Doctor Who From The Beginning: Marco Polo
Writer: John Lucarotti
Director: Waris Hussein (ep. 4 by John Crockett)
DVD Availability: a half-hour ‘reconstruction’ edit is available on The Beginnings box set Buy From Amazon
Other availability: Narrated soundtrack on CD. Buy From Amazon
First, I’d like to apologise for the delay in doing this one. I’ve been physically exhausted for about a month now, and have no idea why. It’s made it very hard to concentrate on writing anything of any length. I’ll do some more Batman posts over the weekend and deal with the next Who story on Monday.
Marco Polo is notable for several ‘firsts’. On the plus side, it’s the first historical (if you don’t count the adventure with the cavemen) – a genre that ended early in Patrick Troughton’s run, but that was vitally important in Hartnell’s time, where the Doctor would turn up in a famous historical setting and have an adventure with no SF/fantasy/horror elements at all. These stories were often among the best the show ever produced, and it’s a sad indictment of… something, whether modern audiences, modern TV executives or the lack of ambition of the people making the programme, that while in 1964 audiences could be expected to sit through seven straight weeks of travelogue through medieval China, the modern audience – which we get told all the time is ‘more sophisticated’ – is expected not to be able to stick forty-five minutes of early 20th century France without a giant invisible chicken-monster.
On the minus side, however, it’s also the first story where the BBC deliberately set fire to every surviving copy, thus ensuring that it can never be watched again. A hundred and six episodes of Doctor Who were destroyed in the 1970s to save space, including all seven episodes of this story – one of only three Doctor Who stories where not a single frame of footage remains. Doctor Who fans sometimes act as if this act of cultural barbarism only affected Who, but in fact it got off relatively lightly (thanks in large part to obsessive fan Ian Levine rescuing several stories from the flames). If you want to see Alan Bennett’s On The Margin, or John Fortune and Eleanor Bron’s Where Was Spring, or the Beatles on Top Of The Pops, or the BBC’s coverage of the moon landings! you can’t – except for a few seconds of the Beatles doing Ticket To Ride which are preserved on a Hartnell Doctor Who story.
However, we do have soundtracks to all the missing Doctor Who episodes, thanks to fans who taped the audio off their TV sets, and we have still photographs of many episodes too, and a group of fans called Loose Cannon Productions have used these to ‘reconstruct’ many of the stories (they only distribute these reconstructions on VHS, to avoid legal action from the BBC, but I’m sure you can find them in other formats easily if, like me, you have no TV). In the case of Marco Polo, as well as doing this, one of their members also did a half-hour reconstruction of the highlights of this, used on the The Beginning box set.
And the results are quite extraordinary in this case. Many of the surviving photos of this are in colour, and the team colourised the rest, so it’s actually the only colour Hartnell story, allowing us to experience the astonishingly beautiful production design for ourselves, and putting the lie to all those jokes about ‘wobbly sets’ – this was not a cheap show.
The plot itself is Boys’ Own Adventure stuff – a TARDIS component breaks down, and Marco Polo takes the broken TARDIS to present it to Kublai Khan, obligating our heroes to travel with him and his caravan, and to thwart the machinations of the evil warlord Tegana (who is basically the Hooded Claw, all moustache-twirling villainy except when he’s around Polo, at which point he’s all sweetness and light, and who keeps coming up with unfeasibly complex death traps), while learning a little about medieval China and science (one episode is basically designed to explain the concept of condensation). Luckily, however, the script isn’t, with Susan and Ping-Cho (a 16 year old girl on her way to get married) driving much of the plot and having a relationship that would, today, be called ‘slashy’.
(Speaking of ‘slashy’, fan legend says that the monkey perched on the shoulder of villainous, eyepatched character Kuiju was wildly incontinent and spent the entire time urinating on him. This is one more reason to regret the loss of the videotapes).
It’s also amazing how little this story falls into the racist cliches about China so prevalent at the time. Possibly having an Asian director (Waris Hussein, on his second and last story for the show) made them take the edge off, as the show certainly never shied away from these elements in the future.
Watched all in one go, in a reconstruction, this is frankly a bit hard going. But if you spread it out over several viewings, you’ll find the story has a lot to offer. In truth there’s very little to date it, other than some scenes of Susan trying to teach Ping-Cho 60s teen slang.
While as a Doctor Who fan I obviously wish that every episode still existed on videotape, I can’t in all conscience say that, say, Fury From The Deep being destroyed is a great tragedy. Much better shows than that were also consigned to the flames, with people kicking up much less fuss now. But Marco Polo *is* a great loss – at least as much so as any of the episodes of Not Only, But Also, and more so than many of the other lost shows.
While the reconstructions can be a little hard going, this one is a truly superb effort. But for those who don’t care about Doctor Who as much as I do, the half-hour version on the DVD is probably more than enough for you.