Dr. Who has become a 21st phenomena with the series revival growing to even greater acclaim than the previous stories. Yet, it still has its roots in the 1960s where the first two Doctors played by William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton gave the character his roots. The stories of the Doctor and his companions were originally produced as half hour programs that were serialized stories as opposed to the one hour usually self-contained today.
I’ve watched a decent amount of first doctor material. I’ve seen the first three serials with Hartnell as well another, “The Aztecs.” News came out that two previously lost serials are now available for purchase both starring the second doctor Patrick Troughton, but that leaves nearly a hundred episodes of the show lost, effecting twenty-six different serials including the last two Hartnell stories and first seven with Troughton.
While hopefully more of these videos will emerge, Dr. Who fans don’t have to wait to at least enjoy the stories because sound tracks of early Dr. Who episodes, recorded by fans at the time the series aired, and remastered and re-released by the BBC are available through Audible. So, I’m going to listen to all the Dr. Who missing episodes I can’t see beginning with Marco Polo and see how the audio format helps or hurts.
“Marco Polo” is the fourth Dr. Who Serial and ran seven episodes from February to April 4 and follows after the events of “The Edge of Destruction” which left the TARDIS damaged and finds the Doctor and the TARDIS crew (Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright, and Susan Foreman) stranded on top of a snow capped mountain and in danger of freezing to death. However, they encounter several Chinese as well as a Mongol warlord named Tagama who wants them killed. However, the Chinese are led by Marco Polo who saves them and treats them kindly. However, they quickly find that Polo’s motives are not entirely pure: He wants to give the TARDIS to Kublia Khan in hopes of securing his own return home to Venice. However, the warlord Tagama has designs on TARDIS of his own.
The audio is narrated by William Russell (who played Chesterton in the series) who shares bits of action that the soundtrack can’t pick up. These bits are minor. In some ways, being in an audio format helps this series as the setting is quite ambitious with luscious and ornate Oriental settings. Given the budget of the original show, it’s safe for me to say that the theater of the mind will easily beat what 1960s British TV could do in its portrayal of the Khan’s palaces.
This serial also seemed reminiscent in its slower pacing of radio serials I’ve listened from the 1940s and ’50s which often had more deliberate pacing overall with cliffhangers built in to keep the audience’s attention.
Another big difference from the modern Dr. Who is that other than involving time travel, this story has very little science fiction. If there were a modern Dr. Who/Marco Polo stories there’d be ghosts, space aliens, or zombies thrown in. Instead what we get is a great historical adventure with its share of twists but just an adventure happening in medieval China.
The character of Marco Polo makes this story unique from many early serials. While in other programs like “The Aztecs, ” characters like Tagama scheme and turn initial allies of the TARDIS crew into enemies, this is a lot more complex as Polo is enlightened. He isn’t superstitious, bloodthirsty, and works to save the crew despite requests to kill them. His broad experiences have made him willing to consider anything including their claim that the TARDIS is a flying caravan, which is why he stole it. He feels bad about it too. Polo’s moral struggle really does create some solid dramatic tension.
Less interesting is the overused trope of the girl about to enter into an arranged marriage that doesn’t want to do it, and the convenient plot device used to resolve it, though they did do a decent job making the character likable and someone you care about.
While the serial isn’t great, it’s good for what it is: a fun historic adventure serial. It works well with the audio format and for now, it’s the only way to encounter the classic Marco Polo story line unless you want to read the novelization.
Rating: 3.75 out of 5.00
This serial is available from audible.com
If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.