Sunday, May 6, 2012

Marco Polo

SUSAN: "We should be up there, another time, another galaxy."

In general, Whovians have one of two views about the William Hartnell era: the first is that the underbudgeted sci-fi stories are shoddy and the beautifully produced historicals represent the real gems of the era.  The other is that the historicals are nice but kinda boring, and the wildly imaginative Sci-Fi adventures are just fantastic, defying their limited production with clever storytelling.

Marco Polo is probably the ultimate test for this view.  In its 7 episodes totaling just under 3 hours, it not only lacks a single science fiction element outside of the TARDIS itself getting its crew to medieval China, it essentially sidelines the Doctor to do nothing more than repair his ship.  The entire enjoyment of the story rests on the strength of its depiction of China and the characterizations of Marco Polo, the villainous Tegana, and the unhappily betrothed Ping-Cho.  And, to top it all off, the episodes don't exist anymore.

In the 1970s, before the advent of home video, the BBC decided to save space and money (and appease the worries of the actors' guild, Equity, that reruns would negate the need for any new television to be produced, putting their actors out of work.  Seriously.) by erasing their master tapes of old television shows, and later burning the 16mm backup copies, of which Doctor Who was one of the casualties.  Of the 253 episodes produced in the 1960s, 106 no longer exist.

Which isn't to say their stories can't be experienced.  Unlike many of those lost works of early British television, every episode of Doctor Who exists at least in audio form, recorded on reel-to-reel players by fans.  For most of the missing episodes, "telesnaps" (high-quality photos taken by John Cura by aiming a specially designed camera at a TV) give a good idea of the overall look of the episodes.  For several episodes, brief clips and even a few entire scenes still exist.

And that number of missing episodes has decreased over time.  When an inventory was first taken in 1978, 152 episodes were missing.  Over the years, dozens of episodes have been returned by foreign TV stations, private collectors, and sometimes simply by turning up in bizarre places.  In the early '80s, two episodes of The Daleks' Master Plan randomly turned up in a former Mormon church whose building had been purchased by the BBC.

This does allow the stories to be experienced, albeit at an odd distance.  After all, the audio recording of a TV show isn't really tailored to be just listened to the way radio programs are.  This has created a gap filled in by fans in the form of "reconstructions", which take the audio recordings and match them to telesnaps, production photos, existing clips, and, on occasion, newly shot footage and effects.  These still, even at their best, lack the energy and full effect of actually watching the real episode, but it remains a wonderful effort on the part of fans to make sure others can come as close as possible to experiencing these lost stories.

Marco Polo is one of three stories that is not only missing all its episodes, but is lacking even a single clip of footage, leaving only the audio and telesnaps.  And when the most well-known Reconstruction group, Loose Canon, created their recon, even the telesnaps were still missing, forcing them to use a mixture of on-set photos and clever photoshops.  Their efforts pay off remarkably well, under the circumstances.

But even so, Marco Polo is still an incomplete experience.  Your response to the serial depends on the strength of the story, which, again, lacks any science fiction and in which the Doctor barely figures.

Given all that, it's amazing Marco Polo has such an exalted status amongst fans, speaking to the strengths of John Lucarotti's scripts and the performances of the cast.  Even though we can't watch it, the photographs show a beautifully realized recreation of 13th century China, filled out with the fantastic period costumes and props the BBC is so good at.  To complete the atmosphere, Lucarotti finds ingenious ways to use small details to make his epic possible on the tiny budget and miniscule studio it was shot in.  The sandstorm in the second episode and the subsequent search for water, all told largely through sound effects and dialogue, make the dangers of the Gobi desert remarkably vivid.  And the characterizations of Marco Polo, Tegana, and Ping-Cho are marvelous.

Mark Eden is a charismatic, complex Polo, an intelligent man so desperate to return home he allows himself to be fooled by Tegana.  In the final episode, he displays a movingly defeated but dignified manner as he finally realizes the extent of Tegana's puppetry.

Zienia Merton's Ping-Cho's plight is a familiar story: a teenager engaged to a 75-year-old man she's never met living a thousand miles away.  But it's told with such underplayed sincerity by Lucarotti and played with such humanity by Merton that it works like a charm.  Her relationship with Susan is touching and credible.

Speaking of which, Susan is unusually effective here; when she's in danger, she tends to devolve into a screaming... well, screamer.  No help at all.  But when she can just relax and be a teenager with a slight case of alien, she's fascinating, and Lucarotti leaves her in the latter mode throughout.  For once, she returns to being the "unearthly child", mysterious and quietly wondrous.  Lucaratti also nails even this early one reason she ultimately isn't quite going to work as a companion - she enjoys exploring, but doesn't have any real passion for the exploration.  Even so, she's much more adventurous here.  Above all, her dialogue is beautifully written.

"One day, we'll know all the mysteries of the skies, and we'll stop our wanderings."

Best of all, Derren Nesbitt's Tegana makes a fantastic villain - a wonderfully clever, scheming Iago, whose manipulations are completely believable.  Nesbitt's compelling, brilliantly performance fleshes out a well-written portrait of a villain we want to see defeated, but still respect deeply for his intelligence, bravery, and passion.

It's just too bad he doesn't get to face off with the Doctor.

It's frustrating enough that we're still dealing with the first season's proto-Doctor, who wants to see the Universe, but has no interest in helping others or interfering in any way.  He's not yet the eccentric alien who turns worlds upside-down with his wits and force of will.  He's just an alien who spends most of his time being grouchy.  His only interest is repairing the TARDIS and getting out of there.  Even in the climax, when Tegana prepares to assassinate the Khan as a prelude to war, the Doctor just lets Ian tell Marco about the assassination thing and runs back to his ship.  The one scene they really spend together in episode 4 only emphasizes what a waste this is.

Tegana, on the verge of his conspiracies being discovered, tries to convince the travelers that the cave in which a captured Barbara is being held is actually possessed by evil spirits. The Doctor replies that he's not afraid of ghosts, to which Tegana responds somewhat sarcastically that he forgot the Doctor was a magician.  The Doctor, in response, simply laughs.  The scene absolutely crackles with tension, making us all the more invested in a Doctor/Tegana confrontation that never really comes.

Tegana is so clearly a worthy adversary to the Doctor that the latter's utter lack of interest and engagement makes the story completely unsatisfying as a Doctor Who story.  Why would Lucarotti miss out on such an obviously satisfying storyline?

Because clearly it's more fun to watch the Doctor beat this guy with dice.
Granted, we're in the midst of the Doctor's long arc toward becoming a grand hero despite his Loki-esque character.  But we don't even get to glimpse the guy who fooled a caveman into revealing his guilt.  In a delightful scene, he plays backgammon with the Khan for increasingly high stakes, eventually winning about half the wealth of China before losing it all when he bids for the TARDIS on a bad roll.  But as fun as that pointless bit of amusement is, it's just all the more infuriating.  He's wasting his time playing a game largely built on chance with an old man when there's a master of strategy and wits just waiting to play chess (metaphorically) for the highest of stakes.  And he's perfectly aware of it; in the final episode, he reveals that he knew Tegana was a puppeteer of men with nefarious motivations from the beginning.  He just doesn't care.

Even with the Doctor's lack of engagement in a story perfectly set up for him to be at his best, it's still frustrating.  For all its rich characterizations and settings, it has very little story.  It's just a long travelogue across China, only occasionally enlivened by Tegana's shenanigans.  The rest consists of scenes like Ping-Cho reciting an old tale to the travelers.  It's a wonderfully told scene, but grinds an already slow story to a halt.  There's really no excuse whatsoever for this story to last seven episodes, and that length requires increasingly eye-rolling contrivances to keep the crew from getting back to their ship.

Where's my Thief, and why won't he get me out of here?
Not to mention dull side stories.  The first third of episode 5, the bandit attack, is a genuinely exciting conclusion to the great cliffhanger of episode 4.  And then we're back on the road.  They reach a city, where the Doctor argues about where the TARDIS is being kept while Susan and Ping-Cho talk about the fish they're looking at for most of the episode.  Without the Doctor facing off with Tegana, the whole thing becomes tiresome quickly.

Regardless, Lucarotti displays that he is, in some ways, the best writer the series has.  Certainly, his characterizations and dialogue are better than any other first season writer, barring only script editor David Whitaker.  And even then, Lucarotti might just be superior on those levels.  His other two Hartnell historicals, The Aztecs and The Massacre, are vastly superior in their understanding of the show, and are all the more compelling for it.

Also, they're only 90 minutes.  Seriously, I love some of the longer Who stories - heck, my favorite stories with the First and Second Doctors are 12(ish) and 10 episodes long, respectively.  But for a historical story with little adventuring and a limited role for the Doctor himself, seven episodes is almost unbearable.

Admittedly, it would be much better if we could actually watch this part.
And that's where the argument about the Historicals comes in.  If you don't care about the Doctor himself being involved in his own stories (or his absence being a source of the story's tension) and are more interested in a slow, quiet travelogue on Earth than a fantastic adventure on an alien world, Marco Polo is beautifully crafted and a wonder to experience.  But if your interests lie there, what are you doing watching this show in the first place?

DOCTOR: Do you need my help? 
  MARCO POLO: No, you stay here.


* * ½


  • Is it just me, or is there a subtle lesbian subtext to the friendship between Susan and Ping-Cho?  I mean, I thought I was just completely imagining it, but I have a friend who thought the same thing.  And yet, if it is there, I can't figure out any particular point it might have, and the story certainly makes perfect sense without it.
  • Also, in Episode 1, Susan explains to Ping-Cho that "Fab" is an expression people on Earth use often.  I think that may be my all-time favorite Susan moment.
  •  I love that Marco Polo, the White European, is the one the Doctor calls a "poor, ignorant, stupid savage", while appearing to have more respect for Tegana's cleverness.  Seriously, why don't these two get  a showdown?

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