Marco Polo – A Lost Caravan of Delights

Marco Polo is the earliest serial absent from the BBC archives and I don’t think there is one that I would rather see in what must have been a full sumptuous BBC costume drama.

I am not claiming that every piece of lost 1960’s Doctor Who is a foregone masterpiece.

For instance it is doubtful that the sudden rediscovery of Episode 2 of Galaxy Four would be hailed by UNESCO as a recovered treasure in the televisual memory of the world.

Of course, it is possible this will be proven proved wrong when, in 2014 a can of Arabic dubbed off air fan recordings of Galaxy 4 and The Celestial Toymaker are found in a vault beneath the home of late Libyan leader Colonel Ghaddafi and discovered to be philosophical basis for his 40 years of whackdom.

Barring that, we are left with the junking of Marco Polo as one of the worst calls ever. It was a rum day when they taped over this to make room for an episode of Benny Hill or Dads Army.

For if there is one thing the BBC can do well, it’s a bells and whistles historical set piece. If they ever remake these as full animations they should make this one – and do it in glorious full colour for that is surely what the makers would have done with the technology and the money. It is also what the sweep of the story deserves. Check out the great colour stills in Daniels posts on this story.

There are also some great fan made reconstructions like the Loose Cannon Recon which Daniel highlights on the Time and the ! Facebook page – which give us a taste of what might be.

Thank heavens we have this on audio. And what an audio it is – with a narration by William Russell falling between the linking segments by Marco Polo. One can just visualise them tracing their route through a map and the BBC Audio books delivers such a map, complete with blue box, as part of their audio release.

One of the reasons such a visual story works on audio at all is that there are some sparkling characterisations here lead by Marco (Mark Eden). It is pretty rare in a historical – or in any Doctor Who serial for that matter – that we spend much of it identifying with a protagonist other than the Tardis crew but they manage it here.

Marco variously manages to convey desperation, authority, humanity and a modern sensibility that endears the character to us. He is the visible narrator and audience focus of the story. A place up till now taken by Ian and Barbara.

At times we wonder what he’s done to deserve this rag-tag caravan of squabbling misfits and who can blame him with the Doctor sulking in the TARDIS, Ian beating him at chess, Susan and Ping Cho traipsing around in the desert plus his high maintenance emissaries sticking their knives into the water gourds. And people stealing his keys. Poor Marco is lumbered with ferrying foreign enemies of his patron, reluctant brides and now quarrelsome strangers who popped out of nowhere in the snow. Sometimes it all seems too much. No wonder he just wants to go back to Venice.

Another anchor to this piece is the wonderfully close relationship – today we might almost call it a crush – between Ping Cho and Susan. This is the first time we have seen Susan with another person of her own age and it is a pleasure to see her open up. One day we will end our travels she says to the wide eyed Ping Cho. Somehow you don’t think it’s likely.

In tandem with this we are spellbound as the TARDIS crew settles down to listen to Ping Cho’s performance of the story of Aladdin – complete with music (is this the first and only mention of Pot in the 60’s run of Doctor Who?). Imagine again this scene as part of an animated story in the hand of a skilful artist. It is also the most nuanced exercise of the shows ‘’educational remit’’ to date – reminding us that in an age before books, radio and TV, stories were eagerly awaited and conveyed in the company of people over a meal.

Billy is cracking during this story & it deepens our fascination with the character since his dark and malevolent turn in The Edge of Destruction “What sort of print? Paws, hooves, what?” – he snaps to poor Ian in Episode One. Yet we also see him giggle with delight when Marco later suggests that monks on the court of the Khan will learn to unlock the secrets of the ship. It is the first serial where we begin the trust the Doctor and he doesn’t appear to be up to mischief.

The only off-key note at times is the all too obvious complicity of Tegana. It stretches the imagination that Marco would invest such unwavering trust in the emissary of the enemy of Kublai Khan, especially as he strolls through a series of increasingly implausible excuses and denials to explain being in the wrong place at the right time. The story twists and turns on Marco alternately trusting and suspecting the Doctors party and ignoring the thin tissue of lies around Tegana and by about Episode 5 it begins to make dear Marco look credulous and a dupe.

Still much is mitigated by the silky, sultry villain that Derren Nesbitt gives us. Perhaps not until Roger Delgado’s Master would we be treated to such a sound turn by a villain of the bearded swarthy type. It’s a great voice and it was good to hear him return to Big Finish.

Moments of greatness (and silliness)

  • “Everything’s gone to pot” the Doctor declares as all the lights in the ship go zip and the plumbing fails. Following directly on from the Tardis nearly flying into the formation of the solar system due to a broken spring, Barbara and Ian must be starting to feel like they have been signed onto the galactic equivalent of Aeroflot. Nothing works.
  • Barbara’s delight as she realises she has met a known historical figure. This is the first time we get the idea she is starting to enjoy her travels.
  • Marco Polo’s acceptance of the TARDIS at face value as a fellow traveller accustomed to mystery and all things strange. If Buddhist monks can transport cups through the air, then why not a flying caravan? It’s almost as if the Doctor has met his match here – not from the Daleks but from a canny adversary motivated by a curiosity which matches his own
  • The Doctors spluttering outrage as Marco suggests the Doctor just make another one – they have fine artisans in Venice he says.
  • The ending of the serial is lyrical and a bit special with Marco wondering where the travellers will go next with the console while the console draws back against a starfield.

Aussie connections

  • This serial was sold to more countries than any other serial of the 1960s including to Australia.
  • Fan mythology suggests recordings of Marco Polo may have survived in Australia…and then been burnt. The Tardis index file reports that there ‘’have been rumours that a man from Australia had a collection of 8mm off-air recordings but had lost them due to a fire”.
  • The real Marco Polo may have been the first European to predict the existence of Australia – In about 1300, Marco Polo made reference to the reputed existence of a vast southern continent, although there is no evidence that he had specific knowledge of Australia.
  • In 1852, a ship called the Marco Polo was purchased by the Black Ball Line and converted for passenger service between England and Australia. It has been asserted, “One in every twenty Australians can trace his or her roots to the Marco Polo.”

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.

What do you think? Please join the discussion!