(With “Marco Polo”, we reach Part 4 of our Name Dropping journey through the First Doctor’s character arc as represented by his changing ways of addressing Ian: in which Sherlock Holmes meets a flasher, the Doctor panders to this blogger’s Freudian insecurity and Susan is really groovy, man.)
Admittedly we only have access to it via audio and reconstructions, but “Marco Polo” truly is a snooze from start to finish. Why are fans so keen for the tapes to be rediscovered? I’d like to see more of the sets and costumes as they look good in the telesnaps and looked gorgeous recreated in colour for “An Adventure in Space and Time”.
The plot however is yawnsome. Even in that great scene where they stopped at Way Station #14. Or was it Way Station #23? Such a pity because these have to be some of the coolest episode titles ever in Doctor Who. The Roof of the World. The Singing Sands. Five Hundred Eyes. The Wall of Lies. The podcast is covering the subject of fandom next week and, given our habit of calling the podcasts by old episode titles, “The Wall of Lies” seems very apt for a discussion of fandom.
There’s one plot hole. Before setting out on the journey, Tegana poisons all the water gourds except the first few ensuring that, when the party runs out of water, they’ll be far from help. Then in the middle of the journey he brings about the loss of water by slitting all the gourds. Why allow the water to pour away if it’s undrinkable?
There’s a curious clothing contrast when our heroes step out of the TARDIS. Ian is dressed as Sherlock Holmes and Barbara is in a flasher’s mac. The Doctor is possibly in the worst temper yet as he discovers the faults with the TARDIS. If I were a companion and the Doctor was as ratty as that, I wouldn’t have badgered him – I’d have toad the line to prevent his temper growing any otter.*
I do have to pay tribute to a real punch-the-air moment for me. As the others are about to wander off, the captioning on the recon I was watching (thank you, Loose Canon) read “The Doctor holds back to lock the ship.” Of course, being British, I don’t punch the air at anything but one of my eyebrows nearly disappeared into my hairline. And that’s some feat these days.
When I was a lad (a young boy, I mean – I’m not saying before the sex change), what really worried me about Doctor Who was when they’d land on an alien world, step out of the TARDIS, look around and then wander off to explore having only carelessly pulled the TARDIS door shut behind them. I’d be worrying for ages that the TARDIS wasn’t locked properly. There’s doubtless something very Freudian at the root of this and I’m sure that I’m just nostalgic for the womb but I still howl at the screen: Go back and lock it properly, anything could get inside. So well done, the First Doctor.
Suddenly, there’s not even a hint of crew friction. It’s almost as if there were a missing story between “Edge of Destruction” and “Marco Polo”. Strangely, when Susan suggests that she and the Doctor will one day settle down and stop wandering, Barbara replies: “Then you and I will part company.” Any suggestion that she wants to return home has disappeared. Had Susan said that in the previous story, you could well have imagined Barbara replying: “Settle down? Not before you’ve returned us home, you don’t.” It’s still nowhere near as close a relationship as exists in the Ian/Marco bromance though. Considering that Marco has nicked the TARDIS, Ian is very pally with him.
The show is really wearing its educative thingummy on its sleeve here as we learn about varying boiling points and Kublai Khan. We even depart from the story for five minutes while Ching Po tells a rather dull story just so that Ian can explain to Susan the origin of the word “assassins”. Something you can’t imagine happening in the 45 mins format of New Who.
I must admit that I was intrigued by how the “Talons” factor would play out in Marco Polo. Would we see embarrassingly made-up Oriental characters? Zienia Merton, the actress playing Ping Cho, is actually half Burmese which seems astonishingly progressive for 1963 BBC. However, as Ping Cho is presumably speaking Chinese which our heroes can understand (we don’t yet know how), you might have expected that they wouldn’t feel the need to put her lines in pidgin English. “I come from Samarkhand. My father is government official there.” They don’t make Tegana speak that way.
On the subject of giving the characters painfully inappropriate speech patterns, Susan has suddenly become a 1960s stereotype. “It’s fab…it’s crazy…I dig it.” I bet that even viewers watching in 1963 would have winced.
On to the purpose of our journey through this era of Doctor Who. For those of you who chortled dismissively at the idea that character arcs could be measured by forms of address, prepare to eat your hats. Ian and the Doctor don’t spend much time together in this story but, when they do, the thaw in the relationship between the Doctor and the teachers is clearly marked. During Marco Polo, the Doctor addresses Ian as follows: Chesterton x 2, Charlton x 1, young man x 2 and, most sigificantly, my boy x 4. Yes, my boy is slightly patronising but it’s clearly a form of vague affection. We even get the first example of the Doctor calling Ian “Ian”. Unfortunately, it’s during the scene in the caves where the Doctor and Susan can hear Ian’s voice and are calling to him. Susan keeps shouting “Ian” and the Doctor joins in once. It’s hardly practical to shout “Chesterton” at the top of your voice so perhaps this doesn’t really count.
However, Susan does start calling Ian “Ian”. And despite shrieking “Grandfather” in that annoying way several times, she never once complains that a part of her body hurts. Let’s hope this promises much for the future.
* Doc Whom recognises the copyright of the A A Milne estate.