Older fans often talk about Marco Polo with a kind of reverence, sometimes citing the story as the greatest classic of all time, but can we trust their memories of a show that aired over fifty years ago, looking back through rose-tinted spectacles to their childhood? We poor young’uns are cursed probably never to see the thing because it doesn’t exist in the BBC archives, so we can judge only on the basis of photographs and, more importantly, the soundtrack. Telesnaps (some photographs taken of a television screen at the time of broadcast) exist for six of the episodes, and these have been used to make reconstructions by fans. We don’t yet have any kind of official reconstruction, other than a pretty useless half-hour version on The Beginning DVD box set, so let’s not take any notice of that. For the purposes of this review I will be basing my opinions on the soundtrack, telesnaps and unofficial reconstruction by a group of fans called Loose Canon.
Like the story that followed, Marco Polo takes us to a great variety of locations (Season One of Doctor Who was nothing if not ambitious), and they are convincing and exciting. Tristram Cary’s incidental music helps immeasurably, building the atmosphere at key moments, and the ‘singing sands’ storm comes with a wonderfully creepy sound effect. The plot is full of intrigue and twists, and each episode is well-paced, working steadily towards some of the most effective cliffhangers of the Hartnell era, with the climax to Five Hundred Eyes a particularly exciting example – just the sort of thing to get the kids tuning in again next week.
With no monsters to impress the viewers, historical stories live or die on the acting of the guest cast, and this is really Marco Polo’s greatest strength, with memorable performances from Martin Miller (Kublai Khan), Mark Eden (Marco Polo) and Zienia Merton (Ping-Cho). However, it is Derren Nesbitt who is the real star of the show, proving a wonderful villain as Tegana. This is the first of what we would now probably term “celebrity historicals”, where the Doctor meets a known figure from history (now virtually the default approach to Doctor Who stories set in the past). Marco Polo is the first bona fide historical figure to find out about time travel.
The regulars are also on top form, with William Hartnell making the most of the beautifully crafted dialogue. The Doctor’s alien side really comes across well: ‘you poor pathetic stupid savage!’ He is almost as much of a lunatic here as in the previous story, hysterical with laughter at the thought of the TARDIS being stolen! Barbara is less successful, still veering between bravery and cowardice from episode to episode.
At this stage in the history of Doctor Who, the series was attempting to fulfil its remit of education, as well as entertainment. This is perhaps the strongest example of those aims, and must surely have sparked off an interest in history in many children watching at the time. On occasion it becomes too obvious that the story is trying to teach, as it does become a little preachy at times. Marco Polo’s journal is much better in this regard, and also helps to show the considerable passage of time and recap the plot. If you like Doctor Who historical stories, then you will love this. If they are not your cup of tea, then Marco Polo might just change your mind. RP
The view from across the pond:
We are very fortunate to have so many of the early Doctor Who stories to go back to watch again. Unfortunately, not all of those stories were saved; the BBC destroyed many of them. The first story to suffer from this tragic blunder is Marco Polo. Since this is the first proper attempt at the historical adventure, it adds salt to the already painful wound.
There’s a lot to be said for Marco Polo. The TARDIS crew is still in their early adventures and we get some insight into each of them.
As most of us know, the show was originally targeted at children with the idea of alternating history and science lessons in every episode, hence a history and a science teacher as the first companions. But it seems Ian does most of the science and history teaching for the story. He explains condensation and the boiling temperature of water and that bamboo, when placed on a fire, will expand and explode. He also seems to have a terrific grasp on geography and history which should have been reserved for Barbara! And he knows a thing or two about language as he explains to Susan that “Hashashins” are now called “assassins”. He is also able to fight and defeat Mongols! Ian is a handy guy to have around!
By contrast, Barbara doesn’t add a whole lot to this story, which is a shame because she’s a great companion as well. One of her most notable contributions, however, is that she calls the TARDIS home. Coming off the events of The Edge of Destruction, that’s a big statement and shows there was continuity and character development during these early stories.
Susan is as weak a character as Ian is strong. The Doctor’s granddaughter should have been able to handle everything, not emit blood-curdling screams at everything she encountered! Her friendship with Ping-Cho is where she shines. It is with Ping-Cho that she reveals her age, 16, and explains that her home is very far away. But for most of the story, she is just there to be Ping-Cho’s friend.
From the start of this story, The Doctor he has some fantastic lines. (“It’s all gone to pot!” “What does he think it is, a potting shed or something?” “Well if he breaks my back, he can take all of me!” And perhaps a more introspective one, “Old age must be borne with dignity!”) His Doctor is one of pragmatism and wisdom. His lack of fear when told of ghosts is just the tip of the iceberg. And his love for his granddaughter trumps even getting the TARDIS back. There’s little wonder in my mind what made this show so great right from the start! Then there’s that hint of mystery… talking to Ian about conflicts throughout history, he says “your history”. This may be the first hint that he is something other…
The supporting cast is outstanding. Marco Polo is a dignified, noble man; it’s impossible not to like his character. Tegana is smart, cunning and dangerous; it’s impossible not to admire and fear him! Ping-Cho is adorable and makes a great friend for Susan – I actually wish she had traveled with them for a bit! (She also breaks a promise without breaking a promise… and that’s a skill!) And the much feared Kublai Khan… ends up being a man of great wisdom that the Doctor seems to enjoy meeting! In fact, when asked by Tegana what the great Khan has to fear from him, his wisdom shines brightly: “The power of persuasion!”
Lastly, there’s the sense of actually traveling though Asia. This story feels grand. When the TARDIS crew hear about people who traveled 300 miles in a day, it’s important to remember the time! This was a large swathe of land being covered on horseback. The episode does a great job giving us a sense of scale and making the landscape a part of the story.
Sadly, we may never see this story intact. We can hope. Rumors are that somewhere, out there, people may have personal copies. But who knows? Perhaps Marco himself summed it up well at the end of the episode when he asked “What is the truth?”
But that is a question that goes far deeper than we can answer here! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Keys of Marinus