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, June 29, 2013

Doctor Who – Marco Polo Episode Two: The Singing Sands

“Here’s water, Marco Polo. Come for it!”

It’s time for another episode of Marco Polo, and this week I have fewer comments. You can draw your own conclusions from that about the episode, though today’s not been encouraging me to write, anyway. After three months – that’s a whole Marco Polo’s-worth for the time travellers – of pills and strict diet to prevent my gout recurring, I’m now in my agonizing second attack, which makes me wonder why I bothered cutting out half the things I eat (such indulgences as asparagus and peas). I never drink anyway, but it’s enough to make me start. Couldn’t it at least have waited until Episode Six, where there’s a comedy tie-in with the story? So, starting with my ungenerous reaction on the very first time I listened to this episode, back in 2001…

And I Said…

In Episode Two, the Doctor’s asleep, and so am I, I’m afraid.

It can’t just be because the Doctor gets just one line and a cough and a spit at the end, but almost nothing of Episode Two turns up in the condensed version and even the Time Team don’t say a word about it, which says quite a bit about how disposable it is.

Episode Two: Tegana acts suspiciously, but Marco takes it out on everyone else. Also Episodes Three, Four, Five…

The episode starts with framing to make us sympathise with Polo:
“The journey across this vast ocean of sand is slow and hazardous. To make matters worse, the old Doctor continually shows his disapproval of my action by being both difficult and bad-tempered. For three days, during which time we have covered no more than thirty miles, I have had to endure his insults.”
So, Marco, you’re taking these people into the Gobi Desert by force, you’ve stolen their property and are keeping them in check at swordpoint from your band of thugs (really your Khan’s, whose power you’re abusing). But we should pity you, because they’re calling you names. Boo hoo, etc.

Polo comes across remarkably like a powerful, privileged modern-day opponent of gay marriage saying he’s the real victim because he’s been made to feel bad just because he’s a bad person.

I don’t know if all the Recon colours are accurate, but they’re very vivid, almost Technicolor. The Daleks is brilliant in claustrophobic, shiny black and white, but for this exotic travelogue the colour helps balance the lack of movement in the photos by making the whole thing come alive.

Tegana’s a good plotter, but his contempt for Polo keeps showing through and tripping him up. When he sneers openly at Polo’s confidence they have enough water to cross the desert, then tops his relentless negativity by demanding a bigger drink, it’s no wonder Marco snaps at him to exercise restraint! Is the warlord testing how much piss-taking his arrogance can get away with?

Polo’s hypocritical spin, week two:
“A game of chess, Ian?”
“Oh, I’m not very good, but I’ll give you a game.”
“I gladly accept your challenge.”
The man is forever blaming other people for his decisions – when they’re really his desires.

Tegana has a nice character moment over chess – fascinated by two armies eager to cry “Shah mat.” “Oh, check mate,” Ian chips in. “It means ‘the king is dead’,” corrects Tegana (perhaps incorrectly, by modern translations, but with relish).

Barbara comforts Susan over her sulking Grandfather, explaining that he feels defenceless without the TARDIS: “When we’re in it, we feel safe and secure, but out of it…” What? Has she forgotten the previous story? Surely the script editor can’t have – he wrote it. David, have you fallen asleep, too?

Framing the episode with the journal is designed to make us sympathise with Polo’s self-pity about the Doctor’s temper. Not me. So, Marco, you’re taking these people into the Gobi Desert by force, you’ve stolen their property and are keeping them at swordpoint from your band of thugs. But we should pity you, because they’re calling you names? Boo hoo, etc.

It’s the first Doctor-lite episode, by accident and hasty rewriting to accommodate the ill actor, but he’s even more the central character for everyone constantly talking about him, from Susan upset to Polo bitching to Ian hanging a Cathay hat on it with all his ‘The Doctor’s still asleeps’. It feels like he’s a constant presence, fulminating in the background.

Susan has some lovely lines, but for all her opposition to Ping-Cho’s nuptials they hint in retrospect at her own impending leaving:
“One day, we’ll know all the mysteries of the sky – and we’ll stop all our wanderings.”

Barbara finds night in the desert very beautiful, but Marco snaps: “Even at night, the desert is dangerous.” He’s terribly prosaic for a writer, as he’s about to prove by not spotting the ‘code’ in which Tegana comments on his chess game:
“Marco, can you save your King?”

Ping-Cho’s excitement at the Moon rising soon over the desert, “like a great silver sea,” at last prompts an unearthly thought from Susan: “The metal seas of Venus…” She’s never seen a moonlit night, emphasising their artificial existence in the TARDIS.

On a more Earthly level, here at last – five minutes into the series’ fifteenth episode, and after teetering but not quite making it through scenes in each of the previous three stories – is Doctor Who’s first unambiguously Bechdel-passing scene, as Susan and Ping-Cho talk together about the wonders of the night.

“Oh, cra-zy…” murmurs Susan in wonder as she sightsees to rippling, eerie music. She’s never this 1963-hip again.

As Marco is woken by a horse neighing, the Recon shows his head on a gorgeous blue pillow with a gold sash, his body under a gorgeous red cover with gold trim. It’s so incredibly Technicolor that it looks like a quick snapshot from Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone’s The Adventures of Robin Hood!

It’s usually Ian and Marco who are compared in this story, but the Twentieth-Century man suddenly speaks with Tegana’s superstitious voice when the sound of the rising sandstorm spooks him “like all the devils in hell.”

Marco is furious at Susan’s “We went for a walk,” shouting at the girls and showing the stiff, authoritarian side that always comes out when he doesn’t get his own way. And despite being very mildly critical of Tegana in person for doing just that, the cringing lickspittle kow-tows to him later in his journal!

Tegana gets his poison out. For most of the story, it’s more metaphorical, and it doesn’t have much impact here, either. He clearly fears being challenged next time if he goes for another wander.

Doctor Who’s first unambiguously Bechdel-passing scene: Susan and Ping-Cho talk together about the wonders of the night.

While Barbara is strangely dim and wimpy (shaken more by a storm than by the Daleks or the Tribe), Susan really gains from playing off Ping-Cho – especially, here, intelligent and confident in seeing that Tegana’s not a man who’d go for a walk just to see a pretty night… And that, though a special emissary surely wouldn’t lie about such a thing, that makes it all the stranger that he did.

Carole Ann Ford’s great when she’s determined, and Susan is the first to work out Tegana’s place in the plot, which advances it. Or would, if there were any advance in the next four weeks.

Using panoramic production photos rather than the more confined Tele-snap shots rediscovered after the Recon was completed has its advantages and disadvantages: greater scale but less variety; a mass of colour but fewer scene-specific images; and, as they cross the desert, the wagons and hats give the feel of a Western, but against a rather limited backcloth background.

Tegana turns even his uncontrollable arrogance to his advantage: by being so obvious, he’s daring everyone to think that he must be open about everything and so couldn’t be a plotter on top.

There’s a neatly ambiguous scene where it’s not clear if Tegana’s being stupid or clever: taunting Polo over his writing then patronising him over his swordplay, he obviously gets Polo’s back up and is refused permission to give the night guard orders… But is it a double bluff, so that when he creates a distraction in order to slash the gourds, he can be certain no-one will say he ordered the guard away from them?

Tegana swallows his arrogance and gets his own way at last by posing as selfless and heroic in riding ahead to the oasis rather than running out on them – though he has no intention of coming back to the desperate wagons. He can’t bring himself to wheedle like Polo, but he sees himself as the hero and can strike a more convincing pose than the Venetian.

Slaking his thirst and pouring water back into the oasis, Tegana famously gives the cliffhanger laugh: “Here’s water, Marco Polo. Come for it!” with such relish that should Richard or I ask the other to pass something but we want to stay lounging on the sofa, our flat regularly echoes to the likes of ‘Here’s ketchup, Marco Polo. Come for it!’

Radio Times Teasers for Marco Polo

The Singing Sands

“Marco Polo warns Ian of the death in the desert, and Susan goes for a walk.”

Next Episode – The Cave of Five Hundred Eyes

For which an exciting “Next Episode” caption was surely designed to encourage kids to think there’d be monsters, as with the misdirection at the start of the first episode. But was the story too obviously ‘real’ by then for it to work?

Previously on Marco Polo:

The Roof of the World

Coming Soon on Marco Polo:

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

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Doctor Who – Marco Polo Episode One: The Roof of the World

Now I come to the biggest gap in Doctor Who’s first two seasons – a story that we can’t see today, for all the flurry of rumours in the three weeks since I wrote about why so many episodes are gone. Yet this was the first full-length story after the series’ massive breakthrough with The Daleks, intended to be and succeeding in being just as big a hit and with considerably more money spent on it (as is visible, if no longer in motion, in the wealth of glorious colour photos that survive).

I first heard Marco Polo on a very indistinct audio recording about a dozen years ago, and it didn’t do a great deal for me. Since then, I’ve experienced it in several different formats, and have warmed to the story a great deal more. At the same time, I’ve grown much colder (or perhaps more heated) towards one of its main characters, which may just show through in my subtle hints below. There are a handful of supporting characters beloved of most Doctor Who critics for being apparently chummy and respectable who I now find myself disliking – another springs to mind from 1977 – but this one I’ve really taken against in a major way and, I think, with good reason.

The story itself is said by quite a few reviewers to be the best Doctor Who historical adventure, or even the greatest Doctor Who of all. I like much about it, but I wouldn’t go anywhere near that far. You’ll be able to pick out why in the one-line thoughts below, and more over the next few weeks.

The next few weeks, you ask?

I’m making a commitment that may be both unexpected and unwise. I have, amazingly, already written my one-liners for the whole story, though not yet some of the value-added material, in the aim of posting it all last night. But on reading through it all, I realised that even for me it would be an unprintably vast amount for one go. I suspect the reason for this is that, over the years since I last wrote up a story on here, I’ve watched Marco Polo several times, made copious notes each time, then done nothing with them until now. And this time round, I’ve just watched the Recon, listened to the official CD, watched the condensed Recon on The Beginning DVD boxed set, read the Tele-snap ‘photonovel’ in the DWM Special, and read the novelisation. So I may have overcompensated for not being able to watch the moving pictures on TV.

As a result, perhaps for this one time only, I’ve broken my thoughts into seven collections, and I intend to publish an episode’s-worth at a time. I suppose if ever there were a Doctor Who story for which it’s appropriate to go on for ages across many diversions without ever seeming to get anywhere, it’s this one, which lasted a month and a half on screen and is said to take three months for the characters. My usual set of ‘extra features’ will be split between today’s article and the finale, with the long journey in between just the one-liners. Time to embark…

My ‘The Review all Doctor Who Challenge’ posting in an online discussion, January 2004:

Bit of an odd one, this. The Doctor’s very entertaining – laughing at the end of Episode One, sparring with Kublai Khan – but it’s really the ‘Ian vs Marco’ story, with the series’ least incompetent plotting villain setting everyone against each other. It’s very well done, and I’d recommend the colour Recon to get an eye-popping view of the sets, but you get an odd feeling that not much is actually happening for most of it.

As some have suggested, if you got some of the episodes in the wrong order, or missed them out entirely – no-one would notice. It’s a ‘travelogue’ story where it would make no difference whether it was four parts, or twelve. It’ll depend on the mood you’re in as to which it feels like ;-)

The other funny thing about Marco Polo… No other Who story is as didactic. Ian and Barbara’s teacher status really gets rammed down our throats: ‘In today’s lesson, children, we’re going to learn about the travels of Marco Polo, condensation, nomadic Mongol encampments, and how air pressure affects a/ the boiling point of water and b/ the explosive effects of bamboo.’

Or maybe it’s just odd to hear companions giving the explanations.

“A caravan that flies... do you imagine what this would mean to the Khan? It will make him the most powerful ruler the world has ever known; stronger than Hannibal… Mightier than Alexander the Great!”

And I Said…

The first episode’s rather super, if pedagogic – both Ian and Barbara get To Show They’re Teachers, but it really kicks into overdrive when the Doctor first goes into fury and then pisses himself at Marco at the end. He really is terrific, and it’s a stunner of a scene.

Seeing eager Susan with Barbara in the snow in colour is utterly thrilling – and, blurry as it is, the slightly over-saturated colour of the Recon works better for me than the black-and-white-with-a-tint seen on BBC1 in prime time a month ago. Although, Billy, prime-time, BBC1, was something that was utterly thrilling in itself! And somehow already using the stick the great Khan gives him later this story, hmm?

With the two women kneeling in wonder beside a huge indentation in the snow, we’re meant to think, after the Daleks, that this is ‘Doctor Who and the Snowmen’! It’ll come…

William Russell’s got a lovely voice for narrating the CD, and it’s well-written and rarely intrusive… So the point at which I was suddenly taken out of it was hearing, “From it steps an elderly white-haired man…” That’s him, now! But the scene-setting works well: “These four are the time and space-travelling occupants of the TARDIS.”

This is incredibly didactic. Watched after The Beginning thirteen episodes, it stands out a mile: it’s slow, it’s informative, it’s very detailed, it has very strong guest characters and design almost to rival The Daleks… But it really shoves Ian and Barbara’s little homilies down our throats. So is this the only story ever written to the show’s original brief?

The half-hour condensed version has about ten minutes of the first episode in it. Shows how much plot there is in the rest.

I grew up in the Tom Baker days thinking the TARDIS was always breaking down, but at least by then the complexity was at fault – after the fluid link and the spring, it doesn’t get more prosaic than ‘the fuse has gone’, which seems to be the case here.

The Ship breaking down yet again and so utterly disastrously feels very forced, but the Doctor’s reaction to it feels very real: angry, frustrated and rather startling as he snaps,
“Everything’s gone to pot!”

Teacher Watch 1: a verbal tour of high mountain ranges (only Susan gets it right); air pressure affecting the boiling point; Marco Polo; Cathay.

Though it’s Susan who identifies the right mountain range, Barbara’s guess of the Andes may be a bit of prefiguring…

This is an historical in more than just the fan-story-descriptor sense: we’ve seen the Doctor in a towering, superior fury before, but this starts with a petty loss of control over a blown fuse. John Lucarotti writes both him and his granddaughter as less unearthly than in any other script, then gives the teachers all the exposition, making this perhaps the closest story to the series’ original conception but the furthest from where it was already going. An historical oddity.

Although on a more careful listen he probably says “Are you telling—?” I laughed at the more profane implication of what seemed like Barbara and the Doctor’s “But that’s serious. We could freeze to death.” “Serious. Are you taking—? There’s no need for you to tell me that, really!”

One element that lets the script down early, and is more shocking in context of the previous stories, is that Ian puts down Barbara’s story of a strange “print” in the snow as just an ‘hysterical woman’… And, where the previous stories up-ended that trope by every time showing the woman in fact justified, here it’s dead straight and he’s telling off his friend for getting the wrong idea in her silly little head. It’s certainly the wrong idea in Mr Lucarotti’s.

The script’s a strange one for Barbara, playing to her strong points when being a history teacher doing the explanations but making her a much weaker and stupider woman when involved in the plot.

Perhaps part of the reason Barbara’s role suffers here is that all the rest of the crew gain from a new pairing: Susan and Ping-Cho, passionately; the Doctor and the Khan, warily and never going to stay together long, but having enormous fun; Ian and Polo, on an entirely false basis. But Mr Lucarotti will make up for that in his next script.

The first scene with the emissary-warlord Tegana and Marco Polo gives us a taste of things to come in Mr Lucarotti’s scripts: Tegana’s “Hear me, Mongols” has the same ‘Othering’ appeal to racism he’ll use later on the Khan (and, subtly, tells us his opinion of Polo from the start), while Polo is set up as the ‘reasonable’ one overruling the ‘savages’, like Autloc will be.

It’s weird to have a first episode packed with other people, isn’t it? I’d got used to pretty much just the four of them to get into each story.

Tegana’s big horned furry hat versus the soldiers’ single-spiked furry hats suggests he’s twice the Mongol any of them are. While Marco’s massive furry hat apparently gives him authority, he’s all muff and no spike.

Tegana’s character basically starts off as ‘I’m a psycho’. Bit of a clue, there.

You can tell Ian’s a teacher: Susan’s already said it’s the Roof of the World, but she’s only a pupil, and a girl, so he wasn’t listening to her and is surprised and so looks dim when told the same by a man.

The half-hour condensed version has about ten minutes of the first episode in it. Shows how much plot there is in the rest.

Tegana is persuasive with his “magicians” line, and poetic – as well as telling – in calling the Ship “a warlord’s tomb”. And even Marco’s worried that it’s not big enough for them all: that’s the part beyond his understanding, so he tries never to find out and challenge his set ideas.

The Doctor’s sarcastic “It doesn’t roll along on wheels” to Ian way back at the start of the series becomes an observation of suspicion and danger here for the “warlord’s tomb”…

From starting the episode wound up and taking it out on everyone, the Doctor becomes utterly charming with Ping-Cho, and invitingly naughty about her soup and Tegana’s role.
“For an emissary of peace, he has rather bloodthirsty habits, hasn’t he?”
And there it is, in plain sight, in the first episode! Tegana’s a killer; he dresses like a baddie; he plots; the Doctor spots it. Obviously, in a story that goes on so very long, being so blatant so very early must only be to set up a surprise character pivot later. Eh? What’s that you say? Oh.

It’s not just Tegana whose character is given away immediately: more subtly, Polo promises help with the TARDIS; the Doctor agrees not to go inside until Lop for diplomacy’s sake. The Doctor shows he can be reasonable when there’s a reason, and keeps his word. Polo is a lying plotter from the start. Remember that through his pretensions to the moral high ground.

This is the story’s original sin: Marco saves the Doctor’s life and the Doctor gives his word in return, and keeps it. But Marco is a thief and deceiver from the very first – and when the Doctor and the others save his life in return, even several times, that doesn’t change his nature.

Barbara works out who Marco Polo is from various clues, but I wonder if this scene works better on audio than it did in the burnt TV sequence: identifying him as being the European in the Khan’s service, I suspect several of the other actors in his caravan would have looked European, too.

Last week, we had the Doctor getting Ian’s name wrong for a laugh to show his concentration relaxing once the crisis was over; here were get “That’s my grandchild, Susan, and that’s Miss Wright… And that’s Charlton. Hmm!” as another scripted gag to give Ian a little character moment and start him talking with Polo.

Polo’s map and journal combine for a very effective device: the Recon’s moving map effect and coiled dragon are lovely; Polo’s narration makes this his story and commands us into his point of view; and yet it gives him away as villainous in soliloquy, proclaiming to himself
“Success! My plan has worked.”

So, Marco is handsome, popular and utterly self-centred; he writes about his travels to show himself in the best possible light and minimise everyone else; and while not a killer for the fun of it, he’s sociopathically content to let anyone die who gets in his way. I bet JK Rowling enjoyed reading the book of this story before she came upon Gilderoy Lockhart.

Polo’s journal in which he frames himself as the hero and, more ineffectually, his speeches to a hostile audience make the point that narrators are unreliable and history is written by the side that convinces everyone they had the best justification for winning. Later, he even keeps the TARDIS key in his journal, imprisoning their story within his.

Interesting to have a narrator – it emphasises that the Doctor’s not in control of this story, and that it’s not his, long before Russell T Davies brought in stories about famous writers. When in-story narration eventually returns to the series, it’s the Doctor finding his way home after almost as long as Marco…

It seems to me that John Lucarotti saw Marco Polo as the hero but, to keep the time travellers at his side, couldn’t help writing him as the villain. More even than the Daleks, he comes across as the perhaps not evil but gittish mirror of our heroes, the selfish, self-aggrandising traveller.

With this adventure conceived as “A Journey To Cathay”, its intention as a travelogue rather than a story was plain from the start. What was less plain was that the narrator of this BBC travel show was going to be such a shit, like Michael Palin’s evil twin getting to put his show on or the baby gets it.

Barbara and Ian in Chinese hats with her in a pink pully look adorable. They’re so a couple on holiday. And so a British couple on holiday.

You get used to the teachers’ constant exposition, but Susan’s is a stranger choice: she explains “Fab” to Ping-Cho, something that the audience would know and establishing herself as a very Earthly, and indeed swinging, child.

Translating most of the words yet getting “Cathay” wrong, then “Fab”, makes you think the TARDIS really has broken down: ‘Oh, most of it’s in place, stuff it, I’m cold…’

Richard suggests the TARDIS is still sore at them after they nearly piloted it into a massive explosion last week and didn’t listen to its warnings: ‘Right, take my translation for granted, will you? Then every time you say something from the 1960s I’m going to make you look an arse.’

Susan’s shocked reaction to Ping-Cho’s arranged marriage to a seventy-five-year-old is an interesting illustration of her unfamiliarity with other cultures, but is never really more than colour at the edge of the plot: by John Lucarotti’s next script, he’s learnt to personalise much more of the story to our heroes.

Susan and Ping-Cho strike up an immediate friendship, but it’s sadly a Bechdel fail in their first episode: asking about each other’s backgrounds, it’s all about grandfather, father, then fiancé.

It’s a good job Polo has no backbone, supported by his (borrowed) soldiers in stealing the TARDIS but still too cowardly to enter it – this could have been another An Unearthly Child. Tegana reacts exactly as the Doctor feared Londoners would, fearing the TARDIS, making a big thing of it, and seeing his main chance, so I wouldn’t put it past the Doctor to invite Polo in for a look, then whisk him off, too! Imagine the series where the Doctor solves each week’s problem by kidnapping a different troublemaker…

Marco: handsome, popular, utterly self-centred; writes up his travels to glorify himself and minimise others; content to let anyone die who gets in his way. I bet JK Rowling read the book of this story before she came upon Gilderoy Lockhart.

Marco’s soldiers prevent the Doctor from entering the TARDIS – breaking Marco’s word – and he then goes into a long, self-pitying speech in front of his literally captive audience to frame (to himself, chiefly) his lying, selfish theft as ‘reasonable’ and with a ‘generous’ offer to let the Doctor build another TARDIS. Rightly, the Doctor treats him with contempt from this moment on.

Marco’s ‘invitation’ at swordpoint for the time travellers to sit and listen to his life story doesn’t go nearly as well as talking to a journal that doesn’t answer back: the Doctor’s savage laughter at the “savage” quickly needles him into losing his temper. For all the force at his command, the ‘Mr Reasonable’ act can’t stand up to the awkward truth that he’s a gobshite.

Polo’s disgusting self-serving wheedle includes the hypocrisy that he’s reliant on the Khan, suffering from old age: “If he dies, I may never see Venice again.” Yet he proclaims it reasonable that the Doctor, apparently just as old, should make a journey of many years with a long labour to build a new Ship at the end of it. And he sees no contradiction in that.

Another of Polo’s self-servingly blind hypocrisies: “Surely, for a man who possesses a flying caravan, all things are possible?” The crucial point being – for a man who possesses it. Once he doesn’t, it isn’t!

You can see just how reasonable Polo is when, after a long speech to justify his theft, he’s told why it’s impossible to build a new TARDIS and announces, “I refuse to listen to any more,” then flounces out, leaving our heroes under threat of death if they try to get their own property.

Marco telling his story to the time travellers – making himself the lead character, and so it only right that the audience sympathise with him and he gets his way – is of a part with his narration, attempting to control the narrative with a flood of words. “You do me an injustice,” he tells the Doctor, just as he later tells the Khan – and in both cases, he doesn’t actually wait to hear what the other says before butting in to assert, ‘It’s not fair! It’s all about me!’

Polo cuts the Doctor off with an accusation of “injustice” because it’s ‘unjust’ for a thief to be confronted with his thievery and why it’s wrong, instead offering generously to take them several years out of their way for an impossibility.

Marco wants to feel better about himself, but only by giving them his leavings that don’t inconvenience him in any way, and by wilfully ignoring every practical problem they raise. He looks noble and handsome, but he acts just like the Sheriff of Nottingham.

It’s clever to pair Polo with Ian, for two men of an age and an heroic pose to try and forge some bond. Had Polo mainly been sparking off the Doctor all story, we might have been reminded of several of the TARDIS crew in one – desperate to get home, and prepared to kidnap them all to do it.

It’s the first time we get to see (if only in photos, now) a Doctor Who fan on screen! …The Doctor clutches one as he faces off against Marco in the way-station at Lop.

Look! A Doctor Who fan gets on the cover of the Radio Times before even the Daleks do.

The Doctor’s most gorgeous moment in the whole episode isn’t upset, or engaging, or defiant, but at his lowest point: Polo has the TARDIS and he’s utterly powerless. So he just pisses himself laughing at the humour of not having the faintest idea what to do. It’s utterly endearing, made all the more so by the picture of Ian looking resigned to one side while the Doctor cackles!

I’ve already loved William Hartnell’s Doctor from his very first scene, but here his character expands in unexpected directions in a tour de force, turning in just the first episode from blazing fury, to incredulity, to pissing himself in the background and then the foreground as, for once, he doesn’t have a clue what to do and rather than the earlier rattiness just giggles.

While The Daleks’ moral against ‘Dislike for the unlike’ was slightly undermined by the ‘beautiful’ Thals being good and the ‘ugly’ Daleks evil, this is the series’ first ‘Don’t judge by appearances’ moral. Mark Eden is handsome, dignified, and offers a performance that makes us think Marco must be noble, overlooking all his theft, bullying and selfishness. Cast an actor with an ugly face and a whiny voice in the part to reflect his character and viewers wouldn’t give Polo the time of day.

Handsome and dignified he may be, but remember that from the first episode on Marco Polo’s prime characteristic is that he’s a thief, abusing state power for utterly selfish reasons. He’s also a scheming plotter, a fawning creep, a bully, a blackmailer, a cad, an ingrate, an idiot, a liar, a hypocrite and an all-round gobshite.
[There’s something about the detestable Polo that really encourages my vindictive side. If he sets you off in the same way, you might like to go the full Shona Spurtle:
“You are a waster, Polo. You are a lying cheat. You are a fibster, a fabulist, an equivocating shim-shammer, a cozening card sharp, a pathological mythomaniac, a yarner, a poulterer – who perjures – a whited sepulchre, a cantering serpent, a rat!”]

Marco Polo is the first of a long series of a particular kind of Doctor Who stock character – the jumped-up petty bureaucrat who abuses his power and gets in our heroes’ way. The difference from most is that he’s not a cartoon played for laughs, but has a backstory and a motive… Or, to put it another way, he’s not merely officious but crooked.

Polo is a selfish, nasty little villain who gives himself airs and can’t bear to be punctured. Tegana shows himself not just a better villain but a stronger character when the cliffhanger gives him the series’ first proper villain’s speech: not a petty promise to his journal but ambition to a fellow soldier to serve his lord, and he knows how to do it.

Messr Marco may not be a villain in the style of most in the series, a conqueror like Tegana, but he’s all the more contemptible for that – selfish, domineering, absolutely misusing the authority he holds in trust. Tegana is more ruthless and nasty, but he’s much more moral by his own lights.

We’re meant to side with the ‘reasonable’ European in the position of authority in both of John Lucarotti’s early scripts, yet both Marco and Barbara are selfishly misusing their power and, by the lights of local morality, the villain.

Next Episode – The Singing Sands

In which Brian Hodgson creates a fantastic soundscape of howling, jabbering sandstorms so justly famed that I couldn’t think of anything original to say about them. So what does that leave me with?

Coming Soon on Marco Polo:

The Singing Sands
Five Hundred Eyes
The Wall of Lies
Rider From Shang-Tu
Mighty Kublai Khan
Assassin at Peking

What Terrance Dicks Said…

I started this year at a small but perfectly formed Doctor Who convention on the first Sunday in January, Fantom Films’ Celebrate 50: The Patrick Troughton Years. On stage, former lead writer and producer Terrance Dicks and Derrick Sherwin were asked about how much the series has changed. Rather than starting with their own approach, they both pointed out that the series had always changed, even from the beginning to their day. First Derrick, not positively:
“It started off as an educational series.”
“Yes. They’d go back and see Marco Polo in history so that they could learn about him. And it very soon came to the point where the kids said, ‘Fuck Marlo Polo’—”
At which point the audience collapsed in a mixture of whoops, cheers, laughter, giggles from the few children and despairing groans from their parents, and Terrance carried on, quite unabashed:
“‘…never mind Marlo Polo – we want more Daleks!’”

I don’t entirely disagree with him, and he was hugely entertaining about it (and clearly getting the name wrong on purpose for the ‘kids’ voice’), but I should say that I do love the historicals… And that I’ve previously written on my main blog that people who slag them off as unpopular tend to get it wrong.

Radio Times Teasers for Marco Polo

An adventure in space and time


Marco Polo is a doubly important step forward: not only is this the story where the Radio Times starts getting into the series properly with exciting little teasers that for the first time tell us something about each episode, but it’s the first time the series gets the front cover. Though note that Polo’s such a rotten git that he even steals the Radio Times cover from William Russell.

The Roof of the World
“The Tardis has landed on the roof of the world. But which world, and when?”

Plus interesting guest credits:
Mark Eden, Derren Nesbitt
and introducing
Zienia Merton

Available In All Good Shops? Part I

The short answer is, of course, no: the episodes have long since been burned. The long answer is more complex and more rewarding: you can experience Marco Polo at least in part in about half a dozen different forms, some available in shops, some less officially. I’ll leave talking about two of them – the novelisation, and the condensed Recon available on the Doctor Who – The Beginning DVD box set – until Episode Seven, but in the meantime, here are the other main versions…

As I wrote three weeks ago, there are several ways in which ‘missing’ episodes survive, of which the principal ones today are soundtracks and Tele-snaps. The Tele-snaps of Doctor Who episodes have been rediscovered in dribs and drabs – and in one huge haul – over the years, and I understand that Marco Polo’s are the most recently found. The director, Waris Hussein, happened to have a set in storage, and about eight years ago, someone happened to ask him about them. As a result, they’re the only Tele-snaps for ‘missing’ episodes which you can’t view on the old BBC Doctor Who website, as that was already being wound down in favour of the new series, and these off-air photos of the action only exist for six of the seven episodes, as Mr Hussein was ill during one week and another director took over. However, this set of Tele-snaps have been made available to buy in several formats, including twice by DWM: way back across issues 342-347, and all together earlier this year in the Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition 34: The Missing Episodes – The First Doctor. You can probably still find that in shops for a few more weeks, and I recommend it.

Alternatively, the soundtrack is available on CD, recorded off-air by fans in 1964 and since cleaned up and given helpful narration from William Russell to make it a far less muffled proposition than the bootleg copies I first heard. First released singly, Marco Polo is now part of the first volume of Doctor Who – The Lost TV Episodes Collection, which I also recommend, complete with a bonus disc containing assorted interviews and other extra features in pdf form such as a map of our heroes’ travels with Marco Polo and copies of the original scripts. William Russell’s is the longest and the best of the CD interviews, intelligent, funny and informative. Though he mixes praise and criticism of the series and those who worked on it, he has an air of being forthright, firm, and telling it like it is – while also appealingly positive. Carole Ann Ford is less positive, though at least reacts with glee to mention of The Edge of Destruction – her favourite, she says, because it gave her something to do – while Maureen O’Brien is very sniffy and is not someone to listen to if you want to retain your illusions (though David the interviewer seems to have poked her with a stick into suddenly saying something nice at the end).

By far the best way to experience Marco Polo is, though, for me the glorious Loose Cannon Reconstruction, which mixes surviving sound and visual material and even offers special features of its own. I wrote about Recons last time, but this one is unique: it’s in full colour, and not only was it made before the Tele-snaps were tracked down, it unexpectedly gains from that. With so many colour photos taken of the fabulous sets and costumes, the reconstructors were able to colourise the smaller if still substantial amount of black and white material to match; I don’t think that would have happened had there been so very much detailed black and white material so temptingly to hand. I said last time that this is my favourite Recon, and though the multi-colour-switching titles are occasionally a little jarring, shivers still go up my spine for those few colourised seconds of Susan and Barbara starting off a William Hartnell story in colour, and continuing throughout.
“If only they knew – I didn’t tell half of what I saw…”

Not only is the whole story presented in bold, lively, almost supersaturated colour – clearly seeing no point in using colour if you’re only to offer anaemic hints of it – but it’s boosted considerably by some terrific extra material all (well, most) of Loose Cannon’s own. Mark Eden clearly enjoyed playing the title character; nearly forty years later he returned to the role for Loose Cannon, and what a gent, I have to say, as I doubt they had any money for him. Not only does he give an informative interview to camera – and is very blunt that it should never have been junked, instead treasured not just for the actors but its wonderful sets and costumes – but he also appears in tent, in robe and back in character for a brand new framing device, writing again about his travels. An impressive ‘Making of’ brings together actors Carole Ann Ford, Mark Eden, Zienia Merton and Philip Voss, along with clips of designer Barry Newbery and director Warris Hussein plus various other productions, then a whole mini-documentary on Marco Polo himself which is again narrated by the lovely Mr Eden and an intriguing addition.

I’d like one day to see a more complete Tele-snap-based Reconstruction than the condensed version I’ll come to in a few weeks’ time, to offer greater accuracy and some details they couldn’t provide – the revelation of Marco wrapped up against the cold in big cloak and bigger furry Russian-ish hat, say – but I can’t help feeling that it might look rather dowdy after this Technicolor masterpiece, and that I’d be more likely to watch the existing Recon again than one that’s more accurate but bound to be less visually striking.

And, if you’ll excuse one last terrible ‘fan’ gag, it’s curiously appropriate that we see the Doctor reliant on a fan in this story’s original moment of crisis – and that thanks to the series invisibly relying on fans since, we can still see and hear so much of it.

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Saturday, June 01, 2013

William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who: Now You See It…

Shamefully, I never thought I’d get back to this. And maybe I still won’t (my reviews elsewhere have fallen off rather, too). But just in case you’ve happened to come by this way, here’s a little bit of Bill Hartnell fun. I was so utterly delighted to see him in prime time, palely colourised and all, in The Name of the Doctor a fortnight ago that I popped on An Unearthly Child straight afterwards. Then The Daleks (Richard being away for the weekend). And I enjoyed them enormously. The Edge of Destruction, too, and Marco Polo since.

Marco Polo, though, is something very different to those three.

It’s the first Doctor Who story that you can buy on CD.

You know, you can buy two-thirds of all the William Hartnell stories on CD – and all but three of those in which Patrick Troughton stars as the Doctor. So what, you might ask, has the BBC got against those left out, and especially those first three stories that I’ve told you are so brilliant?

Well, if you’re reading this obscure blog, you almost certainly know the answer already – that it’s nothing the BBC has against those three terrific stories I’ve already written about here, but that it’s got next to nothing of many of the rest of the Sixties. More than one in eight of all Doctor Who episodes made to this day – specifically, nearly half of those made in the ’60s, and more than half of those starring Patrick Troughton – no longer exist in most meaningful senses, which is why you can buy the first three stories on DVD but the fourth is primarily available on CD instead.

There were 253 episodes of Doctor Who made and broadcast in the 1960s. Only 148 still exist as TV episodes. Out of the six Doctor Who seasons starring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, three are almost but not quite complete; three are skeletal wrecks with the vast majority of their episodes “lost”. Accounts of this distressing phenomenon tend to use the euphemisms “lost” or “missing”, particularly accounts from the BBC, when more accurate words might be “burnt” or “taped over”. In fact, the original video of every single 1960s episode was taped over, though that’s marginally less appalling than it sounds. For a more in-depth account, I recommend Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition 34: The Missing Episodes – The First Doctor, which was released a couple of months ago and copies of which can still be found in some shops (or, inevitably but less visually, Wikipedia). For my partial account of the strange and wonderful ways of experiencing what’s left, read on.

Why 1960s Doctor Who Was Destroyed

It wasn’t just Doctor Who. The BBC’s archiving policy with many pieces of great television from the 1960s was literally to toss them into a skip and burn them. Film was thrown away or torched, while video was wiped over. In the days when there were just three TV channels, an actors’ union dead-set against repeats and videotape highly expensive (and long before home video), as well as many TV bosses seeing their medium as an ephemeral one of no lasting artistic significance, it’s easy to see why so much early television was destroyed, though to understand the terrible mixture of snobbery, false economy and lack of foresight that led to such mass vandalism is not to excuse it. The simplest way was just to re-use the huge and hugely expensive videotape spools again to record new programmes. And that’s why no Doctor Who episode from the ’60s exists in its crisp, first-generation original format. It wasn’t until Tom Baker’s first season in 1975 that every episode’s master tape was kept.

The good news is that a surprising number of other formats – official and unofficial – mean that a surprising number of episodes survive, even if none survive precisely as they started. The biggest reason is that the BBC made film copies of almost every episode for overseas sales. While these didn’t quite capture the full picture or frame rate of the originals, there were a great many more copies struck: film was the international standard, and Doctor Who was successful enough to be exported to more than sixty countries. These copies were also in black and white – most countries’ TV stations not switching over to full colour until well in the ’70s – which is why for many years several episodes starring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor could only be seen in monochrome, despite all of them having been made in colour. Thanks to finds, technological advances and sometimes painstaking and expensive hard work, now all of them are back to at least watchable if not perfect colour: on Monday, the last of these, The Mind of Evil, will be released on DVD and those like me who weren’t born when it was broadcast in 1971 will be able to see it in colour for the first time.

Many episodes were “lost” for a second and final time when the BBC helpfully insisted that all export copies were destroyed once the rental period was up. Thankfully, some were kept in the BBC’s own film archive and others have since turned up in TV stations and far more peculiar places all over the world. Since the BBC changed their policy and started keeping rather than destroying their television archive in the late 1970s, more than thirty episodes have been recovered, though with fewer than ten of those turning up in the last twenty years, each discovery seems like it might be the last.

If you know any film collectors with mysterious cans of any pre-1970s television programmes, the hunt is still on: this Radio Times article tells you how to get in touch in the unlikely but blessed event that you think you’ve found any “lost” Doctor Who or other piece of TV history.

The Survivors and the Ghosts: From CDs To Censors, Reading To Recons

When I was growing up, you got to see Doctor Who once – perhaps twice, with a couple of lucky stories from each year repeated the following summer – and that was it. The only two ways to experience a story again were, as I’ve written before, nightmares and Target Books, both thrilling if only partially reliable recreations of Doctor Who on TV. Almost every TV Doctor Who story from the original 1963 to 1989 run was novelised, which immediately put the series way ahead of most television. But even without the filmed copies held, or not, by TV stations which were as far as anyone knew never to be seen again, there were strange underground multimedia alternatives.

By the early 1990s, at last we could read novels of every 1960s Doctor Who story, including the “lost” ones. More surprisingly, by the early ’90s we were able to start hearing them, too. Doctor Who had so gripped the imagination of some viewers from the very first that they wanted to experience it again and again, and these home entertainment pioneers put microphones to their tellies and recorded the soundtracks. Between several different people’s collections later supplied to a BBC that decided it did want them after all, every single story exists at least in sound from – again putting Doctor Who in a far more fortunate position than many other TV series of the period. And over the last twenty years, all those soundtracks have been released.

There’s a curious crossover between the first and second waves of mainstream, purchasable versions of the missing stories, and it’s for me the best of all “lost” stories – The Evil of the Daleks. It was the final Target novelisation, released in 1993; in 1992, it was also the joint first release of a complete “missing” soundtrack. I recently wrote about The Evil of the Daleks on my main blog, having guest-reviewed it for a friend; by an odd quirk, the other soundtrack released with it was The Macra Terror, which also became a firm favourite and which between them are arguably the series’ most strongly Liberal stories. And it’s as part of my review of The Macra Terror that I first wrote about its rather fabulous Reconstruction and just what that phenomenon means, of which more shortly.

The first commercial soundtrack releases from the BBC were of ropy quality, on cassette, and were given both sparse and eccentric linking narration to explain what was going on in the absent pictures. I still have a great fondness for them, though I can no longer play my dusty cassettes – if anyone has decent MP3s of 1992’s first four cassette releases, please do get in touch – but today’s comprehensive CD collection is of far greater quality. The soundtracks have been painstakingly restored by cross-matching multiple sources and remastering each of them; the narration is considerably more precise, if sometimes intrusively verbose; and the discs themselves are a far clearer listening experience than the cassettes ever were. Though most of them are available as single releases, I recommend the five-box series Doctor Who – The Lost TV Episodes Collection, which collects all the missing stories into boxed sets (shop around for the best deal).

Though the soundtracks are the most accessible and comprehensive representations of the 106 “lost” episodes, they’re far from the only ones. A man called John Cura made a living by photographing early TV programmes and selling them on to the likes of BBC directors so they could have records of their work – as a result, around 60 Tele-snaps per episode rather than 25 frames per second exist for the majority of the Doctor Who stories where the moving pictures were junked. You can see Tele-snaps assembled into perfunctory photonovels on the BBC website for stories such as, again, The Evil of the Daleks and The Macra Terror.

At the less officially sanctioned end, a few tiny film clips exist from people with wind-up cine-cameras, though no full episodes (or even full minutes!) were recorded in the same way that the soundtracks were. Most ironically and hilariously, some of the ‘scarier’ scenes survive because the censors in New Zealand cut them out before stories were transmitted over there, but being good bureaucrats, carefully stored the ‘unsuitable’ bits. So all we now have of some stories are the bits they didn’t want us to see. One DVD release, Doctor Who – Lost In Time, is entirely a collection of ‘orphaned’ episodes, film clips and censored fragments where some but not all of the story exists.

The most ambitious recreations of the missing episodes are cartoon animations paired to the soundtracks, now available on DVD to supplement the existing episodes of The Invasion and The Reign of Terror – expensive and exciting, these return the complete stories to moving pictures, and there are more on the way.

The next most ambitious recreations of the missing episodes are back to that less officially sanctioned end – the Reconstructions. These fabulous labours of love match the soundtracks to the Tele-snaps, and more recently film clips, CGI and anything else to hand, with occasional explanatory captions, for a strange but compelling experience somewhere between the audio drama of a soundtrack alone and a TV show. Some Recons are essentially slide shows; others mount ambitious CGI sequences, such as highly effective animated Daleks or unintentionally comical juddering Yeti. And not only are these available for free, they must be available for free: the BBC appear to turn a blind eye to them as long as they don’t use the remastered CD soundtracks and as long as no-one makes a penny from them, so don’t let anyone charge you for them.

The best and most comprehensive range of Recons are made by Loose Cannon, and you can find their website here. Their work offers increasingly ambitious approximations of missing sequences and a remarkable array of extra features, particularly interviews with actors and others who worked on the stories they’re aiming to reconstruct.

To finish by returning to my opening flipped point of view, there are other Doctor Who CDs available than just the “lost” adventures. Quite a few stories which exist in their entirely have also been released on narrated soundtrack CD, particularly as the DVD range has taken a long while to bring everything out, not least by painstakingly restoring each story to the best quality they can. As a result, the audio range jumped ahead to make several stories available on CD before they were out on DVD, with the result that even though there are still a handful of DVD releases to come, every ’60s Doctor Who story has now been available for quite some time on at least one variety of shiny silver disc, and most of them on both (last year’s DVD release of Planet of Giants, perhaps ignored on CD for its very visual nature, belatedly completing the decade three years after all the others). The colour episodes from the ’70s on have taken slightly longer to catch up but, excitingly, after Monday’s release of The Mind of Evil, there will be only one story broadcast to date from 1970 to 2013 still to come on DVD, either*.

The most recent new form of making Doctor Who stories available combines two of the oldest: talking books of the Target novels, available on CD and download. Most of them are rather marvellous, and taken with the soundtrack releases mean that many stories from the “lost” decade of the ’60s are now officially available in three quite different formats (and, for many missing stories, two official ones and the Recons that you’re not supposed to mention). Taking the audiobooks of the Target novels into account, only one Patrick Troughton story is so unloved as not to be available on CD so far – The Seeds of Death does, however, have two separate DVD releases (and, way back in the 1980s, one of the first videos) to its credit. At present, four William Hartnell stories are in the same boat, though as this is an ever-expanding range, it was announced last week that one of them is on its way later this year. The very first story, An Unearthly Child, is to have an audiobook release to celebrate the series’ fiftieth anniversary. It will also be only the third Doctor Who story to have two separate official novelisations, as this will not be a reading of Terrance Dicks’ 1981 book but of a newly commissioned one by Nigel Robinson. Perhaps if demand for Doctor Who CDs continues, one day for completism’s sake there will not only be a narrated soundtrack but a reading of the ‘retro’ novelisation, so you can enjoy it not only on DVD but on CD, CD and CD. I’d buy them.

Next Time…?

For me, the most marvellous Recon I’ve yet seen isn’t quite the two much-adored stories I’ve mentioned several times above, but one made up only of old-fashioned photographs and text captions, and not even any Tele-snaps… Yet they’re photographs with a difference. They’re not in pale, fuzzy colours but bold, glorious colour throughout, and it never fails to excite me to see the only story starring William Hartnell as the Doctor that doesn’t exist in full… But does exist in full colour.

Should I ever return here properly, it’s on next. Should I not, I’ve just enjoyed it all over again and by going to this site, so can you.

*The sole Doctor Who story which, after Monday, will still not be available on shiny silver disc is 1975’s Terror of the Zygons, which despite a recent reissue of its novelisation (a massive childhood favourite of mine for personal reasons) hasn’t even had its own audiobook yet. Except… That it does have the esoteric distinction of having been among only a handful of Doctor Who stories to be released on each of two other sorts of shiny silver discs that I’ve not mentioned yet. No, not Blu-rays. We have in our obsessively completist collection not the soundtrack in the sense I’ve used it above – the complete sounds originally broadcast along with the visuals to a story – but in the more conventional for a movie but unusual for a Doctor Who story sense of the Doctor Who – Terror of the Zygons Official Sound Track. Yes, it has a music CD. Still more rarely and improbably, as well as being one of the first video releases in the ’80s, it was one of the only laserdisc releases. So we have it on silver disc that is not only shiny, but enormous.

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