Monday, January 28, 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Review: Marco Polo

Every month until December, Mars Hill will be doing a review of one story from Doctor Who from each of the Doctors' televised adventures. This month Tim Roll-Pickering picks Marco Polo from the William Hartnell era!

My favourite Hartnell story is one I'm almost certainly never going to see. At this point in time I don't think it's that controversial to say so. It's nearly thirty years since searchers last found anything more from Doctor Who's very first season and the prospect that somewhere out there is a complete copy of the story is frankly about as likely as a majority Liberal Democrat government.

But we have the audio of all the episodes. For this story we're also blessed with tonnes of photographs and even the "telesnaps" - pictures taken of the actual transmission to provide a record of the story in the days before cheap home video. It's thus possible to experience such stories as best we can.

Marco Polo is the earliest missing story from the series and something of a curiosity in its development, particularly as it shows the Doctor softened somewhat from the harsh edged character seen in 100,000 BC, The Mutants and Inside the Spaceship * to the more benign, grandfatherly figure that appeared for much of the rest of William Hartnell's time in the role. But it also demonstrates a real scope and imagination in spite of the limited resources. It's important to remember that in its very earliest days Doctor Who was not seen as a particularly important BBC production and so often had to make do with the smallest studios and worst resources. As time went on things got a little better. But here we have a serial that tells of a great journey from the Plain of Pamir all the way to Peking **, made in a small studio with a limited cast. It was a sign of the show's skill and focus. We never see Noghai and his great army, we just hear about the threat mounting. Nor do we meet Ping-Cho's fiancée - much like the lady herself. And then the great made small comes in the ultimate form with the episode entitled "Mighty Kublai Khan" where the great ruler is revealed to be... a fussy old man afflicted with rheumatism. Perhaps it's because of such limited resources that the production, forced to focus on character so much, has translated well to audio, helped by the scenes of Marco Polo narrating movements from one location to another as he writes his journal.

The sets and costumes make the most of things, and show just how well the BBC has always been with historicals, but it's the script and the acting that shine the most. The story may take a few liberties with known history (though for that matter the real Polo has been accused of this) but it does so to present the epic journey in such a way that the story never drags. Throughout we are made to feel for all the characters and their goals - the regulars who just want to get into a repaired TARDIS and escape, Marco Polo who wants to leave Cathay before the Khan dies leaving him at the mercy of his enemies, Ping-Cho who is on her way to an arranged marriage to a man she has never met and who is old enough to be her grandfather, and Tegana pursuing his own agenda of sabotage. The conflicts between them and the situations they encounter drive events forward, creating for real tensions and false hopes when escape attempts fail. What is also surprising given the age of the story is the highly respectful way in which the Mongol culture is presented. There are no condescending portrayals of the leading characters or gross stereotypes, and when there is a clash of values over Ping-Cho's marriage the European Marco Polo is to be found on the opposite side to the regulars.

A TARDIS crew made up of four regulars may seem like overkill to a later generation, but when cast well and all assigned reasonable roles they all work to complement one another, as is the case here. Having now worked together for some thirteen episodes the four regulars all bounce off one another and make it believable that whatever the circumstances that brought them together, they now all support and care for one another. The guest actors are equally well cast, with Mark Eden (Marco Polo), Derren Nesbitt (Tegana), Ziena Merton (Ping-Cho) and Martin Miller (Kublai Khan) each bringing their characters to life with relish.

The Hartnell historicals were traditionally derided by both fans and some production teams as interludes between more exciting science-fiction adventures but this view seems increasingly jaded and overlooks the possibilities to do some imaginative drama without falling back upon stock science-fiction clichés. In later eras this story would have been told very differently - invariably Tegana would be working with some alien force trying to obtain some object from the Khan's court, and in on particular era we might have heard the lines "Did you fail Mongol as well as science Jo? 'Tegana' is Mongol for 'Master'!" (As far as I know, it isn't.) But in the Hartnell era the emphasis was on exploring the universe and historicals were just as much a part of the series formula as science-fiction tales, on many occasions even outshining them. Sadly, the absence of this story from the archives means that it is often overlooked, and its seven-episode length may put off some. But try it and you'll find a true tour de force as all the elements come together to tell a magnificent epic.

(* "What?!" I hear someone cry. "How DARE somebody use any titles but the ones in the 1981 Programme Guide?!" Sorry to those who get worked up about such things but I developed my fan awareness from the 1990s reference books, so your best bet is to travel back in time and sort this out then. Better still go back to the 1960s and bring back just over a hundred Doctor Who episodes.

** Funnily enough the Who title warriors never seem to get worked up about the episode entitled "Assassin at Peking" despite that being an anachronistic name for the city - it should have been "Cambaluc", using Polo's spelling, or "Khanbaliq".)

1 comment:

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Very VERY belated comment (feel free to ignore), but just had to say I enjoyed reading the Target novelisation of this very much indeed. A sad loss from the archives (but then again, so many 1960s episodes are...)