“Marco Polo” is the first of the many “Doctor Who” serials (and the only one of the first season) to be hobbled by missing episodes, lost when the BBC purged their archives to make room. In fact, not a single frame of any of the seven episodes of “Marco Polo” survive, although fans have reconstructed the episodes using telesnaps (off-screen photographs of broadcasts), the scripts, and most importantly the soundtracks. Even with clever editing and a complete recording of the actors’ dialogue, it’s still miles away from having the original episodes, but I’ve decided that, for the lost serials, if I can get a good fan reconstruction, I’ll do a write-up. If not, in the future I may just link to a summary somewhere and move on to the next complete serial.
Susan, Ian, and Barbara examine a giant footprint in the snow. The Doctor knows he’s on Earth and on a mountain high above sea level, but nothing else. An agitated Doctor tells his companions that a circuit in the TARDIS has burnt out, making them unable to travel and depriving them of heat and water. Ian and Barbara volunteer to look for fuel for heating while the Doctor raves about how they’ll all die from the cold. On their way down Barbara sees something, but isn’t sure what it was, and Ian discovers footprints caused by a boot. The party is found by a man named Tegana and a group of Mongolian soldiers, who are convinced that the Doctor and his companions are evil spirits disguised as humans. A man of European ancestry appears and orders the soldiers to stop menacing the Doctor and the others “in the name of Kublai Khan.” The man notices that the Doctor is becoming sick and volunteers to take them to the nearest town for food and shelter.
Barbara reasons that their host is Marco Polo, who tells them that he’s traveling with a young aristocrat from Samarkand, Lady Ping Cho, and Tegana to “Cathay” (China). The Doctor gets out of Marco Polo that it’s 1289 and that they’re on the Plain of Pamir, the “Roof of the World.” That night Ping Cho introduces herself to Susan, who learns that Ping Cho is traveling to meet her arranged husband for the first time. Tegana, who had witnessed the four leave the TARDIS despite the box not being big enough for all of them, is still convinced that they are disguised spirits. The next day Polo queries Ian about the TARDIS and he has to admit that the TARDIS travels “through the air.” This confirms Tegana’s suspicions, but Polo assumes that the TARDIS moves via the sort of benevolent magic he claims to have seen practiced among Buddhist monks. The Doctor learns from Ping Cho that Tegana is an emissary sent to Kublai Khan from a Mongolian chieftain. Polo offers to take the TARDIS with his caravan to Lop, but warns the Doctor not to enter the TARDIS or the Mongolians might be excited to violence.
Disregarding the warning, at Lop the Doctor nonetheless finds that Polo has barred the TARDIS’ doors and confiscated the Doctor’s key. Angrily he confronts Polo, who explains that Kublai Khan is refusing to allow him and his uncle to leave the imperial court and so he is planning to give the TARDIS to Kublai Khan as a gift in order to grease the wheels. Polo is unsympathetic to the Doctor’s pleas, believing that the Doctor can just make another TARDIS or return to his home by ship while Buddhist priests will be able to unlock the TARDIS’ secrets, but he is at least willing to take the Doctor and the others all the way with him to Kublai Khan’s court. The Doctor is reduced to a fit of laughing and crying. Meanwhile Tegana schemes in secret to have Marco Polo assassinated, steal the TARDIS, and use it as a weapon against Kublai Khan. There are other problems, however, as the travelers cross the Gobi Desert, facing a sandstorm, the loss of supplies, the threat of bandits, and a lack of water. Still, they reach the city of Dunhuang unscathed, where the Doctor completes a substitute key he was working on while feigning illness. Barbara, suspicious of Tegana, follows him into a hidden chamber in the “Cave of Five Hundred Eyes”, where he is meeting with his co-conspirators, but only succeeds in getting captured by Tegana’s accomplices. The others converge on the Cave to find Barbara just in time to save her from her abductors, who were busy playing dice to determine who’d have the honor of killing her. Tegana shifts tactics and warns Polo that the Doctor and his companions are trying to turn Polo and Tegana against each other in order to get the TARDIS back, a warning confirmed when Barbara tells Polo she had seen Tegana sneaking into the Cave.
In the meantime, the Doctor has been sneaking into the TARDIS at night with his key to repair the circuit. At a town the caravan has stopped in, Tegana sets a date for the butchering of the travelers. One night, while the Doctor goes inside the TARDIS to fix the circuit, Tegana sees him and warns Polo, who has the substitute key taken from the Doctor. However, the Doctor tells him that using the key incorrectly will cause the TARDIS to be destroyed, and of course he’ll never willingly tell him how to use the key. As an infuriated Polo calls for guards to take the Doctor and his crew into captivity, the Doctor sneers, “You poor, pathetic, stupid savage!” The crew plan to escape, but find their work done for them, with their guard murdered by Tegana’s allies. Polo’s men are able to hold their own, but Tegana still manages to avoid being exposed, although the Doctor and the others have enough proof to easily confirm among themselves that Tegana was behind the attack. Under instructions sent from Kublai Khan, Polo orders the caravan to hurry on to Zhengding, where the imperial court is staying. Ping Cho takes the keys to the TARDIS from Polo’s hiding place and gives them to Susan. Before the others can take the chance to leave, ultimately Polo once again catches them.
As a last ditch attempt, Ian tries to explain to Polo that they’re time travelers, but Polo is incredulous. Soon he and Ian learn that Ping Cho, now disgusted at the prospect of marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather, has fled, and Ian volunteers to go find her while the others hurry on to the imperial court. Ian finds Ping Cho, but also discovers that the TARDIS has been stolen and taken to Karakorum, the former Mongolian capital. At the court, the Doctor causes a protocol crisis by refusing to kowtow to the emperor. Eventually he relents, but finds he cannot bend his back enough. Kublai Khan is furious at first, but softens up when he finds that the Doctor suffers from old age the same way he does. Elsewhere Ian and Ping Cho find that Tegana had taken the TARDIS, but before Tegana can have them killed they are found by Kublai Khan’s agents and taken to Peking, where the court has relocated. The Doctor engages in a series of bets over backgammon with Kublai Khan and plays for the TARDIS in the last game, but loses. Later Ping Cho’s husband dies from drinking a potion meant to improve sexual potency, which gives her a chance to win Kublai Khan’s confidence. The Doctor and the others figure out that Tegana must be planning to assassinate Kublai Khan. They warn Polo in time for him to thwart Tegana and disarm him. Before he can be captured Tegana impales himself on a sword; while the court is distracted by the suicide, Polo hands the Doctor the keys to the TARDIS and they escape. After the TARDIS vanishes, Kublai Khan forgives Polo for his betrayal, saying that he would have let the Doctor win the TARDIS back in backgammon anyway. When Kublai Khan says that the TARDIS vanishing would make for good reading in Polo’s travelogue, Polo hints that because such details are too incredible to be believed, he might just leave them out.
This is the first of the “historical episodes”, where the Doctor and his companions not only travel to a historic time period but the elements of time travel and the Doctor being an alien are the only sci-fi elements present. Sadly, especially for a history buff and Whovian like me, this trend didn’t last long. With the exception of the 1982 serial “Black Orchid”, the 90-percent-historical episodes ended, to date, with 1967’s “The Highlanders”, although the format did crop up again in several “Doctor Who” novels and the Big Finish audio productions. Afterward the series would imply that the Doctor’s jaunts into history that did not involve him running into aliens, ancient evils, or whathaveyou all take place off-screen, which has so far been true for the 2005 series as well.
Susan says, “I’ve had many homes in many places,” which does strongly imply that she’s been in exile with the Doctor since early childhood, if not infancy.
Marco Polo refers to “the Doctor and his companions.” Is it the origin of the term? I’m not sure, but it’s likely enough.
In spite of being only one of three “Doctor Who” serials where (as far as we know) not one frame survives, from what I can tell “Marco Polo” has a lofty reputation among diehard Whovians. One might think it’s a case of the episode being trapped forever in a sort of television limbo, but it actually is a very strong episode, perhaps one of the strongest from the show’s earliest years.
Like “Daleks” before it, the episodes are all tightly plotted (again, my lengthy synopsis left quite a bit of ground uncovered), but unlike “Daleks” it manages to avoid feeling padded by daftly packing in various events and twists and by fully exploiting the premise, which allows each episode to take place in a different locale with a different set of circumstances. The showrunners certainly can’t be accused of failing to take advantage of the historical milieu, and, just viewing the telesnaps, the limitations in the reconstruction are most frustrating when it comes to what little we see of the set designs, which were by necessity economical but still quite striking.
Again, it’s amazing how much emphasis was put on characterization for what was a children’s program. The Doctor and Kublai Khan’s cantankerous and then friendly interactions with each other are an unquestionable highlight, played for comic relief but also providing an in-depth look at a major historical figure, as are Barbara’s brief but important skirmishes with medieval chauvinism. However, a couple of the characters do have a habit of changing their tunes when it’s convenient for the overall plot; Marco Polo’s heroic qualities seem to triumph over his opportunistic qualities at convenient times, while, as in “Daleks”, Susan tends to act much more like an average teenage girl than a seasoned time-and-space traveler, such as when she seems shocked at the idea that Ping Cho has been committed to an arranged marriage.
For all that, it’s a shame that the serial has only survived in piecemeal form, but it still stands as court-worthy proof that the Doctor doesn’t need to run into alien invaders to have interesting adventures in the past.