Doctor Who: The Long Way Round: Marco Polo – Part 1

Marco Polo: The Roof of the World

Roof of the World

So this marks a slight departure in the format, although in what way is perhaps an interesting question. So far Doctor Who has largely ignored known figures and events (the Big Freeze of 1963 being the only exception). Instead they land smack in the middle of a mission for Marco Polo. We should consider how to read this.

Marco Polo operates historically in an intersting space. He is a well known in popular culture appearing in 33 different TV and film (according to IMDB) more than Gallileo, Machiavelli or Magellan. Whilst the veracity of his account is probably among the most debated right from his time until today (the arguments of which I will not revisit).

Yet he is not particularly special as demonstrated by the journeys of Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, Rabban Bar Sauma, Ibn Battuta and William of Rubruck among others. But somehow he is the one who has survived in the public conciousness. So the interesting question becomes Is this more like meeting a character from fiction or history? In fact is there a difference?

I would argue there is in the narrative treatment. For if it is a historical figure the peril Ian and Barbara face is more than just the immediate one. If Kublai Kahn gains access to the TARDIS his empire could theoretically stretch across the entire world or even galaxy and they will likely never have been born or live such different lives they would never even meet The Doctor. And even if they are not wiped out they will all be trapped forever in the medieval world. 

However, if we consider this to be more like interacting with a character from fiction then it is the narrative that is more important. Now the writer has some good get-outs from their appearance in itself changing the story in itself. Firstly, Marco Polo refers to an incident related in the original travels:

There is another marvel performed by those Basci…when the Lord desires to drink, these enchanters…cause the cups to move from their place without being touched by anybody and present themselves to the Emperor!1

Thereby establishing his belief that unexplainable things are indeed possible. Secondly at the end of his life he is supposed to have said on his death-bed:

I did not tell half of what I saw. For I would not be believed 2

So it can easily be explained why this incident does not get mentioned. However, if he is to leave under the circumstances of giving over the caravan to Kublai Kahn this will change how his story is told.

The story so far takes plenty of liberties with both history and the narrative as well as making many good nods towards them. Therefore, I do not feel I have enough information to say which way this is heading as of yet but I think it is important to look at the difference going forward.

On our (now) regular four travellers, it seems like their roles may well be explored by being mirrored by those they meet. Marco Polo, in all the original images of him I have come across, is bearded and it is definitely the iconic look. Yet here he is clean shaven. What this makes us do is compare him to the other clean shaven European man, Ian. Both try to project this image of nobility to those around them but when put in desperate straits are willing to do immoral things to save their own lives. For it was only a short while ago Ian was willing to convince the Thals to become killers by taking away Dyoni, just as Polo is willing to take the TARDIS in order to allow him and his family to leave court before they are murdered. Both are also convinced they can help those around them, Polo getting the travellers back to Europe, Ian getting the Thals the food supplies they need. But really both are acting immorally.

Whilst Ian is being reflected in Marco, Susan seems to be being mirrored in Ping-Cho. Back in Time and Relative she told stories of herself as a space princess in exile from her home. Here we have Ping-Cho moving away from her home, being arranged into a marriage with a man she does not know. Now, whilst I do not want to suggest any kind of relationship with The Doctor, it is interesting that Ping-Cho is going to be married to another old man.3

What these forces us to do is to take another look at the actions of Ian and The Doctor and continue to question whether they are truly as good as we would like to believe or if it would be fair to classify them as evil spirits like Tegana would have others believe.

Barbara and The Doctor’s roles in this episode seem to be more functional than thematic when compared with Susan and Ian. The Doctor is largely to inform us of The Ship’s condition and to be angered by Polo’s decision. Barbara appears to be still be rattled by her experiences slightly when he is still thinking of giants but as soon as it becomes history she recognises she becomes much more in her element and is able to identify much of what is going on.4

However, whilst the travellers may be trapped here I am perfectly willing for them to stay. Whilst there are still dangerous they seem to be somewhere interesting and beautiful, with some travelling companions who whilst not all friendly, only Tegana appears actively hostile. They do need to get the TARDIS back but I hope not we do not leave immediately because this is a trip that may well be worth taking.

1Polo. M, Rossabi, M [ed.] (2012), The Travels of Marco Polo. New York: Sterling Pub. PP108

2Zannos, S (2004), The Life and Times of Marco Polo. Mitchell Lane Publishers Inc. PP41

3Assuming we get more time with Ping-Cho I do want to talk about her character in future installments as so far she is fascinating in her own right and would indeed make another worthwhile traveller in the TARDIS if they family is going to expand again.

4Although, I am sure there is another interesting version of this where they meet Maffeo Polo instead and is annoyed everyone has only heard of Marco.

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