John Lucarotti is one of the greatest writers of Doctor Who ever. His attention to detail is second-to-none, and his ability to create sharp, poignant and rounded characters is incredible. Marco Polo is his first script for the series, and for me, his finest. Over seven well-paced episodes, the serial unwinds gradually, slowly, yet is never, ever dull. It sticks strictly to the formula evidently provided by Newman et al following the inception of the show; it is educational, ticking cross-curricular boxes from History to Science. It is also a pivotal story for two other reasons –
1. It is the first serial after the initial 13-week run provisionally granted the show, and as such can be seen as the first true story following this ‘pilot’ season of stories, taking the crew to 100,000BC, the planet Skaro and deep into their own subconscious whilst trapped aboard the TARDIS.
2. It is the first story in chronological order to have been wiped, utterly destroyed save for a few telesnaps held in Waris Hussein’s private collection, and the audio track. Episode 4, directed by John Crockett, only exists in audio form, as no photos were taken during the filming.
And this is one of the greatest tragedies of all of Doctor Who, in my opinion – a story so well-written, so tightly directed, perfectly performed by a fabulous cast, and deemed at the time to be unworthy of keeping, and so wiped by the BBC to create room.
This, of course, brings me to my first difficulty with my task of watching every Doctor Who serial in order again – how do I fill in the gaps? Whilst there are numerous recons available, colourised telesnaps and animations, as well as the 30-minute version on the “In the Beginning” box set, the only true way to grasp the absolute magnificence of Marco Polo is to listen to the full audio track. Of course, through listening alone, one robs oneself of the pleasure of seeing this story – and seeing the phenomenal sets, luscious costume and excellent set-pieces is one of the treats of this. As this is the first missing serial I have come across, I was warned, quite rightly, that whatever I did for this one would have to set a precedent for all missing stories. Whilst I say ‘quite rightly’, this may not necessarily be the case, and I will possibly approach other missing serials in a slightly different way. But Marco Polo is one of my favourite stories. The Target novelisation is one of my favourites, as Lucarotti has such flair with language, an ability to paint glorious technicolour pictures in the mind, even if he does change the ending to a more conventional one of the genre. So for this particular story, I went about it in a three-pronged attack – firstly, I watched the 30-minute version from the DVD release of The Edge of Destruction. Then, I read the entire transcript, readily available online. Whilst reading this, I also listened to the entire 7-episode audio track. Whilst this was time consuming, it was justifiably so. I revelled in Lucarotti’s script, absorbed it as fully as possible. The telesnaps on the 30-minute version gave me some idea of how Waris Hussein realised this story, and the script allowed me to focus on how characterisation is such a strength of Lucarotti’s writing.
The first episode begins where the last ended, with the discovery of the giant footprint in the snow. And we are instantly made aware that this is educational – there is no grand monster lurking in the mountains (not until Troughton’s trek to the Tibet much later), rather it is an effect of direct sunlight on the snow, melting the edge of the footprint to make it appear larger than it is. What is magnificent about Lucarotti’s script is that these educational snippets do not feel shoehorned in. It is part of the natural flow of the conversation – Barbara and Ian are first and foremost teachers, and so they know these things. This show ticks a number of boxes – the discussion about Cathay, without specifically patronising the audience that is modern-day China is skilfully handled, and the explanation of condensation with Polo is equally well-managed, as we learn something without feeling like it is forced down our throats.
Episode 1 does a marvellous job of not only instigating our crew’s issues – the TARDIS is in need of repair, it has been taken by Polo to be carried to Kublai Khan – but introducing the rest of the cast, and their individual problems. The guest cast is, principally, only 3 characters – Marco Polo (Mark Eden), Derren Nesbitt’s brilliant Tegana, and Zienia Merton’s Ping-Cho. Each of these characters have their own tribulations – Polo desperately wants to return to Venice, Tegana is in a forced truce but wishes to destroy Khan, and Ping Cho is being forced to marry, at the age of 16, an older man of 75. In 25 minutes, we not only understand the motivations of these characters, but we care for them – they are multifaceted, perfectly drawn without seeming like caricatures. Even Tegana, who we know to be the villain of the piece, is likeable in his own way – he is smart, powerful, ruthless, and his reasons are justified. He believes himself to be the saviour of his people, and that through the Khan’s destruction all will be well again. Polo and his group are in the way, and so they need to be gotten rid of. It is as simple as that, and yet Nesbitt’s performance challenges us to dislike him – yet we can’t, not really.
Likewise, Eden’s portrayal of Polo as a man without a home, tied to his service of Khan despite his excellent efforts, who has the sudden realisation that he has “perhaps served him too well”. The arrival of this mysterious “flying caravan” gives him his final hope – as a gift to Kublai Khan, it could well make him a free man. He doesn’t understand that to get himself home will mean stranding the Doctor and his crew forever. He is unable to comprehend the power of the TARDIS, and how unique it is. He is not selfish, as such – he just can’t comprehend why the group could not make themselves another. As relations break down amongst the group, and Ian tries to explain the TARDIS, Polo simply cannot believe it; not because it is impossible – one gets the impression that he could believe it if he wanted to – but because Ian tried to escape and lied about it, proving himself unworthy of trust. This shift in power is troubling, as we realise that the time travellers do not have the moral high ground. They are the deceitful ones, no better than Tegana, as they are just as willing to leave Polo stranded, to betray him, essentially leading him to his untimely death.
Hartnell’s performance is a powerhouse, as he shifts from playful and witty to scathing and acerbic in seconds. Whilst it became commonplace for actors to take time off for holidays during the filming of stories, Hartnell’s absence for the majority of episode 2 is wonderfully handled. Rather than being unconscious, or imprisoned, as would so frequently happen later, here it is explained that he is “sulking” in his tent. We can perfectly imagine this of Hartnell’s capricious Doctor, and it sits well with the story, allowing Ian to take to the fore. William Russell’s performance here is excellent, as he balances well with Eden’s Polo, and their chess games and discussions are poetically written. The friendship and bond that grows, and decays, between the two is superb. Carole Ann Ford gets the chance to do something other than scream for once, and her sisterly relationship with the naive and innocent Ping Cho is lovely – like two girls, sitting around discussing boys at a sleepover, except that here there is no choice in the relationship, and Ping Cho is tied to this decision regardless. Jacqueline Hill’s performance, particularly in episode 3, is incredibly affecting, as she shows just the right balance of terror and loathing for the bandits playing dice to see who gets to kill her. In this scene in the cave of Five Hundred Eyes, there is a strong undertone of the threat of sexual violence too – as they mime their horrific acts around her, phallic representations in the daggers as they lick their lips – and Barbara will suffer this fate innumerable times – most predominantly in the next serial.
Tristram Cary’s wonderful soundscapes once again create a sense of majesty and magnificence, never more so than in episode 2, where the “Singing Sands” are realised with superb alienness. Again, the mystery of the unknown, and the dangers therein, are utterly palpable. These pieces of incidental music are balanced off against the sumptuous costume designs of Daphne Dare, and Barry Newbury’s set designs are glorious to behold – the three elements create a sense of grandeur never fully realised before this story, and which very few have been able to match since. The telesnaps are amazing, and one can only imagine how brilliant this must have looked in a moving version, camera gliding across palaces, through the Gobi desert, and around filthy market squares.
After five episodes of build up, as they march through these perilous lands towards the end goal, it is inevitable that they will have to confront the mighty Kublai Khan – and when they do, it does not disappoint. Rather than a tyrannical monster, ruling with an iron fist, he is instead portrayed by Czechoslovakian Martin Miller as a doddery old man, crotchety and in agony with his gout, miserable and with no one to gripe with. He is the perfect foil for the Doctor, whose refusal to bow down looks like it will cause a huge rumpus, but instead leads the Khan to confide in the Doctor about his own state of health. That our heroes’ fate rest in this man, unpredictable as he is, makes us ever more concerned for their safety. The TARDIS has been stolen again, and all that they can do is wait to see what the Khan has in store for them. Which is, of course, backgammon.
As the Doctor and the Khan while away the first half of the last episode playing the game, Tegana shows his true colours, and the ends to which he is willing to go. Throughout, he has been cunning and pensive – here, he finally marches in, sword drawn, to get what he wants. The swordfight sounds absolutely terrific, and, much like Ping Cho’s balletic routine telling the tale of Al-Addin, further highlights what a travesty it is that this serial does not exist in any form. It is a tense battle, solely because not only do we want Polo to win, but because if he doesn’t win, who knows what will happen to the Doctor and his companions? Of course, Polo does win, and Tegana does the noble thing and sacrifices himself, falling on his own sword rather than be imprisoned. There is a strange brutality to this final episode – numerous characters die in rather nasty ways – even Tutte Lemkow’s comedic villain Kuiji is murdered, but this brutality also rings true to the period. Lucarotti doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of the time, the brutality around, and the inherent danger therein.
I can only reiterate what any number of people have said before me – it is a travesty, a crying shame, that the BBC allowed the routine wiping of so many serials. That this one in particular is missing is one of the greatest crimes.