Episode 4: Marco Polo
Companions: Barbara, Ian, Susan
Written by John Lucarotti
Directed by Waris Hussein
The Roof of the World
The Singing Sands
Five Hundred Eyes
The Wall of Lies
Rider from Shang-Tu
Mighty Kublai Khan
Assassin at Peking
At the roof of the world, the Doctor and his companions meet one of Earth’s greatest adventurers: Marco Polo.
This is one of the problems with watching the First Doctor adventures. Some of the episodes are missing. Marco Polo was a seven-part episode that entailed great costume changes and elaborate set designs. The audio track still exists as well as production stills and off-screen photos called ‘tele-snaps’. There are two different ways to enjoy the story. On The Daleks/The Edge of Destruction DVD there is a condensed version of the episode using the audio and the stills as a means to tell the story. There is also a book adaption published by Target Books. For the purpose of these two formats, this evaluation will be split into two.
I really wish this episode has survived the great BBC purge. The audio presented on the DVD is only 30 minutes and only skims the surface of the story. Apparently there is a larger audio version of this available through BBC audio which I’ll have to seek out when I have a little bit more time (and money). The story entails the Doctor and companions coming into contact with Marco Polo on his travels to meet Kublai Khan. Marco wishes to take the TARDIS to Khan as a means to buy release so he may return back home to Venice. From there the episode is a struggle for survival through the caravan travel and a fight to regain access to the TARDIS. The companions make an impact on Marco and his traveling companions.
For what was presented in the 30 minute presentation, there’s also a discussion on a friendship that is formed with Susan and a girl named Ping-Cho. Much of their conversations stem from the fact that Ping-Cho has been engaged to marriage to a much older man to maintain relations with the warlord factions. It’s interesting to note Susan’s disagreement with how Ping-Cho has been forced to marry. There seems to be an underlining element of feminism that serves on the outskirts of some of the early Doctor Who story lines. It’s refreshing to see because Susan and Barbara are in perfect positions to be just pushed aside as the helpless females of the group. Yet, Ian and the Doctor are witness to their strength and acknowledge that they are vital part of their group.
The book adaptation was actually written by the same person who wrote the episode, John Lucarotti. It’s an incredibly short read for those of us who read fast. It’s still a short read for those who read slow as well. The pacing of the book reads like the episode installments in that there are moments in which the plot slows for establishment and then builds up to create tension. It moves in waves as each installment’s issues come to light, failure in the adventure leads to more exposition until finally a conclusion is created. I don’t want to seem as if I’m demoting the book because it clearly is an adaptation, but it was refreshing to see the tension build and imagine it as if it were an episode. Reading the novelization just enhanced my desire to see the episode instead of merely reading about the action.
The story is simple enough. As it was established in the 30 minute audio presentation, Marco Polo wants to keep the TARDIS and use it to exchange his freedom so he many return to Venice. The Doctor and his companions spend their time trying to convince Marco that they must let them leave as soon as possible. The Doctor, sneaky Time Lord that he is, plots and plans alternative routes of escape as the travelers move their way through Ancient China. There’s a sub-plot involving a warlord who wants to take over Kublai Khan’s power. The sub-plot hinders the Doctor’s plans, creating suspense throughout the story.
The ending has an interesting discussion on the source of power within our Ancient Histories. What does it mean to have power and how is power represented in everyday mundane interactions? Does power have a symbol and can leaders become great leaders by obtain objects or through their actions? Granted, these are elaborate questions for a conclusion presented in a limited amount of time. I couldn’t help but wonder these questions when we see the actions and thoughts of Kublai Khan as he interacts with the Doctor.
Overall, what was presented in the audio format was too short and left me wanting. The set designs looked gorgeous and the costumers looked elaborate. The book adaptation serves as a great example of what could have been. As more money had been poured into this episode than the previous one of The Edge of Destruction, it’s sad that one can not appreciate what looks like a stellar episode.