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…
I don’t know what happened, but apparently the Walt Disney Company was interested in adapting Marco Polo into a feature film, and it’s fun to speculate about what a 1960s Disney Doctor Who might have been like: John Dall as Ian, Julie Andrews as Barbara (the sands would have really sung!), Angela Cartwright as Susan, and featuring John Mills as Dr. Who. Instead, we got Dr. Who and the Daleks, which isn’t bad necessarily, but it’s not God’s gift to film, either. Ah well.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why Disney was interested in Marco Polo, because if the opening episode was expansive, The Singing Sands does really feel epic—and that’s just going by the audio (and a handful of photos that were taken during recording). In just a week, we’ve gone from snowy mountain vistas to sweltering deserts, as Marco Polo, accompanied by the time travelers, and a retinue of Mongol soldiers, lead by the devious Tegana, make heir way across the perilous Gobi Desert.
I was going to write that the big plot twist is that Tegana sabotages the water supply, but considering how the previous episode ended, it’s hardly a spoiler to say Tegana is out to get Marco Polo and pals. In fact, the most of the plot of this episode hinges on this singular event, since it nearly cripples the caravan, and forces some difficult decisions about how to get to safety when there’s precious little water for everyone, to say nothing of their horses: do they return to Lop, or do they carry on toward another way station? Tegana’s original plan was to return to Lop, but Marco sides with Ian, and heads toward the other way station to the north. For his part, Tegana seems more or less unconcerned by having to alter his scheme, and Marco agrees that should ride ahead and summon help.
The Doctor spends most of The Singing Sands either pouting that he’s been blocked from the Ship or asleep—William Hartnell was, apparently, on vacation this week—so most of the story is carried by Ian, Barbara, and Susan. Ian is developing a relationship with Marco, while Barbara seems completely recovered from the shock of being abducted from her own time by the Doctor: apparently having it out with him allowed both characters to forgive (if not forget). For her part, Barbara realizes, I think, what an amazing, unrivaled gift she’s been given in being able to travel in the TARDIS, and to witness not only alien worlds, but, much more excitingly, different periods in Earth’s history. For a history teacher, it must be a dream come true.
There are still problems with Susan’s characterization. Lucarotti seems to be trying very hard to juxtapose her with Ping-Cho, and he gives Susan dialogue that a teenager in the 1960s would use, but Susan, the so-called “unearthly child,” just wouldn’t really grasp. Despite this, Susan is excited by the prospect of seeing the moonlit sky, which, strangely, she claims to never have seen before, but it’s not clear whether this is for Ping-Cho’s benefit, who is eager for her to see the desert at night. Susan also remembers the “metal seas of Venus,” and is restless to leave. At he same time, however, she seems melancholy at the prospect at continuing to wander time and space aimlessly with her grandfather.
Ultimately, there’s not a great deal about The Singing Sands that advances the plot very far, but “plot” is almost unnecessary when placed against the vastness of this tale—once again I feel cheated that this story was destroyed by the BBC—part of me wants to email Waris Hussein asking him to check his attic on the off-chance he’s unknowingly had a copy of the film up there this whole time.
With Tegana gone ahead, Marco has the unenviable task of rationing the remaining water. To make matters worse the caravan is getting weak and exhausted, and cannot travel very far without having to stop. The Doctor is particularly affected by the water shortage: in one particularly dramatic moment, he collapses, Susan rushing to his side.
As the others watch dumbfounded, the old man’s features begin to glow and blur, his back arches slightly and—wait, no, sorry. Not yet. Ahem. But Ian and Barbara convince Marco to allow the Doctor to rest in he TARDIS. To be perfectly honest, I can help but wonder if this isn’t just a carefully planned deceit on the Doctor’s part to gain access to his Ship. I’m eager to see how this plays out.
Meanwhile, Tegana has reached the way station, and is enjoying all the water he can drink. Compared to the caravan’s plight in the middle of the brutal Gobi Desert, it seems even more cruel as the warlord gloats at Marco Polo’s predicament. And as he purposefully tips his container of water onto the ground, it seems clear that he has no intention of returning with help at all…
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.)