Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Serial 4: Marco Polo

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Susan, Barbara, & Ian

Writtten by: John Lucarotti

Directed by: Waris Hussein

Background & Significance:
"Marco Polo" is something of a legendary Doctor Who story. For starters, it's the chronological "first" story with missing episodes in the entire Doctor Who catalog; not only that, even, but it's the first story that is missing in its entirety. Missing stories, of course, are endlessly elusive in the eyes of the fans. The promise of what exists beyond cheap and blurry screencaps and a cleaned-up-but-not-perfect audio recording of the episode will always have that air of curiosity to it, even if the story doesn't really end up delivering in the end (this is the point when I call out "The Space Pirates").

But Marco Polo is different.

Because all that survives of Marco Polo is its soundtrack and a couple of photographs from director Waris Hussein's personal library, the promise has perhaps never been greater. What we see on the images promises sets that were gorgeous and lush. Something with a fairly big budget and that would capitalize on the always-so-famous BBC period drama showcase. What we hear in the dialogue is rather strong and excellent. What we experience from the story is thrilling, simple, and intricate. As such, "Marco Polo" is the first real historical, and it's a historical epic at that ("Unearthly Child" doesn't quite count, as that's more adventure than historical educational) taps into the promise of early Doctor Who, when the basic conceit of the show was one that alternated between science fiction for one story and then historical for the second, with little to no sci-fi elements beyond the basic premise of "These traveling dudes landed in this time. Isn't that cool?"

Not only that, but this is the first story to air after the initial thirteen episodes, the ones that were Doctor Who's basic trial run and initial pickup. After "The Edge of Destruction", producer Verity Lambert was allowed to continue on with "Marco Polo" and the show as a whole. So that's neat from an external "isn't this cool" standpoint. But from an internal, what-is-happening-in-the-narrative standpoint, the show has gelled completely, with the main characters taking the lessons from the short-but-sweet "Edge of Destruction" and advancing the narrative of them working as a trusting team. No longer do Barbara and Ian question The Doctor at every single turn (only a couple of times, I'd say). No longer does The Doctor act like a murderous git. No. Well. Sort of. That stuff's still there. BUT REGARDLESS. This is when the show is allowed to breathe some more and take its time to get to what it's doing.

And this all adds up to what is a legendary story. Not only that, but what is (perhaps) the greatest tragedy of the erased episodes from the missing BBC archives, because man is this just a total gem.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Right from the beginning, you can tell we’re in for something of a different tale.

As you probably already know (and I guess spoilers if you don’t, but really it’s not even spoilers, no more spoilers than knowing how many pages are in the book you’re about to read) this story is seven parts long. Normally, I would scoff at the prospect of a seven part story. In fact, I’d probably say I have scoffed at “Marco Polo” in the past, waving it off as some seven part story that isn’t worth my time. “Science fiction is where it’s at.” And given how awesome and still bloated “The Daleks” is, it doesn’t inspire much confidence in me that Doctor Who chooses to do another seven parter right out of the gate.

So imagine my surprise when I realized, halfway through this episode that it was still the first episode.

Like Malcolm Hulke much, much later, John Lucarotti really understands how to pace a story well. Initially, anyways. And maybe that’s a case of Lucarotti unloading all he’s got prematurely (it’s not), but the point still stands that while you might think from the initial few scenes that this scene will take a while, the story crushes every single expectation with regards to those concerns in this episode. Oh, and it does that not only by the end of this episode, but halfway through, all those preconceptions about this story moving and progressing slowly are completely gone.

It makes me wonder why they had so much struggle with it later in the Pertwee era.

But here… Here it’s not an issue. And I feel that’s because Lucarotti seems to have a very clear sense of where his story is headed. Within the first six minutes of the episode we’ve already met Marco Polo, and just five minutes later we’ve already met the other main players in the story: Tegana and Ping Cho. Altogether, we get the three main guest players in this story. Not only that! But by the end of the episode we also get a sense of what the main conflict for each of these characters is. Already, we know that Tegana has his sights trained on bringing down Kublai Khan through betraying Marco Polo and our TARDIS crew, that Ping Cho is set to be married despite being only sixteen, and that Marco Polo himself only wishes to be released from service to Khan so he might return to Venice.

It’s strange, but that’s… that’s simple and elegant on a level I find is rare in Doctor Who. Making such specific characters is a welcome change to the sort of thing we’re used to seeing on the show. Normally, everything is about destroying the universe or taking control of some planet or money or something of that ilk. But here, before all that even becomes a factor, when Lucarotti is forced to play in a [relatively] small sandbox, he takes it to a place of incredibly simplistic characters and motivations. Which is… such a good choice, and gives everything such a strong narrative sense.

We’re one episode in and already I know where everyone stands. And that’s not even touching on the TARDIS crew, who are stuck in the middle of all this political intrigue and potential keg. It’s just simple, effective drama, isn’t it? Marco Polo has the TARDIS. And he’s not giving it up because he wants to trade it for his freedom from Kublai Khan. So he has something The Doctor etc. wants and he’s keeping them from getting in it and taking off. Nevermind that the TARDIS has shut down (which is never explained, but I can understand it at least narratively, or rationalize it or whatever; after “The Edge of Destruction” of course The TARDIS would want to take a small break.)

So… yeah. I have a lot to say. Damn. I’ll cut it off here and come back in the next episode and talk more.

Part 2:

This episode is noticeably slower, but damn if it’s not still compelling, not the least of which is
realizing just how much time and work John Lucarotti must have put into this story.

Perhaps that’s not accurate. It’s no secret that Lucarotti himself was very extensive in his knowledge of the Marco Polo time period as he had worked on a Marco Polo section on another programme. So he’s not exactly new to this material. And yet, he utilizes it so well to provide complications and solutions to his story, organically weaving all his knowledge in so that it doesn’t feel preachy or show offy. It… it just feels like this is exactly how the story should be told.

And that’s unique, I think. So often these stories feel like they’re shoehorning in history (“The Time Meddler”) or playing with the conventions of the event (“The Romans”) but Lucarotti’s approach is just… compelling. It really feels like a period drama that’s taking place in the time.

Like I said before, you can almost feel the research coming off the page as Lucarotti conveys the story. Because this part is mostly concerned with traversing the dangerous and unpredictable Gobi desert, Lucarotti pays a ton of attention to the perils of the desert. His use of small details like running out of water or even the realization that “one day without travel is a day of water wasted” just shows you how much he understands the world he’s describing. Marco Polo’s discussion of how the bandits attack a caravan’s water supply is so convincing it could only have come from a firsthand source.

Which… well…

It’s almost like Lucarotti is dangling all this awesome right in front of our faces. Lucarotti makes genius use of Marco Polo’s own diary as a way of conveying information. Knowing that Polo did, in fact, make record of his travels in said diary, Lucarotti is given allowance to pull from a primary source text (which is a wonderful thing if you know research papering) to better make his story convincing. And it… it just works. It’s so masterfully well done that it never feels hamfisted, but it also conveys the length and breadth of time to what’s going on over the course of the story. It feels… almost too effortless. Which is… well… a good thing…

How strange it is that I haven’t even talked about the characters yet. But I only really have need to talk about Susan and The Doctor.

The Doctor is interesting because he’s not actually in this episode. Apparently Hartnell was written as much as possible out of the previous episode so that he could recover from an illness he was undergoing at the time. Similarly, he’s almost entirely removed from this episode, sulking off while he tries to fix the TARDIS or sleeping or collapsing from dehydration (which, by the way, talk about giant stakes on an impossibly small scale: this episode’s main narrative stakes is based almost entirely around a water storage, and yet it is still compelling. Which is awesome). But I like that. It almost feels like that young, brash, childish Doctor we’ve come to see so much in these early Doctor Who stories. And I love that. I love that The Doctor acts like a petulant little child because he can’t have his TARDIS. That really entertains me from a character standpoint.

Also Susan. Who is actually given quite a bit of action here. I love her getting paired off with Ping Cho. It really gives Susan something to do as a character so she’s not stuck somewhere palling around with the grownups. No. Here, she gets into some mischief and trouble. And while that is definitely a companion cliché, I can’t seem to care because it’s something that Susan gets to do that isn’t complaining and whining and moaning and all that. Which is good. And she’s working on trying to dig up dirt on Tegana because Tegana is acting suspiciously and like a dick. It’s… I dunno. It’s just nice to see Susan not wasted. Total relief.

I feel I could go on but… man. I shouldn’t. Tons more to write about. But totally compelling and awesome so far, wouldn’t you agree?

Part 3:

By all rights, this shouldn’t work. Seriously, it shouldn’t.

For a story that promises The Kublai Khan and something big coming, it really does take its time getting to where it eventually needs to go. But we’re still a ways off from there. And the miraculous thing is that it’s still compelling.

We rejoin the crew with a lovely little lesson about condensation and what all that does for things. It’s one of those nice little edutainment things that early Doctor Who is so obsessed with, and yet it doesn’t ever really feel hamfisted or forced. I mean, it does if you know it’s there and you’re looking for it or whatever. But as it stands now it’s just a clever little way of stop gapping the water shortage issue.

That, though, is the first act of this episode. And I love that it very much does have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning focuses on taking care of the water situation. The middle involves Barbara’s investigation of Tegana. The end is all about the search for Barbara in the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes.

Structurally, it’s quite sound. But Lucarotti manages to inject the thing with all sorts of tics and flairs that really make the story sing on top of its own soundness, which is mad useful because the story is in no rush to actually get to anywhere in particular. Nowhere is this more evident than the long detour the story takes to allow Ping Cho to show off her storytelling skills by retelling the legend of Ala-eddin (Aladdin). Not only that, but the story itself takes a few minutes to tell, which… you just can’t get away with that sort of thing nowadays.

The rest of this is strong, although probably the weakest so far. It’s nice to see The Doctor taking a more active role, although how he created a new key for the TARDIS, although quite how he did that is beyond me.

But perhaps the biggest failing in this episode is Tegana.

While throwing Tegana’s objective right out on front street in the first episode is a strong idea I subscribe to, there’s also a distinct lack of accomplishment from him when it comes to the rest of this story. He’s attempted several times to make an attempt on everyone’s life and failed. He tried to poison the water, but failed. He tried to get away back to that one city, but failed. He tried to sabotage the oasis thing, but failed. And at this point it’s starting to seem like he’s incompetent.

Not that he is, but a bad guy trying and failing over and over is not compelling. Bad guys are cooler when they succeed and stuff. Not so much here. Ah well. He will get better in the end.

Part 4:

The thing that strikes me the most about this episode is the sheer… political intrigue of it all.

Take the relationship between Marco Polo and Tegana, which is probably the most interesting relationship in this whole episode. We know that Marco Polo (who, by the way, is very well done by Mark Eden who is also dashing and very good looking) is an emissary for Kublai Khan and he has been unable to leave China (called Cathay in this story; brilliant touch that; it’s the attention to small detail that makes this story sing. It would have been so easy to just call it “China”, but instead Lucarotti treats people like they’re smart and can figure out that this place is called Cathay at this point in time), seemingly in exile of Venice for eighteen years. This, to him, is his last great task for the mighty Khan that he might return home and be happy again.

That alone is compelling, and it gives his character a clear goal and puts him into direct conflict with the TARDIS crew. Wait. What was I saying? Oh right! Tegana!

Tegana, as we know, is a Warlord who is traveling under the guise of brokering a peace between his people (a tribe of Mongols, I believe) and the Khan; what we dramatic ironically know, however, is that Tegana has been attempting to get rid of everyone all along to clear the way so he can get close to the Khan and assassinate him. This, of course, puts him in direct conflict with Marco Polo, who fears that if the Khan dies before releasing him from service that Marco Polo will never be able to get home.

So imagine how compelling it is to watch the TARDIS crew discover (with no proof) that Tegana is really up to no good, convey this to Marco Polo, and then have Tegana convince Marco Polo that this is a conspiracy and that he himself is trustworthy where they are not.

It’s an interesting shift in power, and one that makes it so compelling. While we as the audience know that Tegana is lying to Marco Polo (after denying it when Susan calls him a liar to his face), Derren Nesbitt does such a strong acting job that he… he’s just really convincing and we understand why Marco Polo believes him. And in that moment, Marco Polo shifts to locking down the TARDIS crew and allying himself with Tegana (even though he does not know that Tegana is planning to assassinate Kublai Khan). While it SHOULD feel forced and sloppy and out of character (because god knows how many times have we seen sloppy character work in Classic Who what with people swapping allegiances willy nilly because the story needs it to happen), it doesn’t because Tegana and Marco Polo are so strongly realized in terms of both acting and writing.

These shifts in allegiances and relationships happen hard and fast, changing organically almost from episode to episode. And they make for truly compelling drama. In their mad attempt at escape, The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan are stripped of just about every single right they’ve managed to earn up until this point. Suddenly, they’re now considered Marco Polo’s “captives” and are under his guard until they reach The Khan’s city. To make things even more complicated and intricate, Marco Polo also considers the TARDIS crew “under his protection”, which is fantastic and speaks to Polo’s strong, strong character as he’s appeared so far and how the dynamic between everyone has changed and evolved (and so effortlessly) over just four short episodes.

I’ll be honest: It’s masterful and it’s the biggest strength of this story so far. There’s a real focus on characters in ways I feel we just don’t see in other stories. Sure Tegana is a fairly one-note-joke, but at the same time he’s so well played that he quickly becomes the most compelling character on the entire screen.

It’s a shame, though, that this is exception not rule. And perhaps I’m talking it up a bit much. But the fact remains that this story is compelling simply because it is so tightly focused on our characters. Outside of the four TARDIS crew members, we only have Marco Polo, Tegana, and Ping Cho to interact with. And still I’m not left wanting for more characters. After four episodes of this I should be bored and clawing at the walls and desperate for someone, anyone who isn’t these three.

But the fact that I’m not is a testament to this story’s strength.

The rest of this episode is largely confined to building up tension. It’s the sort of thing you don’t see nowadays simply because the story has to move and keep moving and the escalations happen fairly quickly. That’s not even Doctor Who, but all shows. The only ones that don’t do that flash-in-the-pan method are the really excellent cable ones. Like anything on AMC (dear god Breaking Bad). But it works so well here, and again (I say again because it really is again and rather tired at this point I’m sure but it must be reiterated) it’s a shame that more Classic Who doesn’t take this method into account. The slow burn of letting the tension rise and letting the story build is so fantastic to watch, because we know the tables are going to turn.

Even the end when we realize that the guard Ian was preparing to subdue (and (as they point out in Running Through Corridors) possibly ready and willing to do anything in his power to subdue this guard at that) is already dead and we are left on that phenomenal cliffhanger of “the guard’s dead because Tegana got here first, killed him, and is preparing for that raid we heard of, ergo some major shit is about to go down” that we realize we’re about to get some heavy duty awesome rock ‘em sock ‘em action that we realize the ultimate result of this episode-long tension (and it really has been an entire episode of ratcheting up the tension) is about to come to a head.

Gripping, excellent, excellent stuff.

P.S. There’s a line in this episode where Hartnell voices his disapproval of Susan spending so much time with Ping Cho and how it’s a good thing that Marco Polo has forbid the two girls from hanging out. That alone is fine I guess (The Doctor is Susan’s grandfather after all). But what’s The Doctor’s reasoning? What does The Doctor have to say about Susan’s continued association with Ping Cho?

“It's a pity there was any association at all. That Chinese child makes me nervous.”

Good Lord, Hartnell. You are magnificent.

Part 5:

The beginning of this episode really reminds me of “The Ark in Space”.

One of the reasons “The Ark in Space” seems like such a high octane, action packed thrill ride is because the first two episodes are literally just setup for that which is happening on the Nerva beacon what with the attempted Wirrn takeover. It’s a compelling, intriguing first half, one that keeps your attention with the stuff happening just out of frame. But suddenly, out of NOWHERE it suddenly seems like you’re watching some thrilling action, stuff that’s gun-slinging and fast and furious and insanely compelling and exciting and all that.

Which is only possible because the first two episodes have virtually no action in them at all.

By waiting until the right moment to lay on the action, the action becomes much more visceral and powerful and shocking. We’ve been promised for four episodes that something thrilling is going to happen, that Tegana is going to take out this caravan with the help of a squad of allied bandits. It’s been promised since the end of episode one. And now comes the moment when the bandits attempt to seize the camp and our heroes must defend themselves, lest they be overrun by these mad men with swords.

As such, Lucarotti makes this action sequence much more tense and exciting. Because we haven’t had action at all for the past four episodes, the siege happening in this episode feels much stronger than it actually is. Suddenly, our people have to fight, and fight for their lives. This isn’t about some external conflict with sandstorms and water shortages or even inter-personal relationships and tensions between who we can and cannot trust in this story. This is about the fight for our lives, and it sees Marco Polo, Tegana, Ian, and even The Doctor pick up swords to defend their camp from the incoming bandits.

It’s mad compelling, is what it is. It’s only the first third of the episode at eight minutes long, and yet the tension and anxiety is ratcheted up way way more.

And the solution is Ian’s simple science solution. Genius.

We also see Ping Cho make the active decision to betray Marco Polo’s wishes as she risks everything to return the key to Susan. It’s an interesting choice and one that I find terribly compelling, but I question the voracity of this decision. While Lucarotti has done a fantastic job illustrating the inter-personal politics and dynamics between most of the people (specifically Marco Polo and our TARDIS crew and Marco Polo and Tegana), I feel the Marco Polo/Ping Cho dynamic is decidedly lacking.

This is but a minor quibble, of course. I just want Ping Cho’s decision to risk potentially everything to matter and mean something from the perspective of her and Marco. They certainly had the space. But perhaps that was just a bit too much for the time. Honestly, I’m surprised even this much psychological realism exists as is. Asking for more of the Marco Polo/Ping Cho relationship is just like not getting dessert after a fantastic and filling meal. So it’s not like I’m left wanting for anything.

Phew. Long blog.

And finally the cliffhanger.

Much like the discussion of action earlier in this part, this cliffhanger signifies a turning point in the story. Before we’ve only seen Tegana manipulate events and people, but he’s never really gotten his hands dirty when it comes to his own nefarious schemes (this qualifier is there because he definitely kills some of the bandits while protecting the camp from siege at the beginning of the episode). But suddenly Tegana reveals himself in a physical way that is shocking and stunning. Suddenly he’s grabbing Susan from behind and revealing himself as a force to be reckoned with. Which is shocking. Tegana, a guy who’s been posturing for several episodes is now getting his hands dirty, and suddenly things get a whole lot more serious.

Part 6:

And more serious it does get.

Again, I have to constantly praise Lucarotti’s choices here. What he’s crafted is a broad, sprawling epic that feels so well paced and terribly exceptionally executed, Shakespearean almost. It’s been a slow, methodical burn that’s really paying off nicely, especially now that the end of this episode sees Tegana reveal himself as a truly malevolent force, the one he truly has been over the course of the entire story, and Ian is there to witness it.

But that’s getting ahead of myself.

Perhaps the most compelling scene in this whole episode is the scene between Ian and Marco Polo, when Ian decides to come clean with Marco Polo about just exactly what it is the TARDIS does. And it’s… it’s just compelling. Why? For me, I know it’s compelling because Lucarotti has created such a strong, powerful character in Marco Polo himself. He’s never treated or written as an unintelligent character. He’s smart, brave, and strong, but also incredibly relatable. He’s a fair leader, which… I really believe that. While I do think the TARDIS crew does have an obligation to attempt to escape from the heel of Marco Polo, I also completely understand where Marco Polo is coming from with all this and the way he ends up treating our heroes.

So Ian telling Marco Polo that the TARDIS is a time machine becomes a truly remarkable scene completely based around our questioning of what Marco Polo is going to do with this information.

And the choice for where Marco Polo ends up is… genius. Ian’s pleas do not fall on deaf ears. And Marco Polo himself seems rather convinced by Ian’s story. But instead of trusting him completely, Marco Polo seeks to choose the path of consequences: Why believe Ian’s story when he has proved himself untrustworthy in the past? No matter how noble Ian’s actions, he has proved one thing to Marco Polo and one thing only:

He is not to be trusted.

And so, Marco Polo chooses not to believe him despite the fact that he knows he probably should. Genius. That is incredible, smart writing.

The other major event of this episode is the reveal of the Mighty Kublai Khan, who, it turns out, is not exactly what you would expect. The story so far has proven itself true to takes on realistic and accurate historical settings and what have you, so I’m inclined to believe this interpretation of Kublai Khan as an old, wizened codger who has no patience for people who step out of line. But that makes it such… such a nice subversion of what we would expect from a guy named “Kublai Khan” that… it just works.

Through that, we get some lovely sparring of The Doctor and Kublai Khan, which is just… fantastic. That’s exactly what you want out of this story, isn’t it? A verbal sparring match between a Mongolian Emperor of China and our lovely grandfather The Doctor.

The court itself is… gorgeous, as are the costume designs and all that. I know we haven’t really talked about all these all that much, but that’s because they’re really lost to time and there’s not much to say about them that’s much more than “Isn’t that awesome”? But it’s… It’s just a shame we don’t get to see all this stuff. All these courtyards and caravans and throne rooms and costumes and all that. Crying damn shame, because this is some awesome stuff.

Anyways. Great stuff so far. Great stuff with Ping Cho that helps keep the story moving as we spin our wheels before coasting into the end. Great work with Ian and the guy at the end and the reveal of Tegana. Still consistent stuff even though we’re six parts in and still have one more to go.

Part 7:

And then our wonderful tale comes to an end.

Honestly, if there’s ONE stumbling block in this episode it’s that it takes just a BIT too long for things to happen in the episode. I feel that a majority of the middle portion of this episode is devoted to the Khan talking shop with Tegana and Marco Polo about the politics of what’s gone on over the past several episodes, with Marco Polo giving his account of the TARDIS and her crew and what it is that that actually means or what have you.

But that all takes a back seat to the… completely satisfying final part this is.

For one thing, I love how The Doctor and Kublai Khan spend the first five minutes of this story gambling and playing Backgammon. It’s… lovely and intimate and totally awesome, especially because it’s basically two old men just playing an old people game. I especially love that The Doctor just keeps winning against the Khan and the Khan hustles him out of that last game for the TARDIS in which The Doctor loses everything. Or maybe The Khan doesn’t hustle him, but I like to imagine he does.

And then there’s the endgame.

Much like with Shakespeare or a great play, the tight focus of this story on our principals and three guest players means that we don’t see any of the military movement on the outskirts of Peking. But this really does an excellent job of making it not feel like you’ve lost or missed something. It’s much like Harry Potter, in the sense that you only ever see Harry’s perspective of events and everything else is left on the table for you to surmise or figure out or imagine because we’re only getting this very tight story.

And I like that. It really makes the story stronger because it’s not concerned with the story of China or Kublai Khan, but rather The Doctor and his crew getting back to the TARDIS. And that’s… that’s always a compelling story.

Oh. Did I mention the swordfight?

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this story not existing is that we don’t have any leftover footage of the totally awesome climactic swordfight between Tegana and Marco Polo.

Which is awesome.

Seriously. How does this story get better? By having the ultimate conclusion come down to the two major driving forces within this story? And they end in a sword fight? One that sounds awesome and goes on for a while? That’s just… that’s just good. And I totally totally approve. Especially because it just sounds and looks so cool and serves a real logical conclusion to the end of the entire story. It's always been Tegana vs Marco Polo. and now we get it. In swordfight form. Marco Polo, man… He’s a mother effer.

Of course, the end ends with Marco Polo defeating Tegana and Tegana’s capturement—

No. No wait. Tegana killed himself by stabbing himself in the gut. Nevermind.

It’s the choices like this that makes this story so strong all the way to the end. It would be so easy to see the show take the overly preachy and happy ending, what with Tegana getting carted away and suddenly being incarcerated guy and now he has his comeuppance and The Doctor is free to go and we all laugh into the sunset. But… this story has never exactly gone for the easy choice or the happy puppy alternative. So it only makes sense that Tegana commits suicide by running into a sword.

And then The Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and Susan are all left scrambling into the TARDIS in a moment of Marco Polo hurriedly giving them the key and telling them to “Just go.”

These choices just reinforce all the choices they get exactly right in this story. The Doctor and his crew staying and getting involved in the politics of the time and era is not what this story is about, so it doesn’t make that this story. Which is genius. The TARDIS just runs away as Marco Polo finally realizes that the TARDIS crew is no threat to him and that they were the trustworthy ones when Tegana proved he was not… It’s this quick, subtle character stuff that is just so so good in this story.

Seriously. Sword fight and this story doesn’t exist? Screw that.

Final Thoughts?: I love Doctor Who stories like this.

For one thing, this story really gets drama, conflict, characters... all those basic things lost so often in science fiction in lieu of a cool concept or idea perfect on its first swing. Which is... it's a total shame that that sorta thing just doesn't happen all that often.

Know what this story reminds me of? "The Caves of Androzani".

No seriously. Hear me out. Beyond the fact that "Caves" is fantastically directed, cast, shot, and all that, "Caves" is mad compelling because of the sheer basicness of the story. For the whole entire story The Doctor just wants to leave, but the people won't let him, so the entire story is driven by The Doctor's drive to get back to his TARDIS and off to safety.

The same sort of thing happens here. And I think it's better for it.

For one thing, the focus of this story on being incredibly tight and compelling is... exactly what this story needs. It gives the story focus and tons of range with which to play with these various characters. of which there are only three, which (also) is astounding. But that focus makes the story incredibly small and contained despite the fact that The Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and Susan are in this story for... quite an expanse of time (it's at least a month, but possibly more) and even use the opportunity to trek across China in a caravan (even if it is unwillingly). And yet, you don't notice the length or the scope of it until you're quite a ways into it and there's no real end in sight. But by that point you don't really care.

Honestly, it just makes me sad that there's not more stories like this. It's so... atypical, and yet so completely foundational and fantastic. Lucarotti has a total gift for historicals, and every single other Doctor Who historical ever only wants to be this story because it's... it's just gorgeous and sweeping and broad and only has the briefest of science fiction in it.

The lesson to be learned? You don't need big explosions, violence, action, or even science fiction to make for really excellent and compelling Doctor Who. No. All you need is a strong structure, a focused plan, and three characters and you're in for a hell of a ride. You don't need any of the window dressings because those don't make for compelling drama. No. Compelling drama is just simple. It's basic conflict and characters crashing and bouncing off each other.

And that's why "Marco Polo" is a total triumph as a story and historical, a total masterpiece of the Hartnell era, and a total shame because it's completely and totally missing, when really we can waste our time watching something toshy like "Underworld" when "Marco Polo" is... well... it's one of the best Doctor Who stories ever committed to film, which is mostly due to Lucarotti's extremely literate and clever script and a fantastic execution by the Doctor Who production team.

At least it exists enough for use to experience it. But that's not the same. So so bittersweet.

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Ice Warriors! Caverns! Monsters! And hopefully not-so-much filler! Let's just hope for that, yeah? Next Tuesday Cassandra's stepping in to talk about "The Ice Warriors"!

1 comment:

  1. Please don't take this as a criticism of what you've SAID here - it was a great review - but I feel I need to mention that it was a bit hard to read in some places as some of the sentence structures were a bit back to front. You also use the word 'compelling' FAR too often in this review (even though it certainly sounds as if it was), I was trying not to notice but the word just cropped up again and again and again, sometimes even in the sentence immediately after its last appearance. It was quite distracting. As was your use of the capital 'T' mid-sentence when talking about 'The Doctor'. They're just niggly little grammatical/syntax issues but the did pull me out of what was otherwise an excellent review :)