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Tuesday, 12 October 2004 - Reviewed by Graham Roberts

Marco Polo is not the greatest story the programme ever made but it is the most charming. The leisurely pace, the long journey, the gradual sumptuousness of the sets and Marco’s narration all contribute to a unique atmosphere never seen again. It is not powerful like The Aztecs but it seeps into your heart.

This story is very well written and constructed. The characters Marco Polo and Ping Cho add considerably to its charm and Tegana’s scheming provides the plot and suspense. All three characters are nicely rounded and develop as the story progresses. The excellent episode title The Wall of Lies is virtually a summary of the plot, for all characters interacting with Tegana are confronted by it. Marco is fooled by it until the very end but the TARDIS crew have their suspicions from a very early stage. One of the story’s clever tricks is showing how Tegana’s lies pit Marco against the main characters and Ping Cho – this results in many quiet triumphs for Tegana, e.g. when Marco splits up Ping Cho and Susan and when Marco seizes the TARDIS. It also drags the audience in, for Marco is a kind and honourable man whose sense of duty and yearning to return to Venice are twisted by Tegana for his own selfish ends. Who can fail to remain uninvolved when Marco writes in his journal how pleased he is with Tegana when he finds Susan and Ping Cho in the desert after the sandstorm? Or when Tegana forces Barbara to admit the crew are against Ping Cho’s marriage, making Marco assume Ian has tricked him and wants to retrieve the TARDIS instead of finding Ping Cho? The scenes where Tegana’s villainy are blatantly shown merely reinforce our frustration with Marco’s misguided loyalty, e.g. when Tegana cuts the gourds or taunts the absent Marco at the oasis when he pours the water into the sand. Not many stories combine such well written characters with such careful plotting. 

The audience’s frustration with Marco is mirrored by the main characters’ frustration as well. The Doctor is particularly delightful for he reacts in many different ways. Initially he bursts into helpless laughter, then taunts and insults Marco – “You poor, pathetic, stupid savage!” His righteous anger reminds Marco that he really has no right to take it. The Doctor’s frustration is also displayed in a hilarious moment when he does a mocking impression of Wang Lo – “I could hardly have it placed in the hanging garden now could I?” 

These moments are what make Marco Polo memorable. It is full of scenes where the characters can really express themselves. Susan and Ping Cho by the pond, for example, shows how close they have become. Tegana’s fascination with Ian and Marco’s game of chess shows how he views life as a battle for victory. Barbara’s distress is quite moving when she tearfully tells Ian the Mongols were throwing dice to decide who will kill her. Ian’s scene with Marco when he tells him they travel in time is beautifully written and paced, the acting very good. Ping Cho’s recitation of a story to her listeners is enchanting. And the Doctor’s scenes with Kublai are hilarious, particularly the classic scene where he embarrassingly tells Kublai how much is owed to him. Hartnell shows how good he is at comedy here. 

All these scenes not only flesh the characters out – they also show their humanity. Tegana’s threat is potent because it will destroy these examples of humanity. He cares nothing for anybody except Noghai his leader – in conversation with Acomat he is prepared to order all the caravan’s travellers killed (including Marco). And how humourless he is! Conquest and power are his aims, and they are contrasted strongly with the kindness, humour and charm of Ping Cho, Marco and the TARDIS crew. Kublai also is an unexpected ally, his shrewdness as well as humour making him memorable. The ending of the story is a victory for humanity’s greater qualities as well as the crew’s escape. 

All of this against an epic journey through Cathay. It is the longest and most epic of the historicals and, in terms of time spent in one particular period, the longest story of all time. It is paced very well and really is unique. The story is not faultless – the crew’s conclusion that Kublai will be killed is rather rushed, and it is a pity they have to depart so suddenly without saying adequate goodbyes to Marco, Ping Cho and Kublai. But it is charming from beginning to end and has a timeless, magical quality that will never diminish.