January 10: "Mighty Kublai Khan" / "Assassin at Peking"

(Marco Polo episodes 6 & 7)

And they were so close!  Yet interestingly, Marco doesn't put the travellers under guard as he did in "The Wall of Lies" -- he must believe that without the TARDIS nearby, they won't be a problem.  There's a nice bit where Ian tells Marco the truth: that they're from a different time, not just a different place.  Marco won't believe him though, pointing out that Ian has lied before, and that provides enough doubt to deny them the TARDIS.

But really, the star of this episode is the titular character: Mighty Kublai Khan indeed!  When Polo's entourage arrives at Shang-Tu (which the map accompanying the CD helpfully notes is also known as Xanadu and thus (sort of) the subject of Coleridge's poem), we're treated to a marvelous performance, as Martin Miller provides an aging, human ruler.  It also gives William Hartnell the chance to indulge in a bit of comedy, as his pain from horseback riding leads him to uttering groans and aches almost in time with Kublai Khan.  "Do you mock our afflictions?" the Khan demands.  But it's not just comedy: their shared anguish allows the Doctor to become friendly with Kublai Khan and insinuate himself into his good graces.  It's a good move from writer John Lucarotti.

But if "Mighty Kublai Khan" was good, "Assassin at Peking" is even better.  Tegana admits his fealty to Noghai and his intent to help him take down Kublai Khan to both Ian and Ping-Cho, and they still can't get Marco Polo to believe it.  Tegana has been good before, but here he really enters the realm of "villain you love to hate", as his silver tongue also starts to convince the Khan that Marco isn't worthy of trust (using a little old-fashioned racism to boot).  It's really wonderful -- kudos to Derren Nesbitt's performance.

But this episode also has some more comedy, showing Kublai Khan as being somewhat henpecked by his wife the Empress -- yet still retaining a sense of authority when, say, dealing with Marco Polo and his perceived disloyalty.  Plus there's that great backgammon game between the Khan and the Doctor, and the fate of Ping-Cho's would-be husband.

The Target book (from
the TARDIS Data Core wiki
article Marco Polo
Yet although the Doctor and his companions work out Tegana's plan (and it's nice to see that they answer the question I asked last time about when Tegana developed said plan), this episode ultimately belongs to Marco and Tegana, as they duel in the throne room in Peking4. It sounds like a good fight, and the telesnaps offer some tantalizing glimpses.  It's also interesting how Tegana throws himself on a sword to avoid capture, rather than having Marco (who's really our hero for this tale) kill him.  (Nor is he shot with an arrow by Ling-Tau, as the Target novelization told me.  But sidenote to say that I adore this book as, although my family had a small handful of Target books, Marco Polo was, along with The War Machines, the first Target book I bought myself.)  In some ways, given what's happened before, the TARDIS crew's final departure is very abrupt: no thanks or well-wishes, just a quick dash out before someone changes their mind.  But it works.  And interestingly, there's no cliffhanger into the next episode; it's almost as if these twenty episodes comprised the first story for the Doctor, Susan, Barbara, and Ian.

It's a really lovely tale, Marco Polo, and I've enjoyed it immensely.  I would absolutely love the chance to see this story on video (fun fact: Marco Polo was sent to more countries than any other missing serials), but even with just the soundtrack and telesnaps it's still easy enough to enjoy.  But next time it's back to video with "The Sea of Death" -- hey, our first "of Death" title!  This should be good.

(Final count for uses of 'TARDIS' as a bare noun (aka no accompanying 'the'): 4)

4 The enclosed map also informs me (although it's not the first to do so) that the use of Peking is anachronistic: the capital at that time was known as Khanbaliq.