018 – Rider from Shang-Tu

In which there are more shenanigans and more traveling.

Shall we thin out the cast? Whadda'ya say?

“Why don’t you have a drink?”

It’s such a shame this episode is missing because I would love to see Ian pretend to be drunk.  Throughout the show he has been such a gentleman, the model of level-headed practicality.  How wonderful to see him lure a guard into a trap by faking intoxication.  Or maybe the imagination is better than the realization of the scene.  I’ll probably never know.  But, I get ahead of myself.

Yes, the attack on the caravan fails and yes, Tegana once more escapes implication, at least where Marco Polo is concerned.  There is now no doubt in The Doctor and his companions’ minds that Tegana is untrustworthy and actively hostile.  Tegana and The Doctor, according to the narration, share withering looks after the attack.  Even more of a threat to Tegana is Polo’s revocation of the seizure of The TARDIS.  Our time travelers are no longer prisoners of the Khan, but they are still forbidden from taking The TARDIS.  Free to roam the caravan once more, Tegana now has cunning enemies that are on guard, and these enemies have faced cavemen and The Daleks.  Surely Tegana no longer stands a chance.

Two developments change the game.  The first, Ping-Cho discovers Marco Polo’s hiding place for the keys.  The second, a Rider from Shang-Tu delivers a message to Polo from the Khan, who wants to see Polo asap.  Thus, the caravan must now split at the next town.  All the luggage and gifts (in this case, The TARDIS) must be left at the next town and sent on separately while Polo and the guests must complete the journey on horseback at a quicker pace.  Tegana quickly develops Plan E or F by this point and makes arrangements with a guard to steal The TARDIS.  As the guard is provided by the inn, his scruples are low.  All his effort so far having failed, this new plan is probably the easiest.  Throw money at the right people and you can, apparently, get anything you want.

Ping-Cho and Susan share a good moment where they watch fish in the inn’s garden.  They take turns comparing the fish to the various travelers in the caravan, whereupon Ping-Cho is compared to a fish that somehow resembles a bride.  Her arranged marriage to one of the Khan’s people weighs heavy on her heart and she wishes to return home.  Changing the subject, she asks about Susan’s home.  Susan is deliberately cryptic, not able to tell Ping-Cho the truth, and not able to tell the audience either.  We are in a period of Doctor Who where the emphasis is more on the ‘who’.  Beyond being from another planet, I wonder if Varity Lambert (executive producer) or David Whitaker (script editor) had even given this much thought.  Did they plan to make it up as they went, or did they have a loose idea?  Personally, I would have loved to know how they saw this.  Maybe there is a document or interview out there that would impart this knowledge.  The history and identity of The Doctor has been interpreted and re-interpreted throughout the show and, in my opinion, there is a quite bit of inconsistency.  However, it is probably very likely that my desire for a plan, a meta-narrative if you will, is the product of modern television/sci-fi convention and something that wasn’t on the minds of the producers of a 1960s family drama.  They were probably too concerned with other things, such as keeping the show on the air.  The creativity and effectiveness of this era of the show, however, makes me wish they could have more effectively put concepts into a “show bible” that would enable future producers and writers to stick with (or outright ignore) the vision of the original creators.  This isn’t to say the show fails after Lambert and Whitaker left, quite the contrary.  For a show that has lasted nearly 50 years, it holds up extremely well and continues to break new ground (for the show) and still has moments were it is fresh and exciting and occasionally unpredictable.  But the character of The Doctor does alter, beyond even concepts of regeneration that are later added to the show.  I may be imposing my own views of storytelling and character development on Doctor Who, but I do not believe that The Doctor has been consistently portrayed as the same character throughout the history of the show.  More on that later.  Probably much, much later.

Despite its’ length (we’re on part five of a seven part story), I am still enjoying Marco Polo immensely.  By this point we know all of the characters very well and we identify with their struggles and attempts to deceive.  We hear the heartache of both Polo and Ian as they each which they could get the other to understand why The TARDIS is so important.  For Ian, The TARDIS is his way back to 1960s England, to return home.  For Polo, The TARDIS is a chance for freedom from servitude, a chance to return home.  These men are at odds because they want the same thing.  This is drama, this is tragedy.  But the human element aside, this episode also has some great historical detail, which makes me love the story even more.  The rider from the Khan’s palace rode 300 miles in about two days.  This is an incredible, almost impossible feat, until the rider explains how he did it.  The couriers wear a special type of bell that signals to way stations to have a horse saddled and waiting, and they change horses every league.  It is a reminder of both the power and reach of the ancient Chinese dynasties, but of their ingenuity and intelligence.  They were quite the force to be reckoned with at the height of their powers and we in the West sometimes forget that, if we even knew it.  I must admit that my education in both high school and college was rather sparse where non-Western civilizations were concerned.  This is a reason, once more, for good history and historical fiction.  This is a reason for Marco Polo.

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