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 06, 2013

Doctor Who – Marco Polo Episode Three: Five Hundred Eyes

“Gracious maidens, gentle lords
“Pray attend me while I tell my tale…”

Doctor Who – Marco Polo: The Appreciative Audience

This week’s episode of Marco Polo is a striking improvement – for one big reason. Long-term readers can guess who it is. Its centrepiece is something very unusual for Doctor Who, when everything stops not for tea but for a performance piece. I’d say ‘a musical interlude’, but it’s a recital rather than a song, with the music just a charming background accompaniment. Should any reader want the latest bulletin on my latest gout episode (rather than going ‘Eeww, no’), there’s bad and tolerable news: my foot’s still swollen and painful and I still can’t walk much on it; but my doctor tells me the diet’s not been a total waste of time, as the attack’s less severe this time and my blood-purine count is down by more than a hundred in the last three months. Phew. Mine should have passed again before it turns up in the script. But now, back to our heroes dying of thirst…

And I Said…

Episode Three tries: there are lovely moments such as Ping-Cho’s recital, but that, like the laboured business on condensation, comes very much from a children’s educational series, and the nearest to doing anything exciting is wandering around in corridors. While there’s a small, but welcome, tension in the TARDIS crew now knowing Tegana’s up to no good while he in turn stirs it with Marco to make him suspect them, it’s difficult to see how the obvious villain and the Doctor popping into the TARDIS are going to be sustained for another hour and a half.

Episode Three starts with a very piercing tone after Tegana pisses away the water – that’s not like the music we’ve been hearing this story. Are the Daleks about? It’s the only point where Tristram Cary sounds like his earlier score.

“I fear – the end is not far off.” Oh, I wish.

The TARDIS having water streaming down the walls after a cold night, and catching the drops in cloths and cups, makes it seem a more ordinary, primitive and vulnerable spaceship than even in a Terry Nation script. Useful even when it’s a hunk of junk with no power, though.

“It’s condensation. We just call it that – it’s just a name.”
No, Mr Science Teacher, it’s called that because it condenses, and that term has a fairly simple meaning. Couldn’t you explain that? It’s a good job Ofsted’s not watching this. No wonder the show doesn’t last as a teaching aid.

The series’ first continuity problem: Susan clearly had a key of her own to get into the TARDIS when she goes home in the very first episode, but here the Doctor clearly makes only a second.

Polo seems more of a bully and coward than ever as he throws a tantrum over condensation and has the chutzpah to whine (wrongly) that someone else has lied to him: he sees it both as life-giving water they’ve conspired to deny him and poison that they’re foisting on him. Maybe the sun’s got to him.

At last, Barbara gets some intelligent lines, played by Jacqueline Hill with a lovely light tone of disbelief, as they surprise Tegana at the oasis and he just manages to stifle crying, ‘Curses, foiled again!’ Shame she defers the actual confrontation over his obvious lies to manly Ian.

“It’s condensation. We just call it that – it’s just a name.” No, Mr Science Teacher, it’s called that because it condenses, a term with a meaning. Couldn’t you explain that? It’s a good job Ofsted’s not watching this.

When Ian exposes Tegana’s blatant fabulism about the bandits, Marco again manages to miss all the subtext, seeing everything and noticing nothing. Oh, for Pete’s sake! We’ve got another month of this. From this point on, everything’s disposable until the final episode, really. “Young man, you have no concept of what is happening, have you?” About bloody anything.

“My conscience pricks me…” Polo tells his journal – but not anyone else. The Doctor directly saving his life immediately followed by Polo reinforcing his robbery has punctured his self-image, but though it seems for a moment we’ve reached a crisis point, it will in fact dangle unresolved for a full month. And probably longer, in story time.

For once, the exposition feels natural with all the tourist gushing at Tun-Huang, where Susan’s never seen so many temples and everyone competes to show off which guides they’ve read.

“There is a story of Halagu and the Hashashins,”
chips in Ping-Cho, making them sound like a popular beat combo, with the epic poem about them the equivalent of a big pop hit. No wonder Susan wants to hear it.

Probably my favourite moment of the CD narration is William Russell’s reading of a quickly inserted bit of narration in Ian’s delighted, incredulous voice: “It’s a second key!”

With the Doctor triumphant over a small victory – making another key overnight so he can slip back to the TARDIS – he’s much more amenable to relaxing and enjoying life, exclaiming “Oh, how delightful!” to the suggestion of Ping-Cho putting on a show. The pictures show him with his arms round Susan in front of him, smiling indulgently amid a mass of colourful costumes. Delightful is the word.

“Halagu and the Hashashins” sounds like a popular beat combo, with the epic poem about them the equivalent of a big pop hit. No wonder Susan wants to hear it.

Lovely as the recital is, this is basically stopping the plot for a song, and not even one that advances the story (as if anything does). Still, it’s more natural than Ian suddenly crowbarring in this week’s Reithian morsel:
“Susan, do you know that we use the word Hashashin in English today?”
Listen up, kids! The recital itself’s moral is more deftly woven: law and order’s good, but drugs are bad, mm’kay? There are two words in there, of course, so it’s a good job the hip young thing didn’t reply as Richard suggests, ‘Is it “Hash,” Mr Chesterton?’

The Recon falters slightly with its depictions of Malik and Acomat, respectively too young and too old for their parts in the script (and for the limited Tele-snaps that turned up later), but it’s great to have Tegana getting some proper plotting with more of Noghai’s agents – and for him to be upbraided for not having killed everyone yet…

By this point in the series, we’ve already had at least two ‘Doctor who?’ puns. I wonder if Tegana’s line to his co-conspirators is one by stealth:
“Yes, a caravan that flies. It belongs to an old magician who accompanies us.”

Hmm. Tegana, the vitally important official, has returned to the way-station without anyone noticing he’d gone. Babs, on the other hand, has been missed. Marco’s furious. Again. And different rules apply to Tegana. Again.

The Doctor is oddly out of character here: earlier, an explorer; later, keen to rush into danger; at this one point, content to let everyone else do the searching. Entertainingly, it seems Ping-Cho’s concern about our heroes’ jailer that spurs him into action – “Messr Marco will be angry.” “Never mind about him!”

When Chenchu warns Tegana the Doctor’s gone off to the Cave, and is beaten up and near-throttled for it, he seems much more than just a gossip. Is he a spy of Noghai’s, running one of Kublai’s way-stations? It appears there’s a positive nest of Noghai’s followers in Tun-Huang, so why are most of them squatting in the dark?

Exploring the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, the Doctor suddenly seems much more like the Doctor: while Susan’s having fun scaring her friend, the Doctor’s delighting in the sculptor’s and his own cleverness, then offering to find the spirits, half-playful, half-conspiratorial.

The scenes running up to the cliffhanger just feel so utterly right. It’s the first time the Doctor’s been off to do some proper exploring all story – and the first time since before the series started that it’s been just with some young female sidekicks, and in a sinister cave to boot! Then Carole Ann Ford’s lungs really go for it.

It’s the secret of how to enjoy any First Doctor episode more: watch them one at a time, and the one after he’s away will be like water in the desert.

Radio Times Teasers for Marco Polo

Five Hundred Eyes
“The Doctor outwits the Gobi Desert. Barbara runs into danger.”

We’ve gone from a walk last week to running this time, so even in the Radio Times the pace is literally stepping up.

Next Episode – The Wall of Lies

In which my opinion of Messr Marco Polo becomes rather less high than previously.

Previously on Marco Polo:

The Roof of the World
The Singing Sands

Coming Soon on Marco Polo:

The Wall of Lies
Rider From Shang-Tu
Mighty Kublai Khan
Assassin at Peking

Doctor Who – Marco Polo: Ping-Cho and the Doctor. Charming

What They Said…

Most of this will be saved for Episode Seven, but two other works are particularly worth raising for this episode. Iain Coleman’s new blog Relative Dimension: The science of Doctor Who – one story at a time has already overtaken this one by a mile, but one of his most practical entries so far has been that on this story. It looks at the crisis last episode and the resolution this time, and assesses them on a scientific basis: how best to survive in the desert?

I like to think that “Iain Coleman” is really a pseudonym for someone else, perhaps because the Doctor just got his name wrong again when setting up the blog for him on an early internet-enabled computer he salvaged for him from 1966.

If you’ve read more illustrious reviews, there’s a puzzle about that interlude Tale of Ala-eddin, the Old Man of the Mountains. Ping-Cho’s performance piece is, from what I can tell, mostly static. Her voice is even throughout her recital, which doesn’t suggest physical exertion; the pictures have her sitting, swathed in elaborate (and not very mobile) robes; while the original script directs her as occasionally standing and turning for emphasis, then sitting again. So why do Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke refer to her “dance” in the excellent Running Through Corridors Volume 1? Rob even calls it her “mime dance,” which suggests he’s got a copy of Marco Polo from an alternate reality to the spoken but apparently not danced version with which I’m familiar? Looking for the answer, About Time Volume 1 also says “mime,” but I don’t think Tat Wood started the misconception, either. It was on re-reading the novelisation while preparing for this blog that I saw it – with so many of us having come to the story first through the Target book, it’s understandable that elements of that quite different version conjured up lasting mental images:
“Ping-Cho… entered the room with short shuffling steps which made her appear as though she were floating. She stopped, fluttered her fans, and bowed. Everyone, even Tegana, applauded and she began to tell her story in a lilting voice at the same time miming it with appropriate gestures of her arms, hands and fans…”

Note: Thank you, Google, for this week’s back-end weirdness. As usual, understanding HTML only to a very limited extent by observation, experiment, and then repetition, I cut and pasted the same code to format the pictures. The same code as last week. This week it had the effect of sending the blog’s entire template haywire. I’ve now had to do it another way (you’ll notice the captions are now added separately from the photos). But couldn’t exactly the same code work in the same way it did last week? And when I get to Episode Seven and go back to add links in every episode to every other episode, will the unchanged code in the last two weeks’ episodes send the whole thing haywire upon clicking ‘Update’? This is upsetting my faith in empirical observation. And also wasting lots of time.

Dear reader, do you have any clue…?

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