Marco PoloBookmark and Share

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.

The Keys of MarinusBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 12 October 2004 - Reviewed by Graham Roberts

This story is the weakest of the first season. Its episodic tales are novel but all characters are a bit wooden – the script doesn’t really flesh them out very well. There are lots of unintentionally funny moments as well – I particularly like the Voord escorting Sabetha tripping up as he enters the room, and Barbara hitting the vine that attacked Susan with a stone is very funny. The direction is a bit loose – one of the behind the scenes staff is seen when a Voord falls behind a section of the wall in The Sea of Death. The Doctor and Ian suddenly noticing the Voords’ submarines, then the building, is also rather forced – I find it difficult to believe they didn’t notice the building that dominates the island the moment they set foot on Marinus.

Unfortunately there is a lot of corn in this story. The Voords look rather pathetic even though there’s a reason why they have suits. Yartek is simply a two dimensional power mad villain, though I liked the way Ian tricked him with the key. I also have grave doubts about Arbitan – at the end the Doctor consoles Sabetha saying Arbitan was very wise – but was he? He fully intended to use the machine again and uses blackmail to force the crew to help him (incidentally I found the fact that the crew initially didn’t want to help him rather funny). He certainly lets Ian and Barbara down – he didn’t tell them about any of the traps surrounding Darrius’ home, convincing Darrius they were enemies. His death gives Yartek his chance, but when Yartek unintentionally destroys the machine (in a rather pathetic explosion) the Voords are defeated and thankfully are never seen again.

The story isn’t a total disaster. I rather liked The Velvet Web (good episode title). The Morphotons are not bad – they look suitably creepy and the voice is very good. It’s all a bit clichéd (evil creatures that have mutated enslave a society and use illusion to trap more victims) but it works. There is a very good scene where the audience sees what Barbara sees – Susan’s ragged dress and the drabness of everything. Also the scene when the Doctor picks up an old mug, admiring its qualities as an advanced laboratory instrument, is simultaneously amusing and effective. Overthrowing a corrupt society in one episode is not bad going…

The next two instalments are rather weak however. The “threatening” jungle is not that threatening at all really – just a few vines waving about. It is the sound it makes that saves it from being a total failure. Susan and Barbara are irritating here, for the script merely has them descend into hysteria. Darrius is also a walking cliché – initially a scary old man but actually a kind soul. And what’s that talk about a growth accelerator? Looks like he’s responsible for all the mess. The traps aren’t too bad (though the descending ceiling’s spikes look very flimsy indeed) but they are just a weak attempt to make the episode interesting.

The Snows of Terror isn’t much better (and what does the episode title mean – frightening snow that attacks?!). The ice soldiers are awful – was there even one member of the audience who didn’t think they would move when the ice melted? Also the gap where the bridge used to be really is rather small isn’t it? I’m sure it could be jumped… Vasor isn’t too bad – the scene where he rubs Barbara’s hand is suitably repellent and he is a dangerous cunning man. Even so he is still a stock villain full of cackling laughter. I also think the resolution could have been better – Vasor could have gloated, thinking the crew trapped, then the crew turn their travel dials and the shocked Vasor is then killed by the ice soldiers.

The final episodic tale set on Millennius is a bit more thought out and has a couple of twists to keep people interested. The first courtroom drama in the series is seen and it’s not too bad – the Doctor is at home as Ian’s defence counsel and using Sabetha to trick Aydan about the key is rather clever. The pleasure lies in the unravelling of the mystery rather than the characters who are pretty shallow. The key in the mace is a good plot device – it is possible for the audience to work it out and results in Eyesen’s capture. Also it’s nice to see the Doctor working out the murderer was the relief guard so quickly. Eyesen is suitably slimy in a sophisticated way, but Kala is a bit melodramatic (however the actress later portrayed Lady Peinforte, so maybe melodrama is what she’s good at). I found the judges sitting next to the senior judge very funny – lots of nodding and shaking of heads, obviously extras who mustn’t say a word.

The resolution is average and not surprising at all. The Altos/Sabetha romance comes to the foreground though it is corny and unconvincing. The end result is a story that’s a bit of a mess – the only novel point is its numerous settings, though the only one that engaged me was Morphoton. At least Norman Kay’s music was pretty good. Even so, I wasn’t that upset when the TARDIS finally left Marinus…