The time travelers devise an escape strategy: they’re determined to capture Marco himself, take the key, and leave. Ian uses a broken plate to cut through their tent, and once outside, sneaks up behind the guard, intending to disable him. To his horror, the guard slumps over, dead. He’s been stabbed through the heart…
If there’s one reason to regret that this serial was wiped from the BBC’s archives, it’s not because of the epic nature of the story, it’s not because of the beautiful costumes, it’s not because of the remarkable sets, it’s not because of the wonderfully comic touches that William Hartnell adds to his performance, and it’s not because of what I’m certain was frankly brilliant direction by Waris Hussein. No, the chief reason to regret this serial—and specifically this episode—is gone is because the world will never again see Ian Chesterton pretending to be drunk. Oh yes!
I have to say that I’ve been somewhat confused by Marco Polo’s characterization in this serial. I really despised him in The Wall of Lies, for example, but he’s calmer and more reasonable here. My first reaction was to pin this down to the same kind of shaky characterization that’s plagued the series regulars, but then I realized that writer John Lucarotti has actually done something remarkable here, which is to make Marco very real and very human, just like any of us. Marco takes the TARDIS, because he just wants to go home. He doesn’t want to see (or believe) Tegana’s duplicity. He becomes furious with the time travelers, and then he gets over it. His flaws are what make him a believable character.
Strangely, though, it’s difficult to understand why Marco believes the TARDIS can fly. After all, he hasn’t seen it actually flying through the air, nor did he witness its materialization. On the other hand, there’s not an easy explanation as to how the Ship came to be on the mountainside way back in The Roof of the World, and Marco does say that he’s witnessed Buddhist monks move objects through the air with the power of their minds.
(It’s said that Buddhist practitioners who have achieved a very high level of attainment can manifest certain supernormal or “magical” powers (siddhis) that include levitation, clairvoyance, the ability to be in two places at once, and others. It’s an intriguing idea, but as a Buddhist myself, I’m not sure I believe these so-called magical abilities are real—but I’m not willing to say they don’t, either. I like to keep an open mind.)
Marco also allows Susan and Ping-Cho bunk together again, and Susan provides more little details of her home, which she tells Ping-Cho “is as far away as the night star,” and not accessible from Venice. Interestingly, all our early details of
Gallifrey where Susan and the Doctor come from are provided by Susan herself, but these are just fragments. Susan misses her home deeply, that much is clear, and without the TARDIS—which Marco intends to give to Kublai Khan in exchange for his own freedom—she may never see home again. It’s a sentiment that Ping-Cho understands well, so she pilfers the TARDIS key from Marco’s journal and returns it to Susan, asking her to promise to say goodbye before they leave.
It’s not fair to say that Susan shouldn’t have gone to see Ping-Cho, because they really have become like sisters, and their bond is clearly very special. The Doctor, Barbara, and Ian make their way into the Ship and are preparing to depart when Ian realizes Susan isn’t aboard yet. Ian goes out to search for her, but she’s already on her way back, having said goodbye to Ping-Cho. She’s nearly to the Ship when Tegana appears, grabbing her—“Grandfather!” she screams…
Rider From Shang-Tu is arguably the best episode of this serial so far, and the moments leading up to the cliffhanger are genuinely suspenseful. Will they make it to the TARDIS? Will they get away from thirteenth century China? Of course they don’t, not right away—there are two more episodes to go, but that knowledge doesn’t dampen the very real sense of incertitude about what’s going to happen next. Furthermore, Tristram Cary’s incidental score is delicate, but powerful, with Asian cues that don’t fall into the trap of being stereotypical or over-the-top. It’s an almost, if not completely flawless episode.
Don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook, please!
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.)