Marco Polo

Written by:
John Lucarotti
Directed by: Waris Hussein/John Crockett
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1964
Audio Availability: Try Amazon

This is the fifth incomplete story that I've reviewed in this format, but as chronologically it comes first then it's probably due time that I had a word on the missing episodes. I won't go into it too much as I imagine the majority of visitors to this site are people already familiar with Who, but for various reasons the BBC began junking a lot of their archive material in the 70s, including some Doctor Who. While it's believed some of it may still exist, particularly abroad from overseas sales (the last find was The Crusades episode one in 1999 January 2004 with The Daleks' Masterplan episode two) to date there are still 109 108 episodes missing. Patrick Troughton's era comes off by far the worst, with Hartnell, despite the decimation of seasons three and four, does have almost complete runs of his first two seasons. The missing episodes are: The Reign of Terror 4 & 5; The Crusades 2 & 4; Galaxy 4 1-4; Mission to the Unknown; The Myth Makers 1-4; The Dalek's Masterplan 1, 3-4, 7-9, 11-12; The Massacre 1-4; The Celestial Toymaker 1-3; The Savages 1-4; The Smugglers 1-4; The Tenth Planet 4; The Power of the Daleks 1-6; The Highlanders 1-4; The Underwater Menace 1, 2 & 4; The Moonbase 1 & 3; The Macra Terror 1-4; The Faceless Ones 2, 4-6; The Evil of the Daleks 1, 3-7; The Abominable Snowmen 1, 3-6; The Ice Warriors 2 & 3; The Enemy of the World 1-2 & 4-6; The Web of Fear 2-6; Fury From The Deep 1-6; The Wheel In Space 1-2, 4-5; The Invasion 1 & 4 and The Space Pirates 1, 3-6. Unfortunately also among that number is every single episode of Marco Polo. It fares worse than most, with not even telesnaps (offscreen image captures specially commissioned at the time of broadcast) still existing. Telesnaps of episodes 1-3/5-7 have now been found - all this finding stuff is making a right mess of this page, isn't it? (joke, I was joking!)

So where can you experience the story? Well, there's the option of the BBC audios (see link above), or you can try the reconstructions. Not-for-profit fan endeavours, they combine the soundtrack with telesnaps (or, in this case, scant production stills) and help to enhance the experience somewhat. For the record, then, I'll be covering all the missing stories using this format. The version of Marco Polo I'm watching is the original reconstruction from A Change of Identity Productions, though there is now a full-colour version from the Loose Cannon team, with introductions performed by Mark Eden. See the The Official BBC Site.

So what's so good about Marco Polo? Well, the design can only be gauged from still photographs, and we can only guess what Hussein's direction would be like from his work on An Unearthly Child. Given that all the episodes were destroyed, then it might seem too difficult to appraise Marco Polo. However, even on just the audio alone the quality of the story shines through. The story mentions drugs ("hashish") and is oddly without a real protagonist. Yes, Marco does hold the Tardis crew practically to ransom, but he admits to pricks of conscience and is not threatening per se. It's the standard of the acting and writing that carries it forward. By its very nature it's a rambling, laid-back narrative. There are irregular threats from bandits, but no clearly specified dangers, other than the relatively low-key involvement of Tegana. Perhaps it's this veering away from traditional black and white storytelling and into grey areas that satisfies so much.

Because why the story is so brilliant cannot be adequately explained. It's a deceptively simple journey tale (which, going by the narration, takes place over at least 25 days), and is, by definition, the most "educational" of the historicals. It's also the best, rivalled only by Lucarotti's own The Massacre. Maybe the feeling of being on a real journey over time with the regulars lends it that added sense of realism - a realism that could be shattered somewhat if it was ever found and the "exteriors" were obvious fakes.

All the characters do well, with Susan in a prominent role. Her dialogue is unusually contemporary, with her uttering "fab" and "dig it" for no real reason. Hartnell meanwhile, in a rare foreshadow of his lighter season two persona, laughs hysterically for over thirty seconds at the end of this episode. Maybe if the video recordings were ever found then the sandstorm would look rubbish, or Derren Nesbitt might look offensive made up as a Mongol. But such things are likely to remain forever speculation, and with beautiful dialogue like "I think the sun's rays will dispel the shadows from your mind, Tegana" delivered well by Mark Eden then this hardly puts a foot wrong. Also interesting is the way Lucarotti likes to play with the idea of the "God" perspective in his stories. He does this in a more literalised way for the end of The Massacre, but here he has Marco Polo narrating parts of the story in his journal for the audience to share… the same journal where he keeps the Tardis key.
* * * * *

Barbara ably sums up their predicament with: "He has a wonderful machine, capable of all sorts of miracles… and it's taken away from him by a man he calls a primitive." This is symptomatic of the first Hartnell stories where, far away from the super-powered Doctors from the Tom Baker era on, he's virtually a normal human, ever vulnerable to threat and attack. The Tardis is also prominently threatened in The Sensorites, and while the heating in the ship failing might smack of plot contrivance, it does work well in context here. It's possible to argue that the story is (aptly) slow moving, though this episode covers over three days of travel, as well as Susan and Ping-Cho in a sandstorm and a significant chess match between Ian and Marco. There's also some highly memorable lines like "one day, we'll know all the mysteries of the skies.. and we'll stop our wandering", though with all the best Doctor Who it's often what isn't said that makes it so special.
* * * * *

The rivalry between Polo and Tegana increases here, though Tristram Cary's wonderful score is forced to prop things up a little in the third week of adventure. Everything's still present and correct, with Barbara being taken hostage, but the show's educational remit almost tears the narrative apart when we get Ian saying "Susan, do you know that we use the word Hashashin in English today?" It's groan inducing, though I did kind of appreciate it as I didn't know that it's where the word "Assassins" was derived from. So, Doctor Who credibility - minus ten points; educating me - plus ten. Equals itself out in the long run….
* * * * ½

The episode directed by John Crockett because Waris Hussein was ill, it's perhaps easier to imagine what this one would have looked like as Crockett somewhat stagily directed The Aztecs. There also seem to be more publicity shots than average of this one, with lots of colour inserts being used, even on the Change of Identity Reconstruction. Actually, that's one of the weirdest things about Marco Polo, in that many of its fans rave about how beautiful the sets and costumes looked in colour… but it's in black and white! Even if they found the story in a vault somewhere, against (unfortunately) the odds, the only colour bits would be when they made a photo gallery with the sound of a pinging bell over the top of it. And speaking of a DVD release, can you just imagine how anti-climatic it would be to see the serial forty years later, only to have William Russell and Carole Ann Ford going "Oooh, aren't those sets nice? I remember… no I don't. Zzzzzzzzzzz…." Actually, they'd probably have Gary "friend of the stars" Russell poking them with a stick and making them say something at gunpoint.

But enough pointless and irrelevant character-assassinating ramblings. What of the episode? Well, it's strange, but the regulars keep coming and going so often and for such extended periods of time that it makes you think there must have been cast holidays, when there weren't. It's an odd, and somewhat obvious, form of plotting just there to keep the younger audience hooked in - a younger audience who would doubtless find it far too slow today. All that said, Barbara's revelation that bandits were rolling dice to see who got to kill her shows that, yet again, Hartnell wasn't the sweetness and light of children's programming that it's often made out to be by detractors. I mean, this is a story that sees the 16-year-old Ping-Cho (Zienia Merton) being forced to marry a 70-year-old man. Interesting in this regard is the Doctor's reaction to Ping-Cho, bearing in mind the actor's alleged off-screen bigotry: "It's a pity there was any association [between her and Susan] at all. That Chinese child makes me nervous." It's a discussion for another time, perhaps, but I've often wondered whether it matters what William Hartnell's private views were, as they were so secretly discussed that his right-wing mentality can still be passed off as "rumour" today. Yet whatever his real feelings towards minorities (and the dark-skinned, Jewish homosexual Max Adrian in The Myth Makers is said to have met with Hartnell's disapproval) he was on screen being broadcast to millions as a kind-hearted Liberal. Billy may not have been a nice man - and I know of many people who don't like his era because of this - but on television every Saturday night he was spreading messages of love. The Ping-Cho affair (and it's never expressly attributed to her race anyway) is one of few diversions, while The Mighty Trout was all for "blacking up" as the Doctor and calling people "Welsh imbeciles". I mention this not to offer an answer to a troubling ethical dilemma, but just as (cliché alert) food for thought. And maybe to say… Give Billy A Chance.
* * * * ½

A decent Billy fluff in this episode with "Yes, get out of here, anywhere where it's place… where it's safe." And is his line "I'm far from unwell" the following episode a mistake as well? Should be "I'm far from well", surely? But apart from those two instances and some hesitancy here and there, it's a strong performance from Hartnell throughout. "Great Olympus!" is an odd outburst from the Doctor, but his line about the Tardis being a potting shed to the camp Wang-Lo (Gabor Baraker) is priceless.

Apologies, incidentally, for the shorter reviews (though you might find that a blessing) it's just that I've been getting into the story so much that I keep forgetting to take any notes. Of this one, then it's heavily reliant on action, so it makes it doubly hard to say how good or bad it really is. I suspect the quality stands up with the rest of them, though the script's mild reliance on artificial dilemmas does see Susan captured as they try to escape. I would say that trying to escape was what they were doing at the start of the episode too, but then Marco Polo is something that draws its strength from characters, not incident.
* * * * ½

Marco Polo is almost like a Dickens novel, in that it's interested in telling the story over a long span, with little of the customary devices for narrative coincidence and neat resolutions. This explains why Dickens is invariably rubbish when they try and dramatise it (apart from the fact that his descriptive passages are arguably better than his dialogue, you also get characters disappearing without ever being referenced again, as the central characters move on), and why Marco Polo is a most unusual Doctor Who story. Okay, in this instance there are the central combatants of narrative necessity (Marco and Tegana) but a modern retooling would cut out the majority of the loose plot. With its working title the apt "Journey To Cathay", this is a Doctor Who story where travelling to a destination is more important than what you do when you get there. It's an unusual format, and indicative of what the series might have become if those Dalek things hadn't got in the way.

There's some great little lines in this one, too, like "You trust too much and doubt too little" and "I'm glad to see that your humour is not impaired by our misfortune". Just small little turns of phrase like that that make a story rewarding. On reflection, I guess the real impetus of this story is the relationship between Ian and Marco, with Barbara given little to do and the Doctor being forced to confront his own sense of impotence. This comes to the fore here, where Bill gets the great line: ["Kublai Khan is the mightiest man the world has ever seen. Not to pay him homage will cost you your head."] "Well, if it breaks my back, then he can take all of me! So why waste time on small items?" Okay, written down it may come over as a Dennis Spooner type quip, but bellowed with righteous indignation and it rocks to the max.
* * * * *

Contesting what is the "best Doctor Who story" is a rather pointless exercise as there's so many different styles and intentions that they work on different levels. It's so tempting to do your best Lennox Lewis impression and say "Noghai test dis man" (geddit?) but is it as dramatically satisfying as The Deadly Hashashin? As well directed (presumably) as The Caves of Androzani? As streamlined and focussed as The Power of the Daleks or The Robots of Death? The answer to all of those questions has to be "no", but then are those stories possessing of the scope and maturity that Marco Polo holds? Do they have the sweet character vignettes and narrative ambition? You see, it's best to just enjoy them all for their own contrasting virtues, rather than play them off against each other, as it's impossible. Top five though? Definitely.

This final episode has the big confrontation between the Doctor and Kublai Khan, whereby he plays backgammon for the Tardis. In many ways it makes a great anecdote for the character ("I remember playing backgammon in the court of Kublai Khan…") but also highlights that the fourth Doctor Who story was intent on serving up charm rather than dramatic tension. I'll leave this one with a few more lines from John Lucarotti's nice set of scripts: "I underestimated you, Tegana." "No… you overestimated yourself."; "But how can I weep for a love I have never known?" and the sweet "But what is the truth? I wonder where they are now… the past, or the future?"
* * * * ½

The best Doctor Who story ever made? In many ways, it probably is…
* * * * *