What I Learned From Doctor Who: “Marco Polo,” (One, 1964)

Doctor: One (William Hartnell)

Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell); Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill); and Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford)

Time: The year 1289, and perhaps beyond.

Place: Earth – ancient China.


1. “The Roof of the World” (Season One, Episode Fourteen)
2. “The Singing Sands” (S1, E15)
3. “Five Hundred Eyes” (S1, E16)
4. “The Wall of Lies” (S1, E17)
5. “Rider from Shang-Tu” (S1, E18)
6. “Mighty Kublai Khan” (S1, E19)
7. “Assassin at Peking” (S1, E20)

Today’s Lessons

1. The “Marco Polo ” serial, which is comprised of seven episodes, is entirely lost; some early episodes are lost due to the BBC’s previous policy of recycling tapes by rerecording over established footage.  www.dailymotion.com has uploaded clips that somehow preserved the audio of these episodes but juxtaposed them against projections of still shots from each episode.  The effect is rather like listening to a radio show or one of those books with the small (45) records accompanied by a slide show presentation as texture.  The lost episodes have been rumored to have been found and are said to be under process of restoration by the BBC…but who knows when they will appear (or if they will appear).  The story is rich enough in this serial, and the audio complete enough, that the gist is more than discernible.

2. One is extra grumpy.  He is petulant and irascible with Marco Polo, particularly as the TARDIS really seems to not be working and is being towed by caravan while the explorer crosses the Gobi desert, though One eventually fixes it sneakily by night.  Of course, Marco has appropriated it to give to the Kublai Khan in exchange for his release back to Venice.  I don’t remember this part in the history books…

3. The theme of One being an old man crops up frequently.  He is the most susceptible to various forms of danger.  In “The Singing Sands,” after Tegana drains the water gourds, the Doctor is the first to collapse from dehydration.  He was also barely in this episode.  Of course, it is his age and inability to kowtow due to a bad back that allows him to bond with the elderly and feeble Kublai Khan later on.

4. Speaking of Singing Sands…the sandstorm did really seem to be singing.  What’s that about?  They never addressed it!

5. Marco Polo tells the story of this caravan through the desert by writing in a journal.  Paradox alert!  Did this journal survive?  It makes references to the Doctor and his companions and the “flying caravan” (the TARDIS).  Did the journal exist before their arrival to the ancient past, or have the Doctor and his companions altered time?  In other words, is their arrival a “fixed” point, and where did this journal end up?  Maybe it’s buried in the Gobi Desert.  This seems very wibbly wobbly to me.  Perhaps even timey-wimey.

6. What is the Tegana dude’s problem, anyway?

7. Ah…the sixties.  All Asian characters are played by British actors with – augmentations – to help them look Asian.

8. Who is the guy in the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes giving Tegana his orders?  He doesn’t look like the other Mongols, and yet no one can really wrap their head around the space ship concept of the TARDIS.  I think his name is Acumet, but Tegana ends up killing him.  I’m so confused!  Acumet lived a pointless life.

9. The Doctor has been bandying about lots of diabolical laughter in this serial.  He does not get along with Marco Polo and really holds the fact that he is an intellectual superior over Marco’s head on a regular basis.  Except for the fact that he loses the second TARDIS key to Marco in an anticlimactic bait and switch.  When will this incarnation of the Doctor ever learn?

10. Why is it so hard for four people to get back into the TARDIS?  Susan is the weak link of this outfit.  Her loyalty to Ping Cho gets her captured by the duplicitous Tegana, and there is still no word of explanation for Tegana’s motives, unless he is looking to steal the magic caravan TARDIS for himself.  Update: I think that’s it.  I just don’t know why he wants it.  Maybe his faction of Mongols is at war with Kublai Khan.  Update: No, that’s it.  Apparently, he’s been distracting Marco Polo from realizing his true intentions of aggression against the Khan by blaming The Doctor and his companions for everything, and he wants the TARDIS to give his tribe of Mongols strategic advantage to usurp power from Kublai Khan.  Lofty ambitions.  Too bad it took six episodes to make this clear.

11. There are a lot of maps and virtual paths being displayed in this serial.  Exactly how much time are the Doctor and his companions with Marco Polo overall?  It seems like it’s weeks and weeks if not months.  And yet, they don’t seem to appreciate that they are living so much of their lives in the past.  The ancient past.  The history books past.

12. Backgammon can be used to make wagers.  Kublai Khan apparently has a gambling problem. Good thing the Doctor is no good at rolling dice.

13. Kublai Khan, according to these episodes, is the grandson of Genghis Khan.  Except he’s more of a bean pusher and bureaucrat, while granddad was a warrior.

14. These episodes might be a treat to watch in all of their moving picture glory, should they be really found/restored.  They were fairly ambitious in terms of sets and costumes, even if British actors were awkwardly portraying Asians.  The production values seemed to be quite high for the period and point in the series.  Also, the whole story is resolved with a sword fight and then Tegana’s self-impalement, which might have been fairly exciting for its time.  Nothing about the mythology is established by these episodes, though, other than Susan’s wistful admission to Ping Cho that she is from a faraway place.

Next serial: “The Keys of Marinus” (Season 1, Episodes 21-26).


One comment

  1. kyliekeelee · December 20, 2013

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