Doctor Who Rewind – “Marco Polo”

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Colorized photo from the shooting of Marco Polo

Before we begin discussing the episode itself, let us first handle the elephant in the room. This episode doesn’t exist. Not as all the other episodes do. This episode only exists as what’s called a “reconstruction,” a syncing of the audio with photographs and the occasional video from the filming. These photos are often overlaid with text describing actions that are unseen. The reason that this episode, alongside many others, exists only in this form is because of the BBC’s budget and space-saving techniques of the 1960s and ’70s.

At the time, video recording technology and media (tapes) were expensive. So, instead of buying a new tape for every episode, they would regularly wipe and re-use tapes to save both space and money. At the time they didn’t think anything of it, not expecting that anybody would want a copy of an old episode of Doctor Who (or many other weekly serials that ran on the BBC during that time). Some episodes survived (in whole or in part) because of individuals who had recorded the episodes themselves at home, but many episodes remain lost to this day.

At one point, the BBC put out a call for people to check their collections for lost episodes, promising a Dalek prop to anyone who recovered a lost episode. Over the years, several episodes have been recovered in this way, with the latest episodes having been discovered just last year, but as time passes, hope of finding more episodes gets slimmer and slimmer. Therefore, if you wish to enjoy this episode along with us, there are two ways to do it. There is a reconstruction on YouTube or you could read the Target novelization. There was a Target novelization made for every episode of the classic series, and they remain one of the only ways to enjoy the lost episodes.

Youtube (reconstruction):

Target Novelization: Marco Polo (Doctor Who #94)

Mark’s (@MarkVorenkamp) Review – Classic Whovian

This episode is the first of the historical episodes that make up a huge part of the First Doctor’s time and occur sporadically throughout the rest of Doctor Who. These episodes are characterized by a distinct lack of anything typically associated with fantasy or sci-fi. To understand these episodes, one needs to remember that Doctor Who was originally envisioned to be a children’s show and was therefore supposed to be educational. This is the reason behind the school-aged granddaughter, the schoolteacher companions, and the historicals.

Re-watching this episode, it surprises me how many factoids they sprinkle into the episode, on top of the historical subject matter that is necessary to the episode. Not only do viewers learn about Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, if they didn’t know about them already, but through Ian and Barbara they’re taught about things like condensation. This aspect of the show, done rather clumsily in the first three stories, finally feels like it’s hitting its stride.

The plot of this episode is refreshingly straightforward for classic Doctor Who. The Doctor and his companions land in the mountains of what is today China and, due to a broken circuit, cannot travel or stay in the TARDIS. That story ends up, for the majority of the episodes, overwhelmed by the historical story of Marco Polo making a trek to Kublai Khan, accompanied by the Warlord Tegana from a warring tribe. Both Marco and Tegana want the TARDIS, having been told that it flies through the air, to further their own goals. The travelers, unable to simply get in the TARDIS and leave until the circuit is repaired, must travel with Marco Polo until either they reach the palace or the Doctor fixes the circuit. In terms of a seven-episode story, it’s rather uncomplicated for a classic series episode. Especially compared to what we’d just seen.

This episode is full of duplicity. Just about everyone seems to betray or ignore one another to get what they want. The Doctor routinely lies to Marco Polo, Barbara wanders away to check out a local landmark, Ping-Cho (a Chinese maiden preparing to be married to an old man who serves as the camp cook) betrays Marco Polo to help the Doctor find Barbara against Marco’s express instructions that nobody else leave the camp. These combine together in a wonderful way, creating an entirely plausible series of conflicts and resolutions that propel this story through several stops and side-trips.

One aspect of these early stories that I always find funny is how Ian, a British schoolteacher, can manage to do things like overpower a Mongol warrior. While this is by no means as amusing as the treat we have in store for us in “The Aztecs,” I am glad that this is a trend that dies out as the series continues.

One scene I appreciated was the resolution of a bit of foreshadowing we received earlier regarding the TARDIS lock. In these days, the lock was complicated enough that anybody but the Doctor or Susan with the key would most likely end up destroying the locking mechanism rather than opening the ship. This, at the time, seemed like little more than a passing line to explain why Susan had to go instead of Ian or Barbara, but it came to fruition in this episode. When Marco Polo takes the key from the Doctor, he is informed that it takes more than the key to open the door. The beauty of this scene is that the line would have seemed contrived and convenient, if the concept hadn’t been introduced episodes ago. Instead, it feels satisfying. We, the audience, have a piece of info that Marco Polo does not, and it benefits the people we like.

One aspect that frustrates the viewer from the beginning is the constant he said/she said between the travelers and Tegana, with the travelers always ending up on the losing side of the argument. Initially it seems that this is because the travelers are new and mysterious people, even viewed by Tegana initially as “evil spirits,” but we’re repeatedly reminded that Marco has no reason to trust Tegana either. Tegana, as the emissary from a rival ruler, has no true allegiance to the Khan or his people. This continued to frustrate me, to the point that I considered briefly whether this was a convenient omission on the part of the writers, until Tegana’s first encounter with the Khan.

The character of the Khan is clearly developed to mirror the Doctor. Both tend to alternate between grouchy and happy, with far too much pride. The two even play backgammon with the stakes being the TARDIS (of course, the Khan wins). It’s here that Tegana and the Khan first interact. The Khan, wiser than Marco, immediately sees Tegana’s tendency to convince others that he has some false honor.

Ultimately, of course, Tegana’s plot to assassinate the Khan is discovered and foiled, Marco becomes the hero and wins his freedom, and even returns the TARDIS key to the travelers. In a typical classic Who happy ending, it doesn’t even annoy the Khan that his gift was given away. The old man merely smiles and remarks that the Doctor would simply have won it back.

Ultimately, the uncomplicated plot combined with the simple historical backdrop created a story that I enjoyed immensely. I constantly found myself swept up in the story, forgetting that there were 7 parts and that of course the Doctor was not going to get his TARDIS back yet. The biggest shame with this whole episode, for me, is that it doesn’t exist in a way that allows us to see it as intended.

Jamie’s (@theroarbots) Review – NuWhovian

So here we are: Marco Polo. This is a story of firsts. It’s the first “missing story” (which I’m sure Mark did a more-than-adequate job explaining above). It’s the first reconstruction we had to watch for Doctor Who Rewind. It’s the first story set in a historical (rather than science fiction) setting. And it’s the first story I’d not seen before.

That’s right. From here on out, every episode of Classic Who we’ll watch will be brand spankin’ new for me. That’s actually kind of thrilling.

Let’s get this out-of-the-way right now: despite the frustration of watching a reconstruction, I really enjoyed this one. Perhaps the characters and setting appealed to me personally (I’ve lived in China and have traveled extensively throughout China and Mongolia), but I rather enjoyed the historical setting.

Obviously, with its limited budget in the early ’60s, Doctor Who could never truly shine as a science fiction spectacle. When it came to special effects, it had some incredible elements, and they certainly made do with what they had, but the fact remains that they just didn’t have the ability to create otherworldly sets and landscapes that transported and immersed the viewer.

Ironically, this story feels the most fully fleshed out. The sets and costumes are visually impressive, and the production deserves a fair bit of credit for re-creating Marco Polo’s caravan and Kublai Khan’s court in 13th century China … on what I assume to be a very limited budget.

In short, I was more impressed and convinced by the visuals here than I was with the depiction of Skaro and the eponymous villains in “The Daleks.”

What continues to amaze me, though, is that this show (as a whole) succeeded. Our protagonist is a crotchety, frail old man who spends a majority of this story either unconscious or off-screen. Watching him today, it’s unbelievable that this character would have a chance to go on and become a cultural icon.

Four stories into the First Doctor’s run and the biggest revelation for me is that Ian (a companion) is the true star here. He’s our leading man. He’s the show’s hero and the one we’re meant to cheer and support … not The Doctor. The Doctor we simply tolerate.

Hartnell’s Doctor, we already know, has no tolerance for anyone but himself. However, we’re now learning that he’s not just an insensitive time traveler; he’s an insensitive traveler, full stop. In Yuan Dynasty China, he feels no compunction about dismissing other people’s beliefs and calling them “rubbish” right to their face.

To the show’s credit, they acknowledge this aspect of his character by giving this salient bit of narration to Marco Polo: “To make matters worse, the old doctor continually shows his disapproval of my action by being both difficult and bad-tempered. For three days now, during which time we have covered no more than thirty miles, I have had to endure his insults.”

Welcome to the team. Just be grateful he hasn’t tried to kill you yet. Ask Barbara about that.

We learn a bit more about Susan, too, which is nice, but what we learn really just serves to confuse what we thought we already knew. We were led to believe she was a child genius whose knowledge far surpasses her teachers’. However, she’s never heard of Kublai Khan, seems genuinely confused by the differences between Europeans and Asians, and actually claims to have never seen a moonlit night.

Okay, then.

I don’t want to be too hard on this story, though. (Too late?) I said I liked it, and I did! I like that the overarching narrative of the story is given to Marco Polo. His journal entries serve as voice-over narration, which brings a fresh and unique perspective to the show.

There are also some charming scenes of The Doctor and Kublai Khan together. They are both frail, crotchety old men who hit it off remarkably well. The scene of the two of them playing backgammon together is adorable. Of course, we have to ignore the fact that, historically, Kublai Khan was about 55 at this time, so his portrayal as a geriatric emperor isn’t entirely accurate.

I also really enjoyed the music for this story, which relies heavily on traditional Chinese instruments, such as the guzheng and pipa.

Again, this might be due to the nature of the reconstruction, but the story really began to drag about halfway through. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth episode, I lost almost all interest. It didn’t help matters that the story could have easily ended with the fifth episode, but thanks to a few completely unnecessary plot devices, it continues for another hour.

In the end, it just went on too long and then, ironically, ended very abruptly. Seriously, the ending felt like it came out of nowhere. We got an extended swordfight scene, and then suddenly the gang was all aboard a fading TARDIS. Zai jian!

Despite my complaints, “Marco Polo” gives me hope. I’m thrilled to enter unwatched territory and truly experience Classic Who for the first time. Our characters are slowly getting fleshed out and coming into their own, and I know that there will be several more historical stories to come. I’m excited for them.

Bring it on!

Conclusion

The verdict is in: “Marco Polo” is a charming story, warts and all, to both fans of the classic series and those more acquainted with the newer series. In this episode we’re shown the beginning of what will become a trend in the classic series, episodes set in the past without any alien or supernatural presence. Just people, doing what people do, with our protagonists getting caught in the middle. In a way I (Mark) miss those episodes. It was a simpler time, when budget issues were solved by borrowing sets from the other period dramas rather than heavy use of CGI. From here we move back into the future with “The Keys of Marinus,” a story that still exists.

In the meantime, if any of you (or your older relatives) were fans of the classic series, double-check your attics. If you happen to have a recording of Marco Polo, the fandom will be forever in your debt.

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