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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Saturday, August 03, 2013

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

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

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

And I Said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio Times Teasers for Marco Polo

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

Next Episode – Mighty Kublai Khan

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

Previously on Marco Polo:

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

Coming Soon on Marco Polo:

Mighty Kublai Khan
Assassin at Peking

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