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?

Doctor Who – Marco Polo. Episode Six – Mighty Kublai Khan


Ian pleads with Tegana. “Let us all go, I appeal to you. What possible difference could it make to you? You hate Marco.” This is another indication that the emphasis in these early stories is very much centered around the TARDIS crew as they seem to care little about what Tegana might do to Marco and Ping-Cho once they leave. This is a hallmark of the early historical stories script-edited by David Whitaker (and is also a feature of his own serial The Crusade).

At times during these early historical stories (especially in Lucarotti’s next script, The Aztecs) the Doctor is a very passive character who is unwilling to get involved in local difficulties. This is possibly not because he shouldn’t, but because he can’t (the famous line in The Aztecs – “you can’t rewrite history, not one line!” – is something we’ll touch upon when we reach that story). Here, it might be more disinterest than a fear that he’ll somehow damage the delicate thread of space-time history.

Ian protects Ping-Cho by telling Marco that he stole the TARDIS key. We then have another scene where Ian pleads with Marco to hand back the TARDIS – and this time Ian tells him the truth (that the TARDIS can fly through time and space). Marco responds that he’s heard of many strange things, including a stone that burns (coal). “In Cathay, we call it the burning stone. And if a stone burns, why not a caravan that flies? Birds fly. I have even seen fish that fly. You are asking me to believe that your caravan can defy the passage of the sun? Move not merely from one place to another, but from today into tomorrow, today into yesterday? No, Ian. That I cannot accept.”

Although he can believe in a burning stone, a flying caravan and even flying fish, it seems that the concept of time-travel is a step too far. Marco then tells Ian that he knows he didn’t take the key and he only said it to shield Ping-Cho. It’s a clever piece of scripting as it demonstrates to Marco that Ian is capable of lying, which means that he can’t believe his tales of time-travel. If he did, then he would have handed the TARDIS key over (although given all he’s done so far, that seems a little improbable).

Ping-Cho, unwilling to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather, runs away – back to the Cheng-Ting Way Station. It’s a slight plot contrivance that of all the people she could meet, it’s Kuiju (the man commissioned by Tegana to steal the TARDIS). You’d have thought that the eyepatch and the monkey would have been strong indications that he was a wrong-‘un, but Ping-Cho, innocent girl that she is, mistakenly believes he’s an honest man and hands over all her money to pay for her passage back home.

That she should be robbed by the man who’s stolen the TARDIS is a bit of a coincidence – especially since it doesn’t really impact the plot. Ian has received Marco’s blessing to search for Ping-Cho and once he finds her and discovers that the TARDIS has been stolen the pair of them set off to find it.

The others finally get to meet the mighty Khan, who certainly receives an impressive buildup –

Silence! Those who dare to come before the sight of the great Kublai Khan, kow-tow. Kow-tow before the War Lord of War Lords. Mighty and fearful in his strength. Kow-tow before the Ruler of Asia, India, Cathay and other territories. Kow-tow before the Master of the World.

The eventual reveal that Kublai Khan (Martin Miller) is a little old man suffering from gout is amusing – but Marco is quick to tell the others that whilst the Khan is not the mightiest War Lord ever, he’s definitely a skilled administrator. And its his organisational skill, rather than his military might, that has seen his Empire grow – so it would be wise not to underestimate him.

His meeting with the Doctor has a nice touch of comedy – with both men suffering numerous aches and pains, plus the Doctor demonstrating his singular lack of respect for authority (a trait we’ll see time and time again over the years). The Khan, rather than expressing annoyance at the Doctor’s testiness, instead embraces him as a brother. Slightly implausible maybe, but it sets us up nicely for their interaction in the next episode.

Ian and Ping-Cho have found Kuiju and the TARDIS, but so has Tegana (who was given leave by Marco to track Ian down). At last it seems that Tegana has the upper hand – he can take the Doctor’s caravan and then dispatch Ian and Ping-Cho. What could possibly go wrong?

Doctor Who – Marco Polo. Episode Five – Rider from Shang-Tu


The murder of the guard causes the four time-travellers to momentarily stop and reflect. It’s fascinating (and slightly disconcerting) that the Doctor asks Ian quite seriously whether he killed him – if Ian said he had it’s probable that the Doctor wouldn’t have been terribly put out. Another interesting character wrinkle is that although the camp seems to be under attack, the Doctor is still keen to escape (clearly the fates of Marco and Ping-Cho are of little interest to him).

Tegana’s appearance puts paid to their plans, so Ian decides to wake Marco and warn him. I’ve previously touched upon how Tegana’s numerous attempts to kill Marco end up being scuppered (sometimes in a slightly contrived way) and this sequence is one of the less convincing ones. Acromat (Philip Voss) and the other Mongols are waiting for Tegana’s signal to attack. After Ian’s warning, Marco asks Tegana to rouse the guard – but why didn’t he tackle Marco in single combat there and then? It’s difficult to believe that Tegana seriously considered the TARDIS crew to be a threat to his ambitions.

Instead, he obeys Marco and the small group organise themselves into a fighting force. Marco gives the Doctor a sword, commenting that “if you’re half as aggressive with this as you are with your tongue, Doctor, we can’t lose.” Although the Doctor is sometimes painted as a pacifist who abhors weapons of any type, that’s not really borne out by the evidence of the series – although it’s still unusual to seem him bear arms quite so keenly. The loss of the episode means that we’ve no way of telling how active he was in the brief skirmish – however, just before the fighting begins he delightfully tells Marco that “we’re not going to get very far with this overgrown bread knife!” which indicates he was keen for a scrap!

Eventually Acromat and the others grow tired of waiting for Tegana’s signal and attack anyway. This presented Tegana with another golden opportunity to kill Marco (as the Mongols were keeping the others busy). Instead, he kills Acromat before he had a chance to reveal his connection to Tegana. Again, it’s another moment that feels a little false – just how many chances does Tegana need?

The arrival of the caravans at the Cheng-Ting Way Station introduces us to Wang-Lo (Gábor Baraker). From the soundtrack and the photographs it sounds like a larger-than-life performance, this is another of those times when I’d love to see the visuals in order to complete the picture. Also lurking about is Kuiju (Tutte Lemkow). Lemkow had a lengthy career (popping up in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark) and an interesting private life (at one time he was married to Mai Zetterling). Lemkow’s Doctor Who career is rather unlucky – he appeared in three different stories (but all his episodes no longer exist). It seems that anything with an appearance by Tutte Lemkow was earmarked for destruction …

When Ping-Cho realises that Susan will never see her home again without the TARDIS, she takes the key from Marco’s room. This is when the never-ending feel of the early seasons works well – back then, unless you had a copy of next week’s Radio Times it wouldn’t always be obvious whether a story was concluding or not. But this one now seems to have run its course, as the Doctor, Ian and Barbara are all in the TARDIS – but somewhat belatedly they realise that Susan isn’t there.

She’s gone back to say goodbye to Ping-Cho, something which the Doctor finds inexplicable. Despite the months they’ve been journeying together, he’s clearly failed to notice the growing friendship between his granddaughter and Ping-Cho. It’s another character moment which highlights that recently the Doctor has been, at best, totally absorbed with repairing the TARDIS and, at worst, totally self-centered. His irritation with Susan sees him utter an oath (“Great Olympus”!) which is a little unusual.

No real surprise that the Doctor’s plan of escape is scuppered again – this time it’s because Tegana has caught Susan …..

Doctor Who – Marco Polo. Episode Four – The Wall of Lies


Barbara is rescued from the clutches of the Mongols after Ian realises that Susan was right – the eyes in the cave did move (behind the wall was a secret room where Barbara was being held). Once again, the Doctor is shown not to posses all the answers – he was dismissive of Susan’s claim, seemingly treating it as nothing more than a hysterical outburst – so it fell to Ian and Marco to put two and two together.

Tegana continues to chip away at Marco’s trust in the Doctor and his friends. “Only a fool defends his enemies. Be warned, Marco. They will set us at each others throats by lies and deceit, and then, when they have divided us, then they will destroy us one by one.”

Barbara insists that she followed Tegana to the cave – something he strongly denies. As Marco tells Ian. “Tegana is a special emissary of Noghai, on his way to talk peace with Kublai Khan. He’s a very important man. You are mysterious travellers from some far off land I know nothing about. Now, if you were in my position, a servant of Kublai Khan, whose word would you take?”

A slight weakness of the story is that since Tegana has been presented as such a powerful presence it slightly diminishes him every time his plans to kill Marco and the others are scuppered. But there’s a sense in this episode that we’re now entering the endgame. I particularly like the way he displays his true feeling for Marco (telling his associate Acromat that Marco should be killed like an old woman in her bed). And the Doctor’s death holds no fear for him, a stake through the heart should deal with the magician.

The relationship between Marco and the others comes to a head when he realises that the Doctor has been working on the TARDIS in secret.

POLO: I’m sorry I doubted your word, Tegana. Give me the key, Doctor.
POLO: You’re an old man and I do not wish to use force.
DOCTOR: That is what you’ll precisely have to do, Polo.
(Tegana wrenches the key from the Doctor)
TEGANA: Did I not say he had another key?
DOCTOR: Put that key in the lock, Polo, and you will destroy the ship. Then where will your precious Khan be, hmmm? You need more than a key to enter my ship. You need knowledge. Knowledge you will never possess.
POLO: Tell me.
DOCTOR: No, understand? No! I’d let you wreck it first!

This results in the Doctor and the others being kept as virtual prisoners. Ian chafes against this and decides that they need to take action. They resolve to capture Marco and force him to hand over the TARDIS key. The Doctor’s statement that “I think by the time I’ve finished with that gentleman, he’ll only be too glad to let us go” is intriguing. Exactly what does the Doctor plan to do to?

Sadly, we never learn what the Doctor’s special brand of persuasion might be, as Ian discovers that the guard outside is dead. With Marco’s encampment under attack they have the perfect cover to escape, but can they really just cut and run?

Doctor Who – Marco Polo. Episode Three – Five Hundred Eyes


With Marco and the others lacking enough water to make the journey to the oasis, it falls to the Doctor to save the day. He notices that moisture has formed on the inside of the TARDIS overnight and saves every last drop. We then have another quick science lesson as the concept is explained to Marco (and the viewers at home).

IAN: Marco, you remember, last night it was cold. Bitterly cold, Marco. The outside of the caravan cooled, but the inside stayed warm, and so moisture formed on the inside. It’s condensation, we just call it that. It’s just a name.
SUSAN: That’s true, Messer Marco. It was running down the walls, and from the ceiling. We, we took it in this, look, we squeezed it in here. You see?

These precious drops of water are enough to aid their journey to the oasis, where they find Tegana. He tells them he was unable to travel back with water as the oasis was surrounded by bandits during the night. As so often in the early stories it’s not the Doctor who exposes the fallacies in his statement (if bandits were there, why didn’t they light a fire since it was a cold night?) but one of the others – in this case Barbara. Her suspicions against Tegana only harden as the episode continues, culminating in her capture when she ventures into the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes.

One noteworthy aspect of these early scenes is that Tristram Cary’s music has an electronic feel (similar to his score for The Daleks). This fits the mood well as Marco and the others face death under the unforgiving sun. Once they are rescued, it changes back to traditional instruments (as it is for the majority of the story). It’s a pity that Marco Polo is the only of his Doctor Who scores not to exist, although we should be grateful that his other music does.

Having reached the Tun-Huang Way Station, Marco mentions the nearby Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, a place once frequented by the Hashashins. Although Ping-Cho has never heard of the cave, she does know a story about Hulagu and the Hashashins and promises to tell it to them later. This is an extraordinary sequence – the story stops for several minutes for a spot of local colour. Like the chat about condensation, it’s probable to view its insertion as another educational box-ticking exercise. But it’s charmingly performed by Zienia Merton, who delivers the lengthy monologue with aplomb. It’s easy to imagine that the air would have turned blue had it been given to William Hartnell!

Gracious maidens, gentle lords, pray attend me while I tell my tale of Alaeddin, the Old Man of the Mountains, who by devious schemes, evil designs and foul murders ruled the land.

No host of arms, no vast array of banners served this wicked lord. They were but few, ruthless, reckless men who obeyed his cruel commands.

Thus did he persuade them. Promising paradise, he gave his followers a potent draught and whilst they slept transported them to a vale where streams of milk and honey, wine and water, flowed.

Here were gardens and flowers of every hue and essence. Here, too Golden pavilions outshone the sun and even the stars of heaven envied the bejewelled interiors strewn with incomparable silks, tapestries, and treasures.

Hand-maidens, dulcet-voiced, soft of face, attended them, and thus bemused did they dwell in this man-made paradise until Alaeddin intent upon some evil deed, proffered again the hashish draught and brought them sleeping to his castle.

“What lord, are we cast out of paradise?” awakening, they cried.

“Not so. Go abroad, seek out my enemies and strike them down. But care not for your lives. Paradise is eternal.”

So terror stalked the land for many years. Then one day, came mighty Hulagu to stand before Alaeddin’s lair for three long years in siege. Thus fell Alaeddin and his men.

Now honest hands reap harvests of life from the soil where death and evil reigned. And those who journey through the vale are heard to say ’tis truly paradise today.

When Barbara notices Tegana leave the room after Ping-Cho’s tale, she follows him as he heads up to the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes. She doesn’t hear Tegana plot Marco’s destruction and the theft of the TARDIS, but finds herself captured by a group of Mongols who hold her in the cave whilst they play dice. In the next episode she tells Ian that they were playing dice to decide which of them would kill her, but it’s no stretch to imagine that they were also keeping her alive so that they could take turns to rape her. Otherwise it would have made more sense to quickly kill her and leave. Barbara becomes the object of male interest several times – in the very next story The Keys of Marinus and also during season two. Sometimes played for comic effect (The Romans) and other times played dead straight (The Crusade).

An intriguing part of the episode revolves around Tegana’s attempts to sow discord between Marco and the TARDIS crew. Why is Tegana doing this? He clearly doesn’t have Marco’s interests at heart, since he plans to kill him very soon, so is it possible that he fears the Doctor’s magic? Or it could be that he simply enjoys stirring up trouble amongst his enemies?

Doctor Who – Marco Polo. Episode Two – The Singing Sands


Ian and Marco enjoy a game of chess. Tegana is a keen student of the game, as he explains –

TEGANA: I find it a fascinating game of strategy of war. Two equally balanced armies deployed upon a field of battle, and each commander determined to be the one who cries shah mat.
IAN: Shah mat? Check mate?
TEGANA: It means the king is dead.

It’s a lovely character beat that illuminates his personality a little more. Indeed, since the level of threat in this episode is fairly low (apart from the Singing Sands) several other characters also benefit from Lucorotti’s dialogue. Susan is one, as she poetically tells Barbara that “one day we’ll know all the mysteries of the skies, and we’ll stop our wandering.” Although it’s rather strange that he also elected to put various 1960’s slang words (“I dig it”, “crazy”) into her mouth since she didn’t adopt this mode of speech in any other story.

The Doctor is absent until the end of the episode – either this was a last minute rewrite to cover a bout of ill-health from Hartnell or it was just decided to give him an easy week – but the rest of the cast are so strong that he’s not really missed.

Susan and Ping-Cho’s adventure, adrift in the Singing Sands, is one of the most intriguing parts of the episode. Just how good did it look? We’ll never know the answer, unless the story ever turns up, but it certainly sounds impressive.

In terms of creating dramatic tension it’s a bit of a damp squib though – Barbara is hysterical with the thought that the girls are out in the desert unprotected, but then they turn up unharmed shortly afterwards.

Last time Tegana had a very decent scheme – poison the water gourds and then return to Lop. But for some unknown reason he’s changed his mind and elects to slash all but one of the water gourds and wait for the others to die from lack of water. Was this change of plan down to the misadventures in the Singing Sands? Afterwards, Marco tightened security and that might explain why Tegana decided he wasn’t able to leave the camp. Although it’s difficult to believe that he couldn’t have snuck away if he really wanted to.

With only a small amount of water left, they have to strictly ration it as they make their way to the nearest oasis. Will they get there in time? Mmm, I think it’s possible they just might.

Doctor Who – Marco Polo. Episode One – The Roof of the World


With Marco Polo we’ve reached the first of the missing stories, although back in 2013 it seemed very possible that it had been recovered and we’d be enjoying it on DVD within a matter of months. The MEW rumour had been bouncing around various Doctor Who forums for a while (basically stating that three stories – Marco Polo, Enemy of the World & Web of Fear had been found). And when all of Enemy and most of Web did resurface shortly afterwards you could have laid a guinea to a gooseberry that Marco wouldn’t be far behind them.

Four and a bit years later there’s still no sign of it, so it seems that this rumour was only 66% right (although there are still some who cling to the belief that Marco Polo is out there somewhere). I’ve love to think that it was and that some day I’d be able to watch it on DVD (no download for me, thank you!) but if it isn’t, and no other missing episodes are ever found, then we should really just count our blessings.

All ninety seven missing episodes exist as good quality audio recordings (which have been further improved by the work of Mark Ayres during the last decade or so). We may sometimes take the audios for granted, and grumble about how annoying it is that we can’t see the pictures, but it’s worth taking a moment to stop and consider how some other popular series of the time have fared.

There’s reputed to be one poor quality audio of an Avengers episode existing in private hands, some muffled audios of Public Eye exist (several found their way onto the early DVD releases) whilst a handful of audios from Out of the Unknown were made (and are included on the BFI’s DVD release. Not bought it yet? You really should, it’s an excellent package! If you need further convincing I’ve written about it at length here).

These fairly slim pickings demonstrate just how fortunate Doctor Who is. This is particularly noteworthy when it comes to Marco Polo. The show had only been running for three months, so it’s a little surprising (but very welcome) that there were people who even this early on were dedicated enough to record every episode.

Although The Roof of the World is generally held to be the point where the Doctor starts to act more like the Doctor we come to know, he’s still remarkably bad-tempered at the start. This may be because he’s concerned for their safety (the TARDIS has broken down in the Alps and with no heat their prospect of survival looks slim) but he’s still incredibly dismissive when Ian offers to look for fuel. “Oh well, I wish you luck.”

The telesnaps offer us an insight into how these early scenes look. It’s no surprise that the Roof of the World looks rather stagey and there also appears to be a wrinkled backdrop behind the time-travellers (always a hazzard in these early stories – see The Aztecs for another example). The subtle wind effect helps to sell the illusion of cold though.

Our heroes run into the warlord Tegana (Derren Nesbitt). From his first words his character is made clear. “Hear me, Mongols. In these parts live evil spirits, who take our likeness to deceive us and then lead us to our deaths. Let us therefore destroy these evil spirits before they destroy us.” Whilst we can’t see him, it seems clear that Nesbitt relishes the dialogue he’s been given and he’s wonderfully entertaining throughout the story.

Their execution is stopped by Marco Polo (Mark Eden). If Tegana is presented as superstitious and menacing then Marco appears to be enlightened and affable. But both have their own agendas and Marco, whilst he’s friendly, quickly demonstrates that he’s equally as ruthless as Tegana. He appropriates the TARDIS and tells the Doctor that he wishes to present it to Kublai Khan as a gift – he then hopes that the Khan will then grant him leave to travel home to Venice.

This is the plot device that ensures that the Doctor remains – otherwise he would have left at the first available opportunity. Variations to make the TARDIS inaccessible are used throughout the first season (the missing fluid link in The Daleks, a forcefield in The Keys of Marinus, etc) as the Doctor is not yet written as a character who’ll stay and help people simply because it’s the right thing to do.

There are a few examples of Doctor Who‘s early educational remit. Early on, Susan finds a giant footprint – although Ian ponders that it may be just a normal sized print which looks bigger because the snow around it has melted. And later on, the science teacher in him can’t help but give Marco a quick lesson.

POLO: I’m afraid the liquid is not too warm, but the cold here is so intense, it even robs a flame of its heat.
IAN: The cold can’t affect the heat of the flame, sir. The liquid boils at a lower temperature, because there’s so little air up here.
POLO: You mean the air is responsible?
IAN: Well, the lack of it. Just as the lack of it is responsible for the Doctor’s mountain sickness.

Susan makes friends with Ping-Cho (Zienia Merton). Having someone in the cast around Susan’s age allows her to have some decent character moments and she opens up to Ping-Cho in a way we haven’t seen before.