Marco Polo ★★★★★

The Doctor's epic seven-part encounter with the Venetian traveller and mighty Kublai Khan

18

Season 1 – Story 4

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“You are asking me to believe that your caravan can defy the passage of the sun?” – Marco Polo

Storyline

In 1289, the travellers join the caravan of Venetian adventurer Marco Polo as he journeys from the frozen slopes of the Himalayas, through the scorched dunes of the Gobi and on to the palaces of Shang-tu and Peking. The explorer is in the service of “master of the world” Kublai Khan and intends to present him with the “magician’s caravan” (Tardis) in exchange for his freedom. Among Polo’s other companions are the scheming Mongol warlord Tegana and Ping-Cho, a young girl betrothed to a 75-year-old man. On their odyssey they face many dangers including altitude sickness, dehydration and kidnapping.

First transmissions
1. The Roof of the World – Saturday 22 February 1964
2. The Singing Sands – Saturday 29 February 1964
3. Five Hundred Eyes – Saturday 7 March 1964
4. The Wall of Lies – Saturday 14 March 1964
5. Rider from Shang-tu – Saturday 21 March 1964
6. Mighty Kublai Khan – Saturday 28 March 1964
7. Assassin at Peking – Saturday 4 April 1964

Production
Filming: January 1964 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: January–March 1964 at Lime Grove D

Cast
Doctor Who – William Hartnell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Marco Polo – Mark Eden
Tegana – Derren Nesbitt
Ping-Cho – Zienia Merton
Chenchu – Jimmy Gardner
Acomat – Philip Voss
Ling-Tau – Paul Carson
Wang-Lo – Gabor Baraker
Kuiju – Tutte Lemkow
Vizier – Peter Lawrence
Empress – Claire Davenport
Kublai Khan – Martin Miller

Crew
Writer – John Lucarotti
Incidental music – Tristram Cary
Story editor – David Whitaker
Designer – Barry Newbery
Producer – Verity Lambert
Directors – Waris Hussein (1–3, 5–7), John Crockett (4)

RT Review by Mark Braxton
Question: you’re on a budget, location filming isn’t even a twinkle in the producer’s eye and you’re charged with creating a period epic set in Asia and lasting seven episodes. How on earth do you do it? Answer: you do it exactly like Marco Polo – so good it was the first story to be honoured with a Radio Times cover!

John Lucarotti used words to transport his audience to ancient Cathay, aided by minor miracles of costume and set-design. His carefully crafted scripts carry wonder, terror and a real authority for the period (he’d already written a serial on the same subject for Canadian radio).

After the tense and claustrophobic four-hander The Edge of Destruction, the fledgeling Who crew gave viewers variety by opening up the action in spectacular fashion. Indiana Jones-style route animations, journal entries and numerous scene changes all helped to convey a grand undertaking. And as the action takes place over the course of weeks, even months, Marco Polo is arguably the longest adventure to be set in one time zone in the series’ history. Sadly, it was also the earliest story to be lost, the victim of the BBC’s swingeing tape-wiping policy.

There are no monsters or aliens, but there’s plenty that would have creeped out youngsters at the time, from macabre cave paintings to banshee-like storm sounds and nocturnal slayings. You could even say the Doctor himself is frightening. He’s certainly on majestically tetchy form (“Everything’s gone to pot!”, “Print, what sort of print? Paws? Hooves? What?!” and best of all, “You poor, pathetic, stupid savage!”). He also laughs like a lunatic at their predicament for what feels like an age. Fortunately, companions Ian, Barbara and Susan are more level-headed and conciliatory in their dealings with the entourage.

A flood of memorable exchanges ensures our attention rarely droops over nearly three hours: the tussles over the Tardis; Ian and Marco discussing the marvels of science and nature; teenagers Ping-Cho and Susan comparing the movements of fish in a pond to their friends; and the doddering Doctor apparently vying with a cantankerous, gout-ridden Khan in an infirmity contest.

Some consider the screenplay to be over-educational (I can’t see the harm in that, personally), and there’s inconsistency over the foreign characters adopting an accent (an enduring problem that can be found in today’s dramas). But the historical landscape was rarely mapped with such poetry and elegance. So, all kowtow to John Lucarotti, whose rich verbal textures mirror Barry Newbery’s magnificent decor in the Khan’s imperial palace.

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Radio Times archive material

Doctor Who garnered its first RT cover, depicting William Hartnell with his two guest stars, Mark Eden and Derren Nesbitt. The exclusion of the other regulars brought a formal complaint from actor William Russell.

Marco Polo 1964 cover 1

Introductory feature

Marco Polo feature
Marco Polo billings 1-3
Marco Polo billings 4-7

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[Soundtrack available on BBC Audio CD]