Sunday, 7 June 2009

Marco Polo

Previous viewings - one

Now that the Daleks have come and gone, and made Doctor Who a big success, it's time to see how the other integral part of the Hartnell era - pure historicals - got started.

The placement of this story gives it a boost. We're desperate for the TARDISeers to get out and about after two episodes cooped up in the TARDIS. The only humanoid characters seen so far apart from the regulars have been cavemen and Thals, hardly the most interesting people. The Doctor has mellowed since the first story and his companions are now getting along fine, with friendly banter going both ways. We're back on Earth, and there's an audience waiting to find out what that giant snowprint is.

Well, maybe not.

Bad news first. This story is the first one completely missing from the archives, so I had a choice of viewing it via the Loose Canon reconstruction or the BBC audio. I've seen telesnaps and the shorter recon (on the DVD of The Edge of Destruction) and I think I have a good enough mental image of the story that the audio will do.

The action starts on the Plane of Pamir, a mountainous region of the Himalayas. The first scene is curious for a number of reasons - the Doctor is bad-tempered again in an example of backwards character development, and the snowprint is only a normal one whose edges have melted. Quite why the writer thought he had to imply the presence of a creature to get viewers to tune in I don't know, as it jars in the context of the story. Anyway to strand the travellers the writer includes a TARDIS malfunction of the week, a complete power failure. For a story of this length, we're drawn into the main plot quickly, with the three central guest characters established by the first cliffhanger. Mongol warlord Tegana has witnessed the arrival of the TARDIS, but his companion, Venetian explorer Marco Polo, has not, and is sceptical of Tegana's claim that they are evil spirits, choosing instead to invite the stranded group to travel with him. As they accompany Marco to the waystation of Lop, Susan meets Ping-Cho, a Chinese girl her age, and they form a friendship.

Usually in Doctor Who the Doctor and his companions get the most attention, or least the most character moments and the best lines, and are played by better actors (usually). With Marco Polo, the length of time the narrative spans (months, likely) means they're travelling with Marco, Ping-Cho and Tegana for a long time, enough for relationships, both friendly and adversarial, to form, develop and break. By the end, we're sorry to see Ping-Cho and Marco leave because for seven episodes the series has felt like a six-piece ensemble.

The timespan also permits multiple locations. It's the first of several stories that depicts a journey. In the first episode, Marco, who is in the service of Kublai Khan, decides to give the TARDIS to the Khan to buy his freedom to return home. He allows the Doctor and his companions to travel with him until he can find a way to return them to England. We're used to lame reasons for the travellers to stay where they are and not simply leave in the TARDIS, but here it isn't a technical solution that's needed for them to escape, but simply convincing a stubborn man to change his mind. It's frustrating that despite being from a much less developed era than Ian and Barbara, Marco is still able to quickly deprive the travellers of their advantage, reducing them to his level. Worse, he's not even a villain, he's intelligent and reasonable, he's just been forced into this position because he's so desperate. This is by far the best use of the TARDIS in the series - it drives the action without the need for loads of scenes set inside it, and it is responsible for most of the plot twists as various parties try to get their hands on it.

As the journey to Cathay proceeds, the caravan's progress is hindered by various trials. Each one tends to last about an episode, which quite nicely bookmarks the story. Marco has faith in Tegana and allows Tegana to slowly turn him against the Doctor and the others, which is awful to watch because Marco seems like a decent guy - he somehow manages to avoid seeming villainous when announcing his intentions by explaining his background and letting us understand him a bit more. He's a multi-layered character and portrayed excellently by Mark Eden. He recognises that he is too trusting, but since the Doctor is the one who keeps betraying him, his efforts to correct his behaviour only see him become more trusting of Tegana. I had a lot of sympathy for Marco.

Mini-adventures during the story are mostly padding - Susan and Ping-Cho going missing in the singing sands, the search for water, Barbara discovering Tegana in the cave of five hundred eyes - but it gets away with it because each one of them has ramifications for the characters and they're awesome. They colour the journey rather than prolong it. The settings and events keep things fresh but this episodic style is different from the one Terry Nation sometimes uses (The Chase, The Keys of Marinus). With Nation, at times it seems like he's changing the goalposts to keep things from getting dull, but with writer John Lucarotti the destination doesn't change, but more time is given to some interesting setpieces. Few writers would let the story come to a halt for five minutes to give us Ping-Cho telling the story of the Hashashin, but it's allowed here, and despite not being my favourite part of the story I still love it because it seems quite daring.

This is Susan's best story, not that there's much competition because it's one of the few where she does more than fall and scream (though she does scream a couple of times). It was a good choice to give her someone her own age to be friends with because for once it allows her to act like a teenager and not a little girl. Ping-Cho is engaged to a 75-year-old man she has never met, and Susan is cut off from her home, but both has something of what the other wants - Susan has freedom, while Ping-Cho has stability. The timespan allows their friendship seem genuine, even though it's sidelined once Ping-Cho runs away.

The Doctor's role is restricted in the middle few episodes - with him focusing on repairing the TARDIS, which he accesses using the secret second TARDIS key. He more than makes up for his absence when he meets Kublai Khan later and they start a friendship based on their complaints about old age. It would never happen in real life, but I'd hate for Doctor Who to be laboriously realistic. Barbara doesn't get much to do, but Ian gets more than usual, playing the hero role as in The Daleks by keeping the peace with Marco.

Where the story really comes together and becomes a classic is in the fourth episode. By now, Tegana has made several attempts to arrange an attack by bandits, and done his best to sour Marco's relationship with the Doctor and his companions, but their attempts to warn Marco about Tegana are thwarted when Marco finds out about the second TARDIS key and is furious at the betrayal, with his punishment including forbading Susan from seeing Ping-Cho. It makes me really hate Tegana, and a good villain should be hated, so this is all good.

As the story reaches its conclusion, the last couple of episodes do lose something from the earlier ones. Upon arrival at the Khan's court and then Peking, the internal power struggle between Marco and the travellers is not the main focus of the story anymore. The Doctor playing backgammon to win back the TARDIS was fun and at this point it's great to see the Doctor enjoying himself - this is the man we saw emerge at the end of The Edge of Destruction. One advantage the historicals have against the sci-fi ones in this era is that they're never naff. The sets and costumes are uniformly excellent and there's never that one awful special effect or monster than is so bad you'd never let a non-fan watch.

The ending is satisfying, if hurried. The Doctor figures out Tegana's plan is to assassinate Kublai Khan. Tegana is stopped by Marco and kills himself, and Marco allows the Doctor and his companions to leave.

This is a cracking story. Everything about it is spectacular. I love the historicals anyway, but this one especially, with its epic scope, its many interesting setpieces (most of which I haven't even mentioned), and it fleshing out even its guest characters. The maps and Marco's narration make it even better - it almost makes it his story, a tale of an encounter with some strange travellers than a tradition Doctor Who story (in fact, it would have been even better if it was told from his viewpoint entirely). Traditional Doctor Who stories are great, but those one-of-a-kind stories, when done well, are even more so, because there's nothing else like them.

Horror quotient - I imagine the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes being pretty scary, but it's inclusion was clearly because of meeting a quota. Interesting that this is the longest historical - kids can't go long without monsters, apparently.
Comedy quotient - Plenty of comedy. The Doctor not being able to kowtow because he's done his back in then bonding with Kublai Khan, plus the dialogue during the backgammon match is hilarious.
Drama quotient - Unsurpassed since, and not a monster in sight.

Flawless. The best Doctor Who story of all time.


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