After 13 episodes of (essentially) sci-fi adventure, the time travellers find themselves in the 13th Century, where TARDIS (no definite article) is taken as a prize for the mighty Kublai Khan by Venetian merchant Marco Polo. Forced to follow it and him on a perilous six-month journey across medieval Asia, they befriend bride-to-be Ping-Cho and fall foul of the scheming warlord Tegana…
Fan convention has it that this is the series’ first true ‘historical’ story, but this wouldn’t have been obvious at the time – after three months of sci-fi scares, who’s to say that some big ugly BEM won’t pop up at any second? That no such thing occurs is a matter for hindsight, but in 1964 this was a series where anything could happen at any moment, and given the time travellers’ anachronistic presence in the Polo caravan this story is just as sci-fi as anything we’ve seen so far. In the consistently magical world of exploration and explanation that is David Whitaker’s Doctor Who, a journey along the Silk Road to Cathay is just as alien as any expedition across Skaro. Venusians/Venetians – what’s the difference?
For the first time in the series, Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) is in her history teaching element, often ahead of the others when it comes to understanding Polo and his travels (although much of what occurs here is actually the fantasy of writer John Lucarotti). While strong and outspoken, she endures a horrible scene in which bandits play dice to win the cutting of her throat. Meanwhile, Ian (William Russell) uses his science know-how to educate the viewer regarding the boiling point of water at high altitude and the use of bamboo firecrackers in scaring off baddies. He has also warmed to the Doctor, showing admiration for his kidnapper’s technical abilities.
Despite making amends with his companions at the end of the previous story, the Doctor (William Hartnell) is as antagonistic as ever in episodes 1 – 5. Often ill, he contributes very little to the thrust of the tale and is overcome by bouts of hysteria whenever the pickle he finds himself in goes from irretrievably bad to irretrievably worse. In the last two episodes, Hartnell settles into comedy mode – perhaps for the first time – charming himself both into the company of the great and the good (another first) and a delightful double-act with Martin Miller’s irascible Kublai Khan. Built up over five episodes as the ‘warlord of warlords, mighty and ruthless in his strength’, the Khan is the perfect character to bring out the Doctor’s lighter side: a withered, gambling administrator, suffering with gout and a comedy accent.
Susan – now saying things like ‘fab’, ‘crazy’ and ‘I dig it’ – is the most pro-active regular in this story; she wants to get on with escaping. Her friendship with Ping-Cho (Zienia Merton) is the bedrock of this tale and serves as a medium for the idea that most of the characters in this story are exiles. ‘I’ve had many homes in many places,’ she tells us, and her home is ‘as far away as a night star’, but she’s not the only one who’s lost now. We know the Doctor is lost in the fourth dimension and that Ian and Barbara are castaways from 1963, but Polo cannot return to Venice and Ping-Cho misses Samarkand. The underlying theme of Season One is writ large here – a bunch of people have been cut off from home and they want to get back, yes, one day. Here, perhaps more than in any other story, TARDIS is the key to that ambition.
Mark Eden’s titular performance is solemn and noble; a fair man – a man of words (narrating and documenting the adventure) – and more advanced than the Doctor’s insults will allow. He has strength and integrity, but is desperate to use TARDIS – a ‘magic caravan’ – to bargain for his freedom. That he is effectively ‘owned’ by the Khan causes him much anguish; it’s his whole life. Ironically, the Khan sees Polo as nothing more than a trifle; a petty inconvenience to be hurried along. Ultimately, it is fitting that Polo realises his selfishness in taking TARDIS and placing his own pains upon its crew. Quickly afterwards, he prevents Tegana’s assassination of the Khan (using Tegana’s own weapon – the sword – against him) and sets our heroes free – all at the risk of his own life.
Tegana is Doctor Who’s first proper villain. Dark and bearded, all charm and supressed violence, this old sly-boots is a prototype Master, imbued with ‘the power of persuasion’. To him, the Doctor is a magician who should be staked through the heart. His indignant appeal to Polo when Barbara accuses him of lying is a master class of deceit and manipulation. Derren Nesbitt plays his silent menace for keeps, and there won’t be another villain like this until Galaxy Four. It’s also worth noting that he may be a user of prostitutes. In The Wall of Lies Polo calls a curfew, and Tegana discreetly tells him, ‘I want to go into town’. It’s an innocuous line, but delivered to suggest a matter of delicacy; Eden plays Polo’s response with complicit understanding.
Even counting the Thals, these new characters are the strongest since An Unearthly Child and, effectively, become regulars during this sci-fi road movie; it’s beautifully unsettling then that they are swiftly and unceremoniously left behind as the story ends.
Obviously, we’re unable to see this story now, but one expects it will look as good as it sounds. Waris Hussein returns for 6 of the 7 episodes (episode 4 is directed by John Crockett) and given that 100,000 BC is a staggering piece of television, then this is just as likely to follow suit. Some of Barry Newbery’s desert sets are no doubt cramped (with floors of sacking covered in sand) making them perhaps only as effective as those in, say, The Chase. The cave of Five Hundred Eyes looks suitably spooky and garish, but the Khan’s palace is unlikely to live up to the ostentatious requirements made of it. The way-stations at Lop, Tun Huang and Cheng-Ting are perhaps more successful, although these are all redressed versions of the same set, becoming more exotic the closer they are to the palace (Cheng-Ting features hanging gardens and a fish pond). Props and costumes are beautifully designed and the companions look great in Oriental garb. Polo’s palace robe looks very much like it might be re-used by Michael Gough in Season 3…
Perhaps certain special effects might fall short of some expectations. The sandstorm is achieved, not by chucking lots of sand about and turning a fan on, but by electronic camera interference akin to TV static. It is accompanied by radiophonic howls which are exactly as Ian describes them: ‘like all the devils in hell’. Perfect Doctor Who if you ask me! Throughout the story, Tristram Cary’s music vacillates between electronic throbbery and more tuneful works that are beguiling and magical, telling us just as much about the medieval as they do the Orient.
John Lucarotti does a marvellous job of off-screen world building, placing us in a land where monks levitate cups of wine and evil spirits disguise themselves as men. It often puts me in mind of the novelisation of The Crusades, and has me wondering how much of this story belongs to script editor David Whitaker (later editors suggest Lucarotti’s scripts needed much work); the language is poetic, often ethereal and dreamlike – not just the Asia stuff but also the talk of metal seas on Venus – and, as with The Crusades, the female characters are incredibly strong. The Ian of this story is the future knight of Jaffa; in his attempts to escape and regain the freedom of TARDIS, it is only the fateful interference of others that prevents him from resorting to desperate measures like hostage-taking or even murder. Marco Polo also introduces the series’ first three deliberately comic characters: Khan, Empress (Claire Davenport) and the amusingly named Wang-lo (Gabor Baraker) who bears more than a passing resemblance to Whitaker’s own Ben Daheer. Whitaker’s educational remit is here, too, with viewer lessons in arranged marriage, altitude sickness, condensation and chess (the origin of the phrase ‘checkmate’ grows in import as the story develops).
Whoever’s responsible, this is a beautiful story – a glimpse of Doctor Who as it might have been, but never would be. It’s full of magical moments: the Doctor showing his affinity for the young as he shares beansprout soup with Ping-Cho; Susan and Barbara bonding in the Gobi desert (‘One day we’ll know all the mysteries of the skies and stop our wandering’); the backgammon match in which the Doctor wins a staggering amount of livestock (and, more wonderfully, ‘all the commerce from Burma for one year’).
The best cliff-hanger is that of episode 4 when Ian finds that the guard he might just have to kill is already dead. The best scene, however, belongs to Ping-Cho and the storytelling sequence in Five Hundred Eyes. Her story of the Al Quaida-like Hashashins adds little to the plot (though it possibly foreshadows Tegana’s intentions), but it adds everything to the atmosphere and environment of this epic and sparkling adventure.