Doctor Who (Classic): S01E04 “Marco Polo”

Season 1
Directed by Waris Hussein (Episodes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7), John Crockett (Episode 4)
Written by John Lucarotti

We have finally come to the point, though very temporarily, where we have broken from the AV Club Classic Coverage. When it comes to the early seasons of Doctor Who, viewers will very quickly realize that there are quite a few episodes from the First and Second Doctor’s runs that are no longer extant (a whopping 97 as of now to be exact). Yet we are lucky we even still have as many as we do given that the BBC wiped the masters for the first 253 episode altogether as was standard operating procedure at the time. Due to contracts with actors, they could only repeat those episodes so many times before they had to pay exorbitant fees to show them again. Instead the BBC just junked them and as a result we are left with an incomplete show (though most shows of the era are in much worse shape). Over time, those 156 remaining episodes from the runs of the first three Doctors have been found largely in other countries where it was exported but those last 97 have left serials incomplete or completely missing (as in today’s serial). Instead we are left with glorified slideshows consisting of telesnaps (though a few episodes have also received newly animated versions or lightly animated parts), clips, and fan made audio recordings of each episode.

So thank you hardcore fans for what we have, but it still leaves reviewing (and watching) those episodes challenging. There’s always an amount of what could have been (please somebody find “The Massacre”) and these episodes are hard to watch especially in the ones with very few remaining telesnaps. They can be dull and hard to follow since the show was not planned as a radio show and there is no attempt made to help viewers along who can’t and it’s can be hard to judge if a story is bad because of these factors or if it is just bad in general.

If you are going through Doctor Who for the first time, “Marco Polo” is going to be an early and jarring test as not only is every episode missing (and every single bit of footage), but there are seven of them to sit though and I doubt anyone is going to put it very high in their rankings. As mentioned before, Doctor was envisioned as an education show and this is the first serial which really shows it and the first of the commonly labeled “historicals”. The first episode alone makes for plenty of clunky dialogue to detail the exact setting and jam in as many informational details as they can. There’s even an Indiana Jones style map detailing the extent of their travels. The rest of the serial occasionally has Marco Polo (and to a lesser extent Ian) serving as both character and spouter of facts that feel inserted mostly to justify its educational component with only the slightest tie to the plot.

As the serial’s title indicates, The Doctor and his companions spend it traveling with Marco Polo (who also narrates), and a group of Mongols. The TARDIS breaks down again which prevents them from leaving and they are barred from entering it to fix it. Marco Polo intends to present the TARDIS to Kublai Khan as a gift while Tegana intends to steal it for his own nefarious purposes. Unlike “The Daleks” which had a constantly changing set of goals building to the one ultimate goal of escape, “Marco Polo” is more of just one long story. Therefore, even though both serials are seven episodes long “Marco Polo” winds up feeling endless and almost impossible to maintain interest throughout. The languid pacing of the seven episodes isn’t helped by the fact that it takes place over several months which leads to few moments of any urgency. The slideshow format doesn’t help either, but this version has enough cuts to make it slightly less noticeable than some future missing episodes. On occasion, this reconstruction does the Ken Burns thing of spicing up the picture by zooming in or moving along different parts of a picture which makes things easier to watch but for the most part it is still static shots of images (including repeats) that rule the day.

Tegana’s individual attempts of treachery quickly become tiresome and repetitive as he inevitably fails and talks his way out of them. His very successful attempts to turn Marco Polo against The Doctor are far more compelling as a source of antagonism since they make more sense from a character perspective, he is far more trusted than four mysterious travelers who arrive in a small box, but also make him a stronger opponent since it can’t be defeated by a simple action scene. Marco Polo himself on the other hand is just a boring white guy given undue importance in the story because he is white and has name recognition. I am never given an interest in him escaping Kublai Khan’s service and he seems a bit dim. There are certain questionable racial attitudes throughout but I don’t feel nearly qualified enough to discuss them. I will say the fact that most of the Asian characters being played by white actors in unconvincing yellowface (not that convincing would be any better), a depressingly common occurrence of the time (not that it has gone away completely), makes the stereotypical Orientalism of their portrayals much more cringeworthy.

The story ends with a dull action scene of Marco Polo slaying Tegana to save the Khan and ultimately just leaves The Doctor and his companions as passive throughout. Their presence add nothing to the story aside from interesting characters, they accomplish nothing aside from delaying Tegana’s attempts by sheer bumbling about, cause only minor issues that are irrelevant to the ultimate story at hand and are merely glorified observers to a dull plot hackneyed plot.

Grade: C-

Stray Observations

– Apologies for the day late review but being sick left me not really up for a close watch or writings about a show
– The thing most effected by the slide show presentation of the missing episode is the action scenes since they are both the most difficult to showcase in a series of pictures, but also require the most explanatory text to describe what is happening.
– The story of an arranged marriage between a 75 year old man and a 16 year old woman (Ping-Cho) which runs through the serial feels like it was inserted for a “boy these people sure did weird/bad things back then” and less for any serious attempts to develop Ping-Cho as a character. The story ends anticlimactically with the off-screen death of the man.
– To be fair to Tegana “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and the TARDIS is certainly that. Can’t really blame him for thinking it is the work of a magician.
– Chess as a game didn’t take a form resembling the present day incarnation until the 15th century while this takes place in 1289. There’s no way Ian could have known how to even play the variant of the time versus Marco Polo.
– I could be wrong, but this may be the first time I have heard The Doctor’s companions referred to as “companions” which is done so by Marco Polo.
– I really wish I didn’t have to type out Marco Polo each time I used his name but anything else just sounds wrong.
– On the heels of their breakthrough of a sort towards the end of “The Edge of Destruction”, The Doctor, Barbara and Ian are on much better terms which is a nice change of pace but does rob the serial of yet another source of drama.
– This week in cliffhangers: None just a simple “wonder where/when they are” by Marco Polo

Next Up: “The Keys of Marinus” on Monday as we move back on schedule.