Monday, 28 July 2014

Reverse the Polarity Films will return...but maybe not in 2014.

Earlier in the year, after getting a major commitment completed, I resolved to try and get my online presence back in gear, publically saying that by April, more Doctor Who reviews will start to appear.

Sadly, I seem to have jinxed myself, because not long afterwords, my work hours went up, and in May, I was given the opportunity to present my own Soundtrack-themed show on Hospital Radio Chelmsford, (I'll explain this properly on my other blog at some point) which I'm greatly enjoying, but along with my music studies, its yet another work commitment that takes away spare time from doing anything Doctor Who-related. So once again, my plans have gone up in smoke, albeit not necessarily for bad reasons.

I think I'll give up making any public date predictions from now on, but the short of it is the fact that once more, my Doctor Who and video pursuits are still on hold, at least until the present situation changes. I'm still working gradually through reviews, I was halfway through The Web Planet before things got really busy.

Reverse the Polarity Films will return, and the reviews will return... maybe in drips and drabs, maybe not properly until next year, but one day, yes one day...

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Reverse the Polarity Films will return...

Hello folks, 2013 was a busy, mad and trying year for all sorts of reasons, most of which I'd never talk about openly, so my online presence petered out from Spring 2013 pretty quickly, and all plans I had to celebrate the 50th anniversary were swiftly abandoned, for now at least.

I'm hoping my fortunes are on the rise now though, and with any luck, I should be back reviewing this most wonderful, complex and fascinating of TV Shows by Easter this year, and I'll take any progress from there.

I still intend to do the "50th anniversary reviews" selected by my readers on facebook and Gallifrey Base, but to keep my interest in reviewing WHO refreshed, I'll mix them in with my audio and chronological TV reviews, which should stop things becoming too formulaic. There's also the side issue of the mysterious goings on in the World of Doctor Who's missing episodes. Whatever the truth of the matter, I've decided to replace the missing Troughton story choices to the recently recovered Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear, which after so long absent from the archives, can at last be reappraised by fresh eyes for the first time.

Eventually, I'll also want to start doing Doctor Who-related essays on here too, and who knows, maybe one day, I'll even be able to make videos again, once I've finally updated and replaced my current computer systems.

Stay tuned for updates in....

Monday, 9 September 2013

TV Review 5: The Keys of Marinus, written by Terry Nation (1964)

Broadcast: 22nd February-4th April 1964

Cast:

The Doctor – William Hartnell
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Sabetha – Katherine Schofield
Altos – Robin Phillips
Eyesen – Donald Pickering
Kala – Fiona Walker
Arbitan – George Coulouris
Vasor – Francis de Wolff
Tarron – Henley Thomas
Senior Judge – Raf De La Torre
Yartek – Stephen Dartnell
Aydan/Voord/Ice Soldier – Martin Cort
Darrius – Edmund Warwick
Eprin – Dougie Dean
First Judge/Ice Soldier/Guard – Alan James
Second Judge/Voord/Ice Soldier – Peter Stenson
Voice of Morpho – Heron Carvic


Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Writer – Terry Nation
Director – John Gorrie
Designer – Raymond P. Cusick
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Incidental Music – Norman Kay
Make Up – Jill Summers
Production Assistant – David Conroy, Penny Joy
Studio Sound – Jack Brummitt, Tony Milton
Studio Lighting – Peter Murray


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The TARDIS arrives on the planet Marinus, on a mysterious island surrounded by an acid sea. At the heart of the island is a Temple that houses the Conscience Machine, guarded by a lone figure called Arbitan, which is used to artificially neutralise the negative emotions and motivations of the planet’s population. However, a rebel cult, known as the Voords, led by Yartek have broken through their conditioning and now attempt to invade the island, hoping to re-program the machine to help them take over and dominate the whole of Marinus. To prevent this, Arbitan and his people initially dispersed the electronic keys the Conscience Machine needs to operate, across the planet, hopefully giving them time to modify the machine so it can be effective once more, before Yartek succeeded.

Now though, the situation has become ever more desperate as Arbitan’s assistants have become lost or killed attempting to retrieve the four remaining keys of the Conscience Machine. With the unexpected arrival of the Doctor and his friends, Arbitan forces them to attempt to find the four keys themselves before he allows them to leave again in the TARDIS.

With the aid of teleportation bracelets, the Doctor and his companions visit different areas of the planet Marinus, searching for the keys, and coming across many dangers, challenges and difficulties along the way. From a society brainwashed into slavery to mutated brain creatures, to a living forest of plants, to an area of ice caves guarded by frozen knights in armour, the time travellers are never safe for long. Fortunately, they numbers are strengthened by an associate of Arbitan’s, Altos, as well as Arbitan’s daughter Sabetha, both originally lost trying to find the keys themselves.

After saving Ian from being falsely charged and executed for the death of an official, the return back to the Temple to find Yartek in control. To prevent the success of the Voords, Ian gives them a false representation of one of the keys found earlier, which causes the Conscience Machine to self-destruct. The Doctor and his companions escape the Temple in the nick of time, and say their goodbyes to Sabetha and Altos before leaving in the TARDIS for adventures new.


Story Placement

Between The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Virgin Missing Adventure Novel) and The Aztecs (TV Serial)


Favourite Lines

The Doctor – “...and you, my friend...”
Ian – “Yes, what can I do Doctor?”
The Doctor – “Trust me”.

The Doctor – “The important thing is I believe I know who did the killing”.
Barbara – “But how? Tarron’s been working on it all day, you’ve only been here five minutes”.


Review:

The Keys of Marinus is a serial that both entertains and infuriates in equal measure. Terry Nation returned back to Doctor Who for the first time, just weeks after the gigantic success of his Science-fiction epic adventure, The Daleks, which created seismic cultural waves that continue to this day. However, The Keys of Marinus also represents the first real dip in quality of the TV production of Doctor Who since it began. On the surface, the reasons for this are mostly accidental. Terry Nation had indeed already been asked to write a second Doctor Who serial, but was working hard on a historical adventure called The Red Fort. So when one of the other proposed early Doctor Who serials fell through, and was ultimately rejected, Terry Nation was asked to quickly write a six part Sci-fi slanted serial to replace it as pre-production was due to take place in days. The result was the scripts for The Keys of Marinus, rushed and mostly underdeveloped with little time for important script editing by David Whitaker, and for a great deal of the production it shows.

Despite the difficult circumstances of the story’s origins though, Terry Nation wisely creates a simple quest format to the story, splitting up the episodes into separate mini-adventures with their own individual plots as the Time Travellers search for the titular ‘keys’ of the main over-arching plotline. Doing this allows Nation the freedom to come up with nearly anything he likes in most of the episodes, without worrying about what he did the episode before, as well as importantly allowing him time to come with a resolution to the main plot in the last episode. The “quest” format also adds a continuing sense of adventure, following on from the epic voyage in Marco Polo, as well as their recent struggles with Daleks and Cavemen.

What Terry Nation does well is to create five unique settings within his mini-adventures that are both alien and interesting, even if most are far from convincing. The citadel within a large monument, on an island with glass beaches, surrounded by an acid sea, has to be one of the most vividly imaginative creations for a Doctor Who story ever created, even if the events and characters that happen within it, fail to echo that same imagination and skill. Then there’s the society of Millenius, a city where fascinatingly the concept of law is reversed, so a charged or accused person is ruled to be guilty until proven innocent. Terry Nation clearly relished this idea, as his written execution of the last episodes is significantly better than the three before it.

However, the big demand for six episodes in a short time still takes its toll on Nation’s scriptwriting. I’m sure the ideas of a living jungle, or frozen knights coming to life in a cavern of ice caves may have seemed like great concepts for episodes three and four on paper, but ultimately they are little more than set pieces which Terry Nation builds up to and fills out the rest of the two episodes with padding and slow plot meandering. Episode three features gimmick after comical theatrical gimmick, like the android knight of armour with a robotically manoeuvred axe, or the moving statue, or the jail trap, or the falling roof – all of which are there to waste time and artificially contrive tension. Episode four in comparison splits up all of its main characters, so much time is used up by them searching for one another. For such a ‘difficult’ quest, the puzzles of the keys themselves are very simple, but then on the upside, I suppose it makes the episodes very accessible to a casual audience. For viewers hoping for more challenging and complex narratives however, a fair amount of The Keys of Marinus will feel non-eventful or slow.

In contrast, episode two is one of the better-executed of the mini-adventures. The seemingly idyllic city of Morphoton hides a society brainwashed into slavery. While it isn’t an original premise, the conceit of the leisurely paradise and its rotten truth is very well handled and executed. Rather than some gratuitous reveal, Terry Nation instead has the time travellers taken in by their ‘perfect’ surroundings, and makes sure that one of them fails the brainwashing process, so that we then can see the truth through their perspective as they struggle to convince and work against their friends in order to both survive and recover their senses. Brilliantly, it is loosely crafted in the same manner of one of Grimm’s fairy tales, as the Time Travellers are lured into the trap by sleight of hand and cunning illusion. The choice of Barbara as the character who remains uncontrolled is also a perfect one, as it gives a chance for the companion to shine, and maintain herself from the shadow of the other regulars, particularly Ian, who the former schoolteacher is frequently (albeit naturally) paired with considering their older friendship. Another great element in the script is how it maintains and demonstrates how powerful the brainwashing is of the TARDIS team, firstly by them being taken in by false objects, and then even seeing the Doctor amusingly being taken in by a non-existent laboratory. The great conceit though, hides the fact that the motive and beings behind it are, in a daft and frankly corny Sci-fi twist, the brains of humanoids that have become too big for their bodies, and require slaves to survive (since all of the places are within Marinus, and seem to all be humanoid, it’s a reasonable assumption that these brains are humanoid too). This development, coupled with the brains’ gimmicky appearance, complete with “eye-stalks”, has more than just a passing resemblance to the goofy and dumb alien creatures thought up in bad 1950s Sci-fi B movies, and unfortunately is a definite step backward from the otherwise more up-to-date and developed storytelling displayed in the series up to this point. However, given that the 1960s was still a big and popular period for the retro sci-fi style comic, such as The Eagle made in the UK between 1950 and 1969, it’s not surprising that this form of Sci-fi still prevailed in Doctor Who and other television into the 1970s, until Sci-fi in UK comics took a different turn with the arrival of 2000 AD in 1977.

The best segment of The Keys of Marinus though, is clearly the adventure in the city of Millenius, where the Doctor returns to help his friends solve a murder mystery, and save Ian, who has been framed for the crime, from execution by the state. In the mad rush of reeling off production scripts, it’s great to see Terry Nation come up with a more developed plot, and one that judging by how much more fluent and fun it is, he clearly enjoyed writing. After the average first two episodes, and the very mediocre episodes 3 and 4, it comes as a welcome breath of fresh air to get a short story with considerably more meat to it. From the outset, it’s clear that there is conspiracy and intrigue afoot, and pleasingly the mystery is dealt with succinctly and to the point. The Doctor solves most of it in just a couple of minutes, and a lot of the short story involves his struggle to defend Ian in court. Although the Doctor uses some rather dubious methods to unveil the murderer in court, he fails to provide enough proof to exonerate Ian from his fate. I like how the downturn of events comes as a result of the logical process of the trial, and given what the Doctor offers, it’s natural and credible that Ian would still be charged. Despite this though, beyond the Doctor’s initial efforts, the culprits of the crime are very easy to figure out, either down to sloppiness in the script, or a deliberate leaning towards theatrical villainy, that has to reveal itself to the audience and headline its presence in events. Personally I feel it’s a bit of both. Later, some contrived jeopardy occurs with Susan being kidnapped, in another display of increasingly sigh-worthy pantomime villainy by one of the co-conspirators, although it does give Barbara a welcome slice of the detective work for a short moment. However, I do like how once again the other culprits are caught and convicted, through a key piece of dialogue used earlier in episode 6. It sets the audience up for a great little denouement, as the Doctor sets a trap for, and confronts, his intended target; and the TARDIS team celebrate their high spirits and success in a light-hearted conversation with their former accusers.

The overarching basic storyline that frames this serial though is remarkably less satisfying. Despite the interesting ideas thrown up by the first episode (glass beaches, acid seas, a machine that dictates the conscience of the whole planet), it delivers very little overall. The Voords are merely unthinking, unfeeling, one-dimensional villains, even more so than any other villain in the rest of the story, and only seek out the conscience machine for power and dominion alone. Since the machine has to be destroyed in the end, the quest, and the story itself, almost all seems to be for nothing, bar the safe return of Altos and Sabetha, and the defeat of the Voords. So after five and half episodes, the story builds up to a non-existent climax and delivers a flat ending, to an otherwise fairly active story.

Another casualty of Terry Nation’s underdeveloped, sometimes rather basic script is much of the characterisation. Fortunately, most of the regular characters come through unscathed with their integrity intact, but many of the supporting characters leave a lot to be desired. As I mentioned above, the Voords are really disappointing antagonists, one-dimensional characters that rant on about their obsession with power. Then we have Darrius, in episode three, a pathetic and dithering scientist, whose only presence is partly as another obstacle for Ian and Barbara to overcome (the code behind the location of the key), and to give the living jungle idea interesting scientific reasoning – the meddling with nature’s “tempo of destruction”. Episodes 5 and 6, present us with a trio of theatrical and clumsily-scripted murderers and conspirators, Aydan, Kala and Eyesen. Aydan is undoubtedly the worst of the three, who cowardly lashes out violently in private, and very unnecessarily at those that challenge him, in this particular case, his supposed wife, in a rather uncomfortable moment. This controversy aside though, Aydan is still poorly characterised by some quite terrible and unconvincing hammy dialogue, where he ‘accidentally’ says too much and instantly gives himself away so easily and unsubtly, again in the traditions of basic pantomime villainy. I greatly dislike it, when otherwise great (or any other kind of) writers have to resort to such lazy, stupid and contrived characterisation to get their points across. In this case in particular, it robs the Millenius story of a great deal of its intrigue and dramatic tension, and the maintained theatricality of the accomplices merely compounds the problem. Kala by contrast is probably the most interesting and entertaining of the three, and by far the most calculating, (perhaps understandably) murdering her husband, faking grief and worry, delivering barefaced lies with ease; although even she succumbs to theatrical villainy, vocally delighting in and feeding off Susan’s plight and fear. Eyesen on the other hand, is the cool and controlling manipulator, taking everything in his stride, pulling the strings, advising his fellow accomplices and doesn’t feel much emotion, if any whatsoever. Unfortunately, despite the great scene, where he’s caught out by the Doctor at the end, Eyesen too is very undermined through some bad theatrical dialogue, and betraying his importance in the narrative by his utter contempt for Ian, and quite clearly posing as the Doctor’s opponent in court, rather than merely being ambivalent like the judges.

The worst of the story’s protagonists, by some quite considerable margin, is the huntsman, Vasor, on whom nearly every ounce of subtlety and believability is just thrown away. Considering though, that episode four undoubtedly seems to be one of the scripts that took a quality control hit due to the tight deadlines Terry Nation had to bear; it would be unfair of me to completely blame him for all the scriptural flaws that occur, or expect high quality scriptwriting at all come to that. However, the flaws still took place, and Vasor is perhaps an example of some of the worst characterisation to enter into the show so far. A cowardly, self-serving and mean-spirited huntsman, Vasor is almost the very definition of a pantomime villain, explicitly and overtly announcing to the audience in almost every other sentence reasons why he’s the bad character of the piece. You can almost hear the ‘boos’ and hisses in the gaps between his dialogue. Having said that though, Vasor starts off the episode quite natural and calm, but after the first five minutes, it doesn’t take him long before he gradually rises to a crescendo of theatricality. For instance, I can’t think of any credible villains who openly reveal their intentions so easily in comically bad dialogue like, “That door will keep anything out...or in!” Then again, it’s equally possible that Vasor is meant to be a hammy villain for fun; however as the rest of the episode is “performed” and written to be straight drama, it seems unlikely. While the camp theatrics can be laughed off though, the worst and perhaps rather uncomfortable aspect of Vasor is the fact that initially he clearly intends to rape Barbara. While the inclusion of such a serious issue could have worked if used sensitively and in a dramatic context, as The Time Meddler did, its casual use around a comically ridiculous and theatrical character feels crass and inappropriate, leaving something of a bad taste in the mouth.

Fortunately the protagonist characters fare better during The Keys of Marinus. Arbitan for instance, is a cautious and intelligent man, who while clearly an amiable and loving person, has an interesting subtle dark side to him. Arbitan’s desperation to succeed and survive, has lead him to be rather calculating and manipulative. Despite his shadowy machinations in the Temple though, he recognises the TARDIS crew as innocents fairly quickly. Then there’s the question of the conscience machine itself. Is Arbitan merely an authority figure upholding a planet-wide state tyranny? The one-note villainy of the Voords suggests not, and yet by the end of the story, Terry Nation seems to do a complete 180 degree reversal and decides that the machine is an obstacle to civilisation, and best destroyed after all. Due to the motive of the Voords (power) he just gets away with it, but there is certainly a sense of sleight of hand going on, as well as an underlying thought that maybe the quest for the keys was largely inconsequential after all this time.

Sabetha and Altos though, are far less interesting. They’re clearly kind and worthy people, quickly becoming friends with the Time Travellers, but ultimately they’re there firstly to add dramatic weight, scale and depth to the ongoing quest for the keys. The visual presences of Arbitan’s former friends, lost in their own attempts to find them, mythologises the adventures and challenges that await the TARDIS crew during their own attempt, but they also act as dramatic warnings to what could happen to them if they fail themselves. Later Terry Nation adopts Sabetha and Altos as two more pairs of hands to help fulfil the basic action and investigation requirements. However, this has the unfortunate result of actually displacing some of the material for the regulars, which is made all the more unsatisfying by the fact that Sabetha and Altos end up being mainly inferior stereotyped duplicates of Susan and Ian. Nowhere is this more obvious than when Sabetha and Susan are lost together in the ice caves during episode 4, saying exactly the same kind of words, and expressing and feeling in very similar ways. Altos meanwhile pretty much becomes the stock action stereotype after episode 2, but fortunately Ian is saved the same indignities as Susan, by being taken out of some of the action, thanks to him being framed for murder in Millenius, allowing him to take advantage of different and slightly better material. In fact, the added presence of Sabetha and Altos in the second half of the story also helps Nation to pad out his script more easily, until he come up with more meatier material. All these flaws combined make it a struggle to actually care about Sabetha and Altos throughout most of The Keys of Marinus. Seemingly recognising this, Terry Nation tries to contrive a romance between the two of them in the last episode, but it’s far from convincing.

Much of the best characterisation, perhaps predictably goes to our regulars, particularly the Doctor and Barbara. Once more the Doctor continues to evolve and develop before our eyes. In a marked change from previously, he now takes great notice and care of the safety of his friends and companions, and has more affection for them than ever before. Even when faced with the prospect of investigating a fascinating new alien world or culture, it doesn’t overrule his personal responsibility to them. It also says a lot about how much the Doctor’s character has mellowed, that Barbara’s momentary irascibility is now seemingly worse than his!

So just as the Doctor becomes mellowed and more affectionate, so too do we, the viewer, warm towards him in return. The Keys of Marinus shows the first hints of the ensemble dynamic of the regulars beginning to break down, as the Doctor starts to occasionally take the lead of some of the story, and by extension the TV show itself. It’s a beginning of a very gradual process that doesn’t reach its conclusion until The Time Meddler, when the Doctor himself finally develops to become THE lead character of Doctor Who, and the group ensemble lead ends. This change is also evident by the Doctor’s absence during episodes three and four of The Keys of Marinus, when the flow of the story becomes less urgent and starts to meander, but it’s only when the Doctor returns, that we suddenly realise what we’ve been missing all along – not just a decisive and meatier narrative, but also a strong positive leading character to take control of it. Furthermore, the Doctor’s resolutely bold, witty, charming and increasingly warm and kind-hearted nature makes me feel (and I hope the audience too) very fond of him as a character now, much more than previously (much helped by Hartnell’s superb performance), when I was fascinated and thrilled experiencing the Doctor as anti-hero, and gradually developing into a hero. I confess it wasn’t until the Doctor returned after a sizeable absence in episodes three and four of The Keys of Marinus that in chronological terms, I started to feel and consciously root for this character, as opposed to Ian and Barbara, and I suspect that will be the case for most viewers too. Noticeably, the Doctor is becoming a bit more virtuous as well, seemingly looking to do the right thing, not just for his friends, but also in his respectful treatment and integration with Millenius’ society.

Another interesting point is that the Doctor only really decides that the conscience machine, dictating the thoughts of man, is a bad thing, during the final episode, after much consideration. It’s clear that the Doctor’s own perspective on morality is still developing, even now, and still moving even closer to the hero we know, as each story passes.

In contrast, while Barbara’s personality remains  the same, her character is challenged by difficult situations to become even braver and more daring, not just to merely survive, but also to save her friends. The danger the history teacher encounters may get progressively direr as her travels in time and space continue, but no longer does she succumb to fear like in times past. Barbara’s ordeal in Morphoton during episode two is a particular trial-by-fire for her, as she finds herself alone and driven from the city into some dark and dirty dwelling, while her friends are lost to her, and under the control of a tyrannical power. If this wasn’t enough of a hopeless situation to overcome, Barbara singlehandedly infiltrates into the centre of the city; destroys the brain creatures and frees her friends from their brainwashing. No wonder Barbara thought she had the strength of will to change the course of Earth history in The Aztecs. Seriously, Rambo has nothing on Barbara Wright. Sure, the schoolteacher may not be as aggressive or gung-ho as Ripley from Alien (1979) (or Rambo), but she’s just as courageous and gutsy, and as good a hero as TV has ever devised. In fact given that The Avengers’ heroines are more charismatic sidekicks than fully-developed characters, Barbara is quite possibly one of the first multi-dimensional female “action” hero characters ever produced for Television.

Ian on the other hand, is partly sidelined to the duties of being a ‘male action stereotype’ for the first time in the show; he gets some good material and dialogue in the last two episodes, but overall this is the character’s weakest representation to date. There’s not a great deal to talk about, as for this story, Ian is entirely cast in the role of as a supporting character, mainly fulfilling some of the script’s action requirements, and setting up some of its comic moments. Even when Ian is under the sentence of death at Millenius, he still comes across as something of a spare part. Ian eventually gets his moment in the last episode, when he quietly (albeit easily) outwits Yartek with a fake copy of one of the Keys to the Conscience machine. He also enjoys some wonderful exchanges with The Doctor in the last two episodes.

For Susan though, The Keys of Marinus marks the beginning of the inevitable decline in her character and sows the seeds for Carole Ann Ford’s departure in the role at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Susan may not have been the most fascinating, complex, or exciting of the lead characters, but up until this point, was always interesting and maintained multiple dimensions that made her convincing and enjoyable to watch. However, as the other three lead characters continue to grow and blossom out, not only does the ensemble lead threaten to break up, but Susan is increasingly given less and less meaningful things to say and do as time goes on. Furthermore being sidelined by the inclusion of Sabetha in the continuing story, and left to be the screaming damsel-in-distress, almost acts as a visual premonition of how ineffectual the character will eventually become in subsequent adventures. Fortunately the next two serials (The Aztecs, The Sensorites) will offer Susan a bit more to do, but as of The Keys of Marinus, it’s clear that the character’s shelf-life has been rapidly reduced, and is now continuing under borrowed time.

The quality of the production seems to be just as mixed as that of the script, particularly the direction by John Gorrie. He comes up with some great creative shots like in episode 2 when he shoots from Barbara’s perspective to reveal the brainwashing of the others, or Ian being framed in the foreground with the clock in the background in episode 6 to emphasise the tension around his potential imminent execution. However, there are equally plenty of dull and poorly staged shots too, like the death of Arbitan in episode 1, for instance, or Aydan being assassinated in court in episode 5, which are both so clunky it feels like amateur theatre on a bad day. Then there’s the theatricality of the antagonist characters, which are never reigned in at all (unless they’re accentuated by the director, is even worse), however in Vasor’s case, camp theatricality is probably the only way to make the character entertaining and enjoyable. Then there are some other equally bizarre theatrical moments, seemingly interpreted by the director. The most obvious one that comes to mind is during episode 5, when the Doctor announces that the Millenius murderer while not being Ian, is someone else present in the courtroom. The edit instantly cuts to the Senior Judge, whose eyebrows hilariously leap several inches up his forehead in reaction. Overall the direction feels decent and adequate, but also at times fairly ineffective too. Norman Kay’s incidental music has a similar feel to it too, with the exception that it is effective, but mostly lacks imagination, identity and development, and is used so sparely to the point that it feels music is mainly used just to score over the duller moments in the episodes, and stop viewer interest from completely waning.

In contrast, designer Ray Cusick uses every scrap of imagination and ingenuity at his disposal, having to craft brand new sets, creatures and props for almost every episode, on an extremely slim and stretched budget. In more recent interviews he may have hated working on the serial (understandably so given how much pressure he was put under, even more than Terry Nation), but his work here, clearly helps to prop up the story, and making the most of a meagre budget to reflect Terry Nation’s imaginative ideas very competently. One of my favourite images from the story is the grand view of Arbitan’s temple, surrounded by a field of mini shoulder-height pyramids of glass, reaching out from the ground, like trees in a forest. Simply astounding!

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to say about the cast performances in The Keys of Marinus, or at least the supporting cast anyway. There are a lot of decent, but also fairly wooden performances throughout the story, by many of the cast, very likely accentuated by the theatricality of the direction and characters they have to play. While the serial is still enjoyable to watch, it does make both the drama and characters in it fairly unconvincing, and appear rather amateurish, so you never really take a lot of it seriously. Apart from the regular cast, there are a few notable exceptions to this. Fiona Walker is a renowned and exceptional actress, which is just as evident here, as Kala, in one of her earlier roles, as it is in the parts that made her famous, such as Agrippina in I, Claudius (1976). Despite John Gorrie’s poor direction to Kala’s feigned reaction to Aydan’s assassination, Walker imbues her character with a feistiness that adds an instant life and energy to most of the scenes she stars in. Donald Pickering as Eyesen, and George Coulouris as Arbitan, are two very reliable quality character actors, who add a bit of welcome gravitas to everything they appear in. Despite being hampered by the weak aspects of the characters they have to play, they are never less than enjoyable to watch.

For the regular cast, The Keys of Marinus is an opportunity to settle down in the roles they’ve grown to understand over the last four productions, and finesse them before more interesting new directions for their characters turn up. William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill relish their turns leading parts of the story, with Hartnell in particular evidently enjoying himself, and getting his character performance down to an art form. With Ian getting more of a backseat role, you’d think William Russell would get more of a chance to take a break in proceedings, but instead finds himself performing a lot of the main legwork the story requires with none of the character benefits. Carole Ann Ford though gets the most thankless material, with Susan reduced to singular dimensions. Ford does her best, but there’s only so much one can do with a character that’s clearly going nowhere just yet.

However despite a lot of apparent mediocrity in the script, characterisation and direction, The Keys of Marinus does create a fascination innovation in both television and Doctor Who. Firstly, Terry Nation’s management of the ‘quest’ format of the story, along with having several different types of adventures/sub-plots in very different locations (and genres), not only borrows from similar styles of format from early radio, film and comic strips to produce its first implementation on UK Television; but also Nation’s adaption of the format, pre-echoes the kind of plotting that would become prevalent in both videogames and gamebooks.

Secondly, the big range of story types and subgenres that Terry Nation plays with throughout The Keys of Marinus is almost a microcosm of what the early years of Doctor Who and its whole franchise would eventually become: a TV programme that would and could not be easily defined or boxed in by a couple of genres or sub-genres, but one that almost magically danced with ease across every or any genre that ever existed, where there’s a good story to be told. In other words, a TV show, and eventually, multi-medium fictional work that would be an Omni-genre show, if you like, or show which defied genre completely, and refused to belong to one genre in particular. Arguably it’s from this point that the show as a whole (and its production team) began to culturally understand what it wanted to be, completely by accident through broad experimentation in the show’s very first season. This particular unconscious realisation, coupled with the important first steps and innovations of the previous four stories, and the lesser one from the story to come (The Aztecs) meant that at last the production team was able to understand exactly what they were making, and could finally see what it could do, but perhaps more importantly, where they wanted to go with it. Unknowingly, Terry Nation had once again helped to provide an additional element to Doctor Who’s success, to show itself that it could be, and was limitless, could go anywhere, and nearly do anything, and that its imagination and potential was only bound by that of the writer itself. It’s a great shame then that years later, a few subsequent future production teams would go on to consciously narrow Doctor Who’s genre definition. However, that was all in Doctor Who’s future, and I’ll come back to it when I reach the relevant periods. In 1964 though, Doctor Who was expanding and getting bigger, not smaller; going from strength to strength.

Looking back at The Keys of Marinus specifically though, it’s a fascinating curiosity. Born out of necessity, rushed, underdeveloped, sometimes fairly padded and insubstantial, with mostly ineffectual and theatrical characterisation and direction, Keys is a serial that on the surface appears to be doomed to failure. Yet, within this chaotic production lies some magnificent imaginative ideas and concepts, even if they’re not wholly original, some magical performances from the regular cast, especially William Hartnell, and a wonderfully mad range of small stories and sub-genres, all thrown into the mix, and shows Doctor Who laying down its final foundations as a programme and coming of age before it heads off to new, brighter and mostly better horizons.

Score: 7/10

P.S. At this point I have to hold my hands up and confess that part of the conclusions I made in the third and second-last paragraphs of the review are wholly inspired by the astute observations of TARDIS Eruditorum aka Philip Sandifer on The Keys of Marinus. I greatly recommend his writings, which are both very clever, and very culturally knowledgeable, even if I sometimes disagree with his opinions from time to time.

Check out his writing on The Keys of Marinus at:

Or alternatively check out any of his critiques and writings on other Doctor Who stories at:

Thursday, 2 May 2013

TV Review 4: Marco Polo, written by John Lucarotti (1964)

Broadcast: 22nd February-4th April 1964

Cast:

The Doctor – William Hartnell
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Marco Polo – Mark Eden
Tegana – Derren Nesbitt
Ping Cho – Zienia Merton
Kublai Khan – Martin Miller
Chenchu – Jimmy Gardner
Malik – Charles Wade
Acomat – Philip Voss
Ling-Tau – Paul Carson
Wang-Lo – Gabor Baraker
Empress – Claire Davenport
Man at Lop – Leslie Bates
Mongol Bandit – Michael Guest
Kuiju – Tutte Lemkow
Vizier – Peter Lawrence
Office Foreman – Basil Tang
Yeng – O. Ikeda


Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Writer – John Lucarotti
Directors –Waris Hussein (Episodes 1-3; 5-7), John Crockett (Episode 4)
Designer – Barry Newbury
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Incidental Music – Tristram Cary
Make Up – Ann Ferriggi
Production Assistant – Douglas Camfield, Penny Joy
Studio Sound – Jack Brummitt, Hugh Barker, Derek Miller Timmins


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The TARDIS arrives on the Plain of Pamir on the outskirts of the Himalayan mountain range in 1289, and promptly develops a significant fault. In search of alternative shelter, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan are rescued by Marco Polo’s travelling party. However, just when the Time Travellers think they’re safe, dangerous plots embroil them in an adventure they’ll never forget...

Marco Polo deceitfully steals the TARDIS, hoping to use it as a gift to bribe his leader, the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan to allow him to return home back to Venice. The Doctor and his friends frequently attempt to take the TARDIS back from Polo, but are thwarted at every turn. Unbeknownst to all of them though is that the Mongol War Lord Tegana, whom Marco Polo is escorting to a peace talk with Kublai Khan, has a murderous plot of his own. Tegana is the representative of rival Mongol leader Nogai, who claims to want to a peace settlement with Kublai Khan. In reality, Nogai wants another chance to take over Kublai Khan’s large empire, using Tegana as a secret assassin.

The Time Travellers frustrate and thwart Tegana’s many attempts to murder Marco Polo and his travelling party, and Tegana in turn spreads lies and suspicion in the group, turning Polo against the Doctor and his friends. However, once Tegana’s treachery is exposed and defeated, Marco apologetically gives the TARDIS back to its original owners, allowing them to leave and travel through space and time once more.


Story Placement

Between The Edge of Destruction (TV Serial) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Virgin Missing Adventure Novel)


Favourite Lines

Susan – “One day, we’ll know all the mysteries of the skies, and we’ll stop our wandering”.

Marco Polo – “On my travels to Cathay, Ian, I have come to believe many things which I’d previously doubted. For instance, when I was a boy in Venice, they told me that in Cathay there was a stone which burned. I did not believe them, but there is such a stone. I have seen it”.
Ian – “It’s black isn’t it”.
Marco Polo – “Yes”.
Ian – “Coal”.
Marco Polo – “In Cathay we call it the burning stone. And if a stone burns, why not a caravan that flies? Birds fly. I have even seen fish that fly. You are asking me to believe that your caravan can defy the passage of the Sun? Move not merely from one place to another, but from today into tomorrow, today into yesterday? No, Ian. That I cannot accept”.

Kublai Khan (to Ping-Cho) – “Your beloved husband-to-be, so anxious to be worthy of your love, drank a potion of quicksilver and sulphur, the elixir of life and eternal youth, and expired on the spot”.

Marco Polo – “I wonder where they are now – the past or the future?”


Review:

It’s not easy trying to review a story that doesn’t exist. On the one hand, you’re probably thinking that I’m being somewhat dumb stating the obvious. After all, any visual records of the Marco Polo episodes in question have been wiped, destroyed or lost sometime over the last 49 years (or at least that very much seems to be the case so far). On the other hand, we have the original scripts, a novelisation of the story produced years afterwards, but most importantly we have audio recordings of the transmitted episodes, taken by a few devoted viewers of the time; and more recently photographs taken by John Cura of individual frames of most of the episodes, courtesy of the director of the serial itself, Waris Hussein. Through these combined items, Doctor Who fans and TV historians are fortunate to be able to gain at least a partial sense of what the serial was like. We can examine and critique the script and the narrative; we can understand some of the quality of performance, post-production and direction via the audio, and get some glimpses as to the visual direction, set design, costume, and cinematography.

However, partial is the operative word, so unless (hopefully just until) the video images of this old TV production are recovered, if they ever can be, then we can never truly be able to appreciate the quality of the cast performances or direction, or even be able to appreciate Marco Polo in the way it was meant to be experienced – the visual medium. So for a reviewer of any old TV programmes that sadly no longer exist, even one that has substantial recovered scraps and extras to help partially realise what once did, like Doctor Who; it’s hard to know for sure if one is ever doing complete justice to its merits, and I’m sad to say that’s the case for many a 1960s Doctor Who serial, particularly during the Patrick Troughton years. However, the metaphorical axe that came down on these old TV episodes was indiscriminate and mostly random, so that many of what I personally consider great Doctor Who TV serials from both the First and Second Doctor eras, for now at least seem to be lost forever, including the original master tapes of over half of the Third Doctor era, which fortunately survives through several different ways, recoveries and technological miracles over the last 40 years.

For the benefit of those that don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a quick summary about the problem of missing Doctor Who episodes. Before the commercial distribution and selling of video cassettes (firstly Betamax, before VHS took over the home video market, and of course a long, long time before DVDs), British TV companies frequently wiped and destroyed all copies of their old programmes once their appeal for broadcast was exhausted, as they thought they had no further use. The master tapes were often the first to go after repeat possibilities dried up, and then all the remaining copies once all their export copies had lost their viability to be sold for TV transmission abroad, including sadly copies returned to them from other countries from said past export sales. This practice was common within the BBC till the early 1980s, partly down to the cost of using film (so a film could be used to record other programmes) or limited storage facilities. As a result of the wiping and junking of original and duplicate copies of old TV material, several classic programmes produced up to that time were badly affected by the purge including Steptoe and Son, Dad’s Army, Z Cars, Monty Python, the BBC coverage of the 1969 Moon Landings, and of course Doctor Who. Nearly all of the Doctor Who master tapes between 1963 and 1974 were completely disposed of, as well as most of even all the inferior export copies of the episodes between 1963 and 1969. We are immensely fortunate that all of the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who (1970-1974) has been saved or preserved on video in some form or another, with modern restoration techniques bringing even poor or black and white copies of colour episodes much closer to their original state than ever before for our enjoyment. All archive Doctor Who from late 1974 onwards has thankfully been kept, in fairly close to its original state. However, the 1960s period was, and still is fairly decimated in comparison, heavily impacting on both of the William Hartnell (1963-1966) and Patrick Troughton (1966-1969) eras of the show. Again, fortunately every decade or so since the early 1980s, a very small number of export copies of old 1960s episodes have come back from various sources (some old foreign TV stations/archives, others from film collectors), allowing us to experience a small part of previously lost TV history again, and to enjoy and appreciate the Doctor Who stories they represent far better. The more depressing fact though is that despite these lucky and wonderful recoveries, there is still to this day 106 Doctor Who episodes completely lost (for now at least), most of which being from 1965-1969, including some sizeable casualties in the Patrick Troughton era especially. Marco Polo represents the first chronological Doctor Who story that has both episodes still missing, but is also still missing in its entirety.

Marco Polo is a story of great significance and interest during the early years of Doctor Who, even without accounting for its status as a missing serial. It marks the first story to be a fictional tale both set within and written about real historical events, places or civilisations. An Unearthly Child may have been set in the past too, but this the first time when recorded history is used as a basis for creating a fictional tale. This type of story first used in Marco Polo also represents the beginning of a reoccurring story format, these days more commonly referred to as the “pure historical”, in the sense that these stories would only include a fictional world and events set within recorded history, without any fantasy or science fiction elements, with the obvious exception of the TARDIS, which in these stories was merely a plot device to get them to the historical location in the first place in order to begin the serial’s narrative. The true extent of how many elements, events, facts, or people from recorded history were actually included and used in each serial, varied from story to story; but there was always due care to make sure there were no obvious mistakes in its depictions according to the accepted history interpretations of the day. Of course, this has made some stories that venture into history a bit dated as new ideas and discoveries have changed the history books over the decades, but I don’t think that de-values the quality of any past Doctor Who production at all, as the show’s main remit was to be adventure, entertainment and drama, after all.

A common assumption about the origins and early development of Doctor Who as a TV programme has always been that these “pure historical” stories were intended purely on the grounds of education. In other words, entirely or specifically for kids, which is another barely questioned assumption about the whole programme in general, and one that I strongly disagree with. While that may have been the early initial aim during the creation of Doctor Who, the final reality was very different. To illustrate this, permit me to quote from my own University dissertation from 2011:

During the early days of Doctor Who and its creation, the BBC and Sydney Newman, its principal creator, clearly wanted the historical episodes of the show to have “a distinctive educational slant” to its narratives (Graeme Burk, 2000, 2010 p.37), particularly stating that he wanted Doctor Who to concentrate on producing “drama based upon and stemming from factual material and scientific phenomena and actual social history of past and future” (Sydney Newman, 1963 cited in Howe, Walker and Stammers, 1994, 2005 p.61). Some commentators have leapt on this fact as proof that Doctor Who was specifically a show for children (Kim Newman, 2005 p.1), and is often used to support a negative critique of Doctor Who by those who dispute its merit. However, just as The Daleks (1963/4) serial railed against Sydney Newman’s directives of having “no bug-eyed monsters” (Newman, 1963 cited in Howe, Walker and Stammers, 2005 p.56), the historical serials became different to their intended nature too, concentrating more on drama, than conveying facts. There are educational elements to these serials, which include The Aztecs (1964) and The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve (1966), but they are very minor in detail, and only really serve as a framework to help dramatically ground the narrative for the audience, acquaint them with the historical characters in question, or even simply as further ‘window dressing’ to help give the drama an added richness that some of it’s more specifically science fiction serials might have found difficult to achieve. The BBC may have originally wanted the historical serials to be purely educational, but with Doctor Who being a drama, they conceded after complaints from schools after the Marco Polo (1964) serial that historically educational drama serials “posed the danger of misrepresenting historical events and characters and thus undermining the lessons given at school” (Richard Bignell, 2009, p.11). As a result, the emphasis on education in historical Doctor Who serials was significantly reduced, even throughout the majority of the 1960s, so these serials weren’t really as primarily aimed at children as suggested.

So in other words, Doctor Who’s ‘pure historical’ serials only used recorded historical events, people and locations as a framework to create fictional works of drama or comedy (or both) within, and to avoid any direct science fiction or fantasy elements that would disrupt the added depth and potential realism the historical framework lent them, and definitely not education in any real significant sense, despite Sydney Newman’s original intentions.

However, Marco Polo certainly gives the illusion of being educational, possibly hence the complaints the BBC received after its original transmission. During about 10 minutes of the serial’s third episode, Five Hundred Eyes, the plot is suspended to make way for a telling of a folk tale by Ping Cho, and then Marco Polo that gives the impression to any unknowing or unaware viewer that they’re receiving a partial insight into Mongol or Chinese culture, when in fact it is nothing of the kind. Although the story is very loosely based around Hulagu Khan’s siege of Alamut in 1256, it contains little but reference to the event, no historical detail, just embellishment and romanticism. In short the story is merely a lyrical fairy tale, entirely, albeit very imaginatively, invented by John Lucarotti.

Actually, I don’t think the teachers of the day needed to be that worried, because even after just a little research, it becomes increasingly obvious that surprisingly for Doctor Who’s first ‘pure historical’ adventure, there is hardly any real history to be found in the script at all. By all accounts the siege of Alamut referenced in episode three, and the destruction of Karakorum, the capital city of the Mongol empire, described briefly in episode six are the only real tangible bits of history we can be sure of. The presence of Kublai Khan is of course correct for the time period the story is set, but his use in the story is mainly as both a lightly comedic character and catalyst for both the plot and its climax, rather than any recorded historically accurate interpretation. Nogai (or Noghai), Tegana’s off-screen leader also existed, a Mongol Tatar leader of the Golden Horde; but from what I can make out, Nogai never made any recorded attempt to overthrow or even oppose Kublai Khan.

What of Marco Polo himself you ask? Well here’s the fascinating thing. Although The Travels of Marco Polo do tell of Marco Polo’s servitude and visits to Kublai Khan (along with his family, who happen to also be absent from Doctor Who’s fictional depiction), and that he did leave Khan’s court and service in 1290 AD (and leave Venice in 1271), a year after the Doctor Who narrative is set; once again there is no actual recorded historical evidence of Marco Polo ever visiting Kublai Khan, and that’s if he even went to China at all, which is odd considering the recorded historical visits of other Europeans to Kublai Khan’s court. In fact, because the only real details about Marco Polo and anything he did seem to only exist in the famous book series of related tales, The Travels of Marco Polo, there is real debate as to whether Marco Polo himself ever existed. Having said that though, John Lucarotti writes a ready-made ‘get out clause’ at the very end of the serial, allowing him freedom not to be tied down to historical fact with Marco Polo’s statement that people back home wouldn’t believe in half the things he’s seen in Cathay (Medieval North China).

So with that in mind, it’s fairly clear that John Lucarotti script is almost entirely fictional in every way (including unknowingly to Lucarotti maybe even Marco Polo himself), which perversely makes Doctor Who’s Marco Polo all the greater, and feels all the more impressive and special. Creating a good fictional narrative within the fixed constraints and facts of recorded history is hugely difficult in itself, but the fictional world set in 13th century Asia that Lucarotti creates is so multi-dimensional, extensive and convincing, that it is a written wonder to behold. So much so in fact, that if I hadn’t done any research, I would’ve been convinced that a quarter of the script did reflect true recorded history. The level of detail and thought in both his imagining and descriptions of the locations that Marco Polo travels to, as well as the myriad of different characters really sells this story as both a historical epic, and a wonderfully romantic vision of the eastern World, even if it is almost certainly false. However, it also probably helps that Lucarotti is drawing much inspiration from the potentially fictitious Travels of Marco Polo as well. The character of Tegana himself is a decent example of this, seemingly inspired by the character of Ahmad, a murderer and perpetrator of evil, who bewitched those around him, particularly those in authority.

Another fascinating aspect of Marco Polo’s narrative is that Marco Polo is himself the focus of a high portion of the story, rather than the Time Travellers. Marco himself narrates their group’s journey across Asia non-diegetically, but at the same time the scenes that share the narration wonderfully show Polo writing about his journey in a diary, a homage to the books of The Travels of Marco Polo no doubt (even though their contents may be fictional, and were claimed to be made from another person’s accounts of Polo’s travels as relayed to him by word of mouth, not written text). During the narration, there’s also (according to telesnaps) an edited film montage of the straight forward and less dramatic parts of the journey so fortunately the audience doesn’t even have to suffer it in a quarter of real time (although it’s definitely long enough as it is!). It also feels that some of the portrayal of the Doctor and his companions in the script represents Marco’s own interpretation of them, particularly noticeable in the last part of the final episode as he wonders where the TARDIS crew’s travels will take them. Although of course, an equal portion of the script is free from his view of events to allow the audience to see the whole story and the many sides of it that take place.

Taken from purely a plot point of view though, it’s hard to get around the fact that Marco Polo is a fairly simple story. There are two basic, good plots, which combine together in the final episode for a joint resolution. Firstly, our time travellers meet Marco Polo, who steals the TARDIS as a gift for Kublai Khan, and our heroes struggle to get it back again. Marco Polo marks the first time the TARDIS has been stolen, whether for its power, technological abilities or just as a hold over the Doctor, and here it works wonderfully within the historical context. Marco Polo sees it as a magical item he can gift to the Khan in return for leave from his service, allowing him to go back home to Venice. In fact it’s surprising that as a plot device, the theft of the TARDIS hasn’t been used more often. The other and rather obvious subplot, Tegana’s conspiracy to murder the Khan in the name of a takeover by his Mongol leader Nogai, is well written too. To Tegana, Marco Polo is both the means by which he travels to meet the Khan under false pretences, and also one of Kublai Khan’s lines of defence, to be confounded and disposed of at the most convenient opportunity. Although it is always obvious to the audience of Tegana’s villainy, it is fascinating to see how he manages to always worm his way out of trouble and get back into Marco Polo’s favour, not to mention drive a wedge between him and the Time Travellers without being found out by the Venetian. The only thing that does spoil it perhaps is the fact that Lucarotti casually reveals Tegana from the very first episode, and clearly signposts this as early as ten minutes into the serial, wasting the potential for any mystery or additional suspense. In itself, these are great plotlines for a four episode, 100 minute story, but at a mighty seven episodes, I think it’s fair to say there is a sizeable amount of padding in this serial. Amazingly though, Lucarotti somehow manages to turn this into as much of a strength as a flaw.

John Lucarotti has carefully structured the narrative to follow a much gentler pace than usual, so that every episode has elements of sizeable significance to the overall plot. There are still big chunks of filler material of course, but it is mostly fairly spread out, not lumped into two whole episodes, so it doesn’t spoil the overall ‘viewing’ experience (if I can call watching a picture slideshow-style recon viewing that is). Even in the periods that the plot is on hold though, Lucarotti inserts interesting details and additional elements to stop the audience from getting too bored, such as the ‘singing’ sands of the Gobi desert, and the titular ‘Cave of Five Hundred Eyes’. One of the other positives from Lucarotti’s re-structured narrative is that you get a real sense of how big Marco Polo’s journey is, as well as the sheer distances and long number of days and weeks that are being undertaken in achieving it, something that you wouldn’t really appreciate as much if it was edited down to under an hour of screen time. Due to the padding, there is also some repetition of plot elements, with the time travellers repeatedly trying escape in the TARDIS, and Tegana’s various attempts to kill Marco Polo and thwart his journey progress towards Cathay. However, every attempt, and every escape takes place in different circumstances, so although on paper, it’s obvious they’re repeating the same plot function over and over, in practice it feels like a natural part of the story. In fact, every attempt by the Doctor and friends to regain the TARDIS, by being caught out and trying again feels like a more believable development than the usual quick fix, as in reality various obstacles often exist to any desired aim. Furthermore it also adds an extra layer of tension, as well as an increasing sense of desperation from the time travellers as the possibility of them becoming stranded in this time grows ever more likely.

The best strength from having the extended narrative is that the extra time allows John Lucarotti to extensively develop the main characters of the story, working in extra layers and subtleties, but most brilliantly creates and changes the relationships between them as time goes on, and as plot points make them react in different ways. Nowhere is this more noticeable than with Marco Polo and his ongoing friendship with the time travellers, and Ian in particular. At the start, they are innocent people lost in the mountains which he feels duty bound to care for. Later, they warm to each other and become friends. However, when Tegana stirs up their differences, as well as making trouble, and the Doctor and his companions try to escape with his prize, again and again, Marco becomes initially angry, but later rather more distant, weary and untrusting of them, until the climax of the story when the penny drops, and he tries to make up for his behaviour to them, by giving them back the TARDIS. Complex changes and developments in characterisation is as much a part of great storytelling as a good narrative and plot, and during Marco Polo, John Lucarotti produces it in spades.

Speaking of characterisation, John Lucarotti’s script delivers many wonderfully multi-layered and relatively complex characters that help set this adventure story alight and raise it above what could potentially have been a fairly average historical tale of globetrotting and pantomime villainy to a near classic Doctor Who serial. The most notable and fascinating of these is undoubtedly the title character himself – Marco Polo. Marco is one of the most complex supporting characters ever written for the Doctor Who television series (although probably not the books and audios). Clearly a seasoned traveller with his wits about him, the Venetian is clearly not above acting out of self-interest when his own need is strong enough. However, he also has a clear and strong conscience, and likes to think the best of others where possible, something which Tegana only too gladly manipulates for his own ends. However, having an open and kind heart, despite his own selfishness, means that he is easily upset and angered when others insult or deceive him, and especially when others seem to betray him, which make up a lot of the dramatic conflicts between the main characters throughout the story. I also love the warm camaraderie that builds up between Marco and Ian, as the Venetian begins to greatly respect and trust the resourceful time traveller, only for his faith in Ian to be broken down by Tegana’s lies and Ian’s attempts to defy him in trying to escape with the TARDIS. Rarely do the audience get to see detailed and fully developed interaction between the regulars and the other main characters so it rightfully feels special and worthy to not only see it happen, but also for it to be so brilliantly thought-out and executed in the final production.

The Time Travellers themselves are also still of great interest as a developing ensemble in Marco Polo, particularly as the story marks the first real adventure they share as friends. The Doctor is the most notably changed, looking out for his human companions, and doing his best for them when they’re in trouble, like Barbara was in the third and fourth episodes. The development is remarkable and just two stories ago would be unthinkable considering his old ways, proving to be a great testament to his more humble and learned character, making good on his promise to Barbara to be a better and fairer person at the end of The Edge of Destruction. However, it’s equally fascinating that the Doctor continues to be almost just as abrasive and unforgiving with strangers as before. When Marco Polo steals the TARDIS, the Doctor rails against him, almost treating him like an enemy, secretly working against him to take the TARDIS back, and resenting the Venetian’s actions against him. However, it’s clear that over the long journey, and by the end of their time together, he too has a grown to have respect for Marco, like his friends, albeit only partially.

Barbara also clearly develops further in this story too. After having cleared the air and made peace with the Doctor during The Edge of Destruction, it’s interesting that now the history teacher is a lot more understanding and sympathetic of the Doctor’s point of view. Her ongoing travels in the TARDIS are also making Barbara a lot braver than ever before, and possibly more reckless and instinctive too, letting her curiosity and suspicion of Tegana lead her to unconsciously wander into danger. Barbara’s courage and steely will though doesn’t stop her from still being appalled and terrified by the high level of danger that she comes across during her travels through time and space. Ian on the other hand remains as the dynamic and physically active member of the TARDIS crew, once again partially fulfilling the action hero stereotype his role was originally created for. However, once again Ian is thankfully given more developed and complex characterisation, probably again partly down to David Whitaker. He spends part of the story as an ambassador and representative for the TARDIS team to Marco Polo, convincing him of their innocent intent as well as their essential need of the TARDIS itself, hoping to reason and convince him to give it back to them. Ian also though spends part of the story befriending and supporting Polo, not just to help convince him of the time traveller’s good intentions, but also to understand the Venetian himself, trying to follow the best and most reasonable course of action that will help them all out amicably, without the need for aggressive opposition. Once he is sure of Tegana’s treachery later in the story, Ian grows a partially loyalty toward Marco, determined to do right by him, even if he is duty bound to care for his friends and look out for the TARDIS first. Susan on the other hand is partly something of a spare part, developing a warm friendship with Ping-Cho, but otherwise purely an observer throughout the story, with her only active involvement being falling into the typical screaming ‘damsel-in-distress’ cliché that her character is quickly devolving towards. However, the Doctor’s granddaughter isn’t completely wasted here and has some good scenes, particularly with Ping-Cho, and is used by the script as partially representing the attitudes of the ‘modern viewer’, protesting strongly against Ping-Cho’s arranged marriage.

Tegana is something of an interesting character. John Lucarotti unfortunately highlights his role as the villain very early on in the story, but even if he hadn’t, it’s obvious that the Mongol warlord is cast as the villain anyway with his regular verbal opposition to the time travellers, spoken mainly only in Marco’s ear, clearly creating tension within the group. If that wasn’t enough, his secret meetings, frequent acts of sabotage and treachery, make Tegana initially look like the Doctor Who equivalent of Dick Dastardly. However, Lucarotti fortunately takes care to make sure that the character never makes ‘public’ displays of his villainy (to the other main characters onscreen) until the final climax, hiding his true intent and contempt behind jibes, barbed suggestions and teasing. Tegana’s most effective weapon though, is his precise, calculating and agile ability to charm others into his way of thinking. There’s a great chilling moment in the final episode when Tegana manages to coldly dress down Marco Polo just by openly criticising his actions to the Kublai Khan, while at the same time bending the Khan’s ear with sweet words, with the Venetian barely a few feet away from them and able to hear every word. It’s a cold demonstration and insult by Tegana to Marco Polo, showing him the power and control he has, even in a royal court he has never stepped foot in before, without openly declaring his obvious opposition to the Venetian, preventing him from arguing back. Rarely do we encounter human villains as well drawn and scripted as this in Doctor Who, so when they do appear they always stand out (like Mavic Chen, Tobias Vaughn, General Carrington and Charles Grover, to name a few).

The other supporting characters are a lot more sleight or generic in nature. Ping-Cho is more-or-less Marco Polo’s equivalent of Susan, albeit infinitely more likeable, and without the tiresome screaming. A young woman in Marco’s charge, Ping-Cho is quietly brave, fairly intelligent and perceptive, but also a very sweet, delightful and kind-hearted person, who the Time Travellers befriend fairly quickly with ease. Kublai Khan on the other hand is more of a token comedy character, a cheeky, witty, but wise leader, whose years have made him positively ancient in demeanour, but who is also rather downtrodden by his significantly younger wife. Tegana also has various secret allies to his cause, either through money or politics, but they all amount to being merely sinister lackeys at the end of the day, plot devices to help reveal a part of Tegana’s plan and intention at the right time in the serial to keep the audience interested in proceedings.

Marco Polo also blesses us with a wonderful cast, nearly all of which are memorable in some way or another. The strongest of the supporting cast though, is undoubtedly Derren Nesbitt as Tegana. Nesbitt took what could so easily have been a tea time pantomime villain, and turned him into a charming and mesmerising portrayal that even now defies simple labelling, an enemy who hides his true self under layers of language, misdirection and wry smiles. Derren Nesbitt tones back some of the character’s excesses on paper, introducing some welcome subtlety, which treats the audience to a convincing wolf in sheep’s clothing. However, Nesbitt makes sure to include moments which offer glimpses of the deadly lion underneath, just to remind us how deadly dangerous Tegana really is. Mark Eden is also superb as Marco Polo himself, portraying the role with stern conviction and authority. Eden also proves a great acting foil to Nesbitt, William Russell and William Hartnell too. Zienia Merton, future Space: 1999 cast regular also gives a delightful performance as Ping-Cho, conveying natural innocence and subtle intelligence with ease.

The regular cast are still on fine form too, especially William Hartnell, who goes through a myriad of expressions; from anger, frustration and his usual steely resolve through to cracking light jokes and enjoying winning at backgammon. Hartnell’s best scenes are usually those where the Doctor verbally faces off with Marco Polo, however for me his best moments in the serial are his bizarre reaction to the sheer helplessness of losing the TARDIS, firstly to Marco Polo, and then to Kublai Khan after losing a second game of backgammon. Instead of anger, despair or bitterness, he falls about laughing hysterically in the face of such hopelessness. It’s one of the facets of William Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor that I’ve always loved, his jolly, endearingly mad, and sheer bonkers eccentricity that comes completely from left field like a sudden force of nature. I’m happy to say that you can see a lot more of this glorious side of Hartnell’s performance during Season 2 (1964-5), when the 1st Doctor settles into his more mellow and good-humoured persona, particularly while Vicki’s part of the TARDIS. However, that’s all still in the future where Marco Polo is concerned. William Russell gets the most to do of the regulars, playing off Mark Eden’s Polo, stage fighting against various enemies, playing the voice of the group with wit and conviction. Jacqueline Hill on the other hand, like Carole Ann Ford is mostly restricted to supporting duties by their respective characters taking a step back in this serial, which mostly leaves the two actors reacting with either terror or wonder at the various situations that occur, however Hill continues to brilliantly play Barbara’s understated and instinctive wisdom.

The actual production of Marco Polo, from what the publicity photos and various telesnaps show us, seems to have been rather elaborate too. The costumes and set design appear to be particularly gorgeous, rich in tone and variety (and colour too from some of the production photos). Tristram Cary’s music isn’t quite as memorable or creative as the one he composed for The Daleks, however it is still nonetheless very effective, and rather more understated to contrast with the rather more ‘loud’ aspects of production. The direction though is very hard to evaluate with any kind of certainty, due to the entire video record of Marco Polo being lost/destroyed. However, having directed the first ever Doctor Who story, An Unearthly Child, very well for the type of camera in use at the time, it’s possible that Marco Polo was too, something which the image composition and framing displayed in the surviving telesnaps seem to bear out. The superb performances of the cast also seem to suggest great direction. Despite this though, short of any episodes of Marco Polo being recovered, we will never know just how good Waris Hussein was during Marco Polo, except the surviving original cast and crew themselves.

Throughout all my praise and critique though, it’s worth remembering that I’m only experiencing Marco Polo through a surviving audio soundtrack (released by the BBC), and a video reconstruction by the Doctor Who fan video group, Loose Cannon productions, which plays out more as a picture slideshow. Having said that though, Loose Cannon’s efforts should be applauded, and their recent version still remains the most complete surviving record of the serial so far, even though when I say ‘complete’ I mean as complete as reasonably possible considering how little visual material has survived thus far. It should be noted though, that trying to watch the sheer length of Marco Polo in this viewing format is very difficult, if tried in less than two days. I myself only managed to digest the video recon in three days, whereas I remembering managing to get through all seven episodes as a narrated audio all in one sitting. That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t at least try the video reconstructions of missing Doctor Who, just that you shouldn’t expect to be able to watch or appreciate it in the same way as video of the ‘moving image’. So maybe you might prefer to just stick with only the audio soundtrack instead.

BBC DVD’s 30-minute reconstruction of Marco Polo on their 2006 DVD release of The Edge of Destruction is also worth mentioning too. While it gives you the general gist of the story, and allows viewers with considerably less stamina to experience it, BBC DVD’s recon only really gives you a portion of the real story, and therefore only a portion of any understanding as to how good it is. Certainly, Marco Polo as a script contains a fair amount of padding, as I’ve already said earlier, but in my view, I can’t see Polo being edited down into less than 90 minutes, without losing some of the aspects that make it into the classic it is, and BBC DVD’s recon proves that. “How”, I hear you ask. Well you lose so many of the great moments of character from both the regulars and the supporting cast, and the developing and ever-changing relationship between them, and especially some of their depth, particularly from Tegana. You also miss out on some of the wonderful cast performances, particularly from William Hartnell and Derren Nesbitt. Furthermore, you also miss out on the epic sense of the globetrotting journey; some of the twists and turns in Tegana’s conspiracy; and some of the story and directorial focus from Marco Polo’s point of view. In short, some of the editing is so ruthless and clinically fast that several layers of creative artistic meaning and endeavour just disappear. In other words, if you want to find the easiest way of experiencing all of the best of Marco Polo, then I would recommend the BBC-released narrated audio soundtrack (as of 2013).

For the last four decades at least, Marco Polo has teased and tantalised us with its absence from the archives. A historical epic on a BBC budget, Marco Polo was a hugely ambitious production for television at the time, rich with great characters, locations and culture aplenty, and blessed with a strong script, cast and (probably) direction that truly delivered on multiple levels. Marco Polo is also significantly the first of a new type of Doctor Who story format that mainly created a script from historical or period elements, and deliberately avoided science-fiction and fantasy (despite the subject here potentially being fictitious). The ‘pure historical’ as it has later become known, is a fantastic story format, and great part of Doctor Who’s genre ensemble that although temporarily abandoned by the TV show itself, was brilliantly updated and resurrected by Big Finish audios in The Marian Conspiracy, and is one that is long overdue from our screens. Marco Polo though, already shows us some of the strengths of the genre, and represents the fourth in four serials to pioneer fantastic developments that shape the success and future of Doctor Who for years to come. Although admittedly a simple story, with padding built into the script (extending the serial to a huge seven episodes long); from the surviving audio, script and photographs, it’s clear to me at least, that Marco Polo is one of Doctor Who’s all-time classic stories (albeit a lesser one). Furthermore, I’m willing to bet that if ever some episodes from Marco Polo do happen to be recovered one day that many more would agree too.


Score: 9/10