In which Tegana is finally defeated and Marco Polo learns that sometimes trying to force the matter really doesn’t work.
“I wonder where they are now. The past? Or the future?
At our story at last comes to an end. Ping-Cho’s husband-to-be dies after drinking an elixer “of life and youth”. Tegana is unmasked as an assassin sent to kill The Khan so Nogai’s troops could invade Peking. The Time Travelers are finally allow to take The TARDIS and leave. Lucarotti does a nice bit of misleading as he establishes The Khan’s gambling addiction, setting up the possibility of The Doctor winning The TARDIS in backgammon. But instead, Marco Polo gives the key back to The Doctor. His plan to use The TARDIS to win his own freedom failed and insulted The Khan. Polo was shamed. In the end, he made the decision to return the key to set things right with his new friends. The Khan agreed with the decision, believing The Doctor would win back The TARDIS one day. Despite many major plot-threads being wrapped up, Marco Polo is left in the service of The Khan. Not only is this historically accurate, but this also feels somewhat fresh. It is hard to believe that with the current climate of television and the current state of Doctor Who that Polo would have been left in servitude. At the very least, the events of the episode would have led to his eventual release. But Polo’s release is never really addressed in the end. We are to rely only upon our knowledge of history, as imparted by Barbara in an earlier episode, that Marco Polo would one day return to Venice. Where history is concerned, our heroes merely show up, have an adventure, and leave. Life, history, returns to its normal course and our characters have very little real impact. Like most comic book writing, the status quo is returned at the end of the arc.
So the question arises, what is the point of the historical? If history cannot be changed, if our characters make no real difference, what is the point? What are the stakes? Perhaps that is the question that couldn’t be reconciled beyond the Hartnell era. Patrick Trough ton (The Second Doctor) had only one historical, and that was the last one for Doctor Who (although I have heard that The Fifth Doctor has one, but I haven’t seen it). All other stories that take place in Earth’s history involve alien incursions to history and The Doctor must stop them or history will be altered. These historicals either take on a “what-if” motif or become a fun adventure in time. On occasion they are educational, but New Who rarely has the time to commit to historical flavor beyond sets and costume, and Classic Who dealt more with the ideas that that alien menace wished to subvert (I’m more thinking of Mask of Mandragora here). The Lucarotti-influence historical is a small slice of the style in which Doctor Who played. There are no aliens and very little science fiction. Yet this adventure is just as exciting and interesting as what has come before and much of what comes after. The danger is real as the characters face being stranded in the past, something that happens in many historicals. Often, they spend their time being separated from one another and trying to reconnect so they can leave. Along the way, we have the potential to learn quite a bit about history. In such cases, our characters become the identification characters for the audience. Where in later eras of Doctor Who The Doctor becomes the focus of the show and the companions are the audience identification, in this early era it is all the leads who are our identification and the historical (and in many other stories, the setting of the alien planet) which is the focus. The Doctor may be the title character, but he is just another character, not even present in some episodes. We are meant to ultimately root and cheer for Ian and Barbara and at times Susan. The Doctor is an oddity, an eccentric grandfather character who is somewhat alien, but our heroes are truly a team with on one character more important than the others (with the possible exception of Susan). How much will this dynamic shift over the years (because it does), and when does it start?
In the end, Marco Polo was a great serial. I enjoy it every time I hear it. It is a shame it is missing.