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Exegesis: Marco Polo

By Craig Young

It's going to be rather hard for me to spin the article out to a number of pages with this historical episode, so I've resorted to some desperate padding with the aid of The Unfolding Text.

Historical episodes were intended as part of the programme's original direction - that is, popular entertainment for children combined with a more didactic purpose in the case of those with an actually existent setting. The problem is, as with most of the period when the series was actually listed as 'juvenile', this perception of the audience affects the content and style which leaves the older readers somewhat bored with early Hartnells.

Briefly, the situation goes something like this - The TARDIS cooling system breaks down. Why, one might ask? One assumes the vehicle to have some sort of homeostatic energy source to provide these things. What if it had broken down in the vacuum of space, instead of the benign environment of the Cathay Road, circa 1289? Had it really been that long since they left Gallifrey? Or was it that the trans-temporal transit engineer who designed the craft not very good at his or her job?

En route to China, who should the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan come across, but Marco Polo, whose entourage includes a spy for one of the Kublai Khan's adversaries, as well as Ping-Cho, the subject of an arranged marriage a 75 year old geriatric lord. Susan, the little cultural imperialist, is horrified at this - isn't it fascinating that a native of Gallifrey should have the same cultural values about cross-generation relationships as a European?

Susan refers to the 'metal seas of Venus' in conversation with Ping-Cho, to remind us she is an alien. I'd accept this - Mariner had just flown by the planet in 1962 and permanently destroyed any illusions of Terran status by its analysis of cloud-cover and surface temperature, but detailed radar surveys of its surface had to wait until the 80s. One supposes the TARDIS to have a strong superstructure, resistant to immense atmospheric pressure and acidic ground environment, as well as powerful sensors.

Anyway, there ensues a great deal of historical detail about thirteenth century Cathay and the local political situation, with the problem of a needlessly overextended subplot concerning the misplaced TARDIS keys. Why bother with something as bulky as keys in the first place? Why not simply programme personal characteristics into the TARDIS memory so that the doors open automatically?

Anyway, the Doctor and Kublai Khan hit it off immediately, both being rather elderly and being subject to infirmities of this time of life. Both of them also have a weakness for gambling, and humorous touches are provided by the Khan's status as a hen-pecked husband. The Doctor loses the game to Khan, as well as the TARDIS. Meanwhile Tegana, an agent of the rival Khan, Noghai, is in a conspiracy to kill Kublai, but is foiled by the handsome, young Ling-Tau. Very luckily Ping-Cho fancies him and he gains rank for saving the Khan's life, so that Ping-Cho can now marry for love. For the Doctor's part in foiling the plot, the TARDIS keys are returned.

To conclude: a lightweight story, not marked by frequent action-adventure, which doesn't give Ian Chesterton, as man-of-action assistant, much to do in these episodes. The historical and political details are interesting, although it did tend to read like a travelogue at times. Still, given the centrality of Polo to the plot, perhaps this isn't overly surprising. Although didactic, not dryly so, one gets the feeling that the Doctor and companions were superfluous to the real historical characters. Was the Ping-Cho subplot to try and attract a young female audience, one wonders? Given in mind that this was written for a young juvenile audience, it was interesting to read.

In an afterthought did the superfluous nature of the Doctor and others clash with the didactic needs of the historical realism and educational mode of address in this case? Did it therefore set up an impasse that insured the marginalisation of historical realism relative to SF in the series?

This item appeared in TSV 10 (December 1988).

Index nodes: Exegesis, Marco Polo