The time travelers meet Marco Polo, and become trapped in a scheme for freedom.
“We’re always in trouble! Isn’t this extraordinary – it follows us everywhere!”
By way of introduction, the serial known as Marco Polo is a lost episode. For Doctor Who this means that the BBC no longer has this story in its archive. There are (as of this writing) 108 episodes of Doctor Who that are lost. However, they are still enjoyable due to audio recordings that either remained in the archives or were reconstructed due to the diligence of young viewers at the time who recorded the audio onto cassette tapes. This is the only official way to enjoy these lost episodes. Unofficially, there are video reconstructions composed of pictures that were taken during the filming of episodes. Various fan groups have edited together slide-shows that sync with the existing audio, and they have scrolling text that conveys the action that the pictures can’t show. For Marco Polo, and indeed most other lost stories, I shall be using the BBC audios rather than reconstructions. This isn’t in any way to put down the reconstructions. I have a few and will use them when I get to them, but for the most part I prefer the audio because I enjoy imagining the story. I am constantly amazed how effective Doctor Who can be as an audio drama.
Marco Polo is one of my favorite stories of the William Hartnell era, and of Doctor Who as a whole. I enjoy good historical fiction, and John Lucarotti, the author of this serial, is a great historical fiction author. In many ways I believe he set the standard for the historical episodes of Doctor Who, and was never surpassed as the best.
The story begins on a snow-covered mountain. After a few frivolities, The Doctor announces with frustration that The TARDIS is malfunctioning again. Essentially, it is dead. Nothing works, not the travel mechanisms, not the lights, not even the heat. Our heroes are stranded. They soon discover, with some relief, that they are on Earth as they encounter a group of Mongols who wish to kill them, believing our heroes are demons. Marco Polo prevents the slaughter and offers to take them down the mountain.
This opening episode is well-paced and sets up the conflicts that we will be seeing throughout the story. First there is Tegana, a Mongol warlord who is traveling with Marco Polo to meet with Kublai Khan. Tegana is to negotiate a peace with the Khan. However, Tegana is has his own agenda, and soon wishes to capture The TARDIS, believing it to be a magic caravan which will grant his lord many powers. The second conflict is that between Polo and our heroes. Marco Polo has been serving Kublai Khan diligently for many years and he longs to return to Italy. The Khan has consistently prevented this. Polo sees The TARDIS as a way to negotiate his freedom. His hope is to trade The TARDIS for freedom, then take The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan back to Italy, where he believes The Doctor will be able to build a new “caravan”. Obviously, this would be impossible. Thus, the travelers are at the mercy of Polo because he has confiscated The TARDIS, but also at odds with him because they hold information he doesn’t have.
I love that Lucarotti has made Each of these characters thoroughly human. Tegana is a typical villain, yes, but he isn’t out for world domination. His villainy is due to his obedience to his lord. Marco Polo is extremely sympathetic. We know the plight of The Doctor and his companions, but we also understand Polo’s desire to return home.
Finally, we have Cathay, which is present-day China. Lucarotti gives us a fully developed world, yet unlike Skaro, this world actually existed. The detail will continue through the length of the serial as our characters travel to The Khan’s palace. One of my main complaints with how Doctor Who developed over the decades is that the show really doesn’t do historical stories like this anymore. Sure, The Doctor continues to travel to the past, but the antagonism usually takes the form of some alien agenda. With Marco Polo and many of the other historicals of this era, the threat is entirely human. Human motivations, human actions, no aliens besides The Doctor. No science fiction beyond time travel. While I understand some of the reasoning behind moving away from these types of stories, I think it would be great to see a historical on new Doctor Who. But for now, I will content myself with this story.