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. At its heart, Marco Polo is every bit as much of an bottle episode as The Edge of Destruction was – it’s just that Marco Polo was a bottle episode with lavish sets and a couple of guest stars.
What I mean by this is that despite spending quite a bit of time making the story look pretty (and the still photographs existing from the episode are gorgeous), the whole story is basically set in Marco Polo’s caravan, with minimal intervention from anyone other than Polo, Tegana, the villain of the piece, and Ping-Cho, the token young Asian girl.
I suppose this opens up the question of race in Doctor Who in a thorough fashion, though we touched on it back with The Daleks. Then, as now, the issues of race are problematic. We’ll start with the good news – only fourteen episodes into the series, in February of 1964, the show cast a minority actress, Zienia Merton, a Burmese-English actress. Less good – despite being Burmese, she is employed to play a Chinese girl. And she is the only minority actress in a serial set in China, with the rest of the parts basically being played in yellowface. Still, when I made a mental note to myself while watching The Daleks to remark on the first time a minority actor or actress appeared in Doctor Who, I in no way believed it would happen that quickly.
It’s also notable that, thus far, the series is two for two in focusing on non-European cultures in its historical episodes (assuming, as I do, that 100,000 BC took place during early human migration out of Africa). In the next historical story, The Aztecs, it will go three for three. Unfortunately, over the nine other pure historical stories that exist in televised Doctor Who, the score will never advance beyond three. Still, it is notable the ways in which concerns about race are embedded (awkwardly) at the start of Doctor Who inasmuch as those early concerns make it possible for the series to consider the matter organically at a later date.
To my mind, this is the main way in which Marco Polo is interesting in general, however – in terms of the ways in which it does, and, more importantly, does not anticipate later Doctor Who. I have already said that Doctor Who canon is additive – that nothing is undone, only amended. But there are aspects of the show that have largely been left to lie – the focus in early episodes on ostensibly hard science, for instance. (Which continue here with a scene that spectacularly fails to make condensation exciting.) Historicals are another one of those. The first season of Doctor Who is an almost exact split between historical and science fiction episodes. The second season is only 20% historical, the third about 30%, the fourth 18%, and then all remaining series 0% save for season 19, which did a quick two-parter for old time’s sake and is thus 8% historical.
There are two main reasons historical stories declined. The first is that they were unfathomably boring stories that existed only to fulfill the original educational remit of Doctor Who. The second is that it turned out there was a much better way to do them. We’ll get to the second one later, but the first is a significant problem. Given that the show is not huge on completely rewriting history (as we’ll see shortly), there are already some heavy limits on a historical plot. In Marco Polo, the odds of Tegana murdering Marco Polo before he returns to Italy or of assassinating Kublai Khan are exceedingly low. This is not a matter of lacking suspense – after all, it’s also extremely improbable that the Doctor is going to die in a cliffhanger. Doctor Who has always been a show more about the question “how are they going to get out of this one” than “are they going to get out of this one.” The problem is that for a purely historical adventure, the answer is pretty limited in scope. They’re going to get out of this one… much like the history book says they will.
As a result, Marco Polo amounts to seven episodes of an idiot plot in which the complete inability of the main characters to figure out that Tegana is evil (something that the audience knows almost immediately) and persuade everyone else of this is the only thing that keeps it from being a two episode story. The contortions necessary to prevent this, however, require the Doctor to basically be absent from most of the story to let Ian carry on proceedings somewhat less competently.
The most jarring part of this is that it interrupts the arc we’ve been enjoying thus far in which, with each episode, the Doctor becomes more like the Doctor. Here, most of that is discarded, leaving the Doctor’s major plot threads to involve being thirsty, being cranky, or both.
Instead, inasmuch as the episode advances anything about the characters, it focuses on the companions. Ian and Barbara continue to be odd proto-companions who are defined by their lack of desire to be traveling with the Doctor. In fact, Barbara reiterates in this story her wish to eventually leave the TARDIS forever.
But perhaps the more interesting developments come in the equation of Ping-Cho and Susan, who the story situates as close mirrors of each other. Susan’s young age is reiterated – sensible given that the series has yet to make any moves towards establishing the Doctor as functionally immortal. The major contrast between them, then, comes in the form of Ping-Cho’s preparation for an arranged marriage and Susan’s horror at the concept. Central to this, then, is part of the Problem of Susan – the fact that, as a fifteen-year-old girl, she is sexualized, but the show is unable to give any useful outlet for that sexuality as long as she is familially linked to the Doctor. Later companions will be sexualized in terms of the TARDIS crew, but that option is not available to Susan. This, among many other things, will eventually make Susan untenable as a companion, albeit by far the most interesting failure the show has ever produced.
Marco Polo, then, is in many ways the first dead end we have seen on Doctor Who. It’s interesting – well-scripted for what it is, lavishly produced, and, perhaps most intriguingly, missing. But it is also, unmistakably, not quite Doctor Who.