Ian and Ping-Cho corner Kuiji whom Tegana paid to take the TARDIS to Karakorum rather than to the Khan’s summer palace in Shang-Tu. They take back Ping-Cho’s money, and when pressed by Ian, Kuiji admits that Tegana paid him to ensure the TARDIS is sent somewhere else. Then without warning, Tegana arrives, brandishing his sword, and moving toward Ian and Ping-Cho…
In 1323, the year before his death, (the real) Marco Polo was challenged as to the veracity of his memoirs, to which he replied, “Friends, I have not written down the half of those things that I saw.” You can hardly blame him: flying fish are one thing, but a flying caravan that vanishes into thin air? Well, that’s probably pushing it, even by fourteenth century standards.
Spoilers!—Tegana is the assassin! Who didn’t see that one coming (apart from Marco)? He’s openly contemptuous by this point toward Marco, whom he believes has “overestimated” his own importance. Tegana is fiercely loyal to Nogai Khan whose army is advancing on Peking to seize control once Tegana has assassinated Kublai Khan. We can only imagine how director Waris Hussein realized the final confrontation between Marco and Tegana—his brilliant nouvelle vague-like direction of the fight between Kal and Za comes to mind immediately—but the moment when the warlord takes his own life in order to avoid being imprisoned and executed by Kublai Khan is shocking, horrible, and genuinely unexpected. I really didn’t see that one coming.
It’s Kublai Khan, of course, who is underestimated by everyone (except, perhaps, the Doctor), despite being known as “the greatest administrator” in the world. The Khan is keenly observant, and it’s doubtful whether even the smallest detail slips past his old eyes. He appreciates honesty and wisdom in the men and women in his court. When Ping-Cho’s elderly fiancé dies unexpectedly, her straightforward answer to the empress—that she mourns an old man’s death, but cannot mourn the loss of a love she never had—impresses the Khan, who perhaps sees a better husband for Ping-Cho in his messenger, Ling-Tau.
Furthermore, the Khan agrees with Tegana’s claim that he should be loyal to his “own kind,” but not in the way Tegana implies. Kublai Khan is indeed loyal to his own people: Marco Polo, Ping-Cho, and even the Doctor whom he has only recently met, (but with whom he feels a certain kindred-ness). Those are the Khan’s “own people” in the truest sense. If only our leaders today shared the Khan’s sense of devotion and loyalty to his subjects.
Some, but not all, of the overarching themes of home and homecoming are finally resolved, too. Ping-Cho decides to remain in Peking (perhaps with Ling-Tau, as is suggested), the TARDIS is returned to the time travelers, and despite everything, Kublai Khan indicates that Marco Polo may return to Venice, which he will do in another three years, For Susan, however, her desire to return home is not resolved, and it will recur from time to time until The Dalek Invasion of Earth. (Oops—I’m not supposed to know that. Baggage!)
At the last moment, Marco quickly returns the key to the Doctor. Rushed goodbyes, and then—the we hear the sound of the TARDIS’ great time engines for the first time in what feels like an eternity, and the police box fades away as Marco and the Khan look on. Kublai Khan isn’t angry, however, and perhaps with a renewed since of hope, Marco wonders where the time travelers are now, in the past or the future…
All told, Assassin at Peking is a fitting dénouement to this incredible serial, and Marco Polo is a masterpiece of early Doctor Who—without trying to sound like a broken record, we are all truly poorer as Doctor Who fans and enthusiasts that it’s (currently?) missing, at least on film. I think this is the kind of Doctor Who that can’t be told today, not in the same way, and certainly not with Matt Smith or David Tennant as the Doctor. I’m not even certain this story could be told with Patrick Troughton, and frankly, I wouldn’t want anyone to try.
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Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)