Saturday 19 October 2019


First broadcast: Feb/Apr 1964
Written by John Lucarotti
Plot spoilers: Medium To High

“I have taken charge of the travellers' unusual caravan, and set out into the Gobi Desert. The journey across this vast ocean of sand is slow and hazardous.”
- Marco Polo

Travel On A Budget

‘Tribe of Gum’ being so dire, arguably this is the first proper 'Who' historical. And historicals and hindsight, when they come in combination irony may well have to become involved. So let’s go with it. For a long while, hindsight held sway and the historicals were dissed by fans. After all, they were themselves consigned to the show’s history, a failing branch of evolution. It was only because of the fusty BBC’s ‘educational’ remit they lasted as long as they did.

More recently, hindsight’s glare has dimmed and people have looked more at their time. Contemporary viewing figures remained consistent between historical and SF stories. There’s even evidence that ‘Marco Polo’ was planned as a prestige story, which could do much to sell the show. Just as ‘The Daleks’ was shunted up the production order as other plans fell through, this was shunted down. (It was planned to go out before ‘Edge of Destruction’.) Colour stills were released of the cast looking resplendent in exotic finery and it was this, not ‘The Daleks’, which was granted the first ‘Radio Times’ cover (below). 

Overall, it gained higher viewing figures than ‘The Daleks’. (Though as ‘The Daleks’ served to establish the series, its numbers grew rapidly from episode to episode, arguably a greater feat.) It was even the story first considered for the spin-off films.

There’s many a story where the travellers actually do very little travelling at all, beyond the Tardis landing them at the start and picking them up again at the end. (‘Tribe of Gum’ would be an example.) Nobody even notices the Tardis’ presence, as if the chameleon circuit was working on the locals the same time it wasn’t on the viewers. The standard set-up is to then hang around a handful of stock locations till they start to look worn out.

Whereas, built around a caravan, ‘Marco Polo’ foregrounds travel. It was as near as the first season went to epic, with dialogue like “did you see those beautiful pavilions?”, “Some of them are made of solid gold.” It both spans a long time period and roves over a wide geographical area. A line extending across a map became a storytelling motif, just like an actual epic film. (To the point where it’s bizarre to think the show would soon be characterised by base-under-seige stories.)

Which may well be determined by the title. The story of Marco Polo is all about experiencing Eastern exoticism through a fellow Westerner’s eyes. Marco without gold pavilions would be like a pirate story without black ships or buried treasure.

Inevitably enough, then, fans of the historical seize on all this and pronounce the story a lost classic. There’s an added balefulness to this claim, as this is the first ‘Who’ storyline to be wiped. We can only read the script and watch the tantalising glimpses of the telesnaps, fragments of what’s now itself a lost past. “If ever discovered at any point [it] may very well be the best-looking Doctor Who story of the 60's,” insists ametaphysicalshark.

Which is completely wrongheaded. Not because it’s bad, but precisely because of what make it good. Were the missing episodes ever to show up they’d reveal that 60s BBC epic differed from the standard definition, that Cathy was three foot square and held together by sticky back plastic, the bamboo forest resembles a regional garden centre and the cave of five hundred eyes was actually more ocularly challenged than Horatio Nelson.

Being left free to imagine all those gold pavilions, unencumbered by the limitations of what they were actually able to knock together, is the way to do it. (When episodes are missing, fans are wont to stage reconstructions. I believe versions of this story already exist. But I shan’t bother watching any of them unless they’re done’Dogville’ style, with Cathay and other locations written on the floor of a sound stage and everything else evoked in dialogue.)

Channel Hopping

’Who’ has a many-hands history and portmanteau structure which led it to be – to use the technical phrase – all over the bloody place. You can find ‘arcs’ if you’ve a mind to, but only in wide frame, never in close-up. In the previous story, ‘The Edge of Destruction’, the Tardis had been established as a sentient object. Which is pretty much the way the future show would take it. Yet here it’s immediately reduced again to a mere mechanism, with creaking gears and brass buttons. And what clearer way to establish that than to break the mechanism? Essentially the battery goes flat, though they try to dress it up a bit more than that.

On the other hand, we’ve become too used to the Tardis being a microcosm of the story’s transforming logic, permitting the fantastical. (At its worst making the ship a repository of magic pixie dust.) Here the reverse happens, that magic rescuing portal is snatched away and leaves in its stead a clunking metal box to be carried about.

Which signifies the way this is quite a grounded story, jumping between epic scale and minutiae. Where these days the show is stuffed with magic wands and deus est machina devices, crucial plot elements here become how much water they have left or where a key might be. It frequently stops for digressions, to explain how fire burns less at higher altitudes or how Kubla Khan’s messenger system worked. It’s the nearest historical to ‘educational’ by some margin. At times, to a fault. (Ironically, that fleet-footed messenger holds things up somewhat.) But overall, a refreshing change.

And yet there remains a strange kind of double vision to it all. There’s the Shakespearian conceit of dividing your scenes between nobles and commoners. Except the commoners typically respond to the nobles, comment on what they’ve just said or attempt to carry out their orders. Whereas with this it’s more like two parallel tales are being broadcast at once, a heightened historical drama made for BBC2 and a cliffhanger-providing melodrama for BBC1 - superimposed over each other. (And in fact BBC2 wasn’t launched until about three weeks after this story was concluded.)

One has proper actors proclaim clearly scripted lines from inside period clothes. It would be sheer hyperbole to call such a thing ‘Shakespearian’. (Though that doesn’t always seem to stop people.) But there’s a seriousness of purpose to it, an assumption it’s not enough to serve up a mere adventure story, that does make it some junior, early-evening sibling to such Sixties history films as ‘Beckett’ (1964) and ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1968). While the other has scheming moustachioed bandits who laugh cruelly, one complete with eye patch and monkey on shoulder.

Let’s tune into BBC2 first. First, we should note the oddity of naming a story after a character, when they’re almost always after monsters or places monsters are likely to hang out in. In 1955, while still in Canada, Lucarotti had written a radio series about Marco, presumably without time travelling schoolteachers. And much of that Marco seems to survive.

He’s often presented as a kind of romantic hero, placing the less fortunate under his protection. When Barbara fears to hear a howling sandstorm coming, he replies: “Sometimes, it sounds like musical instruments being played. The clashing of drums and cymbals. I've heard it sound like a great many people talking as they trekked across the desert. It can also be like a familiar voice calling your name.”

Unusually enough, there’s a narration. Still more unusually, rather than one of the regular characters this is given to Marco himself. And this inner voice is used to give him a measure of psychological depth, the scenes swappingbetween plot summaries and soliloquies. “Have I made the right decision?” he asks at one point, having sounded certain of it earlier on.

‘Tribe Of Gum’ also had the locals wanting something from the travellers, fire. But that worked around an essential interchangeability between Ug and Zug (I think that was their names), both willing to capture the travellers for their own ends. Here Marco is distinguished by being unlike the Mongol Tegana. Tegana first takes the travellers for “evil spirits”, best bumped off. Marco rebuffs him, (“Why? Because their clothes are different to ours? Because their tongues are unfamiliar to our ears? No… I think the sun’s rays will dispel the shadows from your mind, Tegana.”), and takes them under his protection. Later, Tegana cannot comprehend why Marco keeps his journal, as if he lacks such interiority.

This quasi-Enlightenment reference to the sun feeds into a general theme of rational thought vying with superstition. (The eyes in the supposed haunted cave turning out not to be animate ghosts but sparkling quartz, and so on.) Which also maps onto the distinction between Marco’s dutiful nobility and Tegana’s treacherous schemes.

But there’s another character to be compared and contrasted against Marco, which is done in a more interesting way…

Back To Being a Box

Normally there’s a general problem the travels would be required to resolve before they could move on. Here, Polo has his own resolution to his own personal problem, and it’s not allowing them to leave. He wants the Tardis, to present to Kubla Khan as a gift so he might then be granted permission to go home.

So the hook of the story becomes both the tension in and the ambiguity of the time traveller’s relation to him. Obviously, they’re at odds. Not just over the Tardis. At times Marco seems to be ousting Ian from his protagonist role. He not only gets the inevitable final, decisive sword fight, it’s also him on that ’Radio Times’ cover.

But, both in a strange land, they have a natural affinity. And if he engages most with Ian then, like Ian, Marco has been travelling with a wise old wizard and has seen fantastical sights, but his heart yearns only to go home. His actions are reminiscent of the classic Jean Renoir quote “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” He and Ian respect one another even as they find themselves in opposition. (The orthodox complaint about this story is the emphasis on the crew’s desire to escape prevents them getting embroiled in events. But that’s only there to fuel this central tension between Marco and Ian.)

While Tegana sees witchcraft in the Tardis, for Marco it’s something similar to a helicopter - a mechanism beyond his ken, but which could in time be replaced. Taking it from its crew is injurious to them, but not terminally so. Eventually, they will be able to rebuild it. So the primary antagonism with him isn’t borne of conflict so much as misunderstanding. Finally, in desperation, Ian tries to convince him it’s a time ship. “No, Ian, that I cannot believe,” he replies, “If I did, I would give you the key.” (Though even if the Tardis isn’t working, it’s a little absurd they don’t show Marco its patented bigger-on-the-inside trick. Despite Tegana already pointing out it’s too small to hold the four of them.)

The later history stories are only joined to the science fiction stories at the edge. The science fiction element is used to port the crew into the setting, then it's job is done. The Tardis must then be stepped away from, whisked away or covered up by a handy rockfall or the like. The crew are only permitted to come back to it once the past is all wrapped up. And once in the past they are obliged to do as the natives do. If swords are in currency they must take up swords rather than use guns, and so on.

Whereas here there’s one science fiction concept but it’s central – even if it can’t function in itself , the Tardis drives the story. It is not a historical sharing scheduling time with an otherwise unrelated science fiction show because of Reithean broadcast standards. In its very marrow, it's a time travel story.

And ironically it's this rubbing up of the past against the present which serves to make the past more real – we're constantly reminded how unlike our world it is. Whereas later historicals degenerate into genre adventure stories, revisits to places we're familiar with from so many other films and TV shows. Given which it is perhaps significant that the time travel stories are where the journey into history goes furthest, through time ('Tribe of Gum') or through geography ('Marco Polo' or 'The Aztecs'). Beyond the crew, 'Marco Polo' features one European face. 'The Aztecs' has none.

Similarly to Ian and Marco, Susan and the Doctor are given equivalents. Susan’s is the young Ping-Cho, which gives her more to do than usual. (Even if she starts using Sixties yoof slang such as “fab”, when strangely she didn’t while living in the Sixties.) And the Doctor’s is the great Kubla Khan himself (below), as they bond over back pain and backgammon.

Fan lore has it we see a great transformation in him, described by David Callaham as “from the pre-Marco grouch to the post-Marco magician”. But if ’Edge’s journey back to the start of time was a reset button for their relationships, there’s little sign of it here. Just like the Tardis, the Doctor effectively goes back to who he was before all that. He’s the least sympathetic to Polo, openly calling him a “poor, pathetic, stupid savage”. Polo complains that the Doctor’s “both difficult and bad-tempered… I have had to endure his insults.” Unfortunately in a voice-over so Ian isn’t there to say “you should have seen him last week, mate.” He only really engages with Khan. And as Khan only shows up in the final two episodes, for the most part he’s as inactive as the Tardis. He spends a whole episode sulking. (Yes, really.)

Melo Without Drama

Meanwhile on BBC1 there’s just a melodrama on. And the truth of it is, it’s not even a very good melodrama. Lucarotti is much more successful at the high-falutin’ dramatics than what might seem the basics. Barbara, Susan and Ping-Cho obligingly take it in turns to get captured, which would we should probably take as par for the course. But cliffhangers are mostly resolved swiftly and perfunctorily, without lasting effect, as if things need to revert to stasis as soon as they can. Infamously, the solution to one is condensation. (I’ve never read the Target novelisation, but really hope it contains a chapter called ‘Saved By Condensation’.) Perhaps there should have been a cap-it-all cliffhanger where they escape heavy rain by coming in out of it

And like a bad magic trick, without flourishes to distract us our eyes inevitably fall on the cliches of melodrama. Tegana(above) is swarthy in his villainousness from his first black-of-beard appearance. His role is to not be what Marco is, which doesn’t make him much of a character in his own right. His only real development is to go from fearing the Tardis because it’s magic to wanting to possess it because it’s magic. None of which is helped by Polobeing a white European and the villain a swarthy foreigner. Henchmen demand payment in gold, “not Khan’s paper money.” Barbara first perceives the Mongols as animals. And so on.

And at (another) seven episode stretch, this soon becomes repetitive. New location – new plot for their doom – which inevitably fails but with Tegana surviving undiscovered to try again – and so on. He might as well end each episode crying “I'll get you next week, Barbara and Susan”. When Polo narrates “I fear the end is not far off”, you come to fear the very opposite.

While the blatancy of Tegana’s machinations grates. Marco is supposed to be a shrewd judge of character, for example guessing that Ping-Cho stole the Tardis key with Ian lying to cover for her. Yet he remains gormless over Tegana, who’s sussed by Susan in the second episode. A better ending would have been if the wily Khan had double-guessed him all along, despite being at such a distance. So when the finally clued-up Marco rushes to rescue only to find Khan standing casually over Tegana’s prone body. (“Yes, was there something?”)

Given all this, the initial temptation is to use the fast-forwarding powers granted us by modern technology to skip the BBC1 bits. Yet when you try to picture that, you realise it can’t be done. The BBC2 drama sections are like the consonants in a sentence, a series of formal encounters which impart information. But the BBC1 melodrama is like the vowels, of little meaning in themselves but necessary to link those consonants together. Without them those speechifying encounters would start to seem set-piece and stodgy. The bad here goes with the good. Like Marco and Tegana in the desert, they’re stuck with one another.

Fans’ talking-up of this story is perhaps understandable, but it leaves them blind to its faults. (One insists it would be “post-modern” to have criticisms.) Perhaps the historicals were an evolutionary branch that ultimately didn’t make it. So were the dinosaurs, and they were mighty and impressive. (Please just go for the poetry of that analogy.) This, however, is too much of a Triassic-era dinosaur, an awkward prototype of what only later became classic. Its production team may well have rated it, but that doesn’t mean we have to. You could call it an improvement on ‘Tribe Of Gum’, but that would be fairlyfaint praise. There are good historicals, including by John Lucarotti. But for us they all lie in the future.

Coming soon! From one over-long episodic travelogue to… oh, hang on, wait…


  1. Who is Cathy?

    Loved your heavy-rain cliffhanger resolution.

    1. Cathy is the illegitimate child of Cathay and auto-correct. However, she did well after that poor start in life and later secured a Number One single. (I can't even go back and fix it now as that would ruin the joke!)

  2. Fair point about no natural break in Marco Polo. And, indeed, the old anti-hero Doctor will come raging back at the beginning of Reign of Terror. Still, for most of the rest of the first season, the Doctor becomes joyful rather than tetchy about his adventures and can be counted on to do the right thing.

    Agreed on sets and such. There's no chance that those look great. On the other hand, as an American, I find BBC costume drama breathtaking because of, well, the costumes. And the color on-set photos show that the Beeb came through in that department, as one can usually expect from them.