Target Review 004 – Marco Polo

Written by John Lucarotti

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From the Back:  The young Venetian Marco Polo is on his way to the Emperor’s court in Peking when he meets the intrepid time-travellers, for the TARDIS has landed on Earth in the year 1289.
Marco Polo recognises in the TARDIS a means of winning favour with the Emperor. But in the end the Doctor has no one but himself to blame for the loss of his wondrous travelling machine – which he gambles away to Kublai Khan…

Opening Line: “‘It’s freezing cold outside,’ Susan said, looking at the external temperature thermometer in the TARDIS, ‘minus twenty.’”

I make no attempt to hide that I love the televised version of Marco Polo, well, the audio that exists of it.  So obviously, my standards were high going in to this novelization.  Thankfully, Lucarotti adapted his own material, and he did so exceptionally.

This novelization was written in 1985, a full 21 years after the final episode of the serial aired.  I’m not sure how much Lucarotti drew from his script or memory, but he does an excellent job of adapting it.  Yes, there are a few changes, in particular the ending in which Tegana is shot by arrow rather than engaging in combat with Polo.  Some of the changes work better than others and I think I prefer the combat from the serial to the quick dispatching of Tegana.  But the relationship between Ping-Cho and Ling-Tau is more believable and satisfying.  In fact, because many of these changes work well, I think I prefer the novel to the TV version.

This is yet another great historical adventure.  Lucarotti provides plenty of details and flavors of Cathay.  The novel flows quickly, as many of the TARGET books do, and is a wonderful way to enjoy this lost story.  In fact, it was this novel that really gave me a glimpse into how important the TARGET books were to children.  I felt like a child again as I read this.  I wonder if my nieces and nephew would be interested in a copy once they are old enough to read . . . .

Final Verdict: Do I really have to repeat it?  I loved it.  Recommended for a warm, sunny day.

A Misery Shared: “‘What a burden old age is,’ Kublai sighed.
‘A trial to be borne with dignity, Sire,’ the Doctor observed.
‘You are right, our friend.  With dignity,’ Kublai replied and with little ‘oohs’, ‘aahs’ and ‘ouches’, the two of them hobbled out of the throne room.”

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020 – Assassin at Peking

In which Tegana is finally defeated and Marco Polo learns that sometimes trying to force the matter really doesn’t work.

Seriously, it is about time these two went at it!

“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.

019 – The Mighty Kublai Khan

Everything hits the fan as Ping-Cho runs away, armies amass against The Khan, The TARDIS is stolen, and Ian finds himself face to face with an openly hostile Tegana!  Drama!  Conflict!

"Ah, my camp performance is nothing compared to your rugged masculinity."

“I come from another time.  Our caravan not only covers distance, it can cross time!”

Many things happen quite quickly in this episode.  Ping-Cho flees the caravan in shame and to avoid her arranged marriage.  Ian offers to retrieve her.  He finds her at a way station and finds that she was robbed and The TARDIS has been stolen.  Tegana, convincing Polo that Ian cares nothing for Ping-Cho and has only left to find The TARDIS, is granted leave to find Ian and Ping-Cho.  And finally, the caravan arrives at The Khan’s summer palace.  We find that The Khan is really and old man who instantly takes to The Doctor.  They both share the aches and pains of old age.  Last, we learn that Nogai, the lord that Tegana serves, has massed his forces quite close to the summer palace.  The Khan wishes Tegana to explain himself.  Tegana is lucky to not be at the summer palace, but I don’t believe he intended to get there once he discovered The TARDIS.

I think the most interesting scene is where Ian tells Marco Polo that he is a traveler in time.  Our characters are at a point of near desperation, and once The TARDIS arrives at The Khan’s Palace, they believe it will be lost forever.  Ian finally tells Polo the truth, which is instantly rejected.  Coming on the heels of Ian’s lie that he stole the key, a lie that Polo quickly discerns as a fiction, this story seems absurd.

It is good to see this tale drawing to a close.  While it may be a bit too long, it really hasn’t felt boring or drawn out.  Many of the scenes in this story progress at a break-neck pace, which is probably due to our characters separating.  Especially as Tegana has victory within his grasp, we end this episode with a good amount of dread.  Ian and Ping-Cho are alone, confronting the thief who took The TARDIS, and suddenly Tegana appears.  This is a very sticky situation.  Meanwhile, Polo feels betrayed by Tegana, a man he had defended from accusations for the previous five episodes.  Tegana has been revealed for what he is: a liar and manipulator.  I have nothing but sympathy for Polo, as his intentions are relatable and understandable.  Unfortunately, he has been used and manipulated, at times by BOTH sides of the struggle for The TARDIS.  One hopes that in the remaining moments of this story he is able to redeem himself.

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.

017 – The Wall of Lies

In which Tegana attempts, quite successfully, to make Marco Polo distrust The Doctor and his companions.

Are we going to need to separate you two?

“Does a magician need a key to open a door?”

Tegana’s tenacity must be admired.  Not only do Ian and Marco Polo find Barbara at the mercy of a Mongul, but Tegana manages to weasel his way out of Polo’s suspicions.  But Tegana realizes one thing for certain.  He is now known to be a villain by The Doctor and his companions.  He begins to sow doubt into Polo’s mind and that doubt soon blossoms into full suspicion.  The matter isn’t helped when Tegana discovers The Doctor has another key to The TARDIS and has been working on it at night.  Tegana outs The Doctor and Polo officially seizes The TARDIS in the name of the Khan.  From here out, any attempt to reclaim The TARDIS is punishable by death.  The Doctor and his companions are also separated from regular sleeping quarters.  The are now prisoners.  Having removed this threat, Tegana makes plans with one of his agents to disable the caravan guards and attack the travelers.  The attack begins on the very same night that Ian and The Doctor plan their escape.  Very bad timing.

While this episode was a bit slow in the middle as Ian, Barbara, and Ping-Cho attempt to make charges against Tegana, the climax is quite fast-paced and the episode seems to end much too quickly.  Being the fourth episode, the constant attempts at deception and rebuffs are starting to wear thin.  Again, I admire Tegana’s resolve, but how much longer can he continue to plot and keep Polo from being suspicious.  This latest plan, however, places him into more danger as he attempts to steal the TARDIS.  There is a chance that his inevitable failure (and let’s face it, we know he will fail) will finally reveal his true intent to Marco Polo.

Polo’s conflict in this episode makes me feel more sympathy for him.  He wants to believe the best in Ian, Barbara, and Susan, but their disregard for following orders and their fierce independence are a constant source of frustration.  Polo yells quite a bit in this episode, but can you blame him?  This simple caravan, which started as an escort of two important guests (Tegana and Ping-Cho), has turned into a trip laden with dangers and frustration.  Tegana’s constant manipulation isn’t helping.

016 – The Five Hundred Eyes

In which Barbara begins to suspect Tegana and Ping-Cho tells a story

All I have to do is divine it from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own cup or his enemies. Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach or what he is given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known that I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

“Young man, you have no concept of what is happening, have you? And you still don’t seem to realise that you’re speaking to a man of superior intellect”

One of the narrative devices used in this story is Marco’s diary.  As our characters traverse the Silk Road, Marco Polo narrates via his diary so we are able to skip large chunks of travel as well as convey large passages of time.  It also serves to give flavor to Cathay in the 1200s.  It is an interesting change of pace (quite literally in some ways) from the previous stories which were rather straight forward from a narrative standpoint.  When Lucarotti later adapts Marco Polo for Target’s Doctor Who novelization line, these passages become part of the narrative voice.

Another interesting narrative device, one that is often used in epics where large portions of the story are spent traveling, is storytelling.  Canterbury Tales uses storytelling, as does The Lord of the Rings and the more contemporary Hyperion novel by Dan Simmons. In this case, Ping-Cho tells the story of Hulagu and the Hashashins.  This story is an epic poem describing the drugging of bandits to serve a warlord, and their eventual defeat at the hands of the Mongul Hulagu.  In modern television, a scene such as this would probably be rejected for time and streamlining, but here it adds a great amount of detail and background.  The action in the later part of the story takes place in The Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, the place where The Hashashins camped and were defeated, a cave that is now thought to be inhabited by the spirits of the dead.  It is the ideal place for Tegana to plot with co-conspirators, and the perfect place for Barbara to be captured.  And what better way to have a cliffhanger than our characters to see the moving eyes in a rock carving of a Hashashin.

Yes, Tegana is still plotting to steal the TARDIS, having seen his water plan fail.  He was beaten by condensation, of all things.  Water droplets began to condense on the interior walls of the TARDIS, and The Doctor and Susan collected the water and shared it with the rest of the caravan.  Tegana wove a tale of bandits camping at the oasis to cover his delay.  Barbara begins to suspect him at this point.  The desert night was bitterly cold, and if there were bandits at the oasis, why is there no evidence of campfire?  But the party must journey onward, arriving at a way station at Tun-Huang.  There we get Ping-Cho’s story, and see Tegana’s next plan–an all out attack scheduled for the next leg of the journey.  While Barbara doesn’t overhear the plan, she did follow Tegana into the cave and is captured by the other Monguls. Another plan, about to be thwarted.  Let’s see how Tegana gets out of this one.

015 – The Singing Sands

In which Tegana begins to sabotage the caravan’s progress and Susan starts to get some much needed characterization.

Seriously, how cool is this picture?!

“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.