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Classic Who: Marco Polo

With Sarah Jane covered, I'm now taking two parallel approaches to my Who viewing: returning to the early days to watch William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton's stories sequentially, while also joining Lovefilm and sticking all DVDs released to date for the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors on my request list (well, except for Seven's final story, Survival, that is - I feel that particular one actually does need to be watched last).

When I said 'sequentially' for One and Two, what I'd originally really meant was 'sequentially but omitting those stories that are more than fifty percent missing'. Having watched Hartnell's first three stories back in January, then, that meant I was scheduled to sail right on past the next story, Marco Polo, and pick up at The Keys of Marinus instead. But then gair pointed me towards altariel, who had listened to the sound-track with linking narration, and she was so enthusiastic about it, actually ranking Marco Polo as the strongest story in the first season, that I decided to give it a try after all.


First Doctor: Marco Polo
In the event I actually accessed Marco Polo in a slightly different fashion from altariel - via Loose Cannon's video reconstruction. This makes use of both the surviving soundtrack and copious studio photographs to create a full-length still-picture reconstruction. A newly-recorded introduction with Mark Eden (Marco Polo) presents the whole as his reminiscences, while scrolling captions help to explain the action where necessary, and occasionally special effects are used to give 'life' to the pictures - e.g. specks flying across the still pictures during a sandstorm. It's also, unusually, in full colour, since most of the surviving studio pictures were in colour anyway, so the rest were colourised to match.

I've watched one Doctor Who reconstruction of this type before, way back in 1995/6, when hollyione was deeply involved with the Bristol University Doctor Who Society (properly known as 'Behind the Sofa'). I think it was a Troughton one, but I can't remember which. (hollyione, if you read this, do let me know - it was one you brought home to Brookfield Road, as I remember watching it there on that dodgy old sofa which Leon broke!) Anyway, whether Hartnell or Troughton, I had probably only watched one, or at most two, stories of the relevant Doctor in their full surviving form before ploughing into the recon, so had very little sense of what the character ought to be like on screen. Now, for Hartnell at least, I am in a better position to imagine how both the Doctor himself and his companions might be behaving on the basis of the stills and soundtrack. In any case, I enjoyed this reconstruction a lot more than I remember doing for the previous one, and found my attention fully retained from start to finish.

The plot is a 'pure' historical - a genre which is rapidly becoming one of the great draws of early Who for me. The choice of Marco Polo as a central figure seems particularly apt at this defining stage in the programme's history, given that he is an explorer in strange lands, just like the Doctor. And the Earth setting gives Ian and Barbara a real chance to shine (just as it does later for companions such as Sarah Jane), with them respectively explaining details of the scientific phenomena and historical setting which crop up in the story. Events unfold over a leisurely seven episodes, giving plenty of time for interpersonal relationships to emerge, tensions to be explored, and various perils to arise. Generally, I found the characters plausible and the plot interesting - although I had trouble understanding why our heroes raised so little direct protest when Marco Polo commandeered the TARDIS, or why he kept insisting on trusting them after they had made multiple attempts to escape or steal it back. Behaviour on both sides seemed rather too much predicated on polite mutual respect given the situation: but I guess that's just what was expected in the '60s.

Returning to the First Doctor after an intensive diet of Three and Four, it's really striking how a) vulnerable and b) passive he is. The vulnerability manifests itself physically, in the form of altitude sickness in the mountains and fainting in the desert - although he does join in with a swordfight when they are attacked by bandits later on. The passivity shows in his response to Marco Polo's confiscation of the TARDIS. Although the Doctor is resentful of this, and does try to deceive Polo by giving him a fake TARDIS key, he shows nothing like the resourcefulness of later Doctors in trying to get it back. In fact, it's consistently Ian who is the man of action and ideas, spotting opportunities and taking advantage of them. I noticed much the same sort of characteristics when watching the prehistoric Earth parts of An Unearthly Child - including a marked lack of interest in the indigenous population in both cases, and a basic desire to just get back to the TARDIS and get the hell outta there.

It all makes me think back to Ten's comment to Five in Time Crash about how when he started out he was 'always trying to be very old, grumpy, and important - like you do, when you're young'. Although I don't doubt that at the time Hartnell was simply trying to play the character as straightforwardly elderly and out of sympathy with his surroundings, viewed in hindsight it really can work as the behaviour of a being who is very young and soft and inexperienced, but is trying to hide it all behind a mask. It is, of course, also a large part of the reason why some of his early companions are able to shine so strongly, including the female ones. The Doctor simply isn't the driving force behind the story in the way he became later. In fact, Marco Polo almost wanders into New Who-style 'Doctor lite' territory for a while, when the Doctor is almost completely absent from the whole of episode 2 - not because he is off elsewhere doing something fantastic and important, but simply because he doesn't have much to do at this stage.

A couple of other points worth noting in re the evolving character of the Doctor are his maniacal laughter at the beginning when Marco Polo first says he is going to take the TARDIS to give to Kublai Khan, and similar fond laughter when he loses it to the Khan himself later on in a game of backgammon. Tom Baker on one of the DVD commentaries I watched (possibly for Genesis, though I'm not sure) explicitly said that he'd tried to play the Doctor as reacting in the opposite way from what we would normally expect in emotional situations (e.g. grinning widely while stating how dire the situation is) as a way of emphasising his alienness - and I think Hartnell is up to something pretty similar here. Meanwhile, the quasi-sentient nature of the TARDIS develops slightly from the beginnings established in The Edge of Destruction, when it effectively saves the entire party after their water-supply has run out via the condensation which is found streaming down its walls. Very scientifically, Ian explains how this can happen in an enclosed space within a hot environment, but the ambiguity is there (just as it was in The Edge of Destruction) for those of us who want to interpret it as a more conscious act on the part of the TARDIS. :-)

Inspired by lefaym's fantastic post on the issue, and like nwhyte, I intend in future to include comment on whether particular Doctor Who stories pass the Bechdel test or not. I'm happy to say that this one does - mainly via conversations between Susan and the Mongol princess Ping Cho, who is travelling with Marco Polo's party. Sometimes they discuss men, but plenty of conversation about the night sky above the desert and where exactly Susan comes from also passes between them. In fact, what with the two of them sharing a tent, whispering late into the night, conspiring in little schemes together and generally becoming terribly, terribly fond of one another, there is some quite serious slashy potential going on there! I only wish we could see the actual acting going on between them, for Significant Looks and so on. Feminism Watch was also cheered by a scene in which Ping Cho works out that the treacherous warlord Tegana is lying when he says he has never been in the Cave of 500 Eyes before, using logic and deduction. Marco Polo disbelieves her and is angry, but she's dead right - and it's made pretty explicit that he would have saved himself quite a lot of trouble if he'd just listened to her in the first place.


I'm definitely glad altariel stopped me from missing this one, then, and plan to continue with audio and / or still reconstructions when I get to other stories for which the original footage has been lost. I do reserve the right to rethink this policy when I get to seasons 3-5, though, where only four stories survive entirely complete out of a total of 26. That could get kinda tedious - at least unless tempered pretty heavily with complete stories from later eras. We'll see.

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
lefaym
Aug. 19th, 2008 10:00 pm (UTC)
I'll definitely have to look at this one now! I've already heard from a friend about how amazing it is, even in this form.

It'll be interesting to see how many of the First Doctor serials pass the Bechdel Test-- so far, this makes the first four all passing very nicely; perhaps a result of having Verity Lambert in charge? Of course, having two female companions also helps.
strange_complex
Aug. 20th, 2008 08:43 am (UTC)
Yes, it really is worth it. That's been quite a revelation to me, actually - partly because of my background as a Classicist. In Classics, I'm used to working my way around hundreds of texts which are either partially lost or missing altogether. However (although this certainly isn't true in all cases), there's a degree to which what's missing has fallen out of the record as a result of conscious choice - i.e. people didn't really think it was worth keeping on copying out the manuscripts, so the texts were lost.

I think I'd fallen into the temptation of approaching missing Who in the same way - i.e. assuming that if a story is lost, it must be because it wasn't very good in the first place. But I should have known rationally all along that that dynamic doesn't really apply to the way Who stories got wiped - and watching what's left of Marco Polo has really confirmed it for me emotionally as well.

And yes, I'll keep up the good work on the Bechdel front! I think this era will do pretty well - because of the two female companions, as you say, and also because the Doctor himself is much less dynamic and dominant than he becomes later.
big_daz
Aug. 20th, 2008 07:53 am (UTC)
I've a stack of the Loose Cannon reconstructions on VHS if you want to borrow them? I've not got round to watching/ listening to most of them me'sen yet- I had them given a couple of months back, but haven't had the time.

Marco Polo-related fascininating facts:-

i) Disney looked into buying the rights to making the story into a film- this was before Amicus bought the rights to make three Dalek films.

ii) The bloke who played Tegana (Derren Nesbit- he also played No 2 in The Prisoner and a nasty Nazi in Where Eagles Dare) allegedly lives in Tadcaster and goes to the same dentist as one of my colleagues.
strange_complex
Aug. 20th, 2008 08:50 am (UTC)
Ooh, yes, I'd definitely like to borrow those! I *koff* electronically acquired Marco Polo, which was OK, but the resolution wasn't very high, so the picture quality was quite fuzzy - and that's quite a problem when all you have is a few stills in the first place. I imagine an original video copy ought to be rather better.

I'm all right for a while, because there are only two more partially-missing stories in the whole of seasons 1 and 2 - The Reign of Terror and The Crusade. But if you have either of those, I'd certainly be interested. And once I get onto season 3 and following, I'll be in dire need!

Interesting about Disney, too - I can see why they were keen, as it has all the sort of action and adventure they would love. I'm not sure how Who fans would react if they'd done it, though! And they got to make Mulan in the end, anyway.
big_daz
Aug. 20th, 2008 09:28 am (UTC)
Electronically? Tut tut, although I don't know how the Beeb expects them to be only circulated on VHS in this day and age.

Can't remember exactly which reconstructions I have, but I'll have a look for you. What I do have is:-

Reign of Terror- 4 surviving episodes
Tenth Planet- 3 surviving episodes plus reconstructed part 4
Lost In Time DVD- which contains all the odd episodes from otherwise missing stories and makes you realise how good/ bad some of them were. Evil of the Daleks/ Web of Fear= good, Space Pirates= awful and no great loss that the rest of its missing
strange_complex
Aug. 20th, 2008 09:42 am (UTC)
Ah, I've just ordered the Lost in Time box-set from Amazon, actually! But some of those other ones might well be welcome. :-)
boblink
Aug. 20th, 2008 09:23 am (UTC)
Do you really mean to tell me that we no longer have the footage for some Dr Who episodes? I can't believe it!
strange_complex
Aug. 20th, 2008 09:47 am (UTC)
Oh, yes - they wiped most of the early ones in the late '60s and '70s in order to save space and / or reuse the tape. Full information about it here.

It does seem ridiculous, though, doesn't it? I mean, for 2000-year-old literary texts, fair enough. But there's stuff from 1969 which we can no longer see! What really does my head in is the notion that there are thousands of living people out there who did see those episodes when first broadcast, but even so the episodes themselves are now gone. Very weird.
serennos
Aug. 20th, 2008 10:22 am (UTC)
My mum saw them and I'm thinking about organising myself into getting some of the dubs for her for Christmas time. She and I (and thermian) have been watching some of the Hartnell episodes together off and on for a while and she keeps exclaiming "Ooh! I remember this bit!", and "I hid behind the sofa last time I saw that!"...

Who goes best with rosé, no?
strange_complex
Aug. 20th, 2008 10:39 am (UTC)
Lucky your Mum! :-( That sounds like a great idea for a present for her, though, and I'd certainly recommend getting Marco Polo.

Who goes best with rosé, no?

I'm more about curling up with a Campari and soda myself - but Russell T. Davies certainly seems to think so! ;-)
altariel
Aug. 20th, 2008 01:51 pm (UTC)
Oh good! I'm really glad you enjoyed it. We are near the end of season 3 (slight interruption this week because mraltariel is in the US), but I would really recommend The Massacre. I also adored The Mythmakers, although I'd hesitate to recommend that unconditionally, since it's a comedy, and you never know someone else will find the same things as funny as you do.
strange_complex
Aug. 20th, 2008 02:27 pm (UTC)
Gosh - how are you getting along with that? Well, I suppose I shouldn't try to tempt you to pre-empt your review of the season - but what I mean really is how are you getting along with the almost-total-absence of surviving footage? Does it get frustrating, or have you found that you've acclimatised to that method of following the stories?
altariel
Aug. 20th, 2008 04:26 pm (UTC)
Season 3 has been brilliant, possibly our favourite so far (Peter Purves carries the show).

As to the lack of footage, we have absolutely acclimatized to it, although it really helped to have the occasional moving picture during The Dalek Master Plan! The BBC audios with the linking material basically turn them into radio plays.

We do have a long stretch of audio-only coming during the Troughton period, but I listened to a few of those when I was writing a Troughton story, and enjoyed them thoroughly too. So I'm confident it will be fine.
strange_complex
Aug. 20th, 2008 05:47 pm (UTC)
Ah, good! This is all very promising. Thanks for pointing the way so enthusiastically!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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