Doctor Who – Marco Polo. Episode Seven – Assassin at Peking


We left the previous episode with Tegana seemingly triumphant. But, alas, it’s “curses, foiled again” as the Khan’s emissary, Ling-Tau, turns up just as his moment of victory beckons. Considering that the TARDIS had been taken off the main road it’s never explained what Ling-Tau and his men are doing there – we just have to accept that Tegana is a singularly unlucky War Lord.

The Doctor and the Khan have been playing backgammon –

KHAN: What do we owe?
DOCTOR: Er, thirty-five elephants with ceremonial bridles, trappings, brocades and pavilions. Four thousand white stallions, and twenty-five tigers.
KHAN: That’s not too bad, so far.
DOCTOR: And the sacred tooth of Buddha which Polo brought over from India.
KHAN: Oh, that? What else? What more?
DOCTOR: I’m very much afraid all the commerce from Burma for one year, sire.

This is lovely. Hartnell’s not really had the chance to play many comic scenes up to this point, so there’s the sense (even though we can’t see him) that he’s relishing this opportunity. There’s no doubt that later comic stories (like The Romans, The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters) really plays to his strengths. The Khan’s desire to prevent his wife (played by Clare Davenport) from learning that he’s been gambling is another nice touch. The Empress, although she has very few lines, certainly seems to be an imposing presence.

The Doctor’s skill at backgammon is another new fact we learn about him (he must be good, since it seems the Khan rarely loses). When the Doctor suggests one more game – with the prize being the TARDIS, the Khan reluctantly agrees. It seems clear that, given all he’s already won, it’s a foregone conclusion. Alas, the Doctor may be good, but he’s not unbeatable, and the Khan wins the game – meaning that the TARDIS seems lost forever.

It’s around now that Marco suddenly has a change of heart and decides that it was wrong of him to take the TARDIS. Since it’s already the Khan’s property it’s a pity he couldn’t have had this crisis of confidence beforehand!

Another plot-thread neatly tied up relates to Ping-Cho’s marriage. She’s informed by the Khan that “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.” Another delightful comic moment, delivered deadpan by Martin Miller.

This just leaves Tegana to be dealt with. The Doctor realises, rather belatedly, that his meeting with the Khan is for one reason only. “Kill the leader, and where are you? What happens? The whole army dissipates itself into chaos and utter confusion. It’s happened throughout your history time and time again!” If Tegana kills the Khan, then Noghai seems certain to succeed.

You do have to suspend disbelief a little that the Khan would meet Tegana without armed guards (only the poor Vizier seems to have been present – he sacrifices his life to prevent Tegana’s first attack). The lack of visuals means that it’s impossible to judge how effective the swordfight between Tegana and Marco was. But it was choreographed by Derek Ware, a key stunt-arranger during Doctor Who‘s first decade, so that’s a sign of quality. I’d also be fascinated to know just how graphic the moment was when the defeated Tegana committed suicide by throwing himself on a sword. Maybe one day the story will come back and we’ll find out ….

After all his intransigence during the story, it’s Marco who hands the key of the TARDIS back. The Khan, witnessing the departure of the ship, doesn’t seem particularly put-out that Marco’s just given away his flying caravan – although we never discover exactly what Marco’s fate will be. It could be that this action means he’ll never see his home again – but he obviously decided that the needs of the Doctor and his friends were more important than his own goals. Mark Eden was a solid presence throughout all the seven episodes. Although Marco was, at times, fairly unlikeable, Eden still managed to give him a sense of honour and nobility. And this final sacrifice speaks volumes about his character.

Even with just the soundtrack and a generous selection of photographs, this is a highly entertaining story. Yes, the fact that Tegana’s plans to kill Marco and steal the TARDIS are constantly scuppered do get a little annoying, but the scope of the journey allows all the cast plenty of time for character development. With just seven main characters (the four regulars, plus Marco, Tegana and Ping-Cho) and seven episodes to play with, there’s ample time to breathe and reflect.

Will the next story be of a similar standard, I wonder?

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