Like most fans born after this story’s last known airing, I know Marco Polo primarily through John Lucarotti’s 1985 novelization of his then 21-year-old scripts. I was just about 12 at the time and this was one of the first Doctor Who historicals that I’d read. Lucarotti spends much of the book describing meals and buildings; I convinced myself that, not only was I reading an accurate description of 13th-century China, but that I was also reading a verbatim transcript of what Marco Polo the TV episode would have looked like, had it not been wantonly destroyed by the BBC.
Not even close, come to find out.
To experience Marco Polo today requires a blind journey of discovery and a choice of routes that would have baffled Robert Frost; not dissimilar to what the actual Polo would have had to make during his travels. Which reassembled version of Marco Polo does one choose to experience? There is the surviving audio of the 7 episodes. There is the condensed 30-minute version put out by the Restoration Team. If you want to, however, watch a facsimile of all 7 episodes, you need to move into the reconstructions. Loose Cannon released a full-color version; there is a color 2D animation of Episode 1 circulating around the Internet; and you can now find a Loose Cannon-style reconstruction on YouTube, featuring recently-discovered black-and-white telesnaps of the actual episodes. For this project, I chose the latter version, which is probably as close as one can ever get to the original TV Marco Polo, absent the original film transfers someday being discovered in Iran, for example.
So it turns out that Lucarotti’s novelization stays pretty faithful for the first four episodes of the televised story. I was on familiar ground for more than halfway through. But, somewhere in the middle of Episode 5 (Rider from Shang-Tu), Lucarotti decided to rewrite the scripts and restructure the ending, when he put the book together. The cliffhangers to Episodes 5 and 6 on TV are nearly unrecognizable in the book, and the resolution is radically different, resolved by wits and logical deduction rather than by an epic swordfight.
Marco Polo as televised is a fairly simple plot structure; each week takes place in different locales, and it’s the travel and change of scenery that drives the narrative, rather than an ongoing storyline with rising action. The TARDIS breaks down high up in a mountain pass, and after the first 10 minutes of Episode 1 (The Roof of the World) are spent looking for firewood, the time travelers are rescued from frostbite and starvation by Polo and his entourage – warring Mongol chieftains and a teenage bride from Samarkand. Before we hit the first cliffhanger, Polo has confiscated the TARDIS, hoping to use it as a bribe to induce Kublai Khan to release him from service and return him to Italy. We spent most of the rest of the story journeying through Cathay, at first trying simply to regain the TARDIS, and then, much later, trying to foil an assassination plot. The villainy of the bad guy – Tegana, a rival Mongol warlord hoping to overthrow Kublai Khan, and played by Derren Nesbitt, an actor whose career hasn’t been that much more savory – is revealed at the end of Episode 1. While the TARDIS crew suspects him very early on, Polo is increasingly skeptical of the travelers. So what fills the remaining six episodes are drawn-out set pieces with little plot displacement, each one almost but not quite outing Tegana as evil, a feat not accomplished until the Episode 6 cliffhanger, when Marco is not even around to see it.
While the bare plot described above wouldn’t seem to justify the seven-episode length, and without the extravagant descriptions of buildings and meals that Lucarotti gave us to pad out the novelization’s 144-page length, the story is still a delight to experience. The script is full of verbal fencing, with intelligent philosophical dialogue and a few unexpected comic turns. In Episode 3, Ping-Cho, the child bride, performs a poem dramatizing the story of the Hashashins; by total coincidence, I watched this episode on the same day that I read the chapter in The Count of Monte Cristo relating the same story (with Dumas attributing its discovery to Polo). The poem is an interesting centerpiece to the episode – Doctor Who’s first musical number – in which the episode title (The Five Hundred Eyes) relates to the Hashashin’s lair in Cathay, and in which the cliffhanger is a nifty bit of fright-mongering in said lair. When you consider that the title of Episode 7 will be Assassin at Peking (“Assassin”, as Ian takes pains to tell us, deriving from the word “Hashashin”), you realize that Lucarotti really has plotted the life out of this adventure, in spite of its langorous-appearing pace. The educational bits are a bit of a time capsule now, something the show stopped doing in the middle of Season 2; apart from the etymology of “assassin”, we also get a lengthy lecture on condensation, and the Doctor literally stops a rescue-Barbara subplot to tell us about quartz. The most interesting aspect, of course, is that a nominal kids’ show, with an educational remit, is willing to spend so much time discussing hashish in the first place.
No matter how delightful the script, though, there’s still the frustration that we don’t know how any of this would have been staged on TV. We have an idea from An Unearthly Child/The Tribe of Gum that director Waris Hussein was inventive and creative with the camera, but in even a good reconstruction, whatever clever stagings Hussein came up with have been replaced by photographs, map illustrations, and weak Photoshop composites. Some of the telesnaps used in the recon that I watched, hint at cross-fades, which help suggest an episode more visually lively than any reconstruction slideshow can ever be. The sandstorm that takes up most of Episode 2, The Singing Sands, is near-incomprehensible when reduced to a chaotic soundtrack and blurry screen grabs, but it’s easy to imagine, given the circumstantial evidence, that Hussein was covering it with all the studio cameras at once and making it look cinematic and big-budget.
In terms of a meta-approach to Marco Polo, let’s talk about some firsts. Up until now, the individual episode titles in each serial have been largely descriptive, and begin with the word “The”. The Firemaker. The Survivors and The Ordeal. Occasionally, we get some frisson of melodrama in the title: The Forest of Fear. The Brink of Disaster. What Lucarotti, or his script editor, does this time, is elevate the game a little. Episode 4 is The Wall of Lies. But there is no actual wall. While part of this story is said to take place in the shadow of The Great Wall of China, there is neither a surviving visual representation of the Wall (if any was ever made for this story to begin with; the telesnaps we have for this story come from Hussein’s episodes, and this is the one installment that he didn’t direct), nor agreement among historians as to whether the Wall as we now know it was even around in Polo’s day. What the episode title really is, then, is not a literal place description, but a metaphor – the first episode title that refers to a philosophical concept rather than a location or actual story event. This episode’s script is full of deception, with the Doctor and his friends using Ping-Cho as a pawn to steal the TARDIS key back from Polo, and with Tegana trying to cast suspicion off himself by putting it on the travelers; everyone in the script lies to and deceives everyone else. That’s your wall of lies.
Similarly, Episode 6 is about Mighty Kublai Khan, and here we have the series’ first joke title. When Khan finally shows up, in an extended comedy sequence, he’s played by Martin Miller, a little old Jewish man from Czechoslovakia… i.e. he sounds like every great-uncle that I dimly remember from family gatherings in the 1970s, most of whom died of old age before I turned 9. He spends this episode in physical pain, and after he befriends the Doctor, they spend more time than you might expect discussing back pain and gout (again, describing birthday parties in my family circa 1978 more than things that happened in the actual Mongol Empire). In Episode 7, Khan turns out to have a gambling problem.
But then, comes another great script misdirection. Khan turns out to indeed have an iron will, threatening Polo, and winning the following exchange with Tegana, who he’s singled out as a troublemaker:
Tegana: What have I that the Khan shall fear?
Khan: The power of persuasion.
Incidentally, given Hartnell’s posthumous reputation as “Biased Billy”, Marco Polo‘s guest cast has maybe the show’s largest-ever percentage of actors of Jewish descent: Apart from Miller, Derren Nesbitt began life as Derren Horwitz, and Tutte Lemkow, who plays an ill-fated bandit with a resemblance to 1980s’ Ringo Starr, would go on to play the titular Fiddler on the Roof.
Another note on the casting. One comedy sequence towards the end of the story involves Wang-Lo, a bumbling Chinese official played by a European actor in bad makeup, who brings the story to a screeching halt. You’re just going to have to grit your teeth through that one and assure yourself that, in another 15 years or so, Doctor Who would learn to move beyond blackface and yellowface.
In the end, Marco Polo was a terrific experiment in storytelling, and Doctor Who would never try anything like it again. In lieu of monsters and life-or-death moral choices, we get scenes like the one in Episode 6 where Ian and Polo argue over the TARDIS’ time-travel capability, with Polo speaking in more poetry:
You are asking me to believe that your caravan can defy the passage of the sun, move, not merely from one place to another, but from today into tomorrow, today into yesterday? No Ian … that I cannot accept.
and philosophical conclusions (“It doesn’t matter to me why you lied. What is important is the fact that you are capable of lying”). The few telesnaps indicate there was great physical interaction and nifty blocking between Ian and Marco in this scene, but we’ll never know for sure…