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The Lost Stories: Marco Polo

By Chris Andersen

A Journey to Cathay...

It was inevitably a difficult task to ask of anyone. The makers of a new science-fiction show required a writer to come up with a set of scripts even before the series had entered production. What was perhaps more extraordinary is that an epic historical story was submitted. So it was that Marco Polo, Doctor Who's first story based in a purely historical setting - with famous characters from history - was born.

The writer, John Lucarotti, developed his ideas into a seven episode story which saw transmission as the fourth Doctor Who story in February-April 1964. It involved the TARDIS crew accidentally stumbling across the path of famous Venetian traveller Marco Polo and unavoidably becoming involved in his now legendary journey...

"I have taken charge of the travellers' unusual caravan..."

The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara to a bitterly cold destination near the highest altitudes of the Pamir Plateau in 1289 AD. The TARDIS loses power and the four travellers face death in the freezing temperatures unless they can find shelter.

The caravan of Marco Polo is travelling through that area and offers the strangers food and shelter. Marco decides to seize the TARDIS from the Doctor and give it to his master Kublai Khan in the hope that it will win him favour and let him return home to Venice. However, the warlord Tegana - a treacherous emissary of Khan's enemy Noghai - wants the TARDIS for his own master...

"Here's water, Marco Polo... Come for it!"

The story begins with a convenient coincidence. The TARDIS's loss of power renders it of no use to the passengers however proves on closer inspection to be quite appropriate considering the ordeal the TARDIS had suffered in the preceding story. Another remarkable coincidence occurs when they meet Marco Polo and are trapped with him on his journey unable to escape. The story then develops very satisfactorily through several extreme locations, following the threat of freezing in the mountains with that of dying through dehydration in the Gobi desert.

Although multiple locations in most Doctor Who stories usually spell disaster for both the plot and characters, it is not the case here. In the first two episodes we are given very little in the way of action which thankfully doesn't prove boring and we are treated to some excellent conversations and twists to sustain interest. These include the tragic circumstances surrounding the young Ping-Cho having to marry a seventy-five year old man she had never met before, and the ever more devious plots of Tegana, who is forever planning to kill the others.

The story slowly picks up to the end of the second episode at which point you are left wondering just 'how can they get out of this one?'. It soon becomes so blindingly and infuriatingly obvious that Tegana is behind all their misfortunes that you are soon left wishing that he would just get caught. The identity of the 'bad guy' could have been left shrouded in mystery for the first two episodes instead of being dangled in front of your nose at the end of episode one. The travellers, after stops and adventures on the way, finally reach Kublai Khan's palace and after a murder plot escape... read the book! It was a satisfactory conclusion in most respects.

"...My caravan seethes with suspicion..."

The acting from the cast is superb. William Hartnell is at his best and has lost the anti-hero status that accompanied the first three stories. His conversations and games of backgammon with Khan are delightfully amusing. William Russell takes a back seat in the first half but later turns up to help deal to Tegana. Jacqueline Hill obviously enjoyed the costumes and period setting of the story, of course Carole Ann Ford got to reveal her talents during the many scenes in which she acted with Zienia Merton (Ping-Cho).

The guest cast did not let down the high standards either. Mark Eden was an ideal choice to play Marco Polo and all his motives were well founded (wanting the TARDIS for his master and so on). Zienia Merton was perhaps even more successful due to the number of early scenes featuring Susan and Ping-Cho. This allowed for much development of her character and after hearing about her impending marriage how could anyone not feel sorry for her? Above all this, however, full credit must go to Derren Nesbitt playing Tegana, whose motives were apparent from the outset and was one of the most important aspects of the story. He seemed able to pile on the charm and divert suspicion at the drop of a hat without losing that menacing quality. Rather like the Master in some ways. Just ignore the fact that he looked more Mediterranean than Asian.

"A flying caravan - there's something for you to tell the Venetians..."

Another successful facet of the story was of course the music. The original oriental-themed compositions (by Tristram Cary) were both moody and appropriate. This gave the story a brilliant epic feel, which backed up with the sets, script and cast was well deserved. The score developed from peaceful music accompanying their journey through to warrior beats as the final showdown approached.

The cliff-hangers, vital to the action of the story were in most cases excellent. We were treated to everything from finding out how Tegana wanted to steal the TARDIS, to his drinking of the water at the oasis with no intention of returning to the others! Best of all however was at the end of the fifth episode. It appeared at this point that the story has reached its natural conclusion. The TARDIS is repaired and waiting to leave and Susan is on her way back when out of the shadows jumps Tegana, who grabs her - damn!

Mention of costumes and sets is also essential. Through the publication of photographs in magazines we can see just how elaborate the story was. From the simple sets that were recycled many times to represent the various way stations, to the gardens, the desert and of course the palace, Marco Polo featured finely detailed sets that designer Barry Newbery obviously put great effort into creating. This is also true of the costumes and it is therefore no wonder that the cast members enjoyed it so much.

The clever narration of Mark Eden over the animated map of their trip was also an interesting innovation. Marco Polo is the sort of story that didn't necessarily need a villain. The sets and simple idea of an adventure in history would have been sufficient. But throw in Tegana and you have a true classic in every sense.

This item appeared in TSV 54 (March 1998).

Index nodes: Marco Polo