Thursday, 2 May 2013

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

Broadcast: 22nd February-4th April 1964


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?”


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


  1. Hi! You have a really great site! I'm glad to have stumbled upon it! I'm trying to find an email address to contact you on to ask if you would please consider adding a link. Thanks and have a great day!

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I've heard a lot about this story, and just now I've started watching it - yeah, it's interesting, but it is hard to watch it as 'slideshow'. Thank you for reassuring me that I'm not the only one struggling with that ;-)
    I searched the web to see if it's worth the effort, now I know it is.