Welcome to the fourth instalment of Who Review, my ongoing quest to watch and review all available episodes of SF’s longest running television series, Doctor Who. This week, we look at the first of many “lost” episodes of Doctor Who, discuss briefly what happened to these episodes, and review an abridged version of the Doctor’s fourth storyline, Marco Polo.
For a complete listing of the previous Who Review posts please click here – Who Review Archive
Marco Polo aka A Journey to Cathay (Originally 7 episodes)
22 February – 4 April 1964
SOME BACKGROUND ON THE 106 LOST EPISODES OF DOCTOR WHO
During the 1960’s and 70’s, the BBC chose to destroy, erase or reuse the videos containing all of the first 253 Doctor Who episodes. This was a common practice at the time and a great many BBC productions were lost in this manner. The first six years of Doctor Who broadcasts suffered due to this practice.
Over the years, however, efforts have been made to retrieve these missing episodes. Many have been recovered from overseas broadcasters, including Australia’s own ABC. Scenes from missing episodes were even recovered from the Australian Censorship archives, as these scenes were edited out of broadcast episodes and stored in archives. As recently as December, 2011 it was announced that two more episodes had been found. Overall, there are 27 incomplete Doctor Who serials, with 106 of 253 episodes missing.
What’s amazing is that audio recordings of all the missing episodes have been recovered, mainly from fans who recorded the episodes by holding up cassette recorders to their television sets. I applaud those fans, not only for their dedication to the series but because without them we may not have even these remaining fragments.
Unfortunately, Marco Polo is one of only three Doctor Who storylines for which there is absolutely no known surviving footage. All that remains of this 7-part story is an audio recording and production stills. A 30-minute condensed version of the audio track, illustrated by production photos, appears as part of the box set The Beginning. My review is based on that presentation.
Marco Polo is the first major historical Doctor Who episode. In the early days of the series, these episodes were common. They focused on a specific period in human history (season 1 includes episodes on the French Revolution and the Aztecs) and utilised science fiction elements sparingly, if at all. As a children’s series, Doctor Who contained an educational focus in these early days and the historical episodes were a key part of that focus.
With the TARDIS badly damaged and in need of repair, the Doctor and his companions arrive in the Himalayan Mountains of Cathay in the year 1289. There, they are found by Marco Polo, the famed Venetian merchant traveller and associate of Emperor Kublai Khan who the Khan has denied the right to return to his home in Venice. Polo and his caravan are travelling the famed Silk Road to Cathay. Polo claims the TARDIS as his own, hoping to trade it with the Khan for his own freedom.
The TARDIS crew becomes involved in the machinations of the Mongol Warlord Tegana, who plans to assassinate the elderly Khan in Peking and seize control of Cathay. We are first introduced to Tegana as he journeys with Polo and the caravan. He tries to convince Polo to kill the Doctor and his Companions, believing them to the evil spirits in human form, but Polo refuses. Later, as the caravan crosses the dangerous Gobi Desert on the way to Peking, he attempts to kill all in the caravan by sabotaging their water supply, then organises a band of raiders to attack on the travellers.
A quick online search reveals that, unlike Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, Tegana isn’t an historical figure, or at least not as depicted in this storyline. Clearly he was written in to the plot merely to serve as an antagonist and allow for some part of the historical story of Polo to be revealed. Despite his simple motivations, he’s an entertaining villain, always scheming and concocting devious new plans.
Arriving at the stately court of Kublai Khan, the TARDIS crew manage to convince Polo of Tegana’s duplicity. Tegana attempts his assassination but fails, accidentally killing the Khan’s Vizier instead. Polo battles Tegana in a sword fight and manages to disarm him. Defeated, Tegana impales himself on a guard’s sword rather than face execution. Having gained the trust of the Emperor and the respect of Polo, the Doctor and his companions are allowed to depart.
The court of Kublai Khan is beautifully realised, the most lavish production design in the series to date. Designer Barry Newberry certainly seems to have outdone himself for this storyline. It’s unfortunate that all we have left is a series of photos for these scenes as I would love to have seen the Court in all its glory.
Obviously, it’s impossible to fully judge Marco Polo based on a 30-minute soundtrack illustrated by photos. The original tale was 7 episodes long and I have no doubt that many of the details are missing from the shortened version. Having read online synopses of the missing episodes, there is clearly a richer and more complex story than what is presented. What remains seems like it might have made for a very entertaining storyline, although there are numerous historical inaccuracies presented even in 30-minute condensed presentation.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult from the fragments we have to know just how effective and resourceful the Doctor is. There are some key moments, especially in his unravelling of Tegana’s plans, but without the full episode, it’s hard to assess the depiction of the Doctor in this storyline.
Much like the Doctor, judging the characterisation and resourcefulness of Ian, Barbara and Susan is problematic. From what I’ve seen and read it appears that Ian was a strong focal point of the story.
Tegana is one of those classic villains whose insatiable quest for power leads him to do truly despicable things. What’s more, he’s resourceful and adaptive, hatching several plans to kill Marco Polo, the Doctor and Kublai Khan, often using his environment and the resources at hand to aid him. There’s even a certain twisted nobility to his death that adds weight to the character.
It’s not really fair to judge Marco Polo on an abridged version of the storyline, but I’ll give it my best shot. I can’t even begin to imagine what my rating would be for the whole 7-episode storyline. The 30-minute presentation made for a nice extra feature on the Daleks DVD, and I’m hoping we’ll see similar treatment given to the other missing storylines.