“If you’re half as aggressive with this [sword] as you are with your tongue, Doctor, we can’t lose!” This rather humorous line is spoken by Marco Polo to the Doctor when their caravan is under attack. Given that his encounter is with the First Doctor, Marco has been on the receiving end of quite a tongue lashing for several episodes now. It’s too bad we can’t send the Doctor back in time to deliver the same such scolding to whoever decided it was a good idea to get rid of old Doctor Who episodes from the BBC archives. All seven episodes of Marco Polo, the fourth episode of the first season, are missing. What would the Doctor have to say about that? The Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and Susan’s first encounter with a famous historical figure can only be listened to, although there are, at least, many photos from the set that can provide a pretty good idea of how the story may have looked.
While the plot of “Marco Polo” is a bit sprawling, it can basically be boiled down to a few main threads. The year is 1289. The Doctor and his companions end up stranded high in the mountains in Central Asia with a broken TARDIS. They run the risk of freezing to death until their fortuitous rescue by Marco Polo and his caravan. Marco has long desired to return to Venice and leave the service of Kublai Khan, but the Khan will not grant him permission to leave. When he learns of the Doctor’s “flying caravan,” he decides to give the TARDIS to the Khan, because such a spectacular gift will ensure that the Khan has to grant his request. Therefore, the travelers are forced to accompany Marco to the Khan’s summer palace, all the while trying to regain control of the TARDIS.
The caravan has two other members of note. The first is the warlord Tegana. He is an emissary of the recently defeated Khan Noghai, sent to work out the details of the Noghai’s surrender. It becomes increasingly clear to the travelers throughout the journey that Tegana’s motives are not, in fact, to negotiate a surrender but to ensure that Noghai will take Kublai Khan’s throne. The travelers are in a dangerous position, as they are often in the way of Tegana’s schemes, and he will let no one stop him from completing his mission.
The second important member of Marco’s party is the lady Ping-Cho. She is a sixteen year old girl whose husband-to-be is a man old enough to be her grandfather (he is in his 70s). She and Susan become confidantes, and she helps the travelers in their struggles. She remains the one member of the caravan who never questions the motives of the travelers, perhaps because she understands the feeling of being far away from home and wanting to return.
It was a bit difficult for me to obtain the full reconstruction of this story, so I was initially exposed to it by the 30 minute reconstruction from “The Beginning” DVD set. I really enjoyed the story in its condensed version. The story itself is a solid one , featuring a clever way to force the travelers to become involved with Marco Polo and the intrigues of the court of Kublai Khan. The idea of the TARDIS being central to the plot sets it apart from many other early Doctor Who adventures. The typical early Hartnell story featured the travelers being separated from the TARDIS, and all of their adventures happened until they could find a way to return. With this story coming on the heels of the rather unusual “Edge of Destruction,” the show is still experimenting a bit with what exactly a Doctor Who story is, and these two stories feature the TARDIS more prominently than usual.
After seeing the full reconstruction, however, my admiration for “Marco Polo” was diminished a bit. I still found the story to be a good one and it entertained, but, at seven episodes, it is at least one episode too long (a common problem of the early Hartnell stories). It felt repetitive in the middle of the story, when almost every episode consists of a failed attempt to steal the TARDIS back from Marco Polo. Other than that, I think it’s a pretty solid story. The idea of having both Marco and Tegana vying for the TARDIS keeps the story interesting. Marco keeps the TARDIS from the Doctor and his companion, but Tegana makes things even more complicated, as he schemes to steal the TARDIS for Noghai. While it is Marco who keeps the travelers stranded, and ultimately is the main antagonist of the story, Tegana is the central villain of the piece. Marco is unaware of the consequences of his actions on the travelers, while Tegana is ruthless in the service of his quest, which he decides would be aided by gaining possession of the TARDIS. Ultimately, his attempts to kill Marco and the travelers are only foiled by the travelers’ attempts to escape. When his plans to murder the caravan fail, he resorts to planting seeds of doubt in Marco as to the trustworthiness of the Doctor and his companions, ensuring that they cannot get anywhere near the TARDIS.
What makes the story work is the engaging characters with which the travelers find themselves. It is vital that the viewer become involved with the characters because, while the travelers are still very much a part of the story, it is not really their story. Their struggle to regain control of the TARDIS is a major issue in the story, but it is, perhaps, the least interesting aspect of it. The intrigues of Tegana, Marco Polo’s desire to return home (which is blinding him to everything else), and even the fate of Ping-Cho dominate the plot. The travelers are a bit on the sidelines of the action, witnessing as events play out around them. The TARDIS is central to two of the storylines (Marco thinks it is the key to his return to Venice and Tegana thinks it will ensure Noghai’s victory over Kublai Khan) ensuring that there are two people who will do anything to keep the travelers from the TARDIS. This keeps the travelers involved in the events, but, as was true of some of the early Hartnell historicals, they are mostly on the sidelines, watching the course of history unfold. The main contribution of the travelers to the main storyline is the information they inadvertently gather (through their own sneaking around) about Tegana’s plan to overthrow and assassinate the Khan, but ultimately it is Marco who acts on the information and saves the Khan’s life.
As far as the character development of the regulars, it is early in the show’s run, so the Doctor has very little interest in the affairs of others. His attempt to win the caravan from Kublai Khan fails, although he is able to save the group in the desert by gathering the condensation from inside the TARDIS (but it’s a happy accident that he discovers it). He is definitely not the hero of the story, and neither is Ian, the usual hero at this point. Ian does his share of fighting, but he does not save the life of Kublai Khan, nor does he ever get the travelers back to the TARDIS. Barbara is not yet the strong, independent woman that she is in her later stories. She still very much looks to Ian for guidance, although we start to see glimmers of her development in moments like when she decides to follow Tegana to the Cave of 500 Eyes. Barbara and Ian are also in full teacher mode, with Barbara full of facts about the time period and Ian giving lessons about how the altitude affects boiling points and how condensation forms. Susan has a bit more to do in this story than in some others, due to her friendship with Ping-Cho, but she doesn’t really contribute much to the plot and is actually responsible for ruining one of their attempted escapes.
Even though the execution of the story is not quite as strong as the story itself, “Marco Polo” is still worthwhile viewing. It introduces a richly developed world, full of interesting characters. Judging by the production photos, this story was quite a lavish production. For a Doctor Who episode of this era, they appear to have gone all out with many elaborate sets and colorful costumes. In fact, it seems a shame that Doctor Who was filmed in black and white, because the viewer would never know how colorful everything was. Perhaps the strangest part of the story of “Marco Polo” is that this serial was sold to more countries than any other, yet no copies remain of it. It would be nice to see at least one episode of this story returned to the BBC archives, however unlikely that is at this point. It appears that it was a very cinematic serial and it would be interesting to see if the finished product lives up to the promise of the stills. Has everybody checked their attics and basements?