What better episode to be the most-lost episode of Doctor Who than the one whose name has become synonymous (by other means, I’m sure) with groping around blindly? “Marco Polo” is the first “lost story”, which is all the more impressive when you take into account that this visual spectacle was distributed to more countries than any other at the time.
It’s rather a shame that “Marco Polo” is lost, considering how much of its value hinges on the allegedly beautiful (and expensive) sets. This is the story that spends seven episodes traveling from set to set – without any of the Sci-Fi variation seen in “The Keys of Marinus”, and climaxes with an intense swordfight that has the horrible luck of surviving as a still image of Marco and Tegana with a backdrop of sword sounds.
While such a visual story is terrible take without its visuals, another aspect of the story is uniquely suited to the format. This is the first episode of Doctor Who to experiment with a narrator, placing it in the company of such gems (that was “gem” in a sarcastic way) as “The Gunfighters” and “The Wedding of River Song”. Each of the seven episodes start with Marco Polo writing in his journal. For a long story – particularly a lost one – this helps keep track of what’s going on. It also gave an opportunity for some of the episode reconstructions to re-film with only one cast member – for the opening, at least.
The combination of the length and the lost footage make this episode very difficult to watch. This is probably the episode hardest hit by the ’60s: pacing that would be criminal in the modern day, lack of footage, and a noble girl who just happens to enjoy waiting on people. This is helped a little bit by the fact that Ping-Cho is by far the most enjoyable supporting cast member to spend time with, has the initiative to helpt he TARDIS crew, and may be having a pre-wedding lesbian affair with Susan, but I still don’t think she would survive the scrutiny of modern audiences.
The titular character swings between an understandable hero in a hard place and an outright villain. His primary motivation is to curry favor with his lord, Kublai Khan, by giving him the TARDIS so that he will be allowed to return to Venice. It’s not until well after he learns that Ian and Barbara will be trapped hundreds of years out of time that he begins to have second thoughts. Marco connives to keep Susan and Ping-Cho apart, which the Doctor actually agrees with, although whether he agrees out of racism, homophobia, protectiveness or some combination of the three is ambiguous (though later incarnations of the Doctor would safely fall on the “protective” side of the spectrum). Polo also refuses until the last possible moment to even consider that the bloodthirsty Mongol working for a traitorous master may actually be a villain himself.
Ultimately, it’s very difficult to gauge the quality of “Marco Polo” as it originally aired by watching three hours of still images and some dialogue. Characters such as Marco Polo, Ping-Cho, Kublai Khan and even Tegana can be made or broken by their acting, and only a small fraction of this leaks through in reconstructions. Even the lesbian subtext that I’ve referenced twice now is more conjecture based on dialogue such as “quite fond” and Lucarotti’s knowledge of the setting than anything that can be honestly discerned from the visuals onscreen.
With so many of the positives lost in time, it is hard for me to recommend “Marco Polo”. It is not the longest story of the Hartnell era, but it’s oen of the longer ones, and contributes nothing lasting to the mythos save a description of the TARDIS locking mechanism that would be gone by the time a companion born off of Gallifrey is given a key. Fans of Susan may enjoy her friendship with Ping-Cho and those interested in thirteenth century China – er, Cafe – may find this episode intriguing, but for the vast majority I recommend giving this one a pass and letting “The Aztecs” represent John Lucarotti’s work in 1964.