Many of the early Dr. Who episodes were lost when the tapes containing them were wiped by the BBC (talk about your idiotic decisions!) Marco Polo is the first episode for which we have no video. This is actually rather surprising, as it was a “showcase” episode that aired in some 72 countries. That at least presents some hope of an old tape being found in Portugal or somewhere one of these days. Fortunately, an audio recording survives, as well as many period stills, meaning we can get a good idea of what the episode was like.
It is clear from the number of sets and the sumptuousness of the costumes that Verity Lambert opened the bank account to produce the episode, no doubt buoyed by the decision by the BBC to keep Dr. Who on the air. Perhaps too enthusiastic, as lack of funds was to seriously affect the quality of the sets and costumes for the next episode, Keys of Marinus, as we will see.
The episode begins among the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, where the TARDIS arrives, damaged. Hartnell’s pessimism and irritability is again strange to those of us raised on the latter Doctors. (“We’re all going to starve to death!” he shouts, at one point).
Here they are discovered by none other than Marco Polo, who inexplicably is traveling through the Himalayas on a journey from Samarkand to Peking. This is akin to passing through New Orleans on a trip from Denver to Albany. At any rate, Marco Polo is escorting two travelers: Tegana, who is a peace envoy from Nogai Khan to Kublai Khan, and Ping-Cho, a well-bred young woman from Samarkand who is to be married to an elderly Mongol noble. Marco Polo agrees to take the Doctor and his companions along with him, along with the Doctor’s caravan, the TARDIS, which they admit can move from place to place. A flying conveyance being of great value, Marco Polo denies them access to it, and decides to offer it to Kublai Khan in exchange for permission to return to Venice.
This is a major plot point, although it is also a major plot hole. The main tension throughout the episode is between Marco Polo and the travelers. Both have a legitimate desire to go home. Both need it to effect their passage. So why, then, does it not occur to anyone to offer to take Marco Polo back to Venice in the TARDIS??? Now, there might be a reason why the Doctor or Susan do not make this offer. Perhaps they feel that giving Marco Polo a glimpse of advanced technology will alter the timeline. Maybe they know that the Doctor cannot actually control where the TARDIS goes (this has been strongly implied, although never explicitly stated, in the series so far). That doesn’t explain why it never occurs, say, to Ian, Barbara, or Marco Polo himself. This also reminds us it’s about time for Ian and Barbara to start getting a little miffed at the amount of time it is taking them to get home. If the Doctor can’t get Marco Polo to Venice, then he can hardly get Ian and Barbara back to 20th-century England. Yet they have never expressed frustration, resignation, or acceptance of this state of affairs. In this episode, they spend weeks traveling under primitive conditions, by our standards. Yet their reactions are entirely based on the short-term situation, not the long-term fact of their indefinite exile from their own time.
One point of interest: Up until I saw the above still, I had no inkling that the TARDIS was moveable by conventional means. I always felt that part and parcel of its large interior space and impenetrable doors was immovability. Who knew the TARDIS could be rendered completely harmless by the simple expedient of tipping it over so that the doors face down?
The middle parts of the episode are devoted to the long, arduous journey to Peking and the plotting of Tegana, who wishes to finish off the expedition. Why exactly he wishes to do this is unclear. He mentions Nogai is planning a sneak attack on Kublai Khan under cover of peace negotiations, but surely his safe arrival in Peking would be useful in maintaining the fiction of those negotiations?
At any rate, Tegana fails twice to kill the party — an attempt to poison their water supply is foiled by a sudden sandstorm, and the subsequent attempt to kill them in the Gobi by slitting their water gourds does not succeed when the Doctor discovers condensation on the walls of the TARDIS. I am not sure how the latter is physically possible, but no matter. Barbara and Susan become suspicious of Tegana, and Barbara follows him to the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes. There she is captured, and there is much inintentional humor as she is pursued by a series of searchers, in defiance of Marco Polo’s orders not to go looking for her.
In all of this mess, Marco Polo doesn’t come off very well, and I think the writers do a great disservice. Not to the historical figure, but to the character. We come to know the inner thoughts of Marco Polo via the narration of his periodic journal entries. Never mind that this behavior is anachronistic, it gives us a window into the character that we never get from the Doctor or his companions. Marco Polo comes across as a strong leader, honest and forthright. He pursues his own interests, sure, but he is not heedless of the needs of others. However, the development of the plot makes him seem like a complete dolt. He regularly loses control of the expedition, with various members wandering off at regular intervals without permission. His belief in Tegana over the testimony of Barbara and others is believable given the class-oriented nature of that society, but it does him no favors. He nearly leads the party to disaster in the Gobi desert, and is only saved by serendipity. He confiscates the key to the TARDIS, but manages to lose it twice. Most damning, his mission at the start of the episode is to bring Tegana and Ping-Cho to Kublai Khan. He manages to lose both of them along the way, coming before the Khan empty-handed. He does redeem himself by defeating Tegana in a duel when Tegana tries to kill the Khan, but the character, played with great dignity by Mark Eden, deserved better.
But even worse is the behavior of the Doctor. In this episode he is almost completely worthless. That he spends much of the episode sulking in his tent is bad enough (yes, Hartnell couldn’t be present to film the whole episode, but couldn’t they come up with a better explanation?) But what does he do? His discovery of condensation inside the TARDIS is pure luck. He fails to get the key to the TARDIS back from Marco Polo. When they do encounter Kublai Khan, the Doctor befriends him and wins great wealth playing backgammon with him, but fails to persuade him to give up the TARDIS. They only get away when Marco Polo decides to be Mr. Nice Guy and give them the key to the TARDIS at the end.
The one member of the expedition who does something useful is Ian. He manages to get the key to the TARDIS away from Marco Polo the first time, though their escape attempt is foiled. Ping-Cho risks her life to give them the key for the second escape, which is discovered when Susan, who I am disliking more and more, just has to say goodbye to Ping-Cho before they leave.
Although there is much to recommend Marco Polo — not least the setting, the epic sweep of the episode, and the lavish production qualities — the plot holes and the poor performance of the Doctor and friends leads me to suggest a verdict of Guilty. Need I add that Tegana, being a main character, has to be played by an Englishman, unlike most of the extras? And the cringingly offensive portrayal of the way-station keeper, Wang Lo, also played by a non-Asian, of course. Even Kublai Khan, I see, was played by a Westerner. God, the Sixties were backward.