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Having narrowly survived an accident on the TARDIS, the Doctor and his companions now meet their first historical figure: Marco Polo.
This seven-part serial aired from February 22 to April 4, 1964.
This is one of a number of early episodes of Doctor Who for which no video copy is available. However, there is an audiobook version based on the sound from the original episodes, together with additional narration to convey what is happening visually.
The Doctor and companions have landed in an icy mountain range that turns out to be the Himalayas.
All is not right with the TARDIS, and the Doctor fears that they will freeze to death before he can repair it.
Fortunately, they meet a party of Mongols led by none other than the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo.
He is presently on his way to the Emperor Kublai Kahn, in whose service he has been for some years. In his traveling party are Tegana, the delegate of a rival ruler who is being sent to negotiate peace with Kahn, and Ping-Cho, a girl from Samarkan who is being sent to Kahn's court, where she is to marry an elderly but important man.
Susan befriends Ping-Cho, who says that she is in her "sixteenth year" (which would literally mean that she is fifteen years old, the time before one's first birthday being the first year). Susan says she is the same age, though who knows how long the years on Susan's home world are.
As they are 7,000 feet above sea level, the Doctor is suffering from "mountain sickness" (i.e., altitude sickness).
Our heroes begin traveling with Marco Polo's party, and the TARDIS is brought with them--it being explained to Polo as the Doctor's "flying caravan."
Polo, feeling that the Doctor totally owes him after he saved him from dying in the mountains, declares that he intends to give the TARDIS to Kublai Kahn as a present, thinking that this will please him enough to allow Polo to finally leave his service and go back to Venice.
The Doctor is apoplectic, but Polo explains that he will take the Doctor back to Venice where he can build a new flying caravan and then return to his distant, unknown home.
The party tries to impress on Marco Polo that this will not work, but he doesn't believe them.
Meanwhile, Tegana is up to no good and secures poison to use on the caravan's water supply in the Gobi desert.
Tegana's plans to poison the caravan's water supply are thwarted when Susan and Ping-Cho start following him out of curiosity and a sandstorm begins. After they are rescued from the storm, Tegana instead cuts the water skins open, intending to blame non-existent marauders for the act.
He is then dispatched to find an oasis, which he does, but he does not return with water.
Their water supply gone, everyone is really, really thirsty. Ian declares that the Doctor won't survive another twenty-four hours without water. Marco Polo says none of them will.
Fortunately, in the night the Doctor and Susan are able to collect dew that condenses on the outside of the TARDIS, and it's enough to enable them to get to a resupply depot, where Tegana rejoins the group.
While there Pingo-Cho recites the tale of Aladdin and the Assassins, pleasing everyone with her performance.
While that's going on, Tegana sneaks off to a cave with lots of carvings that have eyes, resulting in it being called "the cave of 500 eyes." There, he is informed that his master is preparing an army and readying to march on Kublai Kahn.
Tegana tells his confederates to attack the caravan and kill Marco Polo.
Barbara, who has followed Tegana into the cave, overhears some of this, but doesn't realize fully what is being said. She is taken captive by Tegana's associates, while he himself goes back to camp and pretends to be surprised by Barbara's absence.
Barbara is rescued from the cave, but Tegana starts to drive a wedge between Marco Polo and our heroes.
First, he tells Marco Polo that Susan is a bad influence on Ping-Cho (she's been introducing her to all kinds of foreign concepts like girls going out at night without a male escort to protect them in a bandit-filled land), and so Polo declares that the two friends can no longer associate with each other.
Second, Tegana tells Polo that the Doctor has a second key to the TARDIS. Polo had taken the first, but the Doctor made a second one and has been using it to sneak into the ship and do repair work. Polo then takes the second key from the Doctor. He also puts a guard on all the travelers.
The Doctor warns Marco Polo not to use the key on the TARDIS himself or it will be destroyed (apparently a reference to the security measure Susan mentioned in The Daleks).
The caravan spots the Great Wall of China and then begins traveling alongside the Yellow River.
Tegana arranges for his associates to massacre everyone while they are in the bamboo forest.
Ian suggests to Polo that they throw bamboo into the fire so that it will explode and frighten off the bandits, which they do.
Tegana kills one of his own confederates in order to maintain his cover.
Afterward, Polo is so pleased that he allows Susan and Ping-Cho to be friends again, and he takes the guard off our heroes.
He does, however, retain the two keys to the TARDIS, and Ping-Cho sees where he is hiding them in his diary. He makes her promise not to tell anyone.
A rider from the imperial court shows up and says that Kublai Kahn wants them to hurry up, so they must take horses and let their belongings (including the TARDIS) to come more slowly.
Tegana arranges for another associate to try to steal the TARDIS once the main party has left.
Learning that Susan will never be able to return to her home if the TARDIS is given to Kahn, Ping-Cho gives Susan one of the TARDIS keys (technically thus fulfilling her promise to Polo not to tell anyone where the keys were).
Our heroes almost escape in the time machine, but Susan messes things up by going back to say goodbye to Ping-Cho and getting caught. We thus have . . .
Ian tries to save Ping-Cho by claiming to have stolen the key, but Polo realizes he isn't telling the truth and knows Ping-Cho has betrayed him.
The girl overhears this and runs away, intending to return to her home in Samarkand.
Ian tries to convince Marco Polo to let the Doctor have the TARDIS because it can't be duplicated in Venice and without it, he will not be able to return to his home, which is hundreds of years in the future.
Although Marco Polo has been remarkably openminded thus far--being prepared to believe that it can fly through the air because he has seen Buddhist monks make wine glasses fly through the air--but he can't believe it can cross time.
One of the reasons he cites for his disbelief is the fact that Ian has just lied to protect Ping-Cho, proving he is capable of lying. Two points to Marco Polo!
Ping-Cho is discovered missing, and Ian convinces Polo to let him go after her, and afterward Tegana convinces Polo to send him after both of them, claiming that Ian will take Ping-Cho and flee in the TARDIS.
The party then arrives at the summer palace of Kublai Kahn himself! They are all instructed that they must kow-tow to the mighty emperor (ruler of the world!) by kneeling and touching their foreheads the floor or they risk being killed.
The Doctor, who is not feeling well at all after spending several days on horseback and having thrown his own back out in the process, strongly objects. However, since he could be killed, he makes the effort.
Before he can reach the ground, however, Kublai Kahn enters. Far from being a mighty warrior, he is an extremely old man who has difficulty walking and has lots of aches and pains.
Quickly, he and the Doctor start old-guy bonding and are soon fast friends.
Kahn tells the Doctor that Tegana's master is marshaling an army in a place it's not supposed to be, and he wants to hear the emissary's explanation.
Meanwhile, Kahn has relocated form his summer palace to his imperial one in Peking, where he and the Doctor are enjoying a game of backgammon.
The Doctor totally skunks the emperor, winning vast amounts of wealth (e.g., the entire island of Sumatra is just one of the things the emperor proposes wagering) that he has no intention of taking. He then wagers everything he has won against the TARDIS (which Kahn hasn't yet even seen) . . . and loses! No TARDIS for him!
Soon Marco Polo announces the arrival of Tegana, who is accompanied by Ian and Ping-Cho in the custody of the official who arrested them.
Things go well for Ping-Cho, who is pardoned of any involvement in the alleged attempt to steal the TARDIS. She also doesn't have to marry the elderly but important man she was scheduled to wed, because he took an elixir of eternal youth and died. (There may be a statement about the safety of Chinese herbal medicine in there or something.) Instead, she accepts Kahn's offer to remain at his court as an honored guest.
Things go less well for Marco Polo, as Tegana reveals that there were several previous attempts to steal the TARDIS, which Polo has not reported to his emperor. Kahn is not satisfied with Polo's explanations, and he runs the risk of losing the emperor's favor, being expelled from his court, and being left vulnerable to his enemies.
Things also don't go well for Ian, who is put in a cell with the Doctor, Susan, and Barbara. There, they compare notes and realize that Tegana is planning to assassinate Kublai Kahn, allowing Tegana's master to swoop in and conqueror Peking in the confusion.
Escaping from the cell, they run into Marco Polo, and the group breaks into the throne room just as Tegana is about to kill the elderly Kahn.
Polo and Tegana have a duel, and Polo wins. Guards rush in and take the loser prisoner. Kahn tells Tegana that he will be executed, but rather than facing this fate, Tegana grabs a guard's sword and skewers himself with it! Yes! An on-air suicide in a children's program!
Kahn isn't mad, saying that the Doctor would only have one it at backgammon later. He forgives Polo and allows him to return to Venice.
Faced with listening to a seven-part historical drama, I was totally prepared to be bored out of my mind with this one, fearing that it would have lots of mindless running around like the cavemen sequences in An Unearthly Child.
Wow, was this serial a lot better than I expected!
While there is a good bit of escaping and getting caught again, it's set in a framework that makes it more interesting than usual. Rather than escaping from and being re-interred at the same place (due to lack of sets), the fact that we cover so many different locations--the Himalayas, the Gobi desert, the bamboo forest, various way stations, the emperor's summer palace, the emperor's imperial palace--helps sustain a sense of forward momentum.
This extensive travel--covering hundreds of miles and taking, apparently, months--is unusual for the program.
One of the ways they convey the passage of time is with voiceover narration of Marco Polo reading his travel diary--also something unusual for the show, which normally does not use narration, much less narration from a non-recurring character!
(This narration is in the original audio; there is additional narration--not by Marco Polo--that was added later to explain what is happening on screen due to the loss of the video version.)
Polo himself is a complex character. He is likable, but he also frequently at odds with our heroes, planning on taking the TARDIS but compensating them by returning them to Venice and allowing them to make another.
When Ian finally tells him that this won't work because the TARDIS is a time machine, he rationally refuses to believe Ian, partly on the grounds that Ian has just lied to him in order to protect Ping-Cho.
That kind of complex characterization--not a bad guy, but still at odds with our heroes and having rational motives--is really nice.
All of our main characters get to contribute to the plot, and the reversal of having the fearsome emperor Kublai Kahn turn out be an old man who bonds with the Doctor about their geriatric challenges is a really nice twist.
Speaking of geriatric issues, they're really playing up the Doctor's old age in these episodes. Every single serial has had the Doctor incapacitated by his frailty in one way or another: In An Unearthly Child, he can't keep up with the others when running in the woods and loses his breath, in The Daleks he suffers from radiation poisoning more than the others and a good bit of time passed out, in The Edge of Destruction he similarly loses strength when others don't, and in this one he has altitude sickness and is incapacitated again as a result of having to spend days on horseback.
All told, this serial was the most enjoyable one yet, which I was very surprised by given that it was a historical drama that had no science fiction elements other than the TARDIS.
I really wish that it had survived in video form. Partly, I'd like to see how they handled Tegana's suicide. British television is notoriously squeamish about violence, and I can't help wondering if they cut away when Tegana stabbed himself or only gave us a partial view or something.
Mostly, though, I'd love to see it on video because of the elaborate sets and costumes. In the picture at the top of this review, you can see Susan and Barbara in period costume, and other stills I've seen from the series suggest that--for 1963--it would have been a visual feast. I'd love to be able to see all the locations they went to in this episode and all the costumes they used.
RATING: * * *
LISTEN TO THIS SERIAL YOURSELF: