Doctor Who From The Beginning: Marco Polo

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.

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7 Responses to Doctor Who From The Beginning: Marco Polo

  1. Tilt Araiza says:

    Tegana’s played by Derren Nesbitt, isn’t he? Interesting that you say he’s a moustache-twirling villain as what I’ve seen of a lot of his other performances are marked by a strange naturalism. He has this tendency to break up his lines with fluffs and mumbles that gives a fantastic impression that his lines aren’t scripted, but actual thoughts that are just occurring to him as he speaks. There’s something so consistent about it and he always conveys the meaning of the lines, I think it has to be a deliberate technique, rather than failing to learn his part.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, he does that in Marco Polo too – it’s the *part* rather than the performer that makes it moustache-twirling.

  2. weejay says:

    I’ve been attempting to watching every episode from the start too. I started in early 2008 and have got to the Jon Pertwee episode ‘Inferno’ so far. That’s about one story every fortnight, so you may well overtake me at some point, but it will be interesting reading these and seeing what you think.
    I quite liked Marco Polo, but I think I read too many descriptions of it as “The Great Lost Story” first, and was surprised by how hard going it was. The recon is very good, and they’ve found hundreds of extra colour photos since then, so they could make it even better now, but I still felt something was missing, which made it hard to pay attention to the intricacies of the plot. It was the first recon I ever saw too, so I might just have needed to get used to the idea.
    It’s a bit of a trudge through (for example) season 5, but I hope you keep this up.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, I’ve watched a fair few recons in my time – the last episode of the Tenth Planet, Evil Of The Daleks and so on, and in some ways I actually enjoy them rather more than watching the TV episodes (I’m primarily an auditory/verbally oriented person, rather than visually). The problem comes with something like Planet Of The Daleks, where a lot of the information is actually visual.
      Marco Polo is overrated, but it’s easy to see *why* it’s overrated – it’s Sgt Pepper, rather than Dark Side Of The Moon…

  3. Don Alsafi says:

    LOVE this story. Yes, it’s somewhat overlong, but not as much as I would have expected from a seven-parter. Diversions like Ping-Cho having the rest of the cast sit in a circle while she tells them a story sounds like a HORRIBLE idea for television, but I actually quite enjoy the diversion.

    And one can’t deny that the “overlong” quality does actually go a ways towards selling the fact that they’re on an actual *journey*.

    I too dearly love the historicals, and lament that they so fell out of favor and were dropped. (To be fair, I think I recall that the viewing figures led them rather solidly in that direction; is that right?)

    Although, to slightly quibble with the above, I don’t think the fact that the modern-day historicals feel a need to throw in a bit of monster or sci-fi is necessarily because the viewing public CAN’T watch a pure historical, but because – to the general viewing public, as well as most of the hardcore fanbase, honestly – that’s not what Doctor Who is *about*. One of my gripes is that by the time of the Pertwee era, Doctor Who became thought of solidly as a SCI-FI show, when the genius of its inception is that it really began as a vehicle capable of visiting ANY genre. But, sadly, most people don’t know that, and even the cast of “Black Orchid” – as far along as 1982, recall – seem, on the DVD commentary, utterly perplexed and slightly put out by the lack of any alien trappings.

    Basically, I think it would be GREAT to have a current Who story that didn’t feel the need to throw in a great big monster too, and you & I & and several others might think it a wonderful success. But I’ve a feeling that the general Who-watching public might feel a bit of bait-and-switch – and understandably so, given what the show been for them for the past 40 years.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      The producers of the Troughton run have said that the historicals were less popular and that’s why they dropped them, but in the About Time books they give viewing figures and appreciation stats, and both are far more closely linked to quality of the story and what else was on TV than they are to any other factor (except presence or otherwise of Daleks).

      And I agree with you totally about Doctor Who being narrowed down. It shouldn’t be ‘about’ any one thing, but should be a format in which you can do *anything*.

    • mwosam says:

      Interesting thing about “Black Orchid”… I recently read the entry for “Four to Doomsday” in Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’s About Time (since I’d rented the DVD), and they pointed out that the reason that story seems so odd is that the scriptwriter was really writing for the Hartnell era. (Once it’s pointed out, it seems so obvious–it’s very dialogue-driven, even if some of the dialogue makes no sense, and lots of “educational” bits, like a scene where Nyssa visits a hydroponics center for no other reason than to explain photosynthesis.)

      Anyway, the interesting thing here is that “Black Orchid” was written by the same guy. It looks like he wrote an anomalous historical story because he was blissfully unaware that Doctor Who had stopped doing purely historical stories. So maybe what the new series needs is a couple of writers who haven’t seen modern Doctor Who, but remember some other version…

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