Doctor Who Reviews: Marco Polo

What's this? A review of Marco Polo? Has the unspeakable happened and a complete set of prints of the revered seven-parter been found?

Huh. Some hope. At the moment, all seven episodes are still missing from the BBC archives, and there's about as much chance of them being recovered as Davros becoming a door-to-door carpet salesman.

Reviewing '60s Who is a frustrating experience, only because of the fact that a good portion of stories are still missing. Back in the day, the BBC didn't regard TV episodes as having any real future, and so decided to get rid of the master tapes. Still, how could they know that there'd be videos and DVDs, and a big interest in Doctor Who in the 21st century? Bless 'em.

As some sort of consolation prize, there are still audio recordings, telesnaps, and better still, reconstructions of the original episodes, using a combination of the two. Fantastic though they are, it's still hard to get a good idea of the original stories, since you're playing guessing games with only still photographs and screengrabs.

Marco Polo is a casualty of this, since its lavish production deserves to be seen in all its glory. The seven parter really goes to town on its first bona-fide historical. Barry Newbery's set designs are outstanding, and for the time in which they were made, are very high budget. What's more, it's a safe bet that Waris Hussein's direction was just as good as his work on An Unearthly Child. The trick of showing Marco's progress on a stop-motion map, and the accompanying voice-over are again ahead of their time, pre-empting Michael Palin's trips overseas.

Marco Polo isn't a case of flashy visuals and no story, though. John Lucarotti's début tale for Doctor Who is magnificent, and works on many levels. With the action taking place over four months in the story and in seven episodes on screen, this allows Lucarotti to expand his horizons. On the one hand, it's an action-packed, full-blooded historical drama with plenty of grisly deaths: A guard is found stabbed at the end of Episode Four, while Tegana commits suicide with a whopping great big sword. Who said history was boring?

Actually, me. History at school wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs, especially with the teacher managing to drown everyone in over-enthusiastic spit. As a younger chap, the Doctor Who historicals ranked at the bottom of my list, which is a shame, since now, I find most of them fascinating, and invariably, they're expertly produced by all concerned. Marco Polo is no exception and actually raises the bar pretty high for future efforts.

The character detail is well handled. The eponymous Polo (or Mr Marco as everyone keeps calling him - maybe they should do a remake in which that other famous Mr Marco, teacloth-headed Marco Pierre White takes the Doctor on a culinary voyage of the country... actually maybe not) gets lots of great lines and plenty of interplay with the regulars. The first historical personage in Who (which is par for the course these days), Mr Marco is portrayed as a wise, heroic figure, that's clearly no pushover - especially when he 'confiscates' the TARDIS. Again, as with many of the early Hartnells, the TARDIS crew are cut off from their 'home', meaning that their main mission is to make it back and in one piece. Before the days of dodging trams in Coronation Street, Mark Eden is excellent as Mr Marco, adding great depth to the character.

Ping-Cho is another notable player, and acts as Mr Marco's version of Susan. Both show great wonder at their travels, but Susan is clearly aghast at Ping-Cho's forthcoming marriage at only 16. Mind you, that's another significant parallel waiting to happen, given the conclusion of The Dalek Invasion Of Earth. It's a shame that Marco Polo doesn't exist, since it gives Carole Ann Ford something significant to do for once. Susan gets some great lines and good character development. For once, we feel how cut off Susan is after she is isolated from The Doctor, who's too busy being crabby at being apart from his beloved TARDIS.

Tegana is a worthy villain, and as with all the notable bad guys, there's a bit more depth to him than stock pantomime bwa-ha-ha-ing. His suicide, in particular, pre-empts the likes of other notable bad guys like Li H'Sen Chang and Kane. Derren Nesbitt portrays the warlord very well indeed.

There are some rather quaint concepts at work here. I love the idea of the TARDIS being regarded as a caravan: Visit your local caravan park, and wish that the sometimes cramped conditions were really bigger on the inside than on the outside. Still, much like the bohemian existence of caravan living, this idea suits The Doctor's life to a tee - roaming the universe and exploring its wonders very much at his leisure.

We also get our first examples of game playing in Doctor Who, a concept that would be taken to extremes in the McCoy years. In Marco Polo, Ian plays chess with Mr Marco, while Kublai Khan is partial to a bit of backgammon. Too bad that Tennant's Doctor didn't stop for a quick round of 'Operation' with Martha or 'Guess Who' with Professor Yana.

Even in its patchwork form, Marco Polo is a worthy example of how good the early historical adventures could be. Who knows, maybe in the future, someone might submit copies of the episodes? In the meantime, try and track down the reconstruction for a glimpse of this much-recommended early Hartnell classic.

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