December 17, 2012

Who50: "Marco Polo"

The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Kublai Khan (Martin Miller)
Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #47: "Marco Polo", a 1964 serial written by John Lucarotti and directed by Waris Hussein and John Crockett.

As Doctor Who fans are well aware, much of the early seasons of the original series are missing from the BBC archives. This isn't specifically anyone's fault - until the development of home video in the 1970s television drama was seen as an ephemeral, ultimately disposable form of popular entertainment. As a result, if a TV network's archives got too full, rather than find more space it was often easier to throw old and unwanted tapes and film reels into a furnace. The BBC was particularly prone to this space-saving process, although they were hardly alone in it: almost the entire first season of ITV's The Avengers was junked as well, for example.

Missing episodes have been recovered in the decades since. Many were recovered in the form of film prints struck for international sales, and left behind filing cabinets or long-forgotten old cupboards. Some have been recovered from personal collections - quite a few episodes got souvenired by BBC employees on their way to the fire.

The first series of Doctor Who, which ran for 48 episodes from 23 November 1963 to 12 September 1964, is actually not too badly effected by missing episodes: only nine episodes remain missing. Unfortunately seven of those nine episodes comprise the entirety of "Marco Polo", an epic historical adventure by John Lucarotti.

While we don't have the episodes any more, what we do have are audio recordings: enterprising young fans in the 1960s would record the sound of their favourite TV shows as a means of enjoying them again and again after their broadcast. As a result, "Marco Polo" (and, indeed all 106 missing episodes) can still be enjoyed in audio form. This pleases me, as "Marco Polo" turns out to be one of the best Doctor Who serials ever made.

Marco Polo (Mark Eden, left) refuses to return the TARDIS.
The core appeal for me is just how long a period of time the serial encompasses. The TARDIS materialises in the Himalayas in the late 13th century, where the Doctor and his companions are captured by Marco Polo's caravan - en route to Kublai Khan in Beijing. The Doctor loses access to the TARDIS, which is packed up and taken along with the caravan train. We then follows this train for months before they reach Beijing, the TARDIS team having to negotiate a difficult and treacherous political landscape as they go. Doctor Who stories will rarely take place over so long a time period again.

For most of Doctor Who's history, individual episodes of serials had the same title, and were merely identified as 'parts' or 'episodes'. This wasn't the case when the series started: each episode of "Marco Polo" has its own separate title (for the record: "The Roof of the World", "The Singing Sands", "Five Hundred Eyes", "The Wall of Lies", "Rider from Shang-Tu", "Mighty Kublai Khan" and "Assassin at Peking"). Furthermore, as the series developed, four and six part serials became the norm. Again, this wasn't the case in the beginning: "Marco Polo" has seven episodes, the preceding serial "The Edge of Destruction" has two, and the next serial "The Keys of Marinus" has six. This has a significant effect: for the original viewer back in 1964, there is no way of knowing how many episodes "Marco Polo" will run for. Each week the Doctor struggles to regain his TARDIS, and each week he really might make it, only to have his hopes dashed at the final moment.

The episode is also richly characterised, and performed by a great cast of actors including Mark Eden (Marco Polo), Derren Nesbit (Tegana) and Zienia Merton (Ping Cho). There are no aliens or laser guns in this serial: the only science fiction elements come with the Doctor when he arrives. "Marco Polo" is a historical drama, and a gripping one at that. Of course being 1960s British television, the Chinese characters are by-and-large played by Caucasian actors in make-up. This process, while mildly offensive at best to modern viewers (okay, in this case modern listeners), was simply part of the TV production process. We can hopefully acknowledge its inappropriateness without having it spoil our enjoyment of the episodes themselves in their proper context.

Obviously most of us can only guess at what "Marco Polo" would have looked like: on-set photographs suggest a story with excellent costumes and production design. As an audio drama alone, however, it remains a gripping and immensely entertaining historical epic. It's not my favourite historical adventure for the Doctor (I'll explain later), but it's absolute one of the best.

Who50
#50: "Terror of the Autons" (link)
#49: The TV Movie (link)
#48: "The Lodger" (link)
#47: "Utopia" (link)
#46: "Marco Polo"

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