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 10, 2013

Doctor Who – Marco Polo Episode Six: Mighty Kublai Khan

“When great Kublai Khan appears – you will make your obeisance to him. So that he may look kindly upon you, and spare your worthless lives.”
“Pray, then, what am I supposed to do, sir?”
“Kow-tow! Kneel upon the ground and touch your forehead upon the floor three times.”
“I shall do no such thing!
“Kublai Khan is the mightiest man the world has ever seen. Not to pay him homage will cost you your head!”
“Well, if it breaks my back, then he can take all of me! So why waste time on small items?”

Although this episode starts with Polo’s most despicable moment and then goes downhill with possibly the worst piece of writing for possibly the Doctor’s most fabulous companion, have patience: there’s a great leap in quality in the second half. At last, after weeks of build-up, we get an important new character – one who’s both worth the wait, and who moves the story along. Phew! And, foreshadowing the future, there’s even a runaway bride (one who’ll have an important role in another famous wedding)…

And I Said…

Episode Six opens with Ian openly appealing to Tegana to let Susan go because he knows he hates Marco – which the warlord doesn’t deny. He doesn’t engage at all – just gives orders. Of course, Polo misses all this, but the viewers don’t, which suggests a groan of frustration up and down the land to start this week.

At last an episode does something different, mixing two different dramas and an hilarious comedy together. The Doctor and Kublai are the Odd Couple, Ping-Cho runs away and Ian chases her in a soap opera, and then there’s whatever Tegana’s playing in – which is, appropriately, the sort of thing William Russell has in past times been very happy doing, not least with Derren Nesbitt.

The Doctor emerges from the Ship for his Granddaughter rather than escaping, and tells Marco to order Tegana to let Susan go.
“The key first, Doctor.”
And that’s the measure of them; the Doctor will sacrifice himself, while Polo’s selfish desires will hold a teenage girl to ransom. As, indeed, he has been for months now.

Tegana is an enemy – of course he is. He’ll coldly kill anyone in the way of his would-be Khan Noghai’s plan of domination. But while it’s Tegana’s knife at Susan’s throat, it’s Polo who uses it: he threatens a defenceless young woman’s life to get the TARDIS key not out of loyalty to his Khan, but for entirely selfish reasons. It’s the point at which he is most entirely contemptible.

Polo having shown his true colours by making use of a knife to the throat of a teenage girl, he then proves even more stupid than usual: Tegana’s appalled that Polo keeps to his word and doesn’t just kill them all. Messr Marco, your trusted Tegana’s just defined himself as a lying killer, you idiot!

Ian rather stupidly cuts off Ping-Cho when she starts to own up – though William Russell seems to realise this is a bad move, and plays it not as a lie but as a coldly knowing ‘fuck off’ moment to Marco.

This is a terrible episode for Barbara, kicking off with her stereotypical ‘nagging wife’ lines dumping Ian with an impossible demand to talk Marco round, which can only get his back up further with no new cards to play (fewer, in fact, having not just saved his life last time this time round).

The Doctor gives up his escape to demand Marco let Susan live; Marco demands the TARDIS key first. It’s the measure of them that the Doctor will sacrifice himself, while Polo’s selfish desires will hold a teenage girl to ransom. As he has for months now.

Ian and Marco shout again, then pretend to bond again by Ian telling Marco the absolute truth, which he claims not to believe, and so telling Ian another self-serving absolute lie, pretending that if he believed Ian he’d give him the key and that therefore his not handing over the key that he’s stolen by force is Ian’s fault.

Polo getting Ian to swear the truth of the Ship but not of where he got the key gives the game away: he doesn’t want the truth, just an excuse not to believe him. Polo’s lied, Ian’s lied, but Polo knows every time he’s asked for any of the time travellers’ words of honour, they’ve kept it. Pointedly, they refused it last time! Whereas Polo broke his from the very start.

There’s one good thing about Polo this time: his beautifully crafted line – and lie –
“You are asking me to believe that your caravan can defy the passage of the sun? Move not merely from one place to another, but from today into tomorrow, today into yesterday?”
is miles better than Ian stepping aside to tell the audience at home about coal.

Oh, come on, Ping-Cho! You made Susan wait to say a proper goodbye to you – you might at least wake her when you run away.

“What do you hope to gain by this gesture, Ian? …I’m sorry.”
Yes, not everyone’s a selfish shit who threatens young women with death to get their own way, you shit. ‘Not everyone lives by your standards, Marco,’ Ian wisely didn’t say this time, but would have been as utterly justified in as his comment to Tegana last week. You can guess which gesture I’d make to Marco.

Basically, we must all thank Mark Eden, as with a less dignified actor no-one would have been able to put up with Polo for more than a week.

Tegana is at his most desperate here, browbeating Marco over Ian and Ping-Cho without success – until sensible Barbara is given the stupidest lines imaginable, even blatantly making up the Doctor (who’s not in the scene for no other reason than that he’d have stopped this nonsense) and Ian’s opinions, just to contrive for them to seem as suspicious and hardened a group of plotters as they possibly can about something that has nothing to do with their plot. Suddenly, it’s shockingly poor writing.

While Barbara, Susan, and of course Polo (about to let the ambassador vital to stop a war go riding away) all audition for the ‘Stupidest Person in the World’ awards, at least Tegana has fun. Derren Nesbitt’s positively Shakespearean “Even I? I thank you, lady,” is worth all the revelling he does in it.

The young Doctor here goes horseback-riding, just as we see old codger Matt Smith doing all those years later. Of course, as this story’s missing, we can’t see William Hartnell doing it. Though it’s just possible nobody saw it in 1964, either!

Frequent liar Polo uses Ian’s minor lie against him, not wanting the truth but only an excuse to declare him a liar. He doesn’t risk asking Ian for his word of honour, knowing that while his own word means nothing, each of the travellers has always kept theirs or pointedly refused to give it when Polo demands it at swordpoint.

Kublai Khan’s Summer Palace at Shang-Tu looks very striking, with its painted dragons, blue demon and carved pillars. And fabulous hats. And at last! After a month and a half, we have another main character, and one who can order the rest about and give Marco a good kicking! As well as a great foil for the Doctor, meaning we get more of him, too. This is win-win-win.

Marco – greedy bastard and lickspittle that he is – talks all about the Khan’s pavilions and horses as if they were his own. The Doctor gets a double gag in response after his forced ride:
“Do you know, in his stables he has ten thousand white stallions?”
“Yes, well, one’s enough for me, young man. Red, white or blue.”
Which is both funny to start with against Polo’s vicarious boasting, and then next week the Doctor wins nearly half of them himself, and unlike Polo doesn’t care!

Marco Polo may look the part, but put yourself in the travellers’ place: for all his nice face and nice manners, his defining traits are to suck up to any power or position, bully the ‘little people’, and lie, cheat and steal for his own selfish reasons. He’s not a big, operatic villain, but the sort you meet in real life – a nasty little turd.

The Doctor’s roar of outrage at being ordered to kowtow after all that riding, and deciding that even the threat of death isn’t worth doing his back in any more for, is priceless. I’ve missed him for most of the episode – it’s seventeen minutes in before he gets a big scene, but it totally dominates the week.

Here’s one thing that doesn’t change later in the series: the Doctor refuses to change to fit in, unless he’s having fun dressing up to impersonate someone. All the others are in beautiful Chinese silks, but Hartnell’s in his Edwardian jacket and grey checked trousers, gesturing with his stick and not giving a fig for any time and place.

The only progression until now has been the Doctor moving from doddery to fury to hilarity, which was an excellent character development but still all back in Episode One, and since then has been in a huff and often in a caravan. Nothing changed for any of them in five episodes, which is very frustrating for the audience.

Thank goodness for Kublai Khan. One of the reasons the story seems so repetitive is that it’s all fake geographical progression – you could miss out, mash up or add to any stop so far – and not character progression. Here at last we get real geographical progression as they reach a destination, and a bigger hooray for the big, tough warlord turning out to be a hobbling little old man (itself the set-up for another reverse, in which he’ll reveal himself as every bit as dangerous as we expected but not in the way we did). That technically cheats with character progression of a character we’ve not in fact met before now, but counts for the way everyone’s talked about him.

Mighty Kublai Khan, indeed. The whole episode, and story, is lifted by this breath of fresh air. Now that, at last, they’re out of the fresh air.

“Kow-tow before the War Lord of War Lords! Mighty and fearful in his strength!”
Well, mighty in his colossal hat, at least. We are now in Palace of the Hats. Even the great big slightly discordant fanfares are a scream! And an entertaining fluff:
“I am not being impertinent, sir. I’m far from unwell.”
I feel for them both, still taking my own gout pills.

The story’s been all fake geographical progression – you could miss out, mash up or add to any stop so far – and not character progression, but here at last we reach a destination with a character at the end of it who changes in a moment from the big, tough warlord everyone’s talked about to a little old man with gout. And who’ll reveal himself as every bit as dangerous after all.

At long, long last, Polo is slapped down for being an obvious fool. He says it’s impossible for Noghai’s army to have closed in, then confesses he hasn’t brought Tegana, meaning he has to admit what a blithering idiot he is twice in two lines.

Marco’s boss may look and sound like a pain-ridden, cross old man, but like the Doctor, he’s on the ball. And unlike Marco, for all that this seems a comedy scene, he gets the business done before seeing to his own selfish needs.

The banter between the Doctor and the Ruler of the World before they bond – refusing to bow or to get on another horse, “Then walk!” – is utterly fabulous. They should have their own show. Like Statler and Waldorf. I love the Doctor’s half-heard “Oh, don’t gallop, sir!” as they stagger off.

Just as in An Unearthly Child, the Doctor has a technological advantage, and two factions fight over him to possess it, but this time it’s the TARDIS itself: that’s surely just what the Doctor was afraid of in not letting Ian and Barbara go.

How did Ian and Ping-Cho trace Kuiju? And if he’s waiting for someone… Surely Wang-Lo should have given them some soldiers, to cover his failure under charge from the Khan’s servant and the Khan’s seal? Then… Gasp! The Hooded Claw was behind it all the time!

Another mirroring, but better for Tegana this time: not his allies ruining his bluff, but a repeat of ‘underling with sword at throat’.
“I’ll kill him.”
“Do so. He is of no importance.”
And, knowing Ian isn’t used to using a sword, nonchalantly, mockingly: “Come… Come.”

All that, and I’ve not even mentioned the incontinent monkey.

Radio Times Teasers for Marco Polo

Mighty Kublai Khan
“Tegana shows his colours, and the Doctor has an uncomfortable meeting.”
Tegana shows his colours at the end, and you almost root for an honest villain. What the Radio Times doesn’t say is that, bookending the episode, Polo shows his colours at the start, and nothing’s going to make me root for him.

Next Episode – Assassin At Peking

Guess who it is?

Previously on Marco Polo:

The Roof of the World
The Singing Sands
Five Hundred Eyes
The Wall of Lies
Rider From Shang-Tu

Coming Soon on Marco Polo:

Assassin at Peking

At last, the conclusion!

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