the desert after the sandstorm? Or when Tegana forces Barbara to admit the crew are against Ping Cho’s marriage, making Marco assume Ian has tricked him and wants to retrieve the TARDIS instead of finding Ping Cho? The scenes where Tegana’s villainy are blatantly shown merely reinforce our frustration with Marco’s misguided loyalty, e.g. when Tegana cuts the gourds or taunts the absent Marco at the oasis when he pours the water into the sand. Not many stories combine such well written characters with such careful plotting. 

The audience’s frustration with Marco is mirrored by the main characters’ frustration as well. The Doctor is particularly delightful for he reacts in many different ways. Initially he bursts into helpless laughter, then taunts and insults Marco – “You poor, pathetic, stupid savage!” His righteous anger reminds Marco that he really has no right to take it. The Doctor’s frustration is also displayed in a hilarious moment when he does a mocking impression of Wang Lo – “I could hardly have it placed in the hanging garden now could I?” 

These moments are what make Marco Polo memorable. It is full of scenes where the characters can really express themselves. Susan and Ping Cho by the pond, for example, shows how close they have become. Tegana’s fascination with Ian and Marco’s game of chess shows how he views life as a battle for victory. Barbara’s distress is quite moving when she tearfully tells Ian the Mongols were throwing dice to decide who will kill her. Ian’s scene with Marco when he tells him they travel in time is beautifully written and paced, the acting very good. Ping Cho’s recitation of a story to her listeners is enchanting. And the Doctor’s scenes with Kublai are hilarious, particularly the classic scene where he embarrassingly tells Kublai how much is owed to him. Hartnell shows how good he is at comedy here. 

All these scenes not only flesh the characters out – they also show their humanity. Tegana’s threat is potent because it will destroy these examples of humanity. He cares nothing for anybody except Noghai his leader – in conversation with Acomat he is prepared to order all the caravan’s travellers killed (including Marco). And how humourless he is! Conquest and power are his aims, and they are contrasted strongly with the kindness, humour and charm of Ping Cho, Marco and the TARDIS crew. Kublai also is an unexpected ally, his shrewdness as well as humour making him memorable. The ending of the story is a victory for humanity’s greater qualities as well as the crew’s escape. 

All of this against an epic journey through Cathay. It is the longest and most epic of the historicals and, in terms of time spent in one particular period, the longest story of all time. It is paced very well and really is unique. The story is not faultless – the crew’s conclusion that Kublai will be killed is rather rushed, and it is a pity they have to depart so suddenly without saying adequate goodbyes to Marco, Ping Cho and Kublai. But it is charming from beginning to end and has a timeless, magical quality that will never diminish.

Filters: Series 1 First Doctor Television

The status of this story as MIA is a crying shame, since it is such a good one. "Marco Polo" contains the first seven of the missing 108 episodes. We have no censor clips, and no telesnaps for episode 4, though thankfully we have the other six episodes worth, as well as lots of other photographs. Thank goodness for fans and their reel-to-reel tape recorders, so we can at least hear the stories we would otherwise not be able to experience. 

"Marco Polo" is an excellent story that is easily worth the seven episode allotment it was given. If all you care for is the quick pace of modern Doctor Who, you'll be bored stiff with the leisurely pace of stories like this one. But you'd be missing out, because the pace and length of the story manage to create the successful illusion of weeks of traveling. The longer amount of time allows Ian, Barbara, Susan and the Doctor time to get to know the people they meet and form friendships to a greater degree than they did in "The Daleks". The story is full of excellent acting, and music that really evokes a certain mood. "Marco Polo" possesses a charm that few other Doctor Who stories can match. The structure of the story reminds me of "The Lord of the Rings" in some ways. The plot takes place over the course of a long journey, with events along that journey advancing the plot and developing the characters. There's even a map to allow the audience to visualize the sequence and placement. We also have Marco Polo as a narrator, detailing events, which is almost unique in Doctor Who. 

This is very much a character driven story. The Doctor and his companions want to repair the TARDIS and move on. Marco Polo wants to return home to Venice but cannot, and thus he steals the TARDIS to try and buy his way home. The warlord Tegana, the emissary of peace, is secretly planning to assassinate Kublai Khan. All of these characters and motivations, overt and secret come into constant conflict with the others and drive the plot. This makes a "journey from point a to point b" plot wonderfully complex and interesting. 

Friendships play a large part in events as well, and with the lengthy time span covered by this story, there's plenty of time to make those friendships develop naturally. Susan and Ping Cho become friends rather quickly. Both are about the same age, and both are far from home, a topic they discuss on more than one occasion. I think both are glad to have someone to relate to. Ian and Marco also become friends, because despite his theft of the TARDIS, Marco is at heart a decent man. His friendship with Ian is strained by Tegana's lies, but when Marco says at one point that he thinks he knows something of Ian's character, it rings true. Ian has all the fundamental conversations with Marco, including the wonderful scene where they discuss the time traveling capabilities of the TARDIS, which Marco cannot accept until the very end after Tegana has been exposed. 

The Doctor also forms a friendship with Kublai Khan, which seems to begin mainly because both are old men in pain. "Old age is a burden that must be borne with dignity." The backgammon game in which the Doctor wins half of Asia and then loses the TARDIS is a wonderfully funny scene. 

As the title character, Marco Polo, played by Mark Eden, is someone who is likable from the start. He's courteous to the four travelers, and he's admirably open-minded. His travels in Cathay have allowed him to see remarkable things. He accepts that the TARDIS is a "caravan" that moves "through the air". This soon becomes a problem since he wants to return to his home in Venice, and hopes to in effect bribe the Khan he serves with the gift of the TARDIS. As an aside, if there's a pattern developing in these early episodes of Doctor Who, it is the separation of the crew from the TARDIS in one way or another. In "An Unearthly Child" the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan are cut off by being imprisoned in the cave of skulls. In "The Daleks" they have access, but the missing fluid link prevents them from leaving Skaro. Now in "Marco Polo", the Venetian traveler takes the TARDIS away from them, and refuses them entry. He suffers from a guilty conscience because of this, and offers to take them home, having no idea just how far away home is for the four travelers. 

Then there is the warlord Tegana. Tegana is one of the most calm and calculating villains in early Doctor Who. He is superbly acted by Darren Nesbitt. Tegana is calm and rational, rarely losing his temper. He takes full advantage of Marco's trust in him, and capitalizes on just about any mistake that the Doctor and crew make. He very nearly accomplishes his goal of killing Kublai Khan, and almost steals the TARDIS as well, since he too believes it to be a powerful "thing of magic". Listening to the soundtrack may deny me the visuals, but it allows Mr. Nesbitt's wonderful line delivery to be enjoyed without distraction. 

I could go on and on, such is my enthusiasm, but I'll stop here. Do yourself a favor and get the CDs. Get the Loose Cannon recon, and watch the cut down version on the Beginning box set. Overall, another very solid story. This one comes close to being flawless. 9.5 out of 10.

Filters: Series 1 First Doctor Television