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, August 03, 2013

Doctor Who – Marco Polo Episode Five: Rider From Shang-Tu

“Look at that one there. He’s just like Wang-Lo, all fat, smooth and silky. And look at this one here – he’s very solemn, he’s just like Marco Polo. And look at this one dashing around all over the place! He’s got Ian’s energy. Ahh, look, that one’s all by itself. It’s independent, like Barbara.”
“There’s you, Susan, hmm? A wicked goldfish?”
“Now, where are you, Ping-Cho? Oh, look, there – that little pretty one down there, with the wedding veil. Oh, Ping… I’m sorry.”
“How I miss my home in Samarkand. And your home, Susan? You’ve never told me about that. Is it so very far away?”
“Yes, it is. It’s as far away as a night star.”

This week’s title promises a dashing new character who doesn’t actually play any part in the big action scene – but he’s actually part of the slowly building trailer for the most fun character apart from the Doctor, and this week’s episode title only the heralds the next one. Meanwhile, this week’s own big developments include another science lesson, the series’ biggest step yet into campery, and some goldfish. And Richard and I are back from holiday, so I’m back to writing…

And I Said…

By Episode Five, I can see – if only I could – why this is so well-remembered for its performances, details and atmosphere, but would be best watched episodically at distant intervals, taking careful note of which episode you’re up to, as nothing at all will happen to advance the plot.

The main development this week is to be that Marco is slightly less cross with the time travellers than last week, returning them to the status of… the week before. You can imagine people being mildly entertained by it, but having no idea when (if ever) it might finish.

As Ian reports finding the guard, the Doctor asks in turn:
“What’s the matter? Did you kill him?”
“No, of course not. He was dead.”
Is that telling the Doctor or the viewer that he’s not a killer, and which is the most important? So Ian is indeed the clean-cut type who might go on a daring commando raid to turn the tables on his captor, but wouldn’t stab someone in the back? And the Doctor…? Is it that he doesn’t know Ian so well yet as to rule out a ruthless edge, or that he still has his?

Outnumbered by bandits, the Doctor offers use of the TARDIS for them all. As with the Daleks, the Doctor is prepared to let people into the TARDIS under threat of death – not a threat to get into the TARDIS, which he laughs at, but when he feels a moral obligation to prevent a slaughter. Yet Polo is so paranoid and insecure that he refuses the thing he’s been most gagging for. If it’s so dangerous, how can he use it? Or does he want to leave all the risk to the Khan? What a hero.

Polo endangers everyone out of his own cowardice when the Doctor’s made a hugely generous offer, so it’s no wonder that our hero calls him “a bigger fool that even I think you are!” “You deceived me before, Doctor,” says the thieving cowardly bully to cover himself, but in fact while not volunteering information the Doctor’s never lied to him – including never pretending any respect for Messr Marco once Polo had lied to him and stole from him, which is at the root of it.

The Doctor will resist offering the TARDIS as safe haven almost every other time from now on. Is it to avoid having to make that offer that he learns how to fight baddies instead (not thinking much of the “overgrown breadknife” here)? Ironically, that would make his intervention a device to protect his people’s secrets (though they’d just tell him to ignore the morals altogether, rather than be the lesser of two evils).

In crisis, both the locals jeer, and both the travellers are generous. Says something about their characters. And for the first time Ian directly crosses Tegana:
“Could they have not killed him? What better way to give this lie the ring of truth.”
“Not everyone lives by your standards, Tegana.”

Showing how early we are in the series, it’s not the Doctor but Ian who thinks of the bamboo trick (pay attention, children).

The exploding bamboo is quite entertaining, though it doesn’t make that big a noise, and not for very long. What wussy bandits!

This week’s main development: Marco gets slightly less cross with the time travellers than last week, resetting things to the week before. You can imagine people being mildly entertained by it, but having no idea when (if ever) it might finish.

This time – reversing the previous week – it’s Tegana’s allies who mess up his bluff, rather than the other time travellers messing up Ian’s. Dramatic irony, or lack of ideas and repetition?

Ian does have some respect for Polo, somehow, as they size each other up and each other’s plans… But it can’t be a friendship – because it depends on the one with power being a thief from and enforced by threat of death on the one without.

“Marco, I wish I could explain to you how important the TARDIS is to us.”
“And I wish I could explain to you, Ian, how important it is to me.”
But you did explain – you just used your power to silence the others doing so. And how important you think it is to you isn’t the point. It’s not fucking yours!

“Well, the mighty War Lord is awake!”
shouts Acomat. Bit of a giveaway? Marco will just say it proves how famous and important Tegana is, and that he should be fawned on all the more.

Tegana affects being blasé, dismissing suspicion, but the Doctor presses him:
“Well, in battle all men face death.”
“And few expect to meet it. Mmmm?”
Damn, that’s a good moment! Suddenly he’s dagger-sharp against the real enemy; Ian and Marco’s business was the sideshow.

“We sacrificed our freedom to save you.”
“Yes, I know. And in return, I revoke the seizure of your caravan by official decree.”
“Huh! Very noble of you, I’m sure!”
“What you’re really saying, Marco, is that we’re no longer Kublai Khan’s prisoners – only yours, eh?”
“That’s right.”
“Thanks for nothing!”
I laugh at the Doctor’s dismissive tone! And he’s absolutely right about Marco the hypocritical shit.

Ian, almost despairing, wishes he could explain how important the TARDIS is to them, but Marco as usual says it’s all about me, me, me, treating Ian like the callous one. Polo, how important you think it is to you isn’t the point. It’s not fucking yours!

Marco thinks he’s being generous, and doesn’t expect such frost – but the travellers are now far colder towards him (for threatening them with death and then not repaying them for saving his life), and Tegana is now not just wary of them but quietly angry (and of course unable to say so except in subtext) that they’ve foiled his plan. So, both the attempted victim and murderer are out to get them. It feels like the stakes are raised even as Marco thinks he’s lowering them, which shows both how little the story is moving and how little Marco knows.

Interestingly, there’s one tiny crack in the dam of Polo sucking up to Tegana – when the warlord offers to be his bodyguard, he’s steely:
“You are in my charge, Tegana, not I in yours.”
Perhaps it’s because simple Marco sees everything as zero-sum, and if the prisoners have proven some honour, then Tegana’s must be reduced.

Tegana stays back to threaten – which suggests he’s worried by them. They have, indeed, foiled him again. “Work your magic on him if you will, but make no move against me.” No magic – only yours, Tegana, of argument. “He knows we’re on to him,” says Ian. Of course he does. You’ve spent the last four weeks saying ‘Tegana’s the villain’!

Ling-Tau’s extra-tight riding trousers – steady – are one of the better bits of exposition, with the bells ringing out to call for each new horse in turn. It’s just a shame that, in a rare failure of sound design, we can barely hear them. I suppose it’s just as well: were they really clanging away as he rides, they’d batter his legs and deafen him.

The Doctor gets to chip in to help with Ling-Tau’s riding exposition, but it’s also a character moment: of all of them, the Doctor’s interested in faster ways of travel…

Shang-Tu is of course Xanadu, for Mighty Kublai Khan – but why doesn’t Barbara explain that to us? Is it because only the man teacher’s allowed to do the exposition?

And here at last is Wang-Lo, the series’ first outrageously camp character. Well, the first named one (and what a name), ignoring the Kenneth Williams boy in the very first episode and the entire race of Thals.

I’m sure they only went to Cheng-Ting – the White City – to give all the BBC people a laugh. Is it the Christmas tapes? It seems like the BBC panto, with Cheng-Tu as Widow Twankey, a lovely shot of Ian and Barbara totally pissing themselves, and the Doctor even doing an impersonation before exploding!

A famous shot of Tegana’s arm round Susan’s neck. Next time something does that, she’ll learn to bite it for the photographer.

Susan and Ping-Cho watching the goldfish is such a well-written and beautifully played scene between Carole Ann Ford and Zienia Merton that if I wished to see just one moment as it was made so far, it would be this. The verbal caricatures, the wicked asides, Susan impulsively saying the wrong thing and then apologising to her friend – and the poignant pay-off as their friendship deepens, Ping-Cho at last understanding how lost Susan is without the TARDIS but Susan refusing to take advantage of her even to get it back.

“We must leave here at once.”
“Why, Messer Marco?”
“Kublai Khan wishes to see me without delay. Six days hard riding…”
Both the power of an absolute ruler, and a sign that the Khan’s bored with nothing happening and wants to press the fast-forward button, like the audience!

There’s a subtext in the crucial decision Ping-Cho – Polo’s last faithful follower – makes to steal the TARDIS key from him: she takes the chance when he goes to wash. He’s spotted it late, but they can both see his hands are dirty.

It’s lovely that, when Ping-Cho gives Susan the key, her friend’s first reaction is to be shocked and worried, rather than pleased – she doesn’t want to leave her in the lurch.

Ping-Cho’s bravery and kindness is slightly undermined by her wandering off rather than staying close by so Susan can say goodbye, and by neither of them having learnt to watch out for Tegana on the prowl.

Yay! It’s Tutte Lemkow! And he won’t take paper money to take the TARDIS from Marco – who knows, the great Khan’s economy might fall apart without him to run it… It’s a good juxtaposition with Ping-Cho’s far more innocent plotting after the same thing.

The late-night escape plan suddenly switches genres and takes them from Cheng-Ting to Colditz, with Ian as cool action man and fake drunk to let the rest creep across the courtyard.

Ian’s the one who spots Susan’s missing? Seriously? Not her grandfather? And the old man’s cry of “Great Olympus!” suggests an unexpected backstory.

A famous shot of Tegana’s arm round Susan’s neck. Next time something does that, she’ll learn to bite it for the photographer.

It’s Episode Four of The Daleks again, again! So it’s worse – having felt like it was escalating and tense, this entire episode is circular: they attempt to escape, Tegana has a plot, Marco is a prat and acts surprised, rinse and repeat.

Although it’s the same back-to-square-one foiled escape cliffhanger, at least next week’s “Mighty Kublai Khan” is a great tagline to build anticipation – and, next time, it will pay off!

Radio Times Teasers for Marco Polo

Rider From Shang-Tu
“The travellers face their enemies and Tegana fights with his friends.”

Next Episode – Mighty Kublai Khan

Featuring long-denied plot and character development, which is a relief, and gout, which is less so.

Previously on Marco Polo:

The Roof of the World
The Singing Sands
Five Hundred Eyes
The Wall of Lies

Coming Soon on Marco Polo:

Mighty Kublai Khan
Assassin at Peking

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And You Said… (2)

Anonymous Holly said…


8:48 am, August 27, 2013  
Blogger Alex Wilcock said…

Thank you! That's made my morning. Episode Seven's been delayed by various other things I've been writing, but hope it'll be along next weekend (famous last words)...

9:40 am, August 27, 2013  

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