Marco Polo, by Dene October (and John Lucarotti)

Next in the sequence of Black Archive books about Doctor Who. In this case I had actually listened to the audio reconstruction again quite recently, so I didn’t repeat that for this blog post, just reading the novelisation again as well as the Black Archive analysis.

When I first listened to it in 2007, I wrote:

This is the fourth ever Doctor Who story, broadcast in 1964, and the earliest one to be lost conpletely from the archives. It was also the first purely historical Doctor Who story, telling simply of an encounter between the time travellers and Marco Polo (and eventually Kublai Khan) in the late thirteenth century.

I bought the soundtrack with linking narration from William Russell, who played Ian Chesterton in the original series. It’s generally pretty good though the fifth episode sound quality is rather lousy. I was also misled by one of the hidden extras – the first of the three CDs includes also all seven episodes as MP3s without narration, and since this is nowhere stated I ended up loading them by mistake.

Took me a while – first started this the week before last, and took a break from it while I was travelling. But it is in fact very good. Seven episodes is about right for a leisurely plot, with Susan bonding with the maiden Ping-Cho, and the others dealing with the treacherous warlord Tegana and with Marco Polo himself, who decides to seize the Tardis and offer it to the Khan as his ticket home to Venice. (Or, as Croatian lore would have it, Korcula.)

It builds to a satisfying conclusion with the Doctor playing the Great Khan at backgammon, with the Tardis as the stake. Marco Polo himself, weighing in the balance his honour, his liking and respect for Ian and the others, and his desire to get home, is an interesting character study.

A shame, but I guess understandable, that they stopped making stories like this one after a while.

When I returned to it for my Great Rewatch in 2009, I wrote:

Marco Polo is the only lost story in this run, but I was able to get hold of the reconstruction which tops and tails the original story with filmed pieces featuring Mark Eden as a much older Marco Polo reminiscing. The colour snaps illustrating the soundtrack make it look fantastic, and the visual cues give it a real sense of place as well, as the narrative shifts from the mountain passes to the court via the desert and staging towns. And it is rather bleak in places – the Doctor’s illness is not funny, the murderous plans of Tegana even less so. Susan gets a welcome bit of character development through her relationship with Ping-Cho. (Marco Polo, Tegana and the Great Khan are reunited in 1967 for an episode of The Prisoner, “It’s Your Funeral”, which gives another flavour of how this must have looked.) This is the first story that doesn’t lead directly into the next at the end of the last episode.

Coming back to the audio in 2020, I wrote:

Listening to it again – the 25-minute episodes are just right for timing a lunchtime walk under lockdown – I still found it enjoyable. The dynamic between Polo and the Tardis crew is a little odd – I thought that they gave in to Polo a bit too quickly, and also for someone who has not actually looked inside the Tardis he seems pretty sure that it will transform his relationship with the Khan. But that aside, it’s well written and well executed. And as I’ve said tbefore, the recons make it look gorgeous.

I did wonder, however, if anyone seriously thought that this was educational. The original remit for the show was supposedly that the historical stories would get kids interested in history. Well, I fear you’ll scan the history books in vain to find out any more about Ping-Cho, the warlord Tegana, or the very camp innkeeper at Sheng-Ting. But maybe it’s better to scan the history books for something that’s not there, than not to look into them at all.

You can easily google the Loose Cannon reconstruction of the story, and you can get the audio here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation is:

The journey to Lop, through the undulating farmland, was pleasant. Marco, Ian, Barbara and Tegana were on horseback which meant that the two wagons for the travellers had, in the first, the Doctor muttering irascibly to himself and, in the second, Susan with Ping-Cho giggling, gossiping and playing games. The tent, now without the furs to line it, was pitched in the evenings and Ping-Cho, with both Barbara and Susan helping, would prepare them a ‘proper’ meal as the Doctor described it. But, as they approached Lop, the landscape changed: the earth became dry and dusty, the outcrops of green fewer and farther between for Lop was built on the edge of the vast Gobi desert and, whereas Yarkand had been a town, Lop was little more than an oasis, a natural spring, surrounded by tents and wooden shacks. But the main building, the way-station or hotel, was well-appointed. The manager, Yeng, a dignified Chinese who never took his hands out of his jacket sleeves, greeted Marco courteously and gave orders for the horses to be stabled. The baggage train was put into a compound, but the Doctor insisted that the wagon with the TARDIS be placed in the main courtyard where he could keep an eye on it. Smiling, Marco agreed with him.

When I first read it in 2008, I wrote:

Doctor Who – Marco Polo is certainly the best of John Lucarotti’s three Who books (the other two being Doctor Who – The Aztecs and Doctor Who – The Massacre). Possibly the need to be fairly concise – cutting down from a seven episode story, rather than writing up from four – made a difference. It’s a cracking good story anyway, and the fact that we have only sound rather than video records of it makes Lucarotti’s presentation all the more valuable. He has a rather peculiar fascination with detailing the various different Chinese prawn dishes that the Tardis crew consume en route, but this of course just adds to the depth of the setting. Really rather a good one.

On re-reading, I still like it a lot; but I was a little unfair about the prawn dishes. For the record, these are the meals and drinks mentioned in the book:

  • Chapter 2: “Bean sprout and chicken broth”
  • Chapter 3: “two small Tan Chiao omelettes stuffed with minced fresh water shrimps and […] a bowl of tea”
  • Chapter 4: “a bowl of tea and two Tan Chiao omelettes stuffed with chopped water-chestnuts and pork”
  • Chapter 6: “sesame seed pings followed by soochow chiang, a delicious mixture of pork,
    mushrooms and bamboo shoots served with a succulent sauce and rice wine”
  • Chapter 11: “‘Chicken-fat braised carp”
  • Chapter 12: “a mellow white wine”
  • Chapter 15 (banquet scene): “There was a choice of, at least, fifteen soups, including one called a ‘water-melon pond’, and egg dishes in profusion followed by fresh-water as well as sea-water fishes and crustaceans. Then, of course, came the poultry dishes which reminded the Doctor of the old adage that the Chinese eat everything bar the feathers. Next on the menu were the meat and vegetable bowls served with a multitude of rices, after which the meal was rounded out with a variety of desserts. The wines were of every hue and taste and to the Doctor’s astonishment there were Italian and French ones as well as champagne. / ‘My father imports them,’ Marco said modestly.”
  • Chapter 15 (later): “a succulent slice of pineapple roast duck” … “a dried shrimp wanton” … “a Lan-Chow steamed dumpling” … “chicken chessmen”
  • Chapter 16: “Yang-Chow shrimp balls”

I think that is more discussion of food than you will find in any six other Doctor Who books, combined. And shrimps (not prawns) are in only about half of them. You can get the novelisation here.

Dene October’s Black Archive on Marco Polo is one of the longer ones in this series. He makes a very strong argument that this story, which most fans like without necessarily loving, should be considered as one of the peaks of Old Who. Sadly, those of us who did not see it will need to rely on his word. It is enhanced by the fact that October actually saw Marco Polo twice – when originally broadcast by the BBC, and then again a year after in Australia where his family had meantime moved. He therefore has a huge advantage over most of the rest of us who will probably never see any of the seven lost episodes; if they were findable, they would surely have been found by now.

(As I said in a previous entry, I used to have fantasies of some day opening a long-shut cupboard in the Green Zone in Cyprus to find a bunch of Doctor Who tapes that had been abandoned by some luckless TV technician in 1974, but in fact now that I’ve established that the Green Zone in Nicosia is still basically where it was when established in 1963, I accept that this is never going to happen, especially not to me.)

Like the original story, October’s book is divided into seven chapters. In a really interesting first chapter, October insists that the story should in fact be seen as educational, as a dramatisation of the original Travels of Marco Polo with a didactic agenda. My instinct is that this is over-analysis; the purpose of the drama is the drama. If this had not been Hugo season, I’d have read the Travels too to make up my own mind. In any case I have acquired it and will get to it sooner or later. October goes further into detail on both the Reithian missionof the BBC and the extent to which the original Travels can be regarded as fictional anyway. It’s one of the most interesting sections I have read of any of the books in this series.

The second chapter looks at the soundscape of the episode, the low visibility of the Doctor and the voice of Marco Polo as the central character and audience identification figure – very unusual for Old Who, rarely done in New Who.

The third chapter looks at the visuals of the story, especially the camerawork. The second paragraph is:

3.1 ‘Pray Attend Me While I Tell My Tale’: Staging History
Ping-Cho’s carefully planned dance makes for an unusual history lesson, something Ian picks up on immediately in quizzing Susan about the English derivation of the word ‘Hashashins’. Ian’s teacherly prompt is in many ways a remediation of the Chinese girl’s poem, one he perhaps feels remedies her version, and uses a more appropriate medium. In a sense, Ping-Cho and Ian are both educators using different media and reflecting the programme’s challenges in delivering historical content to a mixed family audience.

October insists that the lost visuals impact of the series was particularly good. This is frustratingly difficult to prove, as all we have are a few still shots and people’s memories, but it’s good to hear.

The fourth chapter has October reflecting on the fallibility of his own memory of having seen the show twice, and on the way in which viewers experience television. He then veers off into a fascinating sidetrack on the memory abilities of the historical Marco Polo, based on the identifiable mistakes in the Travels – he does not mention the Great Wall, for instance.

The fifth chapter looks at travel as a narrative device, and again invokes the Travels as a point of comparison for how we experience the Doctor Who story.

The sixth chapter looks at the character of the Khan, and the portrayal of rulership and of the Orient in the story.

The seventh chapter combines three important themes: Marco Polo‘s portrayal of gender, the reliability of the narrator, and how fans have worked to retain and reconstruct the lost story.

It’s one of the good ones in this series, and made me think a lot more about the story than I had expected. You can get it here.

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