Doctor Who Project: Marco Polo

I find your caravan most unusual, Doctor.

With the Fast Return Switch unstuck, the TARDIS lurches back from The Edge of Destruction and deposits our intrepid travelers on the Roof of the World, the Himalayas—Earth, albeit in the Thirteenth Century. But nothing can be easy, because the TARDIS promptly breaks down again, depriving them of heat, light, and water, miles from civilization of any sort. Luckily, though, they get a tow:

Need a lift?

Marco Polo just happens to be traveling by and gives the Doctor’s “caravan” a lift and his name to the seven-episode story. “Marco Polo” (Story Production Code D) is the first of the “historical” Dr. Who stories and, alas, the first of the stories that no longer exist in filmed form.


For reasons of frugality, shortsightedness, confusion, and bureaucratic bumbling, the BBC erased, discarded, and destroyed the video tapes holding either directly recorded or “telerecorded” episodes of many stories from the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras. Film cans with master recordings were also destroyed. Fire hazards, I suppose. Only slowly did prints sent to other countries for broadcast, plus privately purchased recordings and even, as in the case of “Marco Polo,” audio recordings of the broadcasts, begin to return to the BBC. Richard Molesworth’s 1998 article for Doctor Who Magazine on the state of the Dr. Who archives provides a fascinating look into the complexities, quiet tragedies, and minor miracles surrounding the early stories’ loss and (partial) recovery. So this look at “Marco Polo” is based on a remastered (and abridged) audio recording of the story, accompanied by production photographs, put out by the BBC as a special feature on the DVDs of the initial three Hartnell stories.

So just what did the BBC destroy when they trashed “Marco Polo”?

All the rage in Cathay!

“Marco Polo” is an elaborate historical costume drama. The sets, the wardrobe, the props all speak to a level of intense detail not previously seen in the young show.

The historical setting harkens back to the original mandate for Dr. Who as an educational show, and aside from geographic lessons, like Barbara using the word “China” and realizing she should have said “Cathay,” we also learn about the court politics of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo himself. Viewers find out about Marco Polo’s journey from Venice to the court of Kublai Khan, about how he traveled around Asia on the Khan’s behalf, and how he desperately wants to go home. He sounds, indeed, like one of the Doctor’s companions, trapped on an amazing and yet utterly exhausting ride.

Upon meeting Marco Polo and his caravan, the Doctor and his four companions introduce themselves. Marco Polo then says, “My companions are the Lady Ping-Cho and the Warlord Tegana.” Though not specifically referring to the Doctor’s traveling retinue in this instance, again the script emphasizes the word “companions” as the term of art for those who travel alongside someone else, marking the third use of the phrase in four stories at this point.

At seven episodes, the story has a chance to wind its way leisurely to Peking, with a few zigs and zags for good measure. Water runs low, tempers run high, and bandits doing the bidding of a corrupt warlord threaten the caravan, but eventually the goal is reached:

Do you know the way to San Jose?

In order to win Kublai Khan’s favor, Marco Polo intends to present him with the TARDIS, that wonderful flying caravan, as a gift; surely that will win his release from the Khan’s service. Barbara says, “But you do see Venice again, Marco. I know you do,” violating that first rule of time travel by injecting future knowledge into the time stream. But Dr. Who, at least in the early years, never really dwells much on the implications and dangers of time travel. Later, Ian attempts to win access to the TARDIS by explicitly claiming to be from the future, but Marco Polo rejects that notion out of hand. He’s fine with the flying aspect of the blue box, though.

The Doctor and friends almost escape in the repaired TARDIS (the Doctor having feigned illness to gain access to it) before it is given to Kublai Khan, but, par for the course, one of them, Susan in this case, gets caught on her way there because she wanted to say good-bye to a friend. So on we go to the court of the Khan, and he and the Doctor begin to wager on backgammon. Final prize, the TARDIS. And the Doctor loses, but he does get a nifty cane. Significantly, we see the cane again in future stories, one of the first instances of past stories being silently referenced in the series, developing a respect for continuity that rewards, and retains, long-time viewers.

Doctor, meet Kublai Khan.

Marco Polo feels remorse, finally, and gives the key to the TARDIS back to the Doctor. The Khan isn’t too upset, figuring that the Doctor would have won it back via backgammon eventually anyway. Off the TARDIS goes, leaving an amazed Marco Polo and Kublai Khan behind. Next stop for our travelers is a scavenger hunt for four keys—no, not the keys to the TARDIS, “The Keys of Marinus.”

(Previous Episode: Inside the Spaceship/The Edge of Destruction)

(Next Episode: The Keys of Marinus)

Post 4 of the Doctor Who Project

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