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