Doctor Who fans are hugely fortunate. Thanks to the intervention of Ian Levine, the series first three serials were rescued hours before they would have been lost forever. While fans can get caught up in The Beginning DVD boxset, a jarring note hits the viewer as The Edge of Destruction fades to a close, and viewers are forced to the horrified realisation that we cannot see what happens next.
Rather like the missing front teeth on a young child, Marco Polo sticks out in Season 1. The bizarre thing is that it is one of the serials that was most reproduced for overseas viewings. While it is not necessarily surprising it continues to be (officially) missing, it is puzzling that not even extracts survive from the story, much less entire episodes. It is only thanks to the sterling work of the late Graham Strong that we even have the audio of the adventure in an acceptable format.
Back in 2013, rumours abounded that Marco Polo was one of three adventures recovered by Philip Morris, alongside the eventually confirmed Web of Fear and Enemy of the World. Five years on, there has been no substantial evidence to prove that Marco Polo has been recovered; an oddly appropriate state given that much of this adventure relates to the core theme of trust, proof, and deception.
The Tardis crew arrive in the Himalayas to discover that the Tardis has developed a serious fault. Rescued by a caravan led by Venetian Marco Polo, the promise of shelter soon becomes a fraught quest to regain control of the Tardis as Polo commandeers the craft to present as a gift to his master, Kublai Khan. All the while, the caravan’s party houses a traitor in the villainous Mongol warlord Tegana, a man pledged to assassinate the Khan and so overthrow the empire. Tegana causes Polo to distrust the Tardis travellers, not least as Polo cannot believe the sensational claims about how the crew came to be in fourteenth century China. As the crew travel to the Khan’s court at Beijing, they use every scheme possible to try and recover the key to the Tardis and to effect their escape, all the while trying to avoid being caught in Tegana’s efforts to sabotage the caravan. Their success will ultimately rest upon persuading Polo that Tegana is not to be trusted, before the warlord can execute his murderous scheme.
The story is undoubtedly more leisurely than modern adventures, and rather like following story, The Keys of Marinus, consists of a series of smaller episodic adventures. Marco Polo however has a much stronger narrative thread tying the story together, not least in the character of Polo himself, whose conflict between doing what is right while also striving to earn his right to return to Venice is one of the most defining aspects of the adventure.
The story may risk being pedestrian on occasion, but it is a story I enjoy more and more with each subsequent listening. It is very much an epic tale, and for a genuine historical adventure it does not suffer in the least for the absence of alien menaces, providing adventure in abundance. Ian as ever has the chance to demonstrate his bravery and heroism on several occasions, setting a gentlemanly standard that we sadly rarely see today. If Barbara’s role of trying to reason with Marco is superbly realised, Susan is slightly more disappointing. Her friendship with Chinese handmaiden Ping-Cho comes across superbly, even in audio, but there are already signs that Susan’s role was being reduced to ‘get yourself into trouble and be rescued’ – one is less surprised after this adventure that Carole Ann Ford felt disinclined to continue in the role in Season 2.
One of the main sources of enjoyment is the continuing development of the Doctor’s character. From the anti-hero of An Unearthly Child, to an adventurer in The Daleks and a suspicious old man in The Edge of Destruction, the audience were still trying to suss out whether the Doctor was really the hero of the story, or even necessarily a likeable character. This adventure goes some considerable way to rounding off his character; elderly and irascible the Doctor may be, there are definite moments of charm, not least in the friendship the Doctor forms with the great Kublai Khan, united by their equal torment of old age! It is in Marco Polo that the Doctor manages to much better convey the grandfatherly twinkle that would mark his first incarnation.
While it was entirely possible to follow the story by audio, ably assisted by linking narration from William Russell, the story would undoubtedly benefit from being able to display the reputedly gorgeous sets and costumes created for this historical adventure. Still photographs from the adventure have led fans to suggest that the story should be animated or even completely re-shot in colour, and it would certainly be a prime candidate for a colourised adventure should the original footage ever be recovered.
As it is, the absence of visual references limits just how much you can enjoy the adventure (although it also frees the imagination from any dubious props or effects in the original!) – given that the entire Tardis crew play a full ensemble role in this adventure, it is a huge shame that this adventure is missing, and we are unable to enjoy the interplay between the Tardis crew. As I said earlier, it is appropriate in a story about hearsay, trust, and hidden agendas, that the truth about the recovery of this adventure is equally shrouded in uncertainty. Five years since the omnirumour broke, we remain in hope that the optimists have been telling the truth, and that the audio of this adventure may be wedded to recovered visual material.
Where would I rank it?