Saturday, July 11, 2015

Marco Polo



With Marco Polo we encounter the first Missing Story in the Doctor Who archive. I don't intend to dwell at length on Missing Episodes. For the best and most detailed account read Richard Molesworth's excellent book, 'Wiped'. Suffice it to say a large number of Doctor Who episodes were destroyed by the BBC during the 1970s & 80s. There are still 97 episodes of Doctor Who missing. And alas that includes all 7 episodes of Marco Polo

Fortunately - perhaps even miraculously - the audio soundtracks of every Doctor Who story still exist, which means we can at least listen even if we cannot see. Now, in the case of Marco Polo, that feels like a distinct shame as the still photographs seem to show an impressively designed historical epic. 

I decided, with missing episodes, to listen to the audio. I could have watched a reconstruction but for some personal reason I chose not to go that route. I find reconstructions oddly distracting. So this review is based on the BBC audio, with William Russell's narration.

Here is a classic example of an early Doctor Who episode managing to balance adventure - even if it is gentle adventure - and education. Running parallel to the overall educational aspects of meeting with the Marco Polo upon his journey through Cathay are a couple of little lectures: on how condensation is formed and there's Ian's clunking teacher moment after Ping-Cho's tale of Al-adin. 
The most important thing is that none of this gets in the way of the actual story, which basically revolves around Marco Polo claiming the TARDIS as a bribe for Kublai Khan in an attempt to get back to Venice. The Doctor and crew spend more of the tale trying to escape whilst Tegana (Darren Nesbitt) a Mongol war-lord tries to play-off the travellers and Marco Polo for reasons of his own, which will become clear later. 

The main guest cast are resolutely excellent. Mark Eden as Marco Polo manages to do a fine job of making Polo seem like a real human. Trying not to be to much of a bad guy, when dealing with the TARDIS crew, even when the Doctor is at his most belligerent and patronising. There's a lot of First Doctor grumpiness throughout and a magnificently bizarre moment at the end of the first episode when the Doctor's response to Polo taking the TARDIS is a sort of mad giggling. As if he really can't take it all in. 

Eden gets to narrate some of Marco Polo's diary too, which has the odd effect of making this story almost as much an 'Adventure of Marco Polo' as a Doctor Who story. Indeed you might argue that a better title for this story might be 'The Dilemma's Of Marco Polo' but that might be silly. I like the way William Russell and Mark Eden build up a friendship between Ian and Marco Polo even as they argue. There's a lovely line from Marco Polo where he says to Ian, that it he doesn't care why Ian lies but that he is capable of lying. The implication being that he can't entirely trust any of Ian's explanations. 

Derren Nesbitt is excellent as Tegana. He's a pretty obvious bad guy but has a certain clever deviousness that enables him to play the TARDIS crew off against Marco Polo. It keeps things cooking nicely. 

Ping-Cho is played by Zienia Merton (who is half-Burmese.)  She is marvellous too, especially when she gets to tell her story, which is probably the longest single speech anyone in the series has had to this point. Her relationship with Susan is really nicely played too.  

There's also a nice performance by Martin Miller as Kublai Khan, which brings up a point about how many of the alleged Asian characters were played by white British actors in 'yellow face'. The pictures seem to hint at make-up but it is hard to tell how far down the The Talons of Weng-Chiang route they went. 

The Kublai Khan - Doctor scenes are marvellous btw. Another small highlight in an episode full of highlights.

This is definitely worth listening to if you get a chance but it is certainly high up on the list of stories I'd like to see found. The combination of historical adventure and excellent performances makes for a brilliant story. How many people will ever get to hear it though is moot.

12/07/2014 Additional Note

The problem with doing these blogs as 'stream of consciousness' is that you forgot to mention stuff that actually you really want to mention. One of those is sound. Listening to this as an audio I was really impressed with both the music and the sound design. Particularly during the sand storm when the shrieking wind sound genuinely terrifying. It makes me want this story found so much. I want to see how they did the sand storm in the studio. I know it might end up being massively disappointing but I want to see it. And I want to see the Cave of Three Hundred Eyes. And the court of Kublai Khan in Peking.

Here's hoping someone, somewhere has got their mits on a copy.

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