Sunday, 21 July 2019
What's Wrong With... Marco Polo
What went wrong with Marco Polo? Well, they lost the damned thing - that's what went wrong.
This is the only story from the first season which is missing in its entirety. All the episodes broadcast before it are in the archives, and all but two of the episodes broadcast after it survive (Parts 4 & 5 of The Reign of Terror being the only other missing episodes from Season One).
The audio exists, so we can at least hear what it sounded like, and there are probably more on-set photographs from this story than any other from the season - giving us a good idea of what it looked like. Coupled with this, we also have some telesnaps, but even these are incomplete.
Director Waris Hussein decided to buy telesnaps of the episodes he directed, but he didn't direct the middle episode - and its director, John Crockett, didn't want to buy the photo sheets covering his work. Apart from the on-set photographs, there is no visual record of fourth episode Wall of Lies.
For a number of other lost stories we have the odd clip, which often survived because it was used in another programme, such as Blue Peter. On other occasions fans filmed their TV screen with a Super-8 camera and so we have clips that way. This is one of three stories where not one single clip of any description has ever surfaced (the other two being Mission to the Unknown and The Massacre).
The fact that everything either side of Marco Polo exists has led to this story becoming one which has a lot of rumours attached to it, regarding its imminent rediscovery. When four episodes of The Web of Fear, and five episodes of Enemy of the World were rediscovered in 2013, a lot of the on-line speculation immediately before the announcement claimed that this story had also been found.
The ironic thing about all this is that Marco Polo was sold to more overseas broadcasters than any other story - so its likelihood of being rediscovered ought to be high. There were more copies of it out there in the first place.
So, as we can't watch this story as it was broadcast, it makes it difficult to catalogue errors in the way that we can with complete stories. From what I have read, the opinion of older fans who saw the story at the time is that it was pretty flawless as far as the production was concerned. From the audio we can hear that William Hartnell was on rare good form, although his exasperation at the breakdown of the TARDIS systems does sound as if he is ad-libbing somewhat, and also in the first episode he seems to suffer a fit of hysterics as he laughs his head off at all the problems that have befallen them since leaving that junkyard in Totter's Lane.
The third episode bears the on screen title Five Hundred Eyes, yet the "Next Time" caption at the end of the previous episode promised 'The Cave of Five Hundred Eyes'.
If there are flaws to be found, then it is with the story itself, something I have written about before - see my "History Without A TARDIS" post for this. Writer John Lucarotti had written a lengthy episodic drama for Canadian radio about Marco Polo before relocating to Europe, so this formed the basis for his Doctor Who story. He decided to conflate a number of elements from Polo's book The Description of the World, which wasn't written by Polo at all but was supposedly the work of a fellow prisoner to whom he told his story.
The story we see on screen is supposed to be set in 1289, and Polo is on a diplomatic mission for Kublai Khan. In 1289, he had already decided to return to Venice with or without the Khan's permission. There is no mention of his father, Niccolo, or of his uncle, Maffeo.
The escorting of Ping-Cho for an arranged marriage seems to derive from a real mission in 1292, when Polo brought a princess named Kokachin to Persia to be wed to a relative of the Khan, only for the old man to have died whilst she was still on her journey.
The route taken in this story follows pretty much Polo's first journey to China in 1275.
Some of the names of characters appear in Polo's book - Tegana, Acomat and Noghai - but they are all Tartar warlords there.
The use of 'Peking' is anachronistic. It was known as Khan-Balik or Cambalu at this time.
Susan uses some 1960's slang words - 'fab', 'with-it', 'way out' and 'dig' - which the TARDIS seems not to be able to translate, as Ping-Cho is confused by them. Susan hasn't really been heard to talk this way before - and won't be again.
Ping-Cho states that she comes from Samarkand. This is in Uzbekistan, so why does she have a Chinese name? The city is famous for its mosques, but there is no suggestion that she is Muslim. (One answer might be that she is the child of Chinese settlers in the city. It had a large community of Chinese silk weavers in the 13th Century).
The least said about a character being called Wang-Lo, the better...
One other flaw with the story is that Tegana is so blatantly a villain that it makes Polo look stupid when he continually fails to become even slightly suspicious of him, despite all the mounting evidence against him.
One thing we do know went wrong during the making of this story was the employment of a real monkey for the character Kuiju to carry around. The animal urinated profusely throughout recording.
Also, Hussein's absence from the fourth episode was not planned. He fell ill and Crockett had to step in late in the day.
Once the story was in the can, problems did not end there. Marco Polo has the distinction of being the first Doctor Who story to get a Radio Times cover. The magazine's picture editor opted for a shot of William Hartnell alongside the two main guest artists - Mark Eden (Polo) and Derren Nesbitt (Tegana). This infuriated William Russell, who felt that the show's main cast should have featured. Russell took the opportunity to lodge a general complaint to his agent about the way his character was being developed.