Posts Tagged ‘Season 1’

I love Doctor Who. I know this probably goes without saying – anyone who knows me well could certainly tell you as much – but I still feel the need to reiterate it every once in a while. It occurs to me that I’ve spent too much time recently grousing about the last couple of seasons of the TV show and not enough writing about all the things which are still great about Doctor Who, about the extraordinarily rich and deep heritage the programme possesses, about exactly why this is the first fantasy TV show to be on the air fifty years after it first appeared.

Lots of people are marking this special year in different ways, and I’m afraid I can’t think of anything distinctively original to add to the party. Instead, I’m just going to be looking at episodes from across the run of the series (which, I suppose, is at least novel for this blog: I’ve shied away from doing proper Who reviews here in the past).

When I decided to do this, the obvious question was that of which stories to look at. One from each of the Doctors, of course – the fact that we’re on the eleventh Doctor and the anniversary itself is in the eleventh month is decidedly serendipiticious – but which ones? Representative ones, really outstanding ones, ones I felt I had something interesting to say about? In the end, though, this is something simply motivated by love, and so – to begin with at least – I’m just going to choose stories I’ve loved since I first encountered them.

I suppose it’s a little ironic that the earliest story I’m going to look at should be one of the very last stories that I made the acquaintance of prior to the series’ revival – and even then in a somewhat moderated form. John Lucarotti’s Marco Polo was first broadcast early in 1964, making it one of the very first stories of all, and the original episodes have been destroyed by the BBC. Nevertheless, the soundtrack survives intact, along with enough photographs to give a reasonable impression of what the story was like.


The TARDIS materialises high in the Himalayas and almost at once undergoes a serious breakdown, stranding the travellers without light, warmth, or food – almost at once one is struck by the sense that we are not quite watching the same programme as today, where the TARDIS is a product of almost godlike technologies, and far beyond simple circuit failures.

Luckily, the quartet – the Doctor, his grand-daughter Susan, and Ian and Barbara – are saved from an icy death by a passing caravan. It transpires that they are in the late 13th century, and the leader of their group is a young Venetian in the service of Kublai Khan: his name is Marco Polo.

Again, modern viewers would probably be expecting stranded ice-aliens to be lurking on the Pamir Plateau, intent on suborning Polo and using him to seize control of the Mongol Empire. Needless to say, things were different in 1964 (to say nothing of 1289): the only fantasy elements in this story are the travellers and the TARDIS, with the narrative driven by their attempts to repair the TARDIS and leave, along with the presence in the caravan of a duplicitous Mongol warlord with his own agenda (the series’ very first bearded Machiavellian, but of course not the last).

This type of story, which was common in the very early years of the programme, is routinely referred to as the ‘pure historical’, the suggestion being that the TARDIS is merely a plot device to get the protagonists into position to have a period adventure. But it seems to me that Marco Polo is a very different sort of story, and in fact is almost unique in the series’ history.

Doctor Who has developed its own set of ‘house rules’ and conventions – one of them, already on display and fully-formed, is that everyone in the universe speaks English (this isn’t addressed on-screen until 1976). Another is that, no matter where it lands, ‘normal’ people don’t really pay the TARDIS very much attention – all right, so sometimes people treat it as an art-gallery exhibit, or try to sell it off as an antique, but hardly anyone ever wonders what it is or where it comes from. (The modern series would probably hand-wave this away with talk of a perception filter.)

But Marco Polo predates this convention – this is a story from the absolute dawn of Doctor Who, where the very fabric of the series is still not fixed, still up for grabs. Both Marco Polo and the villain, Tegana, recognise the TARDIS as something extraordinary and potentially valuable, and both have their own plans for it. Polo’s seizure of the TARDIS is crucial to the plot – it’s barely articulated, but on one level this story is about the effect of the presence of vastly powerful alien technology on members of a primitive culture, and is thus much more properly SF than many modern episodes truly are.

Of course, the effect of this is to make Polo an obstacle to the travellers, almost a hostile figure. The modern ‘celebrity historical’ invariably features the Doctor lavishing praise upon whichever notable he has encountered – ‘I’m your biggest fan!’ (to Dickens), ‘The best words ever!’ (Shakespeare), ‘The greatest artist who ever lived!’ (Van Gogh). And Marco Polo? ‘…poor, pathetic, stupid savage.’

Unfortunately the story does require Marco Polo himself to be selfish, inflexible and, yes, almost stupidly gullible for much of its seven-episode length. (There are inevitably longeurs en route and it would really be stretching a point to suggest that this story is packed with incident.) Only in the final episode does Polo redeem himself, realising his mistakes, defeating Tegana in combat, and helping the travellers escape – and by this point it feels oddly wrong that it’s not Ian who’s defeating the villain, for it’s Ian who’s been the leading man throughout the story.

But then, this is just another sign of how little recognisable Doctor Who there actually is in some of the very early stories. It isn’t just that the production values and style of scripting have changed massively in the interim, it’s that this is a series with a fundamentally different purpose: Doctor Who in an alternate mode.

Marco Polo comes from that tiny bubble of time prior to the massive success of the first Dalek story influencing the still-young series. This is Doctor Who as it was originally conceived, certainly not as the full-on fantasy adventure programme it quickly became. So it is a character-based drama, and also – certainly to modern listeners – almost excruciatingly didactic.

You would expect this story to be packed with worthy historical facts about Marco Polo and mediaeval China, but these are at least introduced fairly subtly. It’s the inclusion of elements of physics and etymology that grates a bit, but Lucarotti doles these out manfully at the rate of about one an episode – the effects of altitude on boiling water, what happens if you throw bamboo on a fire, the derivation of the word ‘assassin’, and so on. (I would imagine that physicists could have a lot of fun trying to work out the exact science of the scene where water condenses on the interior walls of the TARDIS – how quickly does the interior of a bigger-on-the-inside object heat up or cool down?)

By modern standards Marco Polo is enormously earnest and obvious, not to mention slow and somewhat repetitive. There is nothing like it on TV today. But then I think this may be why I am fond of it: because there is literally nothing like it on TV today, not even modernĀ Doctor Who is stylistically similar. This is TV trying to tell a good yarn, but do something worthwhile and productive at the same time, and one could almost weep for the simple goodheartedness of that notion: it speaks volumes for the sheer levels of cynicism in modern culture.

The innocence of Marco Polo is one reason to love it, but there are others. For me, primarily, it is a combination of many of the things I’ve already mentioned, all of them based on the fact that this is Doctor Who that doesn’t quite know what it is yet. At this point in time the pat division between ‘historical’ and ‘science-fictional’ story doesn’t really exist, and so it threatens to slosh across the barrier between them. It hasn’t decided exactly what the TARDIS is, or what the Doctor’s default role in the story is going to be – in short, this is Doctor Who from a point in time before even that marvellously flexible format had become completely fixed. There are dozens of stories that can show us all the things that Doctor Who is, but only a tiny handful that hint at the vague possibilities of the other things it could have been. Marco Polo is one of them, and it shows that some of those possibilities might have been equally fascinating. For me, it deserves to be cherished for that reason if no other.

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