Episodes 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 & 20: The Singing Sands, Five Hundred Eyes, The Wall of Lies, Rider from Shang-Tu, Mighty Kublai Khan & Assassin at Peking

Written by John Lucarotti
Directed by Waris Hussein

Marco Polo is pretty much about a bunch of people who want to go home. That’s all anyone really wants in this story, except for The Doctor, who just doesn’t want to be stuck in one place and time. I wonder if John Lucarotti realized how much deeper this theme is, set against the backdrop of the nomadic mongols, whose former capital, Karakorum, was little more than a group of tents around one central building.

Rather surprisingly, Marco Polo is just about the villain of this story, though a sympathetic one. The part of out and out bad guy is taken by Tegana, one of Doctor Who’s all time great human baddies. He’s not overly sadistic or violent, but his constant lying always rings unsettlingly true, even when we the viewer know it to be nothing but untruths. Unlike many later lying villain actors, Derren Nesbitt plays him completely straight, with none of that smarmy obvious liar acting that fucks me right off. Unfortunately, the reprobate mongol warlord end up getting his ass kicked by an Italian merchant, rather making him look like a bit of a lame warlord really.

The Doctor here is on great form, as usual, though there could have been more of him. The show at this point was very much an ensemble piece, often having episodes where The Doctor doesn’t turn up at all, and the story is carried by his companions. The time Hartnell does get here is not mis-spent though. He’s one of the few characters you can actually believe would be capable of winning half of Asia from Kublai Khan in a game of backgammon. It often easy to forget that William Hartnell was only in this 50s when he played The Doctor, as he not only gives a wonderful physical performance that sells great age, but brings a great deal of gravitas and wisdom the the character, making him seem a vast age.

But the real hero here is Chesterton, constantly almost gaining Marco’s trust, only to lose it again as soon as Tegana shows up.

The story does have its weak point. There is nowhere near enough story to fill seven episodes, and the constant almost escaping really grates on my nerves. Perhaps at the time there was a real sense of jeopardy, but given that I know that this is a seven part story, I know full well that they’re not getting away in part four, so any escape plan that comes before the end just feels like a waste of time. The same can be said for any of the companions being put in any mortal danger, though not to the same extent.

By this point Doctor Who had proven that it could do the historical stuff and still remain engaging, but how would it fare in the sci-fi stakes without the Daleks? Next up, Terry Nation attempts to repeat his previous success with The Keys of Marinus.

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