"Surely, for a man who possesses a flying caravan, all things are possible?"TECHNICAL SPECS: This is Part 1 of Marco Polo, a story that has been entirely lost, though a wealth of pictures does survive. In the past, I've read the Target novelization and listened to the BBC audio CD with linking narration by William Russell. For these reviews, I've looked at the Loose Cannon reconstruction (part 1, part 2, part 3). First aired Feb.22 1964.
IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands on the Silk Road in 1289 and meet Marco Polo, who promptly confiscates the ship.
REVIEW: It's the series' first true historical and modern viewers will recognize it further as a "celebrity historical" of the kind showcased on the new series. Almost. The black and white historicals didn't introduce alien threats into the proceedings. Their hallmarks were lavish production values (the BBC has always excelled at costume drama), literate scripts (here by John Lucarotti) and sadly, low interest from the kids watching at the time. While understandable in the context of Dalekmania, today, these are the stories that shine most brightly, especially for older fans. Which makes it all the more outrageous that none of Marco Polo's seven episodes survive (doubly so because it was directed by Warris Hussein who proved quite inventive in An Unearthly Child). Thankfully, we have many photographs of the serial to supplement the audio track. The first episode takes its time getting us into the world of 13th century China, while certainly being the most "educational" episode yet. The first half has Ian explaining away the Big Foot print scientifically and talking about the effects of high altitude, while the second deals with the historical and cultural details of the area and period. It is History as alien world.
You'd think Barbara would consequently get the most play (and note how her first instinct is to say they're in the Andes, a precursor to finding out she is an Aztec expert/buff), but the script is surprisingly well balanced between the four characters. The Doctor's job is to get the TARDIS repaired - it's "died" on them due to the previous episode's trip to the Big Bang - and must deal politically with Marco Polo and the warlord Tegana. Ian has all that science business up front, and as the story progresses, will be on stand-by for the action beats. Barbara, of course, is in her element. And Susan gets the best role of all, paired up with Ping-Cho, a girl her age who is meant to be married to a 75-year-old man. The sweet relationship between the two teenage girls highlights both their cultural differences, but also Susan's non-judgmental approach to time travel.
As a "celebrity historical", it also surprises by having the sympathetic (and anachronistically clean-shaven) Marco Polo actually confiscate the TARDIS as a gift to the Khan, perhaps as the key to his freedom from his service. Nominally, Tegana is the villain. He sees the cast as evil spirits and means to steal their "flying caravan" to take over China (though I should call it Cathay). But Marco is just as selfish, if not as ambitious or dangerous. Lucarotti perhaps does well to make the story Marco's. We can forgive him his trespass against the heroes because the story is told from his point of view, using his journals as narrative links between pit stops, with the fun Indiana Jones-like device of the animated map providing visual transitions. It all feels well-researched and the guest characters are well-drawn from the first episode.
VERSIONS: The Beginning DVD set's third disc has a 30-minute version of Marco Polo that uses the narration and production photos to tell the story's main plot points.
REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Once the cast comes down the mountain and hits the Silk Road, it's a great-looking and sounding journey.Marco Polo shouldn't be ignored just because it's missing from the archives.