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09 February 2013 @ 03:51 pm
The Randomizer: Marco Polo  
This was a very interesting watch. Of all the Doctor Who I've seen, I'd say that Marco Polo most clearly shows the original educational conception for the show, as envisaged by Sydney Newman.

I was expecting that we would be getting a tour of history. This was, after all, the first historical story the show attempted - or at least the first set within recorded history, so I wasn't surprised that Barbara was used to deliver potted histories of Marco Polo and the Mongol empire. However I hadn't expected that Ian's background as a science teacher would also be being used to deliver info-dumps on such diverse subjects as the effect of high altitude on boiling liquid, and the behaviour of bamboo when heated ("surely the locals would know this", grumbled my tame layman). The story's eye is very firmly fixed upon its educational remit in a way that makes it feel much more like the children's show Doctor Who is sometimes accused of being.

Marco Polo was obviously intended as a showcase for Doctor Who, as witnessed not only by the noticeably lavish sets and costumes, but also by the large number of colour publicity shots that were produced at the same time. All the regulars, apart from the Doctor, get several changes of costume as they move from their modern 20th century clothing, to the formal wear of Kublai Khan's court. Normally I am the member of our household who covets the outfits of television characters, but in this case B was very taken Barbara's hat in the Gobi desert.

All things considered, it's a fairly leisurely story. A number of factors contribute to that including the generally slower pace of television at the time, the road trip style of the plot, and the time that is being taken to showcase interesting facts about early medieval China and miscellaneous bits of science. The plot itself is loose and rambling. And again, reminiscent of those children's series where the status quo is relentlessly reset at the end of the episode. One half expects the Doctor to say, "curses! foiled again!" as yet another of his plans to regain access to the TARDIS is defeated. Similarly Tegana, who is at the end of the day a fairly rubbish villain, repeatedly fails to destroy the caravan and capture the TARDIS for himself. It doesn't feel padded exactly, though it is repetitious, but it's clearly not setting out to be fast paced or action filled.

The final sequence, in which Tegana attempts to assassinate Kublai Khan and is finally bested in battle by Marco is a little disappointing. It is hard to believe Kublai Khan would be so unprotected, given he already appears to have suspicions of Tegana's motives. Marco's sudden conversion to the TARDIS crew's point of view also feels distinctly sudden, given we've just watched six episodes of Marco refusing to believe any ill of Tegana. There is an undercurrent of suggestion that, when all is said and done, Marco is reverting to the "side" of his own (white) people which may be deliberate. It is, after all, something Tegana has accused him of pre-emptively.

Related to this, I've seen the character work for the story praised. An awful lot of the supporting cast, as met at way stations en route, are one note to the point of caricature. More attention is paid to Marco's travelling companions, Tegana and Ping Cho, but they don't actually stray far from their archetypal roles of plausible villain, and honest ingenue. Kublai Khan fares better, but I had a suspicion that he was shrewd and stupid by turns not in order to illuminate the character, but as was convenient for the script. Marco is really the only truly nuanced role, unsurprising since he is the narrator of the piece. To be honest, he comes across as a bit of a prat in the final analysis, but effort has been put into portraying a good, yet weak, man who is prone to vacillation and the avoidance of difficult decisions.

My final observation was that it has become common, in Doctor Who circles, to discuss Talons of Weng-Chiang at least partially in terms of its use of yellowface. The same is clearly happening here, though I don't recall ever seeing it mentioned. I imagine the difference lies both in the fact that Marco Polo is considerably less well known, and available only in audio, and because its presentation of Chinese peoples, history and culture is far more sympathetic than Talons' "yellow peril" stereotypes. Still, I winced once or twice as hammy British 1960s thesps lisped their way through their parts as innkeepers or court flunkies.

I'm not sure I'd watch this again. It's very leisurely and, for all the effort that goes into them, telesnap reconstructions are not the most gripping things at the best of times. However, this was a fascinating insight into the show that Doctor Who almost was.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/89163.html.
daniel_saunders: Eleventh Doctordaniel_saunders on February 9th, 2013 07:51 pm (UTC)
I actually like the slow pace here, I find it a relaxing story to listen to, although that might not have been what was intended. I certainly find it 'sedate' rather than 'boring.'

That said, I don't think I've listened to it since I watched all Doctor Who in order over five years ago (gosh! Was it really that long ago?) This is what I thought then - I was rather more positive than you are here!

I find it interesting that even in the early days the Doctor was not changing his clothes to blend in, although he does wear a toga in The Romans.

I think the yellowface issue is not brought up here for the reasons you state.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on February 9th, 2013 08:12 pm (UTC)
I picked my words quite carefully because I didn't want to say it has pacing problems, because I think it goes at exactly the pace it wants to. At the end of the day though, I could probably have managed quite happily with two fewer episodes.

You make an interesting point in your review about the relationship between Marco and Ian which I had not considered. At the end of the day I think Ian comes out looking the best (probably inevitably). He's pretty consistently on the level, while Marco spends a lot of the time fooling himself, or allowing himself to be fooled by Tegana, often because he doesn't want to make some difficult decisions (or face up to some inconvenient facts) about either his treatment of the Doctor and party, or alienating a foreign diplomat.