In which Tegana begins to sabotage the caravan’s progress and Susan starts to get some much needed characterization.
“The old Doctor continually shows his disapproval of my action by being both difficult and bad-tempered. For three days now, during which time we have covered no more than thirty miles, I have had to endure his insults.”
Like many epics before and since, Marco Polo consists of much journeying and misadventures. On their way to Shang-tu, the caravan must travel through the Gobi Desert. Marco Polo has calculated the necessary amount of water, which Tegana plans to use to hinder the caravan’s progress then steal The TARDIS. Initially, the plan is to poison the water and abandon the caravan to die in the desert. This plan is prevented when a sandstorm hits. In many ways Tegana is lucky because Susan and her new friend Ping-Cho follow him as he plans his escape. The two girls are caught in the storm and Tegana rescues them. Polo is understandably furious at the girls’ carelessness and orders the guards to notify him immediately if anyone leaves the caravan. Strike two for Tegana. However, he is quite resourceful and improvises. He destroys the gords storing the water, and allows the bandits of the Gobi path to take the blame. The only hope for the caravan is to turn back to the previous town, where the bandits may be waiting, or push on to an oasis that is a week’s journey away, rationing the remaining water as best they can. But as the days pass and the caravan grows weaker, Tegana offers to ride alone to the oasis and bring water back. Polo agrees. He also allows The Doctor to rest in The TARDIS, fearing The Doctor may die. At the oasis, Tegana drinks his fill of water, and pours the rest to the ground, challenging Marco Polo to survive the rest of the trip to the oasis.
Much of the focus of this episode is on Tegana and his plans. It is fun to watch, or in this case listen, to him readjust and rework. Yet, he never panics and never shows anything but calm. He attempts to get his way in a reasonable manner. For example, when the water is first discovered to be drained, he says he is not afraid to return to the village and face any bandits along the way. Marco Polo interprets this as bravado, but in reality Tegana wishes to return to the village to wait for Polo and the others to die.
The developing friendship of Susan and Ping-Cho offers a nice diversion from Susan’s normal screaming and overreacting. The two young women follow Tegana and scheme a bit, being the first to suspect him. It is always nice to see Susan exhibit qualities more in line with her grandfather rather than those of a teenager.
Having never seen this episode, and being unlikely to ever see it, I cannot speak for the visuals, but the effect of the sandstorm is wonderfully realized. We are told that the sounds the sand makes as the grains hit one another can often sound like laugher, screaming, or speaking voices. It is an unnerving audio effect as wind and voices and cackling are mixed together. In this particular case, the having only the audio and the imagination pays off in a big way.