Friday, 23 January 2009

January 2009, Week 4: Marco Polo


  1. I was dreading "the historical ones". I'm a monsters and aliens man normally. So, when the mission was first mooted I was most worried about these more, dare I say it, educational stories.

    Well after listening to the 7-part Marco Polo my first reaction is disappointment we have been robbed of the original visuals. I really enjoyed this story from beginning to end, and although there is the inevitable padding often found in the 6 or greater episode stories I was never bored.

    Marco Polo follows on from the events of Edge of Destruction where we saw a more reflective and perhaps kinder Doctor at the end. Forget it. In episode one, the Doctor has barely stepped out of the Tardis before he is back to his grumpy, snappy and at times plain weird old self.
    Ian continues to be Mr Nice-guy. A man happy to gently preach reason as to pick up a sword and fight mongols. What a guy!
    Barbara. Wow. Just think, an independent woman like her in the early 1960's! Its extraordinary really.
    Susan? Oh dear. She has now become a bog standard screaming teenager whose job is to get into trouble and provide blood-curdling shrieks at the end of every episode.

    My pick of the supporting cast is Mark Eden. he's brilliant as the tortured, but decent, Polo. His agonizing over his own actions and those around him is brilliantly played. I wish we could see this visually.
    Especially, i enjoyed his journal. Where he narrates a diary of events, as well as acting as a confessional where he agonizes over the fate of his prisoners.

    Overall the story is a continually moving one, as Polo's Caravan heads towards Peking. Its a great motivator and the spectre of the great Kubla Khan hangs over everything, along with the devious machinations of the Warlord Tigana. Who, I'm certain, would be twirling his mustache, if we could see him.

    When we do meet the mighty Khan, he turns out to be a cranky, but inscrutable old bugger, who takes a shine to the Doctor. The last episode in particular is a cracking 25 minutes of drama.

    Overall, I really enjoyed it. I find it hard to rate an audiobook against a fully-fledged video version, but I suspect this will happen again in the future, so Marco polo gets a 6/10 for me.

    What's Good?

    Mark Eden as Marco Polo
    The evocative realization of the period.
    William Russells' brilliant narration and links. Never intrusive, and always wonderfully delivered with passion and eloquence.
    Super hero Ian Chesterton.

    What's not so good?

    The Doctor! Episode 2 sees the Doctor disappear almost a whole episode, to re-appear for one line! (anyone know the reason?) He very conveniently sleeps through an entire sand-storm! I'm old fashioned. I like my Doctor involved in the story, and for me he is almost always a bystander.

    Losing the Tardis key. It's a 7-parter, so the usual capture/escape routine is followed. However, during this story, the Tardis key is stolen/lost/taken/given back/stolen/lost etc etc over and over. It gets a bit much.

    Susan's scream. Every bloody episode cliff-hanger!!

    What's odd.

    At one point during Marco Polo, William Hartnell breaks out into hysterical laughter and doesn't stop for a painfully long time. what WAS he doing?

    Footnote: I did have a chance to review the telesnap version of this story, but preferred the William Russell narration of the audiobook.

  2. Oh. And I was going to discuss homo-erotic overtones between Marco and Ian. But instead I'll jump right in and suggest Marco was simply gagging for it.

  3. So back to earth after all that weirdness!
    I've listened to the cds of Marco Polo 4 times now and I have to say I enjoy it more each time. Which says something for the quality of it and makes it a massive regret that the visuals are lost.
    Still, what's left is a hugely enjoyable tale, epic in terms of the real time the story takes and driven by some superb performances.
    The catalyst is the title character, excellently performed by Mark Eden. He conveys both the desperate desire to return home and an open-minded acceptance that a caravan could fly while at the same time being world-weary and aware that one wrong move with the Khan could spell his end. The moral struggle going on inside him is conveyed wonderfully, the agonising over the fact that in securing his own freedom he is condemning the travellers to the same situation as he is in is never over the top but unusually subtle. And I love the way the readings from his journal allow us into his mind, to experience his fears and how he wants to protect every member of his caravan from the threats along the way. A good man in a desperate situation.
    There are once again fine performances from William Russell and Jacqueline Hill as the two teachers. And William Hartnell is extraordinary, grumpiness often giving way to hysterical, manic laughter. Or, on one occasion, a long nap. This Doctor may be quite mad or possibly senile. But is wonderfully entertaining as you never know if he will hug you, snap at you or just walk off ignoring you to investigate something far more interesting. And in his relationship with the Khan you can see his comic talent come through. Marvellous!
    Once more, Susan is a weak link. On the plus side, her friendship with Ping-Cho is quite sweetly handled and throws the gulf in age between her and her grandfather into sharp relief. The downside is that every episode seems to end with her screaming at something or other. PLEASE STOP!!!
    As the villain of the piece Derren Nesbitt is hard to gauge. Purely on the audio he sounds a little too arch, moustache-twirling and over the top, but having seen him perform in other shows and films I have to say he often plays slightly big but when you see the almost feline cunning in his face and body language it somehow works beautifully. So I'm quite willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and regret the loss of the video all the more. The other big regret of the lost visuals must be the sets which in all the pictures I've seen look simply superb.
    The plot is quite slight and at 7 episodes is possibly drawn out too much though every episode is enjoyable on it's own terms. Episode 5, for instance, starts with the travellers key-less, they get it back and then lose it again in the climax so nothing has advanced plot-wise even though you have been entertained for 25 minutes.
    In the end though these are minor quibbles and the story overall is excellent, well-written and well-played.
    For me a 7/10

  4. A word also for the linking script and narration on the discs. William Russell brings the story to life beautifully. Kudos

  5. This is my first New Who since starting the mission.

    Unlike John & Dan I decided to go for a reconstruction. While it was all very well put together, I have to say I wasn't terribly impressed with the story.

    It was all very educational and worthy, and not that exciting. Ping-Cho tells the story of the Hashishim. Ling-Tau explains how highly-trained horsemen can ride 300 miles in a day. Our time travellers take a caravan ride.

    Thrilling adventures in time and space this ain't.

    On the plus side: Kuiju's got a monkey! How cool is that! Course, if you just listened to it on audio, you probably didn't realise.

    I also liked Susan's description of her home: "It's as far away as the night is dark..."

    The decision to have large sections of the plot narrated by Marco seems a bit odd - I do wonder what was on screen during his diary-moments. "And then we went up the wall of Cathay. And then we went to the oasis. And then..."

    Only a couple of other things of note. Tardis self-defence mechanism. This is the second time that this has been mentioned, the first being in The Daleks, and I have to say: What the fuck were the designers of the Tardis thinking?

    If you put the key in the lock the wrong way it melts. So basically if you come home drunk one night, that's it, you're locked out forever. Nice one, Tardis-designers! Once again, you've proved that permanently smoking crack needn't prevent a fulfilling career as an engineer on the Doctor's home planet.

    I think this is the first time we've seen the Tardis key as well - an ordinary yale key, that any child can get hold of, and pretend that they have a Tardis of their own with. I approve.

    And one final question. Susan and Ping-Cho - was anyone else reading girlcrush there? They got awfully close, awfully quickly, and shared a bedroom for some nights.

    In all, a bit of a disappointment.

  6. Interesting stuff Piers. Maybe the audio book is so well written and narrated it actually improves this story by bringing it to life so beautifully. I can think of one story immediately that we are yet to watch in which the audio certainly improves on the visual realisation. And, yes, the Susan/Ping-Cho relationship is intriguing, as is the Marco/Ian.

  7. I have to say, that having attempted the reconstruction I would venture the audiobook as being the superior format, in terms of storytelling.
    Susan and Ping-Cho? I think Ping-Cho is so happy to meet someone her age, especially as she is about to be married off to some old codger, that she is delighted to have someone to talk to. Ditto Susan.
    I have to say that Marco only keeps believing Ian because he wants to take him round the back of his Caravan.

  8. And I got no homoerotic subtext at all between Marco and Ian, while the two of you on audio did...


  9. William Russell clearly says "Ian gazes lustfully at Marco, whose eyes flicker up and catch his. For a moment that are caught in a private, tender, and special world that neither of them can ever fully enter..."

    Its a great audiobook, that fills in many gaps ;-)

  10. daniel turner owns the post watershed audio book they keep on the top shelf for 'special' customers.

  11. Sweet Jesus, Susan will you stop shrieking!

    Anyway, enjoyed the Marco Polo audio very much. It's so atmospheric and William Russell does a lovely job telling the story. The story itself, for all it's atmosphere, isn't the most exciting. It's luxurious and authentic seeming (I do wonder if the original film would shatter that illusion of authenticity) and puts the Doctor through the ringer a bit but it isn't a great thriller.

    For the record I picked up only manly comradeship between Marco and Ian. Nice to see how the Doctor reacts to being deprived of his only possession by a 'primitive'!

    In short I enjoyed it but was eager to press on. I suppose this might have had something to do with me worrying that other train passengers might be wondering why I seemed to be listening to a girl screaming over and pver again at brain straining volume on my MP3 player.