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Marco Polo – a fascinating missing Doctor Who adventure – great example of its long lost kind.

February 15, 2016

marcopolo

John Lucarotti penned three classic historical adventures (Marco Polo, The Aztecs, The Massacre) before the format became almost extinct (Black Orchid, 1982).  The essence of the classic historical adventure is that the only historical anomaly is supposed to be the The Doctor, his companions and The Tardis.  No major intervention into history is possible, no technology unavailable to the epoch is to be employed, and the whole purpose of the adventure is merely to escape back to The Tardis before being decapitated.  The Time Meddler was the first significant adventure to engage the possibility of radically changing history.   The Highlanders is usually considered the last of the classic historical adventures before Black Orchid – although in some ways Enemy of the World is a sort of future-historical adventure – since it abides by all the conventions of a historical adventure – it just happens to be set in the twenty-first century.

But this very early story does not in fact adhere so closely to the historical rules laid down in The Aztecs and Reign of Terror.  Insofar as these travelers are pawns in a larger political game which results in Kublai Khan NOT being assassinated, they do in fact intervene.  Whether or not the assassination would have taken place had they not arrived is hard to say – but certainly they are involved – and nor do they think to have a conversation about the implications of being involve

Based on reconstructions made out of sequenced still photographs and an audio track, it’s possible to see the kind of story this was.  It was, quite simply, a well mounted and well acted historical drama.

It’s a slow moving seven parter, in which our heroes slowly trek across Asia to the heart of far Cathay.   If it feels like a grueling trip, then it’s supposed to.  Unlike twenty-first century adventures, you can feel the distance being traveled.  Much of this tale is about being tired and thirsty and uncomfortable (in addition to fearing the treachery of the warlord Tegana).  This is the kind of experience that the more rushed and congested twenty-first century televisual regime no longer offers.  In 1964, viewers spent seven weeks watching the Tardis crew undergo a journey lasting at least seven months – and every moment of those seven months is communicated on screen.

Marco Polo narrates much of the adventure himself, creating an interesting sense of distance from the characters.   As for the orientals themselves – while some of them are subject (of course) to yellowface stereotyping and while no attempt at racially sensitive casting is offered – they are treated in a far more discriminating, varied and generous way than the Chinese characters in Talons of Weng Chiang – thirteen years later.   Martin Miller as Kublai Khan himself is content to play the Mongol emperor with in his own native Czech accent – and the performance seems to work well enough.  Polo himself, as played by Mark Eden, is a weary and tragic figure, who sees The Tardis as his one chance to bargain for permission to return to Venice.  It is surprising that he never asks to look inside The Tardis – and neither the Doctor, nor Ian, nor Barbara nor Susan think of showing off its dimensional properties as a way of gaining credibility with him.

It is some relief to everyone when The Doctor finally catches up with Kublai Khan.  The Doctor very literally refuses to “kow tow” (a precise and technical term) to the Khan and then goes on to best him at backgammon, resulting in a truly spectacular list of winnings. The Doctor hopes to win the Tardis back of course, although he is offered the island of Sumatra in its stead at one point.

There is something authentically epic about this missing drama.   Visually sumptuous, it is also complimented by one of Tristram Cary’s best scores – which is “Chinese” without being predictable or stereotypical.  Again, you return to the sense of distance traveled.  By the end of this story, you feel that you’ve actually undergone something, that you are older and wiser than when you started.  That you’re no longer the same person.  And that, surely, is what the dubious story of Marco Polo is all about.

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