A Critical Review of Marco Polo

Reproduced with permission from Critical Essays by Great American Writers and Other Amateur Gods, edited by James Patrick Rogers. ©1273 by Century Publishers. All rites reversed.

After about ten hearings and six months of sorting it all out in one's head, I think it would be fair to guess that an individual could reach some satisfactorily well-balanced conclusions on the Doctor Who story entitled Marco Polo, which, sad to say, is preserved for us only in the form of a script, some rehearsal photographs, and an audio recording several decades old and of no extraordinary sound quality.
Marco Polo is an interesting story in the genre of historical fiction, a work of fiction that contains historical characters, events, and settings that serve a substantial purpose throughout the work. This, combined with the fact that the story runs for about three hours, would make this story a novel in its own right.

The Story

The theme follows the basic pattern set by preceeding episodes: four space and time travellers are attempting to go back home and accidentally find themselves in a strange time and place and face some complicated, dire obstacle that blocks them from leaving and also serves as the raw materials for the storyline -- in this case, their plight to repair a damaged Tardis and escape from 13th Century Cathay before losing their vehicle forever at the hands of a Marco Polo desperate to "bribe" his master, Kublai Khan, or at the hands of his rival, Noghai and his duplicitous emissary, Tegana.
Of course, this would naturally make for an interesting story, perhaps one running for only one or two, maybe even three installments. In order to more fully drag it out to seven full-length episodes, the writer has provided several twists and loops in the plot and development of the story. A few of them are Susan's deepening bond to Ping Cho, a native of Cathay who is hopelessly and quite unhappily betrothed to a man who is old enough to be her grandfather; the struggle between Noghai and Kublai Khan for possession of the Tardis (and through it, world domination); the task of exposing Tegana's duplicity; and the internal struggle between Marco's desires, his legal obligations and his moral responsibilities. The somewhat superfluous installments serve to outline these more precisely for us and to better establish the characters' personę.

The Characters

Marco Polo, although generally portrayed as an altruistic, trusting, good-natured fellow, is also shown to be highly assertive and blatantly selfish in his abuse of power to fulfill his own desire to return to Venice. Because of these often contradictory qualities, he faces quite a bit of internal turmoil as he is torn between what he would like to do and what he knows he ought to do.
Tegana, on the contrary, suffers no internal disquiet; he has no conscience. His mind is set on his one goal and every move he makes is a step in the progress of his plans. Where there is a change in his approach, it is only because it is more expedient toward his goal of destroying Kublai Khan.
Susan and Ping Cho complement each other: when one is weak the other is strong for them both. The bond between them is strengthened by the several conversations and minor episodes interspersed throughout the story.
Barbara can be quite assertive at times, and manages to get Ian to do things he wouldn't ordinarily do. For example, she tells him, "Ian, you must get Marco to give you that key... Oh, Marco, Ian has something he'd like to talk to you about. I'm dreadfully tired and I'm going to get some sleep." Clearly, she thinks nothing of using Ian to do her bidding by exploiting his diplomatic nature, and it is quite evident that Ian likes her and will do anything she says anyway.
Ian's diplomatic nature is illustrated by his various attempts to win Marco's trust and thereby win over the Tardis. (As an aside, when Ian tried to get Marco to believe in the true nature of the Tardis, he could have simply referred back to the first time they had met on the Himalayas and the Doctor asked, "What year is this?" at which Marco could have easily recalled the sincere way in which the question was asked.) The fact that Ian is often impulsive and willing to take enormous risks is illustrated by his decision to take Marco Polo as a hostage on the night of the battle in the desert, his timing of the bamboo explosions when he wasn't even sure when the enemy was to attack, and his attempt to fool Marco into believing that the Doctor was not in the Tardis when in fact he was.
Kublai Khan is portrayed as a kind, good-humored, and diplomatic administrator who is assertive, powerful, and wary of treacherous villains. His wisdom is also evident in his lines of reasoning. For example, when Marco told him it would not have been fair to prosecute the visitors who were unfamiliar of the laws of the land, Kublai Khan replied, "They were on our soil... therefore subject to our laws. Why you did not invoke them, Marco?"
The characters and the plot weave their way through the convoluted story which ends, as always, with the travellers getting into their Tardis and narrowly escaping to some unknown destination.

The Style

The style of narration is interesting. It is usually the traditional action-based narration, where the story is told by the character's actions or dialogue. However, at times characters tend to talk to themselves -- or more realistically -- to the audience, and it is in these bits where we find elements of outright narration. For example, we have Marco Polo's journal entries, which are used to narrate his progress through the desert (and towards his ultimate goal of possessing the Tardis).
The story ends rather abruptly, without any explanation as to what it was that finally clinches the fact that Marco just has to give them back their Tardis. This is left open to the imagination of the viewer and all those amateur psychoanalysts out there.
The background music and sound effects are usually in keeping with the various settings. Although the music sometimes tends to get a bit "played-out" (such as the constant plucked-string music every time there are Chinese people present) and the sound effects sometimes take on the character of a bad cliché (like that gong that is invariably struck every time Susan is about to issue one of those eardrum-piercing screams of hers, perhaps a warning that the audience should protect their delicate ears before the gentle lady shrieks, "AHHHH!!!!!... They moved!! [sob] ... The eyes moved!!!")
As for the costumes and sets I can only guess, based on half-a-dozen rehearsal pictures, that they are consistent with the various settings and circumstances.
Of course, in keeping with the pattern set by previous episodes, everyone they encounter on their travels speaks some form of modern English, although some have difficulty understanding Susan's "fab" lingo, which proves that while the travellers believed that they were surfing through time and space, they were actually just visiting different parts of New Jersey. [My note: I have no idea what he means by this!]
In short, it was a rather pleasant excursion into the past, a fanciful tale that studies the possible interactions of ultramodern, scientific, futuristic time and space travellers with powerful historical figures.

Now for the Cool Stuff

It's too bad they lost the video for this story. Any reconstruction or restoration would almost certainly be worth the effort involved. Although the die-hard Doctor Who enthusiast will probably hate me for suggesting it, even recasting and reshooting the whole story would be an interesting project.
The audio track can first be digitally edited and carefully remastered. The sets and costumes can be reconstructed and the characters can be recast, with the emphasis on their similarity to the original characters and their ability to follow detailed instructions. The cost of reconstructing the set can be reduced by using modern cinematography techniques such as matte artistry and by using miniatures, existing photographs and extant footage wherever possible. The story can be reshot in synchrony with the repaired sound track. Then, using any extant footage and photographs of the original actors and some very simple but effective computer graphics algorithms, their faces and/or heads can be electronically superimposed onto the bodies of the new actors. Finally, the whole story can then be fully colorized for a more visually appealing effect or completely converted to black and white to fit in better with the rest of the season.
This hybrid approach has two main advantages over simply reshooting the story or doing a computer-based reconstruction: 1) using the original soundtrack and artists' faces will make the differences in the casting less obvious, and 2) using "stunt double" type actors eliminates a lot of unnecessary computer processing time and produces a more realistic, seamless finished product.
Well, if I went so far as to suggest a method of reconstruction, I guess you could say I rather liked the story. If anyone out there actually does manage to either miraculously obtain the original footage or have the ingenuity to create a good reconstruction, you could make a fortune either by selling it back to the BBC, or better yet, by securing the full production rights and selling it directly to every single Doctor Who fan in the world. I really don't care, as long as I get to watch it.
Well, now I get to see the next story, The Keys of Marinus, which I have honestly never seen before in my life. (I'm watching these things in sequence, and my mentor absolutely refuses to tell me anything at all about the next story. He is interested in getting first-hand impressions of someone to whom the story is "new.")

John Ribeiro
September 23, 1997

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