By Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 312
"Marco Polo" is arguably the earliest true Doctor Who historical (depending on how one considers "10,000 BC"), and as such has a clear mandate to educate viewers, young and old, about a medieval culture which still remains obscure to most Westerners. Nonetheless, it is far from being a dry informative tale or a literary flight of fancy, being instead a fascinating study of interpersonal politics.
"Marco Polo" was the first Doctor Who story by Canadian writer John Lucarotti, who would later contribute "The Aztecs" and "The Massacre" to the series. Lucarotti famously drew his material from a 1956 radio programme he had done for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the travels of Marco Polo; although the serial itself is fictitious, Lucarotti based it on real events, principally from Marco Polo's first journey to Peking in 1275, but also on an incident in which he escorted a young princess to Persia to meet her elderly betrothed in 1292, and he took the names of the Mongol warlords from Polo's memoir.
As in his later serials, Lucarotti works a number of educational moments into the plot (how condensation forms, the fact that Kublai Khan was Genghis Khan's grandson, the derivation of "checkmate"); although these do fit with the plot and don't feel like information shoehorned in to justify the series' "educational" tag, they do appear less smooth and natural than similar moments in Lucarotti's later scripts. This is, however, a minor complaint in an otherwise-good story, and in his defence he pulls off the difficult trick of giving the listener a real sense of the cultural diversity of Kublai Khan's empire in the period, without making it sound forced. The characters are well-written, with Ping-Cho being quite sympathetic, and the Khan coming across as by turns a shrewd politician and an almost likeable old man (with a pithy turn of phrase, as when he breaks the bad news to Ping-Cho: "your beloved husband-to-be, so anxious to be worthy of your love, drank a potion of quicksilver and sulphur, the elixir of life and eternal youth. And expired"). In other hands, a 7-episode epic would feel too long, but here, even the digressions from the main plot (such as Ping-Cho's recital about the Hashashins) do not bore the listener at all.
The magnificent script is supported by an equally excellent score by Tristram Cary, as well as some creepy sound effects during the "singing sands" sequence. Although, tragically, no surviving footage has been found, it has to be said that the publicity pictures and telesnaps are very beautiful. There are also some powerful performances: Derren Nesbitt's calm, measured interpretation of Tegana is so good that any complaint about the fact that he is a white actor in makeup seems petty. It must also be said that none of the performances make fun of or stereotype East Asians (with the possible exception of Wang-Lo the innkeeper, but he is not in the story for long); even the villains are fascinating characters without a hint of "evil-oriental" about them.
Although it is now only available on audio, "Marco Polo" still comes across as a skilfully-realised, well-performed historical. The story's real strength, however, lies in the characterisation of its protagonists and the tangled politics in which they are involved.
The Doctor and his companions do not so much act as the story's main focus as a means of driving it along. Consequently, compared to "The Aztecs", their characterisation is more uneven: Barbara gets relatively little to do (with her skills as a history teacher effectively wasted), and Ian, although he features rather more, does so in a fairly obvious action-hero way. Susan, although broadly well-characterised, early on develops a 1960s vocabulary which sounds slightly forced (using adjectives such as "crazy" and "fab"- the fact that she describes the latter as a verb makes it plain that neither Ian nor Barbara are English teachers). This is, however, perhaps not out of keeping with Susan's earlier-expressed interest in 1960s pop culture, and her poignant friendship with Ping-Cho is one of the better points of the story.
The Doctor, however, is brilliant, with the script combining with Hartnell's performance to bring us an anarchic, unpredictable Doctor who snipes at Marco Polo throughout the journey (Polo complains in his journal of having to endure his insults, calling him "difficult and bad tempered."), then sleeps through a sandstorm, and ultimately plays backgammon for the highest of stakes (during which Marco Polo visibly suspects him of cheating). In a wonderful bit of characterisation, the Doctor laughs hysterically when he realises that they're trapped in 13th-century Cathay. His fraught relationship with Marco Polo is well portrayed, as when he calls him "you poor, pathetic, stupid savage," and remarks later "you still don't seem to realise that you're speaking to a man of superior intellect" (Polo subsequently retorts, handing him a sword during a bandit attack, "if you're half as aggressive with this as you are with your tongue, Doctor, we can't lose.")
Although the Doctor is well-characterised, then, and although they serve to interpret the strange world of 13th-century Cathay to a modern audience, the regular characters' main role is to highlight the symbolic opposition between Marco Polo and Tegana, and the themes of honour and trust which run through all the various subplots of the serial.
Tegana is easily one of the best villains ever to appear in Doctor Who. He is a Mongol War Lord, whose ostensible intention is to represent his leader, Noghai, to Kublai Khan during peace negotiations, but in fact he is plotting to delay Marco Polo from arriving in Peking before Noghai can get in a position to attack the city, and then to assassinate the Khan. His almost-successful attempts to carry out his mission throughout the story make for one of its most interesting threads.
Tegana's mission, and his dialectical relationship with Marco Polo, are both symbolised in the scene in which Polo and Ian play chess. Both Polo and Tegana speak of how much they enjoy chess, symbolising that both are clever political animals. Tegana, however, also gets in a prophetic allusion to his own intentions, when he remarks that the aim of the game is to be the first to cry "shah mat- the king (or khan) is dead"; he then asks, "Marco, can you save your king?" and Polo innocently replies "I think so, Tegana." Although the importance of Tegana's lines will not be realised for several episodes, it is plain that Tegana is more than a match for Polo.
Whatever Tegana's plans were for delaying Polo before the travellers arrive, he promptly abandons them the moment he learns about the potential of the Doctor's "flying caravan." He resolves instead to kill off his fellow-travellers and seize the Tardis for Noghai (an occurrence which highlights the riskiness of interfering with the past: although the Doctor apparently saves Marco Polo's life by finding condensation inside the Tardis, Polo's life would not have been under threat had the Doctor not been present). His initial attempt goes awry, not through the cunning actions of the time travellers, but through circumstance: he plans to poison all but one of the expedition's water gourds when they enter the Gobi Desert, then, after three days, to walk off into the desert, meet an accomplice and rid away, returning when the poison has done its work. However, he is prevented from leaving by the sandstorm, and so instead resorts to cutting the gourds open, intending that Polo will agree to his suggestion that he ride back to Lop for water. Unfortunately for him, Polo listens to Ian instead, and agrees to press on to a nearby oasis.
This fact also plays upon the suspicion which Tegana appears to hold: that Polo will be more sympathetic to the travellers than to him, because they are Europeans (and, however much he likes Cathay, after 18 years he must be happy to meet people of his own cultural background). He consequently sets out from the very beginning to sow the seeds of suspicion between Marco Polo and the travellers, intensifying his efforts whenever he suspects Polo of warming to the strangers. His strategy is really quite clever, in that it involves accusing the travellers of doing the very things that he is doing himself (as when he suggests that Ian has ridden after Ping-Cho in order to steal the Tardis, which is Tegana's own plan in riding after Ian), and in guessing how they are going to behave and then putting the worst possible complexion on it to Marco Polo (as when he engineers events so that Ian will be caught in a lie while accusing Tegana himself of lying). Later, he plays a similar game with the Khan, suggesting that Polo would ally himself with strangers of "his own kind" against his employer, and cleverly uses Polo's own sense of honour against him, getting him to admit in the Khan's presence that he intends to use the Tardis as a bargaining chip to negotiate with the Khan to allow him to return to Venice. In the end, it takes the combined mental and physical efforts of Polo, the travellers, Ping-Cho and the Khan to bring him down, and then only when his plan has very nearly come to fruition, demonstrating how much shrewder he is than virtually anyone else in the story.
At the climax of the final episode, Tegana commits suicide, not only to avoid a painful death at the hands of the Khan's soldiers, but also to retain his honour by dying at a time and place of his own choosing rather than surrender. Tegana is thus a powerful, complex figure, more than a match of any of the other characters, and a perfect foil for Marco Polo.
Although he may seem the more sympathetic figure to the listener, Marco Polo is every bit as much a political animal as Tegana. Like Tegana, he uses the reputed superstitiousness of the Mongols to keep the travellers out of the Tardis till they reach Lop, then springs the news on them that he intends to give it to Kublai Khan. His initially friendly manner towards the travellers belies the fact that he is treating them very carefully indeed: when he first goes with them to find the Tardis, he orders the Doctor to stay behind, controlling the others by separating them from their leader. Polo's behaviour towards the travellers is thus every bit as manipulative as Tegana's, albeit less homicidal.
Polo's attitude to the travellers, however, betrays a conflict of interest. There is some truth to Tegana's suspicions: Polo clearly sympathises with the travellers' desire to get home, as he himself feels the same way, leading to a situation in which both want the Tardis for exactly the same reason. He also tries to make his theft of the Tardis up to them, offering them safe passage home (although when Ian finally explains to him why this is impossible, Polo finds the explanation so fantastic that he cannot believe it). However, it is his mixture of sympathy for, and suspicion of, the travellers that allows Tegana to drive a wedge between them: because Polo would stop at nothing to go home, and because he is tacitly playing politics in order to do so, Tegana can suggest to him that the travellers are similarly ruthless and determined.
Polo's final change of heart seems to come partly because the Doctor has shown himself willing to wager fantastic sums to regain the Tardis, and will not be consoled when the Khan gives him money in compensation, suggesting that the travellers' assertion that they would be unable to replace the device is true. More to the point, however, it is Polo's sense of honour, and appreciation for those who keep their word: Ian and Ping-Cho back up each other's story that they have heard Tegana plotting against the Khan, and Polo knows Ping-Cho to be someone of integrity. Ian has also shown himself to be honourable- making it plain that he will only oppose Polo inasmuch as it involves getting back the Tardis, and keeping to his word in this regard. Polo also cannot fail but be suspicious that, when the Khan excuses Ping-Cho from standing trial (and backing up Ian's story), Tegana is somehow behind it, indeed, later he is heard loudly praising this decision, suggesting that Tegana is now playing the same divide-and-conquer game with the Khan and Polo that he did earlier with Polo and the travellers.
In the end, Polo says to Tegana, "I underestimated you," and Tegana replies, "you overestimated yourself." Polo may think he is able to judge others fairly and honourably, but fails to recognise that he is blinded by his own concerns. Tegana has by this point neutralised Marco Polo; unlike Tegana, Marco Polo has allowed his personal desires to override his judgment and sense of honour, and very nearly loses everything as a result.
"Marco Polo" is thus an impressive achievement, worth experiencing not only for showing the roots of Lucarotti's interest in unusual historic cultures and realistic portrayals of politics on all levels, but for its fascinating depiction of two men whose personalities and motivations are at once similar and wildly divergent.
Image effects by Fiona Moore