Doctor Who — Marco Polo


Season 1 – Episode 4 – (1964)
Doctor: 1 – William Hartnell
Companions: Susan, Ian, Barbara

There is a mix of things to write here. Let’s start with some background. Marco Polo, while not the best story plot-wise, is remembered quite fondly by the cast and crew. The setting is a little different for a number of reasons. Firstly the story is known as a “pure historical” – that is that the cast have been sent back in time and here there are no aliens or anachronistic technology. Our characters simply visit the past and are trapped there. Secondly the story is narrated by the character, Marco Polo in the style of the diary entries. These entries take place often over a map, something that will not be seen again.

The story is the first to be lost within the BBC archives. With film being expensive, it was common practice to junk old serials as repeats on television were unheard of. The serial was one of the widest sold abroad but despite this, no footage exists of the serial; not even a clip. Thankfully the audio is in tact and with the help of continued photographs taken as the story was filmed. The story can be watched in a form.

The TARDIS lands on earth in the 13th Century and … surprise surprise, there is a fault meaning that they are trapped without fuel here. The TARDIS cannot provide shelter, heat, light or water while in this state and so they are in search of help. They meet Marco Polo who captures their “caravan” and they are forced to travel with him on his journey. Marco travels with two key players – a young Chinese girl called Ping Cho and a Mongol known as Tegana.

Susan – being a similar age to Ping Cho (remember that we’re before time lords and the like) founds a friendship and naturally the third player is the villain aiming to sabotage Marco Polo’s caravan. First he aims to poison the water supply but eventually resorts to slashing the supplies open instead. The Doctor fixes the problem (sort of) when condensation builds up on the inside of the TARDIS walls. The TARDIS crew begin to suspect and build up a case to Tegana and naturally… this leads to nothing. Welcome to part 4/7 of a 60s sci-fi. (Don’t try telling me Star Trek is better, it was also quite slow).

I am not having that much of a go – I actually find these things quite watchable and even good. Over the years our tastes have seen a want for increased pace, which has been both a blessing and a curse. The point is pace vs. substance – heres a quick run-down:

  • 70s Doctor Who did it much better
  • 80s Doctor Who sacrificed a combination of both to a certain amount of “glamour”
  • Current Doctor Who is not short of pace but can absolutely miss the mark on the other things… Oh I’m coming for you, my pretty – at my zimmerframe speed. Zeno’s paradox and all that…

For current or past sci-fi, you decide and maybe get back to me on who and how things miss the mark. For us, back to the plot:

We naturally have a low point as Marco Polo’s trust in our cast is at a low. (The Doctor gave a fake key and smuggled the real one.) Ian prevents an imminent attack that Tegana is aware of and so faith is restored. Now Ping Cho tries to smuggle the keys to the party but Susan… For God’s sake Susan… She goes to say goodbye to her friend. (Fine – it’s fine, though Susan does bother me). Susan is caught by Tegana…oh and she screams…

We bicker in this fashion for a long time until finally Marco Polo delivers everyone to Kublai Kahn who also argues with The Doctor until they bond over both being old. It’s a little charming but it’s not until the next serial that we’ll really see The Doctor on form. Things build to climax and of course Tegana is shown as a traitor and of course, our group have to leave in a hurry. It’s an ok ending but well… we did take the scenic route.

Look – I am not against classic “Who” and I am very happy to watch the lost episodes but Marco Polo perhaps suffered more than most in this loss. The story is something I’m going to term “Doctor Dot”

[Based on the term dot-to-dot. As in “connect the dots” – oh it’s very A to B to C to D basically.]

The guests are fine and Mark Eden as Marco Polo is great but the side cast cause our mains to suffer, so to me it’s a rather so-so story. Oh and it’s slow to beat Edge Of Destruction…

Favourite Quotes:

  • The Doctor: We’re always in trouble! Isn’t this extraordinary – it follows us everywhere!




Next time: Something much more interesting! Back to another planet with true sci-fi problems. The story is great and the BBC have decided that monsters that capture the public imagination are a good idea. Will the Voord stand up to the Daleks?

Answer: We haven’t seen them since.

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