September 22, 2014

Doctor Who: "Five Hundred Eyes"

Condensation that forms inside the TARDIS overnight saves the lives of the Doctor, his companions, and Marco Polo's caravan. With sufficient water they finally make it to the oasis, where they find Tegana waiting. At the next way-station in Tun-Huang the caravan pauses to hear Ping-Cho's story of Ala-eddin and the Hashashins, before Barbara follows Tegana to the ancient lair of the Hashashins - the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes.

What a strange episode. 50 year-old television is an odd country: last week the series featured a life-or-death trek across the Gobi Desert and a terrifying sandstorm, this week the entire series takes a pause so that Ping-Cho can tell a story about dope-smoking assassins. I'm not certain what part is more unexpected, that the series would indulge in a scene where a supporting character really does tell a story to everybody else, or that the story is so liberally sprinkled with talk of marijuana.

One of the things I like so much about this episode is that it's presenting a very different kind of episode each week. We started with the fairly stationary introductory episode, then moved through a lengthy desert epic. Now we've got local folklore being explained, and Tegana's traitorous plans slowly coming into the light. It's wonderfully varied in a way that "The Daleks" absolutely wasn't. It also benefits from John Lucarotti's exceptional script writing. There aren't many writers who could successfully play out Ping-Cho's story in such an interesting fashion, but somehow Lucarotti pulls it off. He also gives Barbara some agency - she might get kidnapped for her troubles, but it's nice to see her taking some initiative and driving the plot forward.

There's genius at work in this serial's set design as well. Marco explains in episode 1 that Kublai Khan had way-stations built right along the road to Cathay, and that means that for seven weeks the production team can get away with redressing the same way-station courtyard set in different regional decorations. Obviously we're unable to see this process in action, but from available photographs and 'telesnaps' it all looks pretty outstanding.

"Marco Polo" was good enough that it actually attracted the attention of somebody at the Walt Disney Company, which approached the BBC with an eye to adapting the serial as some kind of feature film. The discussions never went anywhere, but it's testament to how good this story must have been that Disney wanted to co-opt it for their own purposes. Indeed the viewing figures over this serial were incredibly healthy: this was the third episode in a row to get 9.4 million viewers, demonstrating a very loyal and consistent audience for the series.

13 good episodes out of 16 gives Doctor Who's first series a quality ratio of 81%. It's a cliche to say 'they don't make TV this good any more', but to be honest they rarely did. This is exceptionally good stuff, made by talented people on a whiff of a budget, and 50 years on it still holds up beautifully.

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