It's Doctor Who Sunday...
Having now proven themselves with their 13 episode run, Doctor Who was rewarded with a slightly bigger budget. More importantly, it was armed with a commitment that the show was working and would stick around. The stories that carried on from The Edge of Destruction focussed far less on characters, and the traditional classic Doctor Who stories began to surface. Less bothered about creating character arcs or Doctor mythology, and far more concerned with creating ripping yarns, Marco Polo is the first story where several important things happen.
Firstly, it's the first 'history' story. While 100,000 BC could be counted as an important historical moment (playing around with the invention of fire), Marco Polo feels far more like a reconstructed history lesson. Writer John Lucarotti manages to crow-bar in the mention of specific dates and educational asides. Barbara is an extremely useful tool for this, who seems to have a PhD in Earth history and will happily rattle off a bunch of dates and facts to Susan without issue. Marco Polo feels closer to what the programme was originally commissioned to do, staying away from bug-eyed monsters and providing an educational and entertaining opportunity for young audiences.
Once again Marco Polo is steeped in a violence that makes it difficult to believe that children would happily go along for the ride. While The Edge of Destruction saw 16-year-old Susan threaten her friends with a pair of scissors (a decision producer Verity Lambert says she later regretted), Marco Polo's seven-part story features among other things honourable suicide, arranged marriage and plenty of murder.
It's also the first story where the Doctor moves to the background. Part 3, The Singing Sands, features only one line of dialogue from the Doctor. The following story The Keys of Marinus, has him entirely absent for two episodes. Bizarrely, you barely miss him in either serial. The story carries on in the hands of Ian and Barbara. Ian is cut out to be the 'typical action hero' but is so endearingly British it's hard to see him as anything less than your daggy dad who wants to join your playtime. In Marco Polo, Ian is lead investigator, Barbara his companion, and Susan proves to be at her screaming damsel-in-distress-no-character-depth best. The Doctor seems like a simple passenger along for the ride.
Lucarotti solves this potential hero dislocation issue (a lot of it having to do with the fact that Hartnell was incredibly difficult to get along with, constantly buggered up his lines and was generally not having a good time), by putting the Doctor in a critical position near the climax of the story. Instead of wielding a sword or jumping to heroic aid, the Doctor manages to persuade the potentially murderous Kublai Kahn through a game of backgammon. This screams of later developments for the fourth and fifth Doctor - it is the first real time we've ever seen him have a playful or carefree side. Worried? Don't worry, he has a plan...a game of backgammon. Classic Doctor.
Have I mentioned these episodes don't exist? Marco Polo is the first serial that's managed to lose all of its episodes. The audio and several pictures remain, so you can watch the entirety of Marco Polo via a very good fan reconstruction on YouTube. The full version of Marco Polo almost certainly exist somewhere. Marco Polo was incredibly successful. It would have featured some of the first season's most luscious sets and had ambitious scope. When Doctor Who was under scrutiny for a possible film, it was Marco Polo that producers first went to as a potential story. (They would eventually go to, of course, the Daleks.) Still, Marco Polo remains one of the most internationally distributed stories of the early Doctor Who era. It's almost certain that the tapes exist in someone's basement. Perhaps they'll be unearthed one day.
Apart from all of this, Marco Polo is the least successful story of the series so far. The characters and setting are intriguing, but the seven parter just doesn't feel worthy of its length. The majority of the time is spent with our heroes trying to convince Marco to give them their TARDIS back, even though they remain friends with Marco throughout. Marco's camp is under threat from a potential Judas: Tegana, an unconvincing and undeveloped villain.
Nevertheless, Marco Polo remains an important story for Whovians. However, if you're a casual viewer, I'd advise skipping it.
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