In which I react [poorly, snidely] to the classic Doctor Who serial: Marco Polo

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Summary: Fans of classic Doctor Who come in a number of flavors: convinced that this or that incarnation or season was the *real* deal. Many give a nod to Marco Polo, the fourth serial (episodes 14 through 20) as being one of the true epics of the time. I kind of hate it, though. Well, hate's a strong word. Let me explain...

BLOT: (17 May 2011 - 12:50:18 AM)

In which I react [poorly, snidely] to the classic Doctor Who serial: Marco Polo

If you were to take a fan of new-Who and let them go back and watch "Marco Polo", the fourth serial from the very first season of the show, except maybe with the first episode skipped to miss some of the TARDIS scenes; I do not know how long it would take them to realize they were watching the Doctor and his early, early companions. That's one of the most fascinating things about going this far back in the show's history. No aliens. No crazy technology. A long enough script for earnest political intrigue to fester. The Doctor has no real big schemes to get free (outside of repairing a circuit and sneaking around) and despite a few confrontational moments really fails to do little outside of being thwarted until episode 7 (out of 7) or so. The Doctor is unrealized, much more a miracle instigator than a main character—with much of the action directed at the young companions, a pair of a teachers and a "school girl"—and the Whoniverse is new and empty. The plot line is earnest, a historically realistic romp that deals with powerful people caring not one whit for other people's property—the TARDIS is not so much stolen as just taken—while still being mostly good people, and a lot of the characters are right out of some costume drama with their own little subplots and such. And I kind of hate it.

I don't mind historical Who serials. I wish Who would bring back an historical or two—it is kind of annoying that at least three historical storylines were hinted at in "The Impossible Astronaut" but then discarded as filler and joke material. I even agree that people like Marco Polo would, in real life, simply consider themselves above simple issues like things not belonging to him (or well, The Khan). I will even give you that there is no way for Polo to know exactly what he was messing with, and so to him he was simply taking one of many "flying caravans" from a small band of strangers who seem to have secrets to hide. Still, thank goodness that "The Daleks" aired first and its resulting "Dalek-mania" helped fuel the end of the first season to have more SF elements. Had "Marco Polo" gotten in first, well, it is not hard to see what might have happened.

It is clear from "Polo" and from the "10,000 B.C." story-arcs (though the latter is often appended to the "Unearthly Child" for continuity) that someone in the production of the show had a clear idea: an cranky old man, a bringer of miracles, traipses off with a group of modern Londoners on a trip through history. With the hint of other-worldly things added every other time, roughly, to keep the kids interested*. In both the SF-eps and HF-eps, the Doctor is a bit of a doddering fool with insights into brilliance who messes up as much as he fixes before finally, after a number of episodes have run, putting it back into place. In the HF-eps, we also get a number of factoids dropped, some lingering shots of life in that time period, and so on. It..kind of works. That would be neat as a series better able to handle it. Maybe each season is a different era? There is potential there.

The reasons I dislike (I'll say hate is much too strong a word, since there are some wondrous elements) "Marco Polo" come down to three:

I think the middle one and the top one are the real killers for me (since all I have heard is the audio-only rebuild of it, the third one isn't quite so apparent until I read the cast list). It is early in the series, the whole thing is still mostly protoplasm, but it still rankles to have so much screen time dedicated to denoting how powerless the main character is with a number of dangerous tossed in for good measure to pad the whole thing by a couple of episodes. There is also so little imagination outside of how one clan tries to outwit another and how petty tyrants to-be might screw over honest people by simple declaration of being of a more lofty position in life. To some degree, the amount of storyline and screen time dedicated to these things is a wonder. For the rest, though, the best this serial had to offer was elaborate sets and costumes and careful choreography and that is exactly what was lost (without the visual character intact, we mostly get a Brit playing a sneaky Asian devil).

Outside of these general things, I am not sure if I can sum up what it was that turned me off of "Marco Polo" so strongly. There is just something about the whole production that seems to be bloated and unsure. If you were to cut it down to four episodes, I bet it would work better, but then again, there are few Who serials that wouldn't benefit from losing an episode or two. I guess it just comes down to personal taste and "Marco Polo" wasn't really to mine...

* As evidence of this, note that first we get the trip back to the stone age, then we get the trip to Skaro, ignore (essentially) the two part filler episode entirely aboard the TARDIS, and then we get Polo. Then Marinus. After that we get the Aztecs, then the Sensorites. Then the French Revolution. In the next season, presumably Dalek-mania had fully spoken because the first three are Science Fiction romps (well, "Planet of the Giants" isn't, but miniaturization plots are more SF than historical) and then it drifted back into a historical/SF pattern briefly before introducing the faux historical in the final serial of the season (set in history, but with SF elements), a format which nearly completely squeezed out the historical pieces over the next couple seasons.

** Try this one on for size: Outside of the one-off semi-companion of Ping-Cho, a teen from Samarkand, the next non-white companion to show up in the TV series—excluding those like Nyssa and Adric and Romana who were non-human—would be the TV Movie's Lee, more a companion to the Master than the Doctor, and then Martha Jones. Note that Martha Jones is the only non-white companion to have an extended run on the series.

Doctor Who


Written by Doug Bolden

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