Monday, September 2, 2013

Marco Polo - "What does he think it is? A potting shed, or something?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Marco Polo - Details

Season 1, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #4) | Previous - Next | Index

"Marco Polo" is the first of the lost stories, so for this one I'm relying on telesnaps and transcript reading to try to get an idea of what it was like. The presentation on the DVD breezes by ... I didn't time it, but I think it wasn't much more than a half hour long. That's an awful lot of boiling down for a 7-part story. And, based on reading the transcript, it needed it.

Polo duels the treacherous Tegana.
I had high expectations based on near universal praise for this one, but wasn't impressed out of the gate. The first episode feels a bit clunky (reading the transcript) and, if we're being frank, dumb. The second most annoying thing is that the Doctor has altitude sickness, is cranky, and remains this way through pretty much the entire story. Later he's ill because of thirst and exhaustion, but even Marco Polo uses one if his journal entries to complain about what an annoying old fart this guy is. Even more annoying is the plot device that kicks this thing off: the TARDIS blows a fuse and loses lights, water, and heat. Really? We just saw in the previous story how a broken spring in a switch on the console nearly led to its destruction; for it to blow a fuse and be utterly disable again suggests such a poor, fragile design never could have handled trans-dimensional engineering and time travel. This is the kind of malarkey we expect from cheap off-campus apartments run by unscrupulous property management firms, not from one of the most amazing machines in the universe.

Sure, we can imagine it's more due to the Doctor having stolen it and not knowing what the heck he's doing, but then we have Susan trying to explain her hep modern slang to a 13th century teenager, Ping-Cho (mercifully not an Anglo in yellowface -- like all the other Asian charcters) she explains "fab" this way: "Well, it's, it means wonderful! It's a verb we often use on Earth." OK, yes, the definition is fine, but it's an adjective, not a verb. And, she's on Earth, talking to an Earth girl, so why does she feel the need to say it's word often used on Earth? One silly thing we can gloss over, a second is irritating, a third following immediately on the second, now we're just wondering how nobody from writer, to script editor, to director, to the actor delivering the line didn't put their foot down and say, "This is easily fixed, let's not have the character say things that are obviously wrong and make no sense."

One of the ostensible aims of the show at this point is to be educational, so misidentifying parts of speech seems like an especially egregious error. (They do better with origins of the word "assassin" later, thankfully.) A bit after explaining "fab," Susan will tell Ping Cho she's "never seen a moonlit night." Good grief, she's sixteen and is a traveler in space and time who's been living on Earth for several months ... and we're supposed to believe she's never seen a moonlit night?  Maybe she means she's never been camping away from the lights of a city. OK ... but it seems improbable for a girl who's seen the metallic seas of Venus to have never seen a moonlit night.

The above was all in the broadcast story, but judiciously excised from the telesnap version on the DVD, so not only is the pace improved, but the the remainder is more focused and less silly. It's going to make grading this one tough because the transcript tells me this was way too long and probably boring. If I'm grading only the telesnaps, a much leaner product, then those concerns largely go away.

Where this gets intriguing is in the story of sixteen-year-old Ping Cho being sent off to marry a seventy-five-year-old man. The TARDIS crew's revulsion at the thought, and their efforts on her behalf later, speak well for the characters and for the show. Luckily, for her, the old creep drinks some quicksilver and sulfur (?!) to give himself some youthful energy ... dies of it, which seemed a far more likely outcome than any sort of re-invigoration.

Reading the script, I think I'm going to need the telesnaps or some help figuring out what this scene is about:
(Susan enters)
SUSAN: Ping-Cho?
POLO: Shh. She's gone to bed.
SUSAN: Oh, well, I'll go too then. Goodnight.
POLO: Goodnight, Susan. Sleep well. Now, what was I about to do? Ah yes.
IAN: Ouch.

In "The Daleks" it seemed they were implying Barbara took a Thal lover. Based only on the above, we may have our answer as to why she and Ian aren't hooking up? (Ian and Marco were playing chess when we last saw them, so it must be that Polo just captured Ian's Queen or something. Not, I assume, a spanking or ... )

It wouldn't be a First Doctor story if either Susan or Barbara didn't get kidnapped at least once. Barbara goes first. But there's plenty to go around. Susan will delay their escape by getting captured by Tegana later. Again the telesnaps drastically cut the story, so we don't see Barbara's misadventures in the caves with Tegana's cohorts.

The Doctor, Polo (background), and Kublai Khan (played, of course, by an Anglo actor).
It's more of an in-passing thing, and not significant like it will be later when Buddhists play an important role as characters, or later when Buddhist thought starts to inform the stories. Everyone seems to think the Buddhist monks will figure out how to get the TARDIS to work without the Doctor's co-operation and Marco Polo claims to have seen Buddhists levitate objects. I trust that was some sort of illusion that he was tricked by and not someone involved in the production thinking Buddhist monks had magical powers.

In case anyone hasn't experience a telesnap recreation, here's forty seconds or so of a sample from this story. Apologies for the shaky, hand-held quality of the video- it's just me pointing my phone's camera the screen. I'd recommend the telesnaps as the best way to enjoy this story, at least compared to reading the transcript, if it's one you're going to check out. There's always the Target novelization or the Loose Cannon reconstruction to try, but I'm trying not to lean on the novelizations since they often altered the story not just by cutting fat, but by adding fixes to problems with the stories as they were broadcast. My first try at watching a reconstruction ("Power of the Daleks") left me cold; I prefer watching the audio with just the pictures instead of seeing someone's mouth stitched into a still and awkwardly animated. (That reconstruction must've been a fan effort unrelated to Loose Cannon productions.) The Loose Cannon reconstruction is more similar to what's on the DVD. It also seems to be edited, but I think it's twice as long as the DVD version. Until this story gets a full, official animation release by the BBC, I'll stick with what's on the DVD release. That said, I expect I'm going to use the Loose Cannon reproductions for some of the missing stories where there isn't a DVD release yet.

Stray Thoughts:

I would't want a straight historical every season, necessarily, but I honestly wouldn't mind more of the straight historical, as opposed to the ones where there are aliens lurking about causing trouble around history we recognize as being real, or real-ish. The problem is how do you have a plot in recognizable history without introducing ahistorical elements for the Doctor to remove without relying on simple stories of kidnappings, losing the TARDIS and having to find it while not breaking history?  Separate the Doctor from the companion, or everyone from the TARDIS and then figure out how to get everyone back together can work once or twice, but it isn't scalable. It'd be a blast to see the Doctor in Philadelphia, 1776, banging around pubs with Ben Franklin, but what could he do there besides observe or ward off alien intervention?

My first thought is the way to incorporate historical sight-seeing is to do it as an aside. So the TARDIS phone rings while the Doctor's doing some work at Hull House and the subsequent adventure, where-/whenever it might be, involves a conflict that we could see him resolve based on something he learned from talking to Jane Addams and observing her work in the community.

Anyways, the historicals we'll get are more likely to be along the lines of "Robot of Sherwood" or "The Shakespeare Code" for the foreseeable future ...

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