THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Marco Polo
Target novelisation
Doctor Who - Marco Polo

Author John Lucarotti Cover image
Published 1985
ISBN 0 426 19967 7
First Edition Cover David McAllister

Back cover blurb: Polo is on his way to the Emperor's court in Peking when he meets the intrepid time-travellers, for the TARDIS has landed on Earth in the year 1289. Marco Polo recognises in the TARDIS a means of winning favour with the Emperor. But in the end the Doctor has no one but himself to blame for the loss of his wondrous travelling machine - which he gambles away to Kublai Khan...


Reviews

Epic Journey in Ancient Cathay by Andrew Feryok 13/7/13

"Bear me witness. I wear the gold seal of mighty Kublai Khan and by the authority it invests in me, I do hereby seize and hold your flying caravan." He pointed his sword at each of them [the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan] in turn. "Be warned, any resistance to this decree is instantly punishable by death. Now return to your rooms." The Doctor looked at Marco and shook his head sadly. "Oh you poor, misguided, stupid, pathetic savage," he said and walked back in to the way-station.
- Marco Polo seizes the TARDIS, Marco Polo, page 81, Chapter 9
Despite none of the episodes of this story surviving, this is hands down my favorite William Hartnell story! The epic scale and lavish budget are coupled with a fantastic script that rarely stays dull over its lengthy seven episodes. In fact, the story is so epic that you could almost put this on the scale of other big stories like The Daleks' Master Plan, The Key to Time Series, or Trial of a Time Lord. Many stories, including the very next one, The Keys of Marinus, would try to emulate its travelogue style and changing locations and stories with each episode, but none would succeed as well as this story does. The story's intrigue and tension only gets worse as the story goes on until the time travelers barely escape by the seat of their pants at the end. There are also times when you could cut the tension with a knife as the Doctor locks wills with the petulant explorer Marco Polo for control of the TARDIS. Having not read any of Lucarotti's writings for the series before, I did not know what to expect going into this novelization. Was it going to be a straightforward script in text form or a "special edition" that grandly expands the story beyond what could be realized on TV?

I am happy to say it was the special edition!

I was intrigued by John Lucarotti's novelization and thought that it was going to be a straightforward adaptation along the lines of Terrance Dicks books. Instead, like William Emm's Galaxy Four, Lucarotti surprised me and delivered a much different story from the TV version. All the same troubles are there from the TV episode, but he changes things in order to emphasize other aspects of the story. For instance, while the TV story is driven by the menace and manipulation of Tegana, his villainy is actually downplayed in favor of Marco Polo's paranoia, thus making him just as much a villain as Tegana, if not more so. This especially comes out in one of my favorite cliffhangers (episode 5) where the time travelers almost look like they are about to get away when Tegana suddenly takes Susan hostage and forces them to reveal their treachery, in stealing back the TARDIS key and attempting an escape, to Marco or Susan will die. In the book, Tegana plays no part in this scene and in fact Marco has already suspected Ping-cho's treachery in helping the time travelers acquire the key to their ship and is waiting with guards in the stables to ambush them when they try to escape.

The Doctor is also played up as the hero of the story much more than Ian or Barbara. In fact, a lot of Ian's heroics are instead given to the Doctor. I suspect Lucarotti did this in order to make him more familiar to 1980s fans who are used to a more heroic Doctor when in fact this was still the days when the Doctor was an anti-hero who observed events passively. Things like the use of exploding bamboo to scare bandits away or remembering the Khan's secret backgammon room so that they can sneak into the throne room and save the Khan from Tegana are now heroic acts performed by the Doctor instead of Ian.

Ling-Tau is also played up as a major character in the book whereas he was just a minor character in the TV episode. Instead, he becomes Ping-cho's romantic hero throughout the ending of the book. The Empress, noticing their glances, even has Ling-Tau promoted so that they can be married! The entire ending of the book is also changed. The subplot from the episodes 6 and 7 where Tegana attempts to kill Ian and Ping-cho at the Karakorum road and then has them imprisoned at the Khan's palace for "stealing the Khan's property" (meaning the TARDIS) has all been deleted. Instead, Lucarotti plays up the romance of Ping-cho and Ling-Tau and the backgammon contest between the Khan and the Doctor for control of the TARDIS. In fact, by the end, Tegana almost becomes a minor nuisance to the plot to be resolved rather than a major villain getting his comeuppance. Marco Polo also has a major change of heart and twice tries to give the Doctor back the keys to his TARDIS only for the Doctor refuse them since he is a man of honor and feels he must honor the Khan's debt after losing his backgammon game. I found this pretty incredible especially for the first Doctor. I could imagine the more polite and genial Fifth Doctor naively doing this, but not the conniving and crafty First Doctor. Thank goodness Marco and the Khan decide to give him the key back when he saves the Khan's life or he may have been stuck in Cathay for a lot longer. Also with the ending, there is no final duel between Marco and Tegana, and he is instead killed by an arrow from Ling-Tau. Rather appropriate given how villainous Marco was during the book and how much Ling-Tau was played up at the end.

On the whole, this is one of the best William Hartnell books, which could almost stand on its own as a book in its own right rather than part of the Doctor Who novelization series. Lucarotti grandly expands his story well beyond what we see (or these days hear) on TV and produces something which is an intriguing sidestep in the world of Doctor Who fiction much in the same spirit as David Whitaker's Doctor Who in An Exciting Adventure with the Daleks. Doctor Who historicals don't get any more epic than this and if you like Lucarotti and this genre, you definitely should not miss this book. 10/10