The Assembled Hordes of Genghis Khan Couldn’t Get Through Those Doors, and Believe Me, They’ve Tried (Marco Polo)
It is February 22, 1964, and the number one single is The Bachelors with “Diane.” Over the next six weeks, Cilla Black and Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas will both also make it to number one before The Beatles regain the spot on April 2nd. This feels something like a restoration of order, which, to be fair, is also true of the end of Marco Polo, the fourth Doctor Who serial which airs its final installment on April 4th.
Somewhere between April of 1964 and the present day – specifically between March 9, 1967, and late 1974, however, due to space-saving measures at the BBC, who inadequately anticipated the eventual demand for home video versions of television shows (in part spurred on by Equity, the actors union, which feared that home video and repeats would eventually render the making of new television obsolete), the master recordings of numerous Doctor Who episodes, including all seven episodes of Marco Polo, were junked. As a result, no recording of Marco Polo is currently known to exist.
Doctor Who is, as I have said, eternally unfinished. Another way of putting it – as Paul Magrs in fact has – is that it is incomplete. In the case of the missing episodes, this is literally true. Parts of Doctor Who’s history are missing. Important parts. Some unimportant parts too – there’s not a lot of people hugely bent out of shape over The Space Pirates going missing. But there are at a minimum a half dozen stories that are both highly historically important and have missing episodes, and Marco Polo is clearly among them.
A fundamental premise of this blog is that there is such a thing as a story of Doctor Who. But it’s the story of a time-traveler, and that shows. It is a story that goes back and revises itself, so that early episodes are at times best read in terms of later developments – as evidenced in the incongruous opening shot of the TARDIS in An Unearthly Child. Impossibly, the future of Doctor Who causes its past.
There is a sense in which this is only possible because of the missing episodes. Because the past of Doctor Who is incomplete, it is possible – indeed necessary – to rewrite it. As it happens, reasonable reconstructions exist. The audio for every Doctor Who story is preserved, as, for most, are a good number of still images. As a result, fan-made reconstructions that wed the audio to the still images exist, which is how I watched Marco Polo. But even still, there is always a sense that one is reconstructing – trying to uncover a past that is lost.
This is doubly true for this episode, as it is a purely historical piece. This is not the first historical we’ve seen – 100,000 BC has no sci-fi conceits beyond the TARDIS. But that story shares space with the story of what the TARDIS is in the first place, something Marco Polo does not.…