Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Doctor Who: Marco Polo

Cody don't know much about history.

When watching your way through Doctor Who, the Marco Polo serial is the first time you'll encounter the "missing episode" speed bump.

Not realizing the entertainment gold they had on their hands, in the late '60s and throughout the '70s the BBC would regularly re-use the tapes their shows had been recorded on, or just go ahead and destroy them. Because of this, many episodes of their classic series are lost forever. Although the BBC and fans are scouring the TV station vaults of the world for intact Doctor Who recordings, and occasionally locating some, as of this writing there are still 97 missing episodes of Doctor Who.

All of Marco Polo's seven episodes (The Roof of the World, The Singing Sands, Five Hundred Eyes, The Wall of Lies, Rider from Shang-Tu, Mighty Kublai Khan, and Assassin at Peking) are among those that were destroyed.

Luckily, the series is a very unique case in that the complete audio of every one of its missing episodes still exist, thanks to fans who recorded the audio as the show was originally airing. There are also extensive collections of stills from most of them, allowing reconstructions to be made. The original audio is played over the stills, or in some cases fans have produced animated recreations of the episodes. Because of this, it is still possible, in some form or another, to experience every episode of Doctor Who that has ever been made.

The Marco Polo serial is also the first that doubles as a real history lesson, like BBC's Head of Drama Sydney Newman wanted when the show was being developed.

The story begins with the Doctor and his companions discovering that the TARDIS has materialized on Earth, but not in a time or place that 1963 London school teachers Ian and Barbara were hoping for. As it turns out, they're on a Himalayan mountain peak in the year 1289.

Soon after their arrival, they're thrust into a panic by the TARDIS's continuing mechanical problems - now a circuit has burnt out, leaving the police box-shaped ship without lights, heat, or water. It will take days for the Doctor to repair the circuit, by which time they'll all have likely frozen to death.

Wrapping themselves in warm clothing from the ship's extensive wardrobe, the travellers go looking for shelter and are confronted by a man named Tegana, who is leading a group of Mongols. Believing the travellers to be evil spirits, Tegana urges the Mongols to kill them. Just in time, another man shows up and stops Tegana's murderous order from being carried out, commanding the Mongols to leave the people alone "in the name of Kublai Khan".

This man is famed Venetian world traveller Marco Polo.

Polo takes the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor's granddaughter Susan to his caravan, where the Doctor is fed warm soup to battle the "mountain sickness" he has come down with. Polo is making his way through the Himalayas to get to the city of Shang Tu in China, which at this time is known as Cathay. Tegana is accompanying him as a special emissary of peace from Mongol Lord Khan Noghai, who has been at war with emperor Kublai Khan. Tegana is to discuss armistice plans with Khan. Also travelling with the caravan is sixteen year old Ping-Cho, who is to meet the seventy-five year old man she has been arranged to marry in Shang Tu.

Our leads join Polo on his journey, but the Doctor is restricted from going into the TARDIS (which is pulled along on a wagon) because the Mongols still believe him to be an evil spirit whose source of power is this strange flying ship. Polo also has other ideas for what to do with the TARDIS. Khan has refused his requests to go back to his home in Italy, and so Polo plans to offer the TARDIS to Khan as a gift in exchange for relieving him of his duties. He figures the Doctor can just build another one.

But Polo will only be able to carry out this trade if Tegana isn't first successful in killing Polo and stealing the TARDIS ("the magician's caravan", as he comes to call it) to use against Kublai Khan. This bloodthirsty fellow is not really out for peace.

As Polo's caravan continues on out of the Himalayas, across the Gobi desert, through a bamboo forest, past villages, on toward Shang Tu, the Doctor has to be sneaky about going into the TARDIS to work on its circuitry, Susan bonds with Ping-Cho, and as if it wasn't bad enough that the caravan has to deal with the hard travel and the things like desert sandstorms, Tegana also conspires every step of the way to sabotage the procession. He tries poison, he empties the group's water, he arranges to have his fellow servants of Noghai attack the caravan... He is repeatedly unsuccessful.

Once the caravan reaches Shang Tu, the initial meeting with the mighty Kublai Khan is quite humorous, because this man who has been built up to be a brutal warrior is actually a doddering old man who's hurting from gout. He bonds with the Doctor over their aches and pains, as the Doctor's old bones are hurting from days of riding horseback. They lounge in healing waters together and play backgammon.

Everything that has been built up over the serial's run culminates in a confrontation between Polo and Tegana in Khan's Peking throne room that will decide the fates of all of our characters and of Cathay/China as a whole.

Marco Polo is a decent story, and manages to be entertaining despite only existing in the form of audio and stills, but the problem is that it feels like it has been excessively padded. Seven episodes was way too long for this serial, especially when the TARDIS is fixed and ready to go by the end of the fourth episode, but the characters keep getting distracted and delayed for another three.

The history lesson aspect is interesting, as the serial tells us a bit of what it was like in China/Cathay in the 13th century. Before watching this, all I knew of Marco Polo is that people call out his first and last names while playing around in swimming pools. These Doctor Who episodes give us a nice glimpse into the man behind the game, and despite how much he inconveniences the Doctor and his companions, the story is effective in making us sympathize with him. We want our characters to gain access to the TARDIS and get out of there, and yet we also want Polo to be able to use it as a gift to Khan so he can be allowed to go home.

Not only do we get the historical figures and locations that are part of the overall story, but during one episode the action is even stopped so Ping-Cho can tell the story of a group of people called the Hashashin, so named because they used the drug hashish, who served Ala-eddin of Persia and were wiped out by Mongol leader Hulagu. Over time, the word "hashashin" evolved into "assassin".

Whether any of it is accurate, I couldn't tell you. But  as far as historical serials go, I think Marco Polo is much more along the lines of what Sydney Newman was looking for than the caveman serial.

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