Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient!

Alex Wilcock writes a lot of words about Doctor Who. He’s followed DWM’s Time Team since 1999, and is now revealing everything he’s ever sent to them. Very gradually.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Doctor Who – Marco Polo Episode Four: The Wall of Lies

“Give me the key, Doctor.”
“You’re an old man, and I do not wish to use force.”
“That is what you’ll precisely have to do, Polo.”
“Put that key in the lock, Polo, and you will destroy the Ship. Then where will your precious Khan be, hmm? You need more than a key to enter my Ship. You need knowledge. Knowledge you will never possess.”
“Tell me.”
“No. Understand? No! I’d let you wreck it first!”
“Guards! Guards!
“Let go of me!”
“Bear witness. I wear the gold seal of Kublai Khan, and by the authority it invests in me, I do hereby seize and hold your caravan in his name. Be warned. Any resistance to this decree is instantly punishable by death.”
“You poor, pathetic, stupid savage…”

This is the week where it all builds to a head… Well, one of the several weeks where it does that before heading back again, anyway, but some of Tegana’s plotting is fun and the Doctor laughing at Polo at the end of the scene above – standing up to bullies, scorn against swords – has me cheering. For the rest of it, they’re trying to find slightly different ways of doing the same thing, so you may well spot that I’m trying to find slightly different ways of saying the same thing. It’s homage, not repetition, and that’s the story I’m sticking to. While if you’re agog, reader, my foot’s now only a bit red, a bit swollen, and a bit painful, so I’ve stopped taking the especially strong gout pills with their exciting side-effects on all the other things wrong with me. Whoopee!

And I Said…

While the ‘Doctor breaks into TARDIS / Tegana’s a baddie / Tegana sets Marco against our heroes’ plotting is by now overly familiar, Tegana does get some particularly fine stirring in Episode Four, prompting Polo to realise that of the time travellers it’s only the Doctor who’s dead against him – but he’s their leader, and leaders are obeyed. For all Ian’s and Marco’s alpha-maling, they’re really the catspaws for the Doctor and Tegana.

Tegana started the story by wanting the Doctor killed as an evil spirit, and it’s fair to say his level of bonhomie’s gone downhill since then: when the warlord declaims again about spirits in the Cave like a stuck record to try and prevent them finding Barbara, the Doctor laughs in his face, the only person who, never mind not doing what he says, nor even deferring to him, finds him riotously funny.

Ian spots the secret door, and Marco works out how to open it. The two make a good team. They’re definitely in the ‘buddy movie’ part of the script. If one buddy was an unconscionable shit holding the other hostage.

Polo thanks Tegana: “A moment or two later, and she would have been killed.” “What is that to you?” And what was it to you, Tegana? Why does no-one ever ask you a question on your motives?

Tegana turns the foolish Marco, always ready to bow to someone of social importance, in a crucial scene that sets up how the warlord can get away with anything (and, literally, with murder). But he hangs a lampshade on his own methods, if only Marco used his brain:
“Only a fool defends his enemies! Be warned, Marco – they will set us at each other’s throats by lies and deceit, and then, when they have divided us, then they will destroy us one by one.”

Polo demands Barbara tell him why she went to the Cave: naturally, she tells the truth – she followed Tegana. Naturally, he lies. Monotonously, Marco shouts “Be quiet!” There really is no point in asking questions when, as a matter of policy, he believes everything Tegana says. And where did the warlord go, then?

Polo losing his cool with little Ping-Cho just makes him sound like a bully who’s lost it. Which is of course exactly what he is.

It would make sense for Polo to profess a diplomatic trust in the special emissary while keeping an eye on him, but instead he takes Tegana’s word at anything, despite knowing that he’s an enemy emissary.

“Obey me!” / “Poor Ping-Cho…” You can see half-way in what a loathsome hypocrite Polo is. Straight from screaming at a defenceless girl to crocodile tears for posterity over his unjustified cruelty. It’s no surprise that he goes to threatening girls’ lives to get his own way within another episode.

Polo’s journal: “Poor Susan and Ping-Cho. And yet what alternative had I but to separate them?” Fuckwit. No leader. “Now my caravan seethes with suspicion and discontent…” And you made it so.

Ping-Cho is pretty much the one last member of the caravan – speaking, at least – to retain respect for Marco, so he brilliantly does everything he can to alienate her, including screaming at her for an exclamation he overhears, which he treats as if she’d come strutting in to him with a flamboyant lie.

If Marco weren’t played by handsome, chiselled Mark Eden but by, say, Brian Murphy, we’d see him for the dim, crawling little lickspittle that he is. It shows how casting can affect a part – though he’s clearly written to be a ‘lead’. But that’s how fawning courtiers advance, by looking the part.

Polo almost makes sense when he tells Ian he must trust Tegana as a special emissary over mysterious travellers – but rather than an overt diplomatic trust while still keeping an eye on him, he just means that he has ‘unshakeable confidence’ in Tegana’s word on anything, despite knowing that he’s an emissary of an enemy.

Tegana sitting incongruously in a café with the rest of his Noghai-ist cell – clearly echoing the Soviet spy stories of the time – amusingly must work to assert himself over his crass underlings, and though he’s playing to them you get a real sense of vindictiveness in his promise to kill Polo “like an old woman in her bed” and the ‘old magician’… “With a stake through the heart.”

While it’s a technical fail of the Bechdel Test for mentioning men along the way, there’s a touching ‘impending goodbye’ scene between Susan and Ping-Cho that drops the pointless posturing of the alpha males and is all about the two girls together and Ping-Cho’s understated misery at losing her one last friend.

“Oh, come on, Marco – we’re friends, aren’t we?”
“We were.”
A lie from Ian, followed by a bigger one from the thieving bully in a huff after having believed any wicked lie about his “friend”!

Ian’s over-heartily played bluff at the end of Episode Four is a mess all round, but part of it may be in the ambiguity of the soundtrack: surely Tegana must have had the women taken, but there’s no evidence of it. What we hear (and the Doctor not bothering to look out) makes the warlord seem less clever and covering all the angles than just a lucky bastard.

Faced with Polo’s screaming and threats of death, the fearless Doctor laughs in the impotent bully’s face. For all Polo’s swords, it’s clear which of them feels the most threatened.

As the creeping about at night, the dangerous bluffs and the tense music all build towards our heroes’ plans going terribly wrong, it’s lovely to have tiny moments of the Doctor happily reunited with his Ship, checking the instruments and humming “Bom-bom bo-bom-bom…”

So, the time travellers are ready at last to leave near the end of Episode Four but something stops them and the story has to go on an improbably long time more…? It’s The Daleks!

It’s Tegana who assaults the Doctor for the key, and Polo who shouts in weak anger for the guards – he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. And the Doctor who’s terrific, fearless, and laughingly mocks him for a “poor, pathetic, stupid savage” as he makes it clear that nothing he can do will ever gain him control of the Ship.

Polo’s true nature is revealed here, an episode which he spends shouting at everyone from a teenage girl – the one person who’d still had any respect for him – to the Doctor, who gives him the contempt he deserves. It’s appropriate that, faced with Polo’s screaming and threats of death, the Doctor is fearless and laughs scornfully in the impotent bully’s face. For all Polo’s swords, it’s clear which of them feels the most threatened.

Marco is a terrible leader throughout, but by the end of Episode Four he’s reached his nadir. He does little but divide his forces and throw his weight about to plummeting effect – which amuses Tegana, secretly, and wins open scorn from the rest. He has to use the Khan’s authority by the end because his has entirely gone.

Well, everything’s out in the open now – it’s hurtling towards the climax next week! Eh? What? This is only the half-way marker on the journey? Surely not.

Radio Times Teasers for Marco Polo

The Wall of Lies
“Tegana is proved a liar and Marco Polo threatens to kill Dr. Who.”

But I wouldn’t bet on either of those changing anything.

Next Episode – Rider From Shang-Tu

Featuring bandits, breadknives and Marco backing down (but not very far). With bonus extra-tight trousers.

Previously on Marco Polo:

The Roof of the World
The Singing Sands
Five Hundred Eyes

Coming Soon on Marco Polo:

Rider From Shang-Tu
Mighty Kublai Khan
Assassin at Peking

What They Said…

Again, most of this will be saved for Episode Seven, but again, there’s another blog that’s worth bringing to your attention for this episode in particular. William Whyte’s “Who do you love?” pieces, like these but at much shorter length and much greater productivity, try to find something wonderful about every Doctor Who story in turn. Here’s what he found in Marco Polo:
“In episode 4, Ping-Cho, Susan’s friend, pledged in marriage to a Chinese nobleman, has been told to travel separately from Susan. ‘You will be leaving,’ she says. ‘Will you say good-bye to me before you leave? Even if it is very late?’ That last question is the killer: Ping Cho is still a little girl at heart, having the last thing she loves taken from her. But her question is also brave: the most important thing to her is to have no false hopes.

“And that’s the thing about Marco Polo: it’s set in open countrysides and under enormous skies, and everyone in it is a prisoner, bound by fear or force or loyalty to powers they can’t control. Unable to escape their situations, they give themselves some measure of control by simply telling themselves the truth. Except the TARDIS crew, of course; they still think they can escape, and so they lie and lie and lie.”

I love the first half of what he has to say, and he’s quite right… And the first sentence of his second paragraph is a splendid insight into the ironic juxtaposition of the story’s setting that’s mostly lost now we can’t see it. But if you’re reading all that I have to say about the story, you’ll have spotted that I don’t agree with his finish at all. The TARDIS crew conceal – but Tegana lies, and Marco lies even to himself. It’s only Ping-Cho and Susan who are the real innocents, telling the truth and getting into trouble, and (next time) by the end of Episode Five even Ping-Cho’s obfuscating, too, after which Marco punishes Ian for lying to protect her in another of his despicable excuses, as Ian is being selfless and Marco uses it again to justify being selfish.

Note: Dear reader, if you read last week’s question about what Google have done to Blogger’s coding, no-one’s suggested an answer. But I can tell you that it’s changed again: this week, in the spirit of experiment, I cut and pasted the previous HTML for the picture. This time, it worked the same as it did the week before last. Which is different to how it worked last week. It makes no sense to me, but at least ‘revert to when it worked without messing everything up’ is the puzzle landing butter-side up.

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