THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Aztecs
The Massacre
The Sorceror's Apprentice
BBC
Marco Polo
aka. "Journey to Cathay"

Episodes 7 The travelers relax for a moment on their journey to Cathay.
Story No# 4
Production Code D
Season 1
Dates Feb. 22, 1964 -
Apr. 4, 1964

With William Hartnell, William Russell,
Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford.
Written by John Lucarotti. Script-edited by David Whitaker.
Directed by Waris Hussein (by John Crockett in episode 4).
Associate Producer: Mervyn Pinfield. Produced by Verity Lambert.

Synopsis: The Doctor's company is forced to travel with Marco Polo to Kublai Khan's court when Polo confiscates the TARDIS.

Note: Audio recordings and telesnap reconstructions of this story are available at Missing Doctor Who Reconstructions & Audios.


Reviews

A Review by Daniel Callahan 8/3/98

I wanted to write a review that accurately and precisely detailed all of the well-executed qualities of Marco Polo. The fact is, however, I don't think I'm up to it. This one just speaks for itself. But since I can't expect you to take my word for it, I offer this...

Mark Eden?s narration makes this story perfect for reconstruction or cassette, and the cast performs so well that it?s effortless to imagine the missing costumes and sets. It?s a joy to listen to as the suspense builds during each episode in a way that often fails to occur in even three or four part stories. The well-scripted dialogue and all too-human motivations of Polo, Tegana, Ian, Susan, and Ping-Cho shine through in a way rarely seen in Doctor Who outside of a Robert Holmes or Phillip Martin script. We even get to see (or hear) Hartnell alter his portrayal from the pre-Marco grouch to the post-Marco magician. If there?s one flaw.... No, I take it back. It?s so post-modern, so "in" to find fault, any fault, with anything, that I?ll just admit the truth: considering where this story came from and how it was made, it?s as perfect as you?ll get from television, my friend.

How did they do it? In season one, we have four undeniable classics (An Unearthly Child episode one, The Daleks, Marco Polo, and The Aztecs), one flawed but fascinating jewel (The Keys of Marinus), and a handful of less successful stories that, at the least, offer charm. Having John Lucarotti and Terry Nation pen more than one story was a key factor, to say nothing of the genius of David Whitaker and Verity Lambert. And perhaps there?s something to say for the lack of the big-budget superficiality that Trek writers seem to thrive on: a dumbed-down drama Marco Polo isn?t.

Lucarotti may express preference for his tighter, more Shakespearean The Aztecs, another marvel almost without peer (except this story and his Massacre of St. Bartholomew?s Eve), but Marco offers the epic scope of seven well-used episodes, where even the filler isn?t filler: it?s travelogue. Enjoy the trip!

...which would be better than taking my word for it. Get the reconstructions (a labor of love) or the cassettes. Marco Polo speaks for itself.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 10/10/98

Marco Polo can basically be described in one word: wonderful. As with John Lucarotti`s later contributions to Doctor Who, it is historically perfect. All of the regulars get an equal part of the action: The Doctor, ably played by William Hartnell, and his frustration with Polo over the TARDIS; Ian plays confidante to both Polo and Ping-Cho, whilst also getting the role of a hero, in taking on Tegana; Barbara and her mistrust of Tegana; and Susan`s relationship with Ping-Cho gives a rare insight into her thoughts (mostly of home).

Unusually, Marco Polo`s seven episode length is worthy of being this long and actually gives the tale an epic quality, unlike the usual padding in stories this long. This is further justified by Waris Hussein`s assured direction and the excellent production values. From the ornate sets, serving as way-stations to the period costumes, nothing is left out. Another nice touch is Marco Polo`s narration of the journey ovelayed on the map. This only adds to anotherwise outstanding Doctor Who story (which is sadly missing from the BBC archives-fortunately a soundtrack and telesnap reconstruction do exist), which captures the charm and feel of Ancient Cathay exquisitely. Doctor Who at its best.


A True Classic by Tim Roll-Pickering 11/11/98

This story is the main gap in the first two Hartnell seasons, with no episodes, clips or even telesnaps known to exist at the time of writing, but thanks to Bruce Robinson a reconstruction of the story is available, making the story available again. When I received the tape, I planned to watch it one episode at a time, because the length was daunting. I started the first episode, and did not get up until the end of episode seven, 'Assassin at Peking'.

Marco Polo certainly lives up to all the rumours and legends that surround it, unlike many other supposed 'classics' from the sixties. The regular cast had by now meshed together, all providing strong performances, and it is with this story that William Hartnell's characterisation of the Doctor softens from his initially harsh portrayal to a more grandfatherly one. The guest cast are uniformly strong, with Mark Eden (Marco Polo), Derren Nesbitt (Tegana), Ziena Merton (Ping-Cho) and Martin Miller (Kublai Khan) each bringing their characters to life with relish, whilst the supporting roles are all played just as well.

John Lucarotti's script is a wonderful mixture of characterisation and movement, containing many surprises along the way, and so consequently never drags-no mean feat considering that the story takes place over four months. With Mark Eden narrating Polo's journal, the story flows well from one part of the journey to the next. With strong direction by Waris Hussein and the magnificent design work by Barry Newbury and Daphne Dare, it is highly likely that Marco Polo would have secured Doctor Who's future were it not for The Mutants [i.e. the first Dalek adventure] beating it to the audiences. This story is one of the true gems of the series, and easily the best Hartnell story. 10/10

Bruce Robinson's reconstruction of this story is undoubtedly the best of all the reconstructions of missing episodes. With no telesnaps or footage existing, he has used the numerous publicity photos for this story, cleverly cropping them so as to ensure that every single scene is represented. With wonderful touches such as the journal entries, and the running script, this is the best way to enjoy this classic story. 10/10


A Review by Peter Niemeyer 25/1/01

"The journey across this vast ocean...is slow and hazardous."
(Marco Polo, Episode 2)

This was Doctor Who's first purely historical adventure, and the episode has garnered high praise from many people. I have to admit, though, that this episode left me feeling a little let down. The primary problem was that the majority of the serial centered around the TARDIS crew's attempt to get back into the TARDIS. There were so many nearly successful attempts that failed that by the time I was watching episode 5, it felt like I was still watching episode 2.

It's interesting to compare this serial to The Daleks. Both were prototypes for their genre (future stories vs. past stories), and both were 7 parts long. While The Daleks loses momentum in the last three episodes, it was a very entertaining story for the first 4 parts, and at 5 or maybe 6 parts would have been a nicely paced tale. Marco Polo, on the other hand, felt to me like it could have been done in 4 parts. Most of the events in parts 2 through 5 just didn't have an impact on the story.

I liked the way that historical and geographical details were peppered throughout, such as the sandstorm, the way stations, the Chinese/Mongol conflict, the notion of how slow it took to get from one place to another. However, with no propulsive plot, these details felt more like an item-by-item slide show than a continuous, unobtrusive background.

I do have to give my compliments to Derrin Nesbitt, who played Tegana. He really started to irritate me and I was looking forward to his eventual demise. Any time a villain gets under my skin, I have to give some credit to the actor portraying him.

One Thing I'd Do Differently: I'd give the TARDIS crew something to care about other than getting into the TARDIS and going. They want to expose Tegana...they want to see Peking...they want to stop Ping-cho's marriage...something that would have elevated them above the whining and complaining that occupied much of the story.

One Thing I Wouldn't Touch: The use of Marco Polo's diary and map to track the course of the journey. This device, which was never really used again in any other episode, helped the viewer to keep track of where the caravan was, added a sense of education, and emphasized the scope of the journey they were making.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 16/5/02

After battling Cavemen, Daleks and themselves, the TARDIS crew land with the travelling caravan of the great explorer Marco Polo. His journeyings are one of those historical events that not many know much about - exactly the sort of thing then that will educate and entertain. It has been hailed as Doctor Who's greatest ever story, and that intrigued me. It's a pure Historical, the kind you only find in the 1st Doctor's time (apart from Highlanders that is).

I really like Travel books. Not the kind of Rough Guides to Venice, or Travel Guides - but the kind where the author travels round one country or continent, with observations about his discoveries. The modern day adventurers like Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Michael Palin are all such types. One of the first to write about his travels for the entertainment and enlightenment of the masses was Marco Polo. This story therefore is Doctor Who's very own Travel Log - and that promised much.

When I discovered that Loose Cannon Reconstructions existed, and that they had done Marco Polo in Colour, I was very intrigued. Upon receiving the tape, I was fascinated by the way these Reconstructions are put together. Admittedly this is their most recent, and their most challenging too, but what a superb job they have made. Taking photos taken during the shooting of the production, of which many were in colour, hence the reason they reconstructed it in Colour, they have produced the closest thing to the real thing we are ever going to get (without the recovering of the originals and that seems unlikely). But even the original TV story was not in Colour, and the quality of these Sets are that good, that Colour is the best way to see them. I was mighty suspicious of these Reconstructions, expecting poor sound and picture quality, but my fears were unfounded. I hear Marco Polo is the best they have done, but if the others are 50% of the quality of this I'd be happy. They not only take the existing photos, but they cut and paste images around set photos. They give explanations along the bottom, when the situation calls for it, but they are kept to a minimum such is the excellence of the images used. They supplement the photos with a running commentary from Mark Eden, whilst the caravan is on the move using an old map with a bold line drawing the route taken. They colourize Black and White photos, making them fit in with the rest. It really is suberbly done and recreates Marco Polo better than I ever dreamed possible.

The rave reviews from some quarters about this story, heralding it as a "true classic of television", are not too wide of the mark at all. This was clearly a story that was designed to be the focus of the season. More money seems to have been spent on everything in it. There is more time elapsed between the beginning and end of the story, than any I can think of - this is a real journey, and the Doctor and Companions get right involved with Marco Polo's travelling caravan. John Lucarotti gives us an excellent and involved script. There is a lot of research gone into the accuracy of the travels, and the Designers have excelled themselves in the sumptuous sets on offer. The acting is of a higher quality than usual, with Mark Eden as Marco Polo and Derren Nesbit as Tegana particularly excellent.

The leads, thriving on some superb character writing, are excellent. William Hartnell as the Doctor is wonderful, the caravan's travellers rightly acknowledging him as the leader of the mysterious Blue Box, but the Companions also excel. Susan befriends Ping-Cho, in a delightful friendship, and receives more attention than usual, and also better material. Ian challenges Marco as the Action Hero of the story, and the way the two are suspicious of one another is nicely done. Barbara gets to wear some fine clothes and hats, she continues to be the teacher we all wanted at School.

The sweeping saga that was Marco Polo's journeyings is integral to the enjoyment of the story. It makes you want to find these places for yourself on the map, and read more of his travels - the very thing that DW in its educational guise intended. Whilst not being the most action packed story, there is plenty of intrigue and excitement. Everything is done quite sedately though, and the drama results naturally from the clash of personalities and ideologies. The marvelous names that Polo gave places also puts the story firmly in mystery land. The Singing Sands, the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, the Roof of the World - all evoke such wonder and romanticism. The sedate pace of much of the serial helps convey the passage of time, but it is never boring - and it does recreate the journey well.

Marco Polo was a real joy to watch and listen to, this really is a very fine story from the Genesis of DW - it is marvelous how such a confident and fascinating story could happen so early on. DW really did establish its excellence right from the beginning. 9/10


A Review by Alan Thomas 10/7/02

Based on the Loose Cannon reconstruction.

Marco Polo is a tremendously breathtaking story that has always been surrounded by respect. The story compels the viewer into a journey, which is realistically borne out by the journal and map entries.

When the TARDIS lands on the Pamir Plateau, no time is wasted in getting the set-up. We are introduced to Marco Polo, played by very well by Mark Eden. The other members of Polo's caravan are also well acted, particularly Tegana, played with delicious malice by Derren Nesbitt. Ping-Cho also fulfils her role very well.

The performances by the regulars shine again on this occasion. William Hartnell shows a softer side than he did in the previous three stories, particularly in the scenes with Kublai Khan at the end of the story. He is still very pompous and crotchety, though. William Russell gets to fulfil his hero role, Jacqueline Hill is still very solid as Barbara, and Carole Ann Ford even fares well in her charming friendship with Ping-Cho.

The various subplots are set up well, seeing a mistrust between Tegana and the travellers, as well as an up and down relationship with Polo. The story follows a pattern with roughly every episode introducing a new "terror" - The Singing Sands, The Cave Of Five Hundred Eyes, The Wall Of Lies etc.

The music and set design are astonishingly good for the era, particularly as the production had to work in the tiny confines of Lime Grove Studio D. The direction by Waris Hussein is also very accomplished, and the serial oozes style.

There is real desperation when the travellers arrive at the Khan's court. What can the travellers do to get the TARDIS back? And what about Tegana's plot to kill the Khan? What about Ping-Cho's marriage plans? And Polo returning to Venice? It's all told in a tight way, with all the resolutions being satisfactorily explained.

The reconstruction itself is superb. The colourisation really shows just how great the sets are. The documentary and interviews add another dimension to the tale and help to explain some of the production problems, and how they were overcome. Fascinating.

All in all, Marco Polo is a triumphant adventure. If this were broadcast in the place of The Daleks, the series would still have continued. 10/10


A Review by John Greenhead 7/2/07

Having now devoured the entire Hartnell era, I have come to the conclusion that the strongest stories from this period are, for the most part, the historicals. They generally come across as more intelligent, and better scripted and acted, than their SF counterparts, and it is a real shame that this genre was discontinued after only three years. It is even more of a pity that so many of the historicals that were made are now either lost or partly lost, as many of them rank among the finest Doctor Who stories I have yet come across.

The famously missing Marco Polo is no exception to this, and the numerous lavish photos that survive of the production make one wish fervently that it could still be seen, as there is no question that this is a true epic to which the BBC brought a lot of their costume drama expertise. Thankfully, we do still have the soundtrack, and that by itself reveals this to be an excellent story. John Lucarotti's three contributions to the show are all great, and although I don't think Marco Polo is quite as outstanding as The Aztecs and The Massacre, it nevertheless showcases the strong plotting, characterisation and vivid historical detail that distinguish all his work for Doctor Who. For me, Lucarotti is one of the most impressive of the show's early writers.

At seven episodes, the story is told leisurely, but it hardly drags at all, thanks to the action's continuous movement from Tibet to Peking. Polo's long, dangerous journey back to the court of Kublai Khan invests proceedings with much of their epic quality, and the device of having Polo narrate the course of the journey further enhances this. The length of the story also gives Lucarotti time to immerse us in the culture of 13th century Cathay, which he achieves through nice touches such as Ping-Cho's story about the Hashashins. Tristram Cary's lovely incidental music also helps in creating the period atmosphere, and I am sure the lavish-looking costumes would have done as well, for those lucky enough to watch this back in 1964.

The performances are uniformly strong. Mark Eden does sterling work as Polo, an essentially good-hearted man whose wholly understandable desire to go home leads him into conflict with the Doctor and his companions. A large part of the story's power is generated by Polo's inability to see that the Doctor needs the TARDIS, and that he can't go to Venice and build another one. The tensions and misunderstandings thus generated, and exploited by Tegana, drive the story forward and make the audience hope that eventually Polo and the TARDIS crew will realise that they are on the same side and become friends and allies. Tegana is another reason for the story's success, his deviousness and low cunning making him a really loathsome figure, and his eventual comeuppance very satisfying. Derren Nesbitt plays him in an understated, cold, calm fashion that really emphasises his villainy.

The regulars all do well too. Although he is now getting on with Ian and Barbara, the Doctor remains very grumpy in the early part of the story, and with very good reason, once Polo confiscates the TARDIS. As the adventure progresses, however, Hartnell shows the mellower, humorous side of the first Doctor for the first time, notably in his amusing scenes with Kublai Khan. These are not only the first real comic scenes in Doctor Who, but they also demonstrate Hartnell's great skill as a comic actor. Ian gets the best deal among the companions, as he has plenty of opportunities to be heroic, but another of the story's strengths is that Susan gets a decent role for once, thanks to her strong and rather touching friendship with Ping-Cho. Ironically, considering that she is a history teacher, Barbara has the least to do here, but Jackie Hill's performance is as solid as ever.

There is really very little I would criticise about Marco Polo, except perhaps that it could have been made a little tighter if it had just been six episodes in length. However, overall it is a very fine piece of work, and well deserving of its lofty reputation.


Cathay, Come Home by Andy Wixon 14/2/13

If Marco Polo were an episode of the current series, the plot would no doubt revolve around stranded aliens Wanting To Go Home and looking to infiltrate and suborn the Mongol Empire in order to do so (possibly using Tegana as a pawn). In the end, the Doctor would figure out the aliens weren't actually evil , but due to their technology being empathically powered and him not Wanting To Go Home, he would be unable to help them. Step up Marco Polo, who has been Wanting To Go Home all story, to save the day.

Along the way the Doctor would get a speech along the following lines: 'Marco Polo! Best explorer ever! How brilliant are you! Went to China... came back again... first European to see coal... the man responsible for Japan being called Japan! You're great, you are.'

It's not an episode of the current series, of course, and there are no stranded aliens except the central quartet. The plot essentially revolves around everyone in the story figuring out the significance of the TARDIS as a piece of technology and wanting to grab it for themselves. When the Doctor shares his opinion of Marco Polo with us, it's that he's a 'poor, pathetic, stupid savage'.

Even by the standards of 1960s stories, for the title character of the story to get quite as rough a ride as Polo does here is unusual, given he's not actually the villain. The requirements of the plot dictate that Polo be a selfish, inflexible, rather gullible character, prone to paying too much attention to Tegana's advice. Only in the final episode does Polo get to redeem himself, realising his selfishness, saving Kublai Khan's life and capturing Tegana, and by this point it all seems a bit unfair: Ian has been the leading man of the story thus far, so resolving the plot should by rights be his job.

If, as a story, Marco Polo seems unfamiliar with the standard rules of plotting, that's a fair criticism, but taking it to task for leaving the reservation as a Doctor Who story is unfair, because what this story shows, probably more than any other, is that it took a while for the 'Doctor Who story' as we understand it - even in the context of the original series - to find its true form.

There's the dominance, or least equivalence, of Ian and Barbara, compared to the Doctor, for one thing, and their general preoccupation with leaving, rather than stopping Tegana. These are things which routinely get pointed out with respect to Season One stories, but what's unique to Marco Polo is its treatment of the TARDIS.

We automatically put Marco Polo at the top of the list marked 'pure historical', as if the regular characters had wandered into an ongoing period story. And there are certainly no visiting alien characters here - but, unlike all those stories where the TARDIS conveniently materialises behind some trees or in a shed and is completely overlooked by the locals, Polo and Tegana both instantly realise that this is a very special and valuable object and it starts to affect their actions straight away. (The unusualness of this makes one realise that the fact it hardly happens in other historical stories is as much a narrative convention as everyone in the universe speaking English.) Being a story about how members of a primitive culture react to a piece of higher technology - admittedly this idea is only explored in the most basic way - what grounds do we have for not calling Marco Polo a piece of SF? At this point, even the self-imposed historical-SF barrier is porous.

But then Marco Polo emanates from that very small bubble of time prior to the success of the first Dalek story having a real influence on the course of Doctor Who; arguably, it's only this story and The Aztecs (also by John Lucarotti) that give us an impression of what Doctor Who was really supposed to be like. While the various longeurs and repetitions of the plot do become somewhat tedious, this is no less the case than in many other more typical stories, and I find the cheerfully earnest didacticism of it rather charming, partly because Lucarotti is not especially adept at slipping them into the plot; rather than the historical tidbits you would think the story naturally lends itself to, he gives us bits of physics instead, and even some etymology. Quite how the physics works in the water-condensing-inside-the-TARDIS sequence I don't know, but I suspect it's not nearly as simple as it's presented here.

I think it's a shame there's nothing on TV today that tries to combine entertainment, drama and education as honestly and cheerfully as Marco Polo does. The Doctor Who that has come down to us across the years is a different sort of animal - still wonderful, of course - and the real value of a story like Marco Polo is not what it shows us about what Doctor Who is, but the insights it can give us into what it could have been.