Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient!

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

Saturday, July 13, 2013

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

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

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

And I Said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio Times Teasers for Marco Polo

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

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

Next Episode – Rider From Shang-Tu

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

Previously on Marco Polo:

The Roof of the World
The Singing Sands
Five Hundred Eyes

Coming Soon on Marco Polo:

Rider From Shang-Tu
Mighty Kublai Khan
Assassin at Peking

What They Said…

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

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

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

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

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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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