Doctor Who: Marco Polo

Wagons east...
On the road to Peking, the Doctor goes a long way out of his way for good Chinese takeout, then gambles away the TARDIS to Kublai Khan.

Season 1, Serial D
Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor
With William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Written by John Lucarotti
Directed by Waris Hussein (ep 1-3, 5-7) and John Crockett (ep 4)
Produced by Verity Lambert

Episodes and Broadcast Dates:
  1. The Roof of the World – 22 Feb 1964   **MISSING**
  2. The Singing Sands – 29 Feb 1964   **MISSING**
  3. Five Hundred Eyes – 7 Mar 1964   **MISSING**
  4. The Wall of Lies – 14 Mar 1964   **MISSING**
  5. Rider From Shang-Tu – 21 Mar 1964   **MISSING**
  6. Mighty Kublai Khan – 28 Mar 1964   **MISSING**
  7. Assassin at Peking – 4 Apr 1964   **MISSING**

PLOT SUMMARY

Stuck in the Himalayas with the TARDIS out of commission, the Doctor and crew join the caravan of Marco Polo en route to the court of Kublai Khan. The Mongol warlord Tegana, traveling with the group as an emissary, secretly sabotages the caravan along the way, jeopardizing the lives of the travelers by poisoning the water supply and hiring bandits, and plots to assassinate Kublai Khan once they reach Peking. Susan befriends a teenage girl, Ping-Cho, a daughter of a high-ranking bureaucrat, awaiting an arranged marriage on her arrival. Marco is sufficiently convinced of the TARDIS’s abilities that he intends to trade it to Kublai Khan in exchange for his return to Venice, and blocks our heroes’ access.

As the Doctor repairs the defective TARDIS circuit in secret, Ian, Barbara, Susan and Ping-Cho become justifiably suspicious of Tegana, but he in turn capitalizes on the travelers’ repeated attempts to sneak back into the TARDIS, against the orders of Marco, to cast doubt on their trustworthiness.

They cross the treacherous Gobi desert and despite Tegana’s attempts to undermine the journey, they reach the Khan’s court. The Doctor befriends Kublai Khan, bonding over their mutual geriatric ailments and playing high-stakes backgammon, but the Doctor loses the TARDIS to Khan in a bet. Meanwhile, Ping-Cho’s aged fiancĂ© expires the night before their wedding after drinking a love potion. Tegana’s assassination plot is foiled, and after Marco defeats him in a swordfight, he stabs himself. The travelers escape in the TARDIS, and Kublai Khan permits Marco to return to Venice.

ANALYSIS AND NOTES AND STUFF

Marcoooooo....
Doctor Who creator Sydney Newman’s initial intent was to balance the science fiction and historical serials, and for the first three-plus years, they kept this balance, for better or worse. Unfortunately, out of the eleven ‘pure’ historicals, only four are complete, two are partially complete and five are missing entirely. Marco Polo, alas, is one of the latter.

Marco Polo has been getting more notice lately, partly due to the 30-minute condensed version included on the “Beginnings” DVD box set, and also due to rumors in the months leading up to the 2013 re-discovery of the two lost Troughton serials that Marco was also among the trove of film canisters.

This story is a conflict of personalities, and it unfolds slowly and strategically, like a chess game. Tegana plays a very skillful battle of wits, keeping Marco and the TARDIS crew at odds with one another. Although they manage to save the caravan’s life on many occasions, they always seem to get caught with the TARDIS key stolen from Marco’s tent, and darn it all, Tegana’s always there to rat them out, exposing their deceit to hide his own.

This story also re-emphasizes that the Doctor and crew’s primary motivation is just to get the hell out of there. As early as the end of episode five, they’re ready to leave, and would have if Susan hadn’t been grabbed.

At seven episodes, it is overlong. Most of the plot complications are more like plot elongations; Susan and Ping-Cho lost in a sandstorm, Barbara kidnapped in the cave, Susan kidnapped just before they all escape, etc. It’s noteworthy to compare the 30-minute condensed version; it skips all these elongations, and they aren't missed.

If we did have the episodes, no doubt we could marvel at the sumptuous costumes and lavish sets suggested by the production photos, and the story does move along, elongations aside, with skillful direction and acting. The interplay between the Doctor and the aged Kublai Khan is lovely, as is the budding friendship between Susan and Ping-Cho.

Yes, the principal Asian characters are played by white actors, with the exception of Burmese actress Zienia Merton. And that’s not ideal. But that’s how casting went in those days. Do they play upon stereotype? Well, it could be much worse.

This is one I would love to have the opportunity to re-evaluate if the rumors of its recovery prove true. Time will tell. It usually does.

RATING: 3 out of 4 sacred teeth of Buddha.
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John Geoffrion balances a career in hospital fundraising with semi-pro theatre gigs, and watches way too much Doctor Who and Britcoms in between. He'll create an author page after he puts up a few more reviews.

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