Saturday 14 March 2015

Saturday Teatime #4: Marco Polo

Before we launch into this there are a few issues I'd like to address separately so they don't overshadow the story itself. The first is this story's status as the first missing story. Short version: in the Seventies the BBC dumped a lot of their film archive, literally incinerated it, to make space. There were logical reasons at the time: the BBC was moving to full colour broadcasting and anticipated no market for their black and white material in the future, there being no hint of home video at the time. There were also problems with the actor's union Equity, who lobbied to limit the number of repeats to keep their members in work, which as a hoary old socialist I can't really complain about.

So they dumped almost everything: Doctor Who episodes, historic Top Of The Pops performances, early episodes of Dad's Army and The Avengers, even their news reports of the moon landing ended up in the incinerator. This continued well into the era of colour and we'll be seeing how this affects Doctor Who right up to Season Eleven. Many of the destroyed episodes were later returned to the BBC by overseas TV stations who had failed to destroy their copies but there are still over ninety episodes missing, probably never to be seen again.

By sheer luck and the dedication of early fans every missing episode's soundtrack exists as off-air recordings. There are also “telesnaps”, which was a service provided by a man called John Cura who was retained by certain producers and directors to photograph their programs on transmission at a rate of a picture every few seconds.

Which brings us around to how I'm “watching” this story. A group of fans working under the collective name of Loose Cannon have produced a complete set of reconstructions using the soundtracks, telesnaps, surviving clips and even specially filmed inserts. These are as close to the original as we're ever likely to get in most cases so I'll be using them to experience the missing episodes, including the ones the BBC have animated. I heartily recommend them to anyone who wants the most authentic experience of the missing episodes currently (and likely ever) available.

There's also a colour version of Marco Polo, which I'm not using here for authenticity reasons, but that is absolutely amazing, this is such a beautiful story.

The other issue to address is race in this story, which is set in China and contains all of one Asian actor: Zienia Merton, who is Burmese on her mother's side. So, basically, there's one actor from the right continent and every other Chinese character is played in yellowface. I'm not addressing this separately to ignore the issue but there's a lot to say about this story and better, more complete stories where I can talk about race in the classic series. For the moment its something to note but I want to give it a proper essay down the line or at least wait for a more complete story featuring these issues so I have as much evidence to base my opinion on as possible (probably The Crusade) All that dealt with, let's actually talk about this story:
7 episodes
written by John Lucarotti
original broadcast 22nd February to 4 April 1964

This is a long story. I don't think there's any way I'll get through this project without complaining about long stories a few times so I was pleasantly surprised by how little padding this one had. By the time we get to the Pertwee era, if not Season Five, I strongly suspect both you and I will be tired of me complaining about episodes that are just running in place and not advancing the plot. Here, though, the long runtime actually serves to give the story room to breathe. There's a whole section of an episode given over to Ping-Cho regaling the TARDIS crew with a Chinese folk tale. Its an interesting scene because aside from a little moment where Ian explains the etymology of the word assassin its entirely about Ping-Cho, the TARDIS crew are passive observers.

We should probably talk about Ping-Cho and her relationship with Susan. Ping-Cho is a teenage girl travelling to Kublai Khan's court as part of Marco caravan, headed for an arranged marriage with a very old court official. Its an interesting angle even if Lucarotti fails to stick the landing on it. More important, though, is Ping-Cho's relationship with Susan.

For one thing the relationship is so eminently slashable. Part of this is because of the limited evidence: almost every surviving image of the two young women involves them leaning close to one another, hugging or lounging in bed together in their tent (no, honestly). On a more serious note this is actually the only time that Susan is shown to have an extended relationship with someone her own age. I've talked before about how Susan's character gets kind of screwed over by having the three other main characters all be responsible for her so giving her a friend her own age is exactly what the character needs.

I genuinely think this is the best use of Susan so far, perhaps the best use of her in her entire run. The series at this stage still has a problem with writing the young: when Susan and Ping-Cho raise their suspicions about Tegana they are ignored and Ping-Cho is robbed of a resolution to her plot when it turns out her intended husband has died, saving her from a marriage she no longer wants by chance instead of her own actions. Also, as I say, in her ten story run this is the one and only time Susan has someone her own age to talk to, we didn't even see her interact with the other kids at Coal Hill School.

The guest cast as a whole is more important to this story than any other story so far, perhaps more than any other story in Season One and we're clearly meant to invest in them and even take their side at times. Mark Eden as Marco Polo is used as a narrator via the device of writing in his journal; we're obviously meant to side with him when Ian betrays his trust; and the climax of the serial is a big sword fight (brutally ill-served by the static telesnaps) between the Warlord Tegana and Marco Polo. The big confrontation isn't Ian's or the Doctor's but Marco's. In fact, the road to that final confrontation is paved largely by confrontations between Marco and Tegana. From the modern perspective where the Doctor is our clear-cut hero figure and absolutely the centre of the narrative (for better or worse) this comes off a little oddly.

Except, of course, running at seven episodes Marco, Ping-Cho and Tegana might as well be regulars. The series had only run thirteen episodes before their introduction and on original broadcast the audience would have seen these characters every week for nearly two months. True, regular viewers would know the actual series regulars better but seven weeks is a long time to watch a single cast of characters. These days that could be the length of an entire series, especially of a historical where budgets tend to favour shorter runs.

Of course, saying that we should probably address this story's “historical” credentials. This is Doctor Who's first brush with proper history as it features an actual historical figure instead of generic cavemen. This is where it gets tricky and I have to clear away some due diligence. Every Doctor Who story has a spotter's guide version that every fan knows after a while and for Marco Polo it is this: the geography of this story is terrible and the history is worse. Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood's About Time series actually spends time debating whether Mark Eden's character is even really meant to be Marco Polo, the representation of him is that far from reality, and the BBC soundtrack CD contained a map of the journey taken in the story with a note basically saying “Yes, we know Cathay wasn't actually this shape but the map had to follow the story not actual geography”. So, we have a historical figure who's nothing like he should be travelling through a representation of Cathay that doesn't even have the landmarks of the Silk Road in the right order.

Let me be clear, as far as I'm concerned this doesn't matter.

I am a huge fan of HBO's The Tudors, a series that picked up something of a reputation in the press for historical inaccuracy. Some of it was just the press being ignorant (they complained about Henry VIII being fit and handsome even though he didn't look like the Holbine painting until much later in life) but there were genuine alterations to history in that series. For instance, in the series Henry has one sister, Margaret, whilst in reality he had two, Margaret and Mary. However, neither did all that much that was useful to the plot so events from both their lives were conflated into the Margaret character. It made a better story and the producers were very up front about it. They also said that they hoped by creating an engaging story they could interest people in going out and reading about the history for themselves and I honestly believe this is the approach being taken by Lambert, Whitaker and Lucarotti here.

Yes, this is educational television but at the primary and secondary level, which is where this is pitching, details tend to be left out. Okay, a lot of details are being left out here but it isn't as if anyone was ever going to go back and fact check it. I mean, they have, but no one making the thing could have known they would. The best case scenario is that a child watches this, becomes interested and maybe remembers it vaguely enough that if and when the subject comes up at school they'll remember the broad sweep of things: that Marco Polo was a Venetian trader, that his family was a power in Kublai Khan's court, that the Silk Road crossed the Gobi Desert and so on. This wasn't meant to be used as a primary text and it certainly wasn't ever meant to be revisited.

And if we're going to talk about how useful accuracy is to a story let's consider this story's token science lesson where Ian and the Doctor explain condensation to a bewilderingly incredulous Marco. Its dull. Its very dull. Its not quite as bad as the stuck switch explanation that ended the last story but its getting there.

This moment does, however, represent something important and interesting. Before this exceptionally boring science lesson the Doctor has been unconscious for an episode in the TARDIS, affected by the same dehydration that is threatening to kill Marco's entire caravan. When he emerges bearing the condensed water that has been collecting on the TARDIS walls he's a very different man from the one Susan carried inside. As we noted back with the changes between the pilot and broadcast versions of An Unearthly Child, the production team did seem to have reservations from day one about the Doctor's initial hostile personality. After he emerges from his nap he's far less snappish and far more whimsical. It isn't a complete rewrite of the character but he is certainly more fun after this, a fact brought home when he repeatedly beats Kublai Khan at backgammon and is asked to list what the Khan owes:

Thirty-five elephants with ceremonial bridles, trappings, brocades and pavilions; four thousand white stallions and twenty-five tigers […] and the sacred tooth of Buddha which Polo brought home from India […] I'm... I'm very much afraid all the commerce from Burma for one year, sire.”

This is the immediate legacy of Marco Polo: another step towards the Doctor becoming the hero of the series by becoming sympathetic instead of the aloof and dangerous alien we met in An Unearthly Child. There is one other legacy, though it is less immediate, indeed it won't bear fruit until the Nineties.

You see, The ending of this story deserves special mention because this is the first time something very important happens. Marco and Kublai Khan watch the TARDIS dematerialise and instead of switching to the Ship's interior for a quick cliffhanger to lead us into the next story we stay with Marco who delivers a charming little voiceover in which he wonders where his friends will end up next, the past or the future? Its the first time the narrative really leaves the TARDIS crew and creates the first continuity gap in the series, albeit one that could only be exploited if Ian fails to change his shirt for a while. Aside from the stories set before An Unearthly Child this is the first place Missing Adventures can be slotted in, which is going to be very important in about thirty years.

NEXT EPISODE: The Keys of Marinus... or is it?


SallyP said...

As a History major, I just can't help myself. Henry VIII had two sisters, Margaret, who became Queen of Scotland, and the grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary, his younger sister who was briefly Queen of France, and later married Henry's bestest buddy, the duke of Suffolk, and she became the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey.

It...gets complicated.

James Ashelford said...

That's fine, I got the same from my old housemate Matt, also a history scholar. I did think it was two but I couldn't remember exactly, I'll edit the entry, thanks.

Incidentally, Henry Cavill is fantastic in the Tudors as the Duke of Suffolk.

James Ashelford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Ashelford said...

Right fixed it. Reason for the mistake was wikipedia mentioned other female siblings but I'll take your word over wikipedia any day.