Monday, July 2, 2012

Old Who Reviews - Serial 004: "Marco Polo"

"No, my lord. They would not believe half the things that I have seen in Cathay. But what is the truth? I wonder where they are now? The past or the future?"
~Marco Polo

When I said I wanted to review all of the old "Doctor Who" serials, I truly meant ALL of them. Those of you who know a thing or two about the old serials would know that a great deal of them no longer exist. There was a great tragedy where miscommunication and standard practices of the BBC in the 60's led to the destruction of most of the serials from the first few series. While some of them have since been rediscovered and remastered and while more are found every decade, a great deal of them remain lost, including the vast majority of the Second Doctor's run.

So of course I'll be skipping these episodes, right?


For you see, even in the 60's there were rabid television fans. Unfortunately, since videotape had yet to be brought to a wide commercial audience, people could only enjoy old episodes of their favorite television shows during reruns. However, some geeks (and I use that term lovingly) wanted to be able to enjoy the experience whenever they wanted without having to wait for reruns, particularly for serialized shows like "Doctor Who" where continuity was important, so they would record the audio of entire episodes on tape and listen to them like a radio drama.

Obsessive? Perhaps, but thanks to these wonderful geeks, we too can enjoy these old episodes in a limited capacity, which is certainly better than nothing.

To improve matters, a long-standing group of fans called "Loose Cannon Productions" have collected the audio from all of the remaining lost episodes and timed them with promotional images and text descriptions for certain actions in order to give a more complete understanding of what's happening. The result is a sort of slideshow/audiobook hybrid that are referred to as "reconstructions" or "recons". Reconstructions currently exist for every lost serial, though since Loose Cannon is a fan group and they don't own any part of "Doctor Who", they don't actually SELL these episodes. You send them VHS tapes with return postage and tell them what serials you want (up to three at a time), and they send the tapes back to you with the recons you requested. BBC has officially released one or two reconstructions of their own that you actually can purchase (and Loose Cannon does not provide recons for any episodes officially sold by BBC), but for dozens of lost serials, Loose Cannon recons are the best and only option. They can be found as digital downloads, but Loose Cannon does not (and will not) sanction them and the legality of it is dubious at best.

OK, so now that we understand what a recon is, let's jump right into our first such serial, "Marco Polo", which is obviously about Cybermen.

No, not really, but that probably would have made this serial far more interesting.

To summarize, the TARDIS gets taken by Marco Polo to be given as a gift to Kublai Khan, forcing the Doctor and his companions to join Polo's caravan and thwart the evil plans of a power-hungry warlord.

One of the original intents of "Doctor Who" was to act as a sort of edutainment show to teach about science and history. While the first few serials mostly focused on scientific elements, this one focuses almost exclusively on history as a sort of fictional retelling of a part of Marco Polo's journey through the Gobi Desert.

I'm going to say this right now, if you aren't interested in 13th century Chinese history, then don't bother with this episode. It is well-written, has some good character moments (which I shall try to highlight in this review), but the plot is almost entirely focused on the historical characters rather than on the Doctor and his companions. The plot is more or less contrived to force the characters to stay out of the TARDIS and with the caravan as much as possible so we can learn as much about the historical characters and their politics as we can. And this serial is seven episodes long, roughly 3 hours in total. If the idea of hanging out with Marco Polo and Kublai Khan sounds boring, just don't even bother, particularly since it's currently only available as a reconstruction, which already makes it a little difficult to watch.

Now that I've gotten all of the disclaimers out of the way, let's get on with the show.

We start off where we left off. The TARDIS has crash-landed after getting stuck in a time loop in the previous serial and it is currently broken for a vaguely-defined reason. Due to the inhabitable climate, the Doctor and his companions are in trouble until Marco Polo's caravan happens upon them, giving them food and shelter. Marco Polo takes quite a liking to the TARDIS. So much so that he basically steals it. He claims possession of the TARDIS and says that he plans to give it to Kublai Khan as a gift, hoping that Khan might grant his request to return home to Venice, which he hasn't seen in decades. The Doctor responds to this news rather well.

He laughs. Hysterically.

At first it almost sounds like crying, but no, he's laughing. Why? Because he doesn't have the foggiest clue how to get out of this predicament. I love this side of the Doctor.

It is also revealed that Polo isn't the only one interested in the TARDIS. One of his Mongol companions, Tegana, plans to kill Marco Polo and his caravan, take the TARDIS for himself, and use its apparent magic to take Kublai Khan's place as Emperor.

There's also another subplot about a girl named Ping-Cho who is arranged to be married to a 75-year-old man that, surprise surprise, she doesn't want to be with.

Anyway, they travel along and Tegana initially plans to poison the water supply, but this plan quickly falls through, so he resorts to just cutting their gourds and severely depleting the water supply.

Tensions run high as they try to find an oasis, which Tegana eventually does, but he does not return to the caravan with the water and leaves them for dead.

However, they manage to survive thanks to SCIENCE! Specifically, they collect condensation from the TARDIS to foil Tegana's scheme.

Marco Polo also confiscates the Doctor's TARDIS key, but the Doctor just makes another one in secret.

Tegana attempts to kill them all AGAIN by getting a group of bandits to attack the caravan, but they are frightened off by -- you guessed it -- SCIENCE! Specifically, Ian lights up bamboo with fire and makes it explode, causing the bandits to flee in terror. Let's just ignore the fact that this would likely create an uncontrollable fire that would destroy the entire bamboo forest. Go Ian! You're such a responsible time traveler!

The Doctor and his companions have all deduced that Tegana is evil, but Marco Polo is painfully stupid and still trusts him, even after our heroes voice their concerns. To make matters worse, Tegana scores brownie points when he tells Polo that the Doctor is hanging on to a second key, and confiscates that as well.

I would like to take this moment to point out that Marco Polo takes two TARDIS keys in this serial. At the end of the serial, Marco returns them and says "take the keys". However they went off in such a hurry that I'm going to believe (at least until I see a fully restored version of the serial that actually shows both keys change hands) that Marco kept one of the keys for himself, making this the SECOND key that the Doctor has carelessly abandoned so far in the history of the show. However, at least this one is left in the care of Marco Polo, which could make for a pretty awesome story. Yes, these are just my own assumptions, but honestly there was no real reason for introducing a second key into the story and they interchangeably forget about how many keys are in play throughout the episode, so it's not much of a stretch.

Anyway, I'm going to speed up a bit here. Basically there's shenanigans with bandits and Noghai and Tegana as Tegana continues to attempt to steal the TARDIS and/or kill Kublai Khan.

When they eventually meet Kublai Khan (played by a white actor, but it was the 60's), he and the Doctor become bros. It is quite excellent.

The absolute best part of the serial comes in the last episode where the Doctor and Kublai Khan play high-stakes backgammon.

After some time, the Doctor has been cleaning house. He's won 35 elephants with ceremonial bridles, trappings, brocades and pavilions, 4000 white stallions, 25 tigers, the sacred tooth of Buddha, and all of the commerce of Burma for one year.

So the Doctor stakes all of his accumulated winnings to get back the TARDIS. And he loses.

I love this part because it's the first time you see the Doctor be... well, the Doctor. He takes agency, shows great cleverness and amiability, rubs shoulders with great historical figures, and ultimately makes an ass of himself. And then what does he do? He laughs about it. It's glorious.

So let's sum up the rest. Tegana's labyrinthine schemes fail and he kills himself in defeat (you know, for KIDS!), Marco Polo is granted leave to return to Venice, and the Doctor and his companions are allowed to take back the TARDIS. Oh, and Ping-Cho gets out of having to marry the old dude because he died from an elixir of eternal life. Hooray! This subplot was entirely pointless!

All in all, I found this serial to be quite educational (I actually gained quite a bit of interest in the Gobi Desert from this serial) and reasonably entertaining. The recon has a good enough variety of production photos to work from to give a decent impression of the action, and they even colorized them to make it a little bit nicer. It also has some very memorable Doctor moments and is rather unique. But it's also very, very long and Tegana's several attempts to backstab everyone get very tiresome. This serial would have worked better if it had been trimmed down to maybe three episodes.

If you want to see the memorable Doctor moments, just watch the first and seventh episodes. You'll lose basically all of the context, but at least you get to see the Doctor lose at backgammon.

I give this serial 6/10.


  1. Ping-Cho's inclusion was probably to 1. give Susan something to do, and 2. remind us civilized folk that little girls can be be forced into marriage to gross old men.

    Hey, at least (I think? I can't remember..) the serial passes the Bechdel test! I bet most of them will fail utterly.

    1. Actually, most of the serials have at least one scene with Barbara and Susan talking about something other than men. I assume that might change once Susan gets kicked off, but we shall see.

  2. Oh hey, I just read the Target novel of this, two days ago! Apparently there's a key in a museum in what used to be the Imperial Palace that's implied to be the second TARDIS key. I don't know if that key's really real or if it's just something they made up for the book, but yeah, Polo totally kept the second key.