With the Ship out of danger and the air finally cleared, the Doctor tells Barbara that they’ve arrived somewhere quite cold. Susan starts a snowball fight with Barbara, and they run off for a little bit of fun. As the Doctor and Ian turn to head out, too, Susan calls out. On the scanner, she and Barbara have discovered an enormous footprint in the show. It must have been made by a giant…
I’ve said before how difficult it is not to approach early Doctor Who without bringing along some baggage, but Marco Polo is an exception (The Reign of Terror is another): despite being 47 years old, it’s completely new and fresh to me—ironically because it no longer exists on film. I can honestly say that I have no real idea what to expect going into this serial, other than it’s consistently cited by cast, crew, and audience members from the period as one of the most epic stories from this era, which makes its loss even more irksome.
An Unearthly Child not withstanding, The Roof of the World is the first of a sadly not-so-long tradition of the time travelers arriving in historical settings—thirteenth century China, in this instance—and becoming involved in the intrigue of events themselves, rather than relying in some kind of sci-fi plot device, as in later “pseudo-historical” stories. Historical stories, of course, were part of the show’s original remit to educate as well as entertain. More importantly, though, this story represents something of a fresh start for the time travelers, especially the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara, who have been (unsustainably, it’s important to add, if understandably) at odds with one another since the schoolteachers initially came aboard the TARDIS, and which came to a head during the previous serial.
The story itself is relatively straightforward. The Ship has materialized on a snowy mountain, and Barbara and Ian are cautiously optimistic that they’ve returned to Earth in their own time, perhaps arriving in the Alps or Andes or even the Himalayas—the so-called roof of the world. At once, however, the schoolteachers seem more at-ease with their surroundings, perhaps because of the hope they’ve arrived back home, or perhaps because a mountain range, while still a far cry from the hustle and bustle of London in the early sixties, is at least something they can identify with far more easily than the bleak, alieness of Skaro, or even ice age Britain. It has, at least, a hint of familiarity.
Of course, we never really experience the “quite” moments of life in the TARDIS, and this is no exception, as the Doctor announces that all the lights, water, and heating in the Ship have failed—or as the Doctor puts it, irritably: “We’re always in trouble! Isn’t it extraordinary? It follows us everywhere!” Taking the TARDIS (and, therefore, any means of escaping any danger the time travelers encounter) out of the picture is an effective plot device that scriptwriter John Lucarotti will reuse in The Aztecs.
It soon becomes clear that the Doctor and his companions have arrived on the Silk Road in thirteenth century Central Asia. The Mongol warrior, Tegana, believes the time travelers are, in fact, evil mountain spirits who have taken human form, and orders his soldiers to kill them. Fortunately, Marco Polo intervenes immediately, and offers the travelers shelter, but Tegana remains suspicious, voicing his concerns to Marco later on. Ian claims the TARDIS flies through the air. This intrigues Marco who announces that he intends to present it to the might Kublai Khan in exchange for being allowed to return to his home in Italy, much to the Doctor’s consternation.
The Doctor, while still cantankerous and irritable, has softened considerably, and he’s immediately far more likable. Indeed, his interactions with Ping-Cho reveal a certain gentleness that, so far, has been reserved for Susan only. Furthermore, the Doctor now trusts and accepts Ian and especially Barbara, who is able to assuage him somewhat when Marco blocks him from entering the TARDIS, which, again, is something only Susan could have done previously. This is the Doctor as we expect him: not without flaws, but finally revealing a kindness and compassion that will continue for the rest of the classic series.
The Roof of the World is an excellent beginning to what is clearly a highly ambitious story, and in stark contrast to The Daleks (which halfheartedly tries to create a sense of adventure and expansiveness) it truly feels epic. The final scene leaves us wanting more, as Tegana meets with a shady figure who gives him a supply of poison, which he intends to use to kill the Marco Polo and his retinue, including the time travelers, as they set out to cross the Gobi Desert. And once they’re out of the way, Tegana intends to use the TARDIS to bring Kublai Khan to his knees…
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.)