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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Doctor Who: Marco Polo

And now, fair friends, I must tell you of a great tragedy, a truly horrific loss, from which the world is all the poorer; a tragedy of human incompetence, shortsightedness, and greed, that has caused untold suffering in the history of the world... of Doctor Who.

In the 70s, BBC went through and cleared space in their vaults by destroying old negatives. This modern burning of the Library of Alexandria was justified, in that they had vast archives of film protected in vaults that were managed by a contractor company.

But... greedy for their own storage space, the contractor was also under the false impression that they didn't have the master film prints, but only duplicates. So... they started burning films, too. This shortsighted monstrosity has devastated the early years of Doctor Who. While prints loaned to other people, kept in separate storage, duplicated to overseas markets, etc. have been recovered, of the original 250 or so half-hour episodes, over 130 are still missing. This means that any number of serials will have, say, episodes 1, 3, and 4 intact but episodes 2 and 5 lost to the mists of history. For some, it is even worse- Series 3-opener 'Galaxy 4' has only about 5 minutes of existing footage. But for 3 unlucky serials... not a hint survives. Not a frame, not a snippet. They are well and truly lost. This... is the first of those three.

From the ashes of this nightmare, some small hope arose, though. Through various methods and means, complete AUDIO for every episode of Doctor Who ever created still exists. And through these, production photos, snapshots of the episode, and written captions to explain actions occurring on-screen, a group called Loose Cannon Productions has created reconstructions- essentially slideshows and text-boxes accompanying the audio of the existing episodes. They are... difficult to get through, sometimes, as it's a very dull way to watch a story. But the effort is excellent, the recreations well done, and, frankly... they're the best we're going to get. The First Doctor and Second Doctor's serials are, sadly, rife with missing episodes- far more prevalent from the third year onwards; nearly the entire black-and-white era is thusly devastated.

As a rare treat for this particular story, however, color photographs and colorized B/W photos have been used for the slideshow reconstruction; true, it is still a slideshow, but it is a visually rich one. It is also the first true historical period piece, featuring lavish costumes which are fortunately shown off in this format.

Serial Title: Marco Polo
Series: 2
Episodes: 7
The Roof of the World
The Singing Sands
Five Hundred Eyes
The Wall of Lies
Rider from Shang-Tu
Mighty Kublai Khan
Assassin at Peking
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford)

'Marco Polo' begins as the TARDIS materializes on a snowy mountaintop, and Susan discovers an enormous footprint in the snow. The damaged TARDIS, meanwhile, is unable to produce heat, light, food, or water after the events of Edge of Destruction. As night falls, bringing with it the promise of certain death, the group is miraculously found my a Mongol caravan, headed by the Italian Marco Polo, an emissary of Kublai Kahn. He travels with Tegana (Note from Sarah: Oh great....and I'd just gotten that name OUT of my head! For like three weeks I could hear Barbara saying that name in my head over and over!), a Mongol warlord, and emissary of peace from Khan Noghai, en route to broker peace between Kublai Kahn and Khan Nighai, who have been at war.

The Doctor is feared as an evil sorcerer who is powerless outside of his magic box, and forbidden from re-entering it. The group is accepted into Polo's caravan, and Susan befriends Ping-Cho, a young girl traveling to meet her 75-year-old arranged-marriage groom.

When the Caravan arrives at the town of Lop, Polo announces that he is seizing the 'flying caravan' as a gift for the emperor, in hopes of buying his way out of the emperor's service so that he can return home. As he takes the TARDIS key to ensure the safety of his prize, the treacherous Tegana buys a poison which he plans to put into the water supply of the caravan... as they enter the vast, arid wastelands of the Gobi desert.

A sandstorm foils Tegana's plans, so he slices open the water containers, blaming a concurrent attack by bandits, and is soon dispatched ahead as a scout to find water for the now seriously dehydrated party. He finds an oasis... but does not return with his knowledge.

The Doctor and Susan sneak into the TARDIS and collect condensation water from the walls. This allows them to survive to the next town, where they re provision, and Tegana, claiming to have found nothing and secretly disbelieving that they can still be alive, rejoins the group. He slips away and meets with Mongul agents, ordering them to attack the caravan and kill it's occupants. Barbara, having followed, overhears the plans but not Tegana's voice- she is captured (N.F.S: Biiiig....surprise.) by the Mongul agents, and the group- including Polo and a returned, playing-innocent Tegana, head to the cave to rescue her, deducing her most probable location. There, Tegana kills the Monguls in combat to prevent their betraying his complicity.

As the caravan departs, the group's suspicion of Tegana grows, while he tries to sow suspicion and distrust of them to Marco Polo. A second key the Doctor had fashioned (N.F.S.: How did he do that, exactly? I should think you'd need some kind of mystical magical material to do that? What did he make it with? His fillings?!) to gain entry to the TARDIS is discovered and confiscated, furthering the discord.

At the next town, Tegana again hires men to waylay the party. The marauders kill a guard as they advance, who is discovered by Ian as the group tries to escape. Rather than letting the ambush occur, Ian scares of the bandits and Tegana again kills his accomplice in secret. While the group realizes his treachery, they cannot convince Marco Polo of it.

A messenger arrives for Kublai Khan, urging speed- the group takes to horseback, leaving the TARDIS and other belongings to be brought more slowly by the caravan. Tegana, meanwhile, hires yet another thug at the next village, this time to steal the TARDIS. Ping-Cho steals one of the TARDIS keys and gives it to Susan to aid her escape, but Tegana catches her. Ian takes the blame for stealing the key. Marco intuits the truth, however, and Ping-Cho flees the caravan. Ian goes back to the village where she has fled to and retrieves her, discovering the TARDIS theft in the process. The thief is caught and admits Tegana's culpability, but Tegana himself arrives and threatens to kill Ping-Cho. She and Ian are saved by the arrival of Kublai Khan's soldiers, but with the bandit killed, there is not corroboration to Ian's claims of Tegana's treachery. The group continues on towards Peking. At the summer palace of Shang-Tu, the aged and bruised Doctor is so stiff he is unable to properly Kow-tow- the aged Khan, seeing a kindred spirit who understands the weariness of growing older, strikes up a friendship. (N.F.S.: I think...this is possibly the most confusing plot I have ever read...I think I pretty much just got that Tegana kills people, and the doctor is old.)

The Khan and Doctor play a backgammon together, in ever-increasing stakes, the Doctor emerging victorious in every round with increasing wealth; but a final, decisive match for the TARDIS key is his first and only loss.

Marco begins to have regrets about his strong-arm acquisition of the TARDIS. Ping-Cho's arranged marriage falls through when the groom passes away, and the young soldier who rode to her and Ian's rescue against Tegana and the bandit becomes her new paramour. Marco, now in poor favor with the Khan for his treatment of the Doctor, begins to finally see through Tegana's dishonesty, and works with the Doctor and the companions, deducing that Tegana has come to assassinate the Khan. Tegana is thwarted in the nick of time and commits suicide rather than be captured. Marco slips the group the key during the chaos and urges their escape; despite the loss of Khan's 'prize,' Marco is forgiven and allowed to return home to Venice in reward for saving the life of the Khan.

This will be a shorter review- without being able to see the actor's performances, comments will be primarily on the story itself, as most reconstructions likely will be.

Took a long time to psych up for watching 7 still-only videos (the re-creations, slide shows with captions indicating actions, set to the audio of the actual episode... and, as a special bonus, with the actor portraying Marco filmed in a new prologue and epilogue)- but I found this to be the most engaging story so far in the Old Who. It had good pacing, real suspense, interesting twists that didn't feel too drawn out- all in all, I really enjoyed it.

Loose Canon Production, who did the re-creation, did a very nice job with these color photos, which really do justice to the richness of the costumes and sets. While some stills do get repetitive- such as when there's only one good closeup for each actor that they cut to every time they're speaking- but enough photos exist that they were able to create a good variety (something not always possible in future reconstructions.) They even added a blowing-sandstorm video overlay over the photos during that sandstorm. Cute.

Not much else to say about this one; again, it kept the interest up better than any of the serials thus far in the series, and, while a little long, didn't drag during it's duration. Sadly, it also establishes a tradition- very many of the lost episodes are the historical re-creations, because a prime method of recovering the lost episodes is recovering film prints that were sent overseas to foreign markets... and many foreign markets, like the middle east and Australia (the two most common gold mines of lost Doctor Who material) were far more interested in science fiction shows than shows about western history (N.F.S.: Which is pretty understandable actually.)... and so, only purchased them, and only they have been recovered... rendering the historicals, sadly, as those with the greatest gaps.

Great moments:
The backgammon games, in which The Doctor wins 35 elephants, 4000 white stallions, 25 tigers, the sacred tooth of the Buddha, and the entire commerce of Burma for a year... but then loses the final, highest-stakes match for the TARDIS itself. Not only is the situation as funny as it is aggravating, Hartnell's laughing fit during the delivery helps to carry across the Doctor's own bemused frustration at the irony.

4 out of 5 Blessings of Orb. Too long, but with story and pacing a far step up from the serials preceding! A little shorter and it would have been perfect!

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