‘Marco Polo’ is the first of the lost Doctor Who serials – a classic adventure from the William Hartnell era, and one that many fans would like to see again. Is there still a chance of finding a copy?
Of all the lost Doctor Who serials, ‘Marco Polo’ is one of the most sought-after. It comes from Doctor Who‘s first season and sees the Doctor and his companions join the famous traveller across the Himalayan mountains to Cathay, where he is granted an audience with the mighty Kublai Khan. Told across seven episodes, this adventure is widely considered to be a classic, boasting impressive production values and a tight, action-packed script.
Even more impressive is the fact that ‘Marco Polo’ is one of the purely historical Doctor Who serials, and features virtually no science fiction elements (apart from the TARDIS, of course.) And even though the Doctor’s historical outings would wane in popularity as the show went on, ‘Marco Polo’ was something of a ratings hit for early Who, with over 10 million viewers tuning in for the final episode.
So how come we’re no longer able to enjoy this story in all its Himalayan glory? Well, like many lost Doctor Who serials, ‘Marco Polo’ wasn’t thought to have any commercial value after its initial broadcast and overseas transmissions. And in the early 70s, the advent of colour television made black and white programmes seem obsolete; the BBC felt there was little appetite for older shows as colour broadcasts grew in popularity.
As a result, all of ‘Marco Polo’s master tapes were wiped for reuse (as videotape was an expensive commodity) and all of its overseas broadcasters were told to return or destroy their prints.
And this is true for virtually all of the original Doctor Who episodes from the programme’s first 10 years; very few of the original tapes from this era survived the purge. But the reason why there aren’t more lost Doctor Who serials is because of the dedicated work of fans and film collectors, who tracked down many of the film copies as they were coming back from overseas broadcasters, and saved them from the incinerator.
At the same time, some lost Doctor Who serials have found their way back to the archives via other, stranger routes. The surviving episodes of ‘The Ice Warriors,’ for example, were found in the back of a cupboard at BBC Enterprises. And two episodes of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan‘ were discovered in the basement of a Mormon church. Naturally.
So does this mean we could still track down a surviving copy of ‘Marco Polo’? Are there any cupboards at BBC Enterprises that haven’t been checked? And have all of the overseas broadcasters returned their prints?
Fortunately, unlike many of the lost Doctor Who serials, ‘Marco Polo’ was sold to a staggering nineteen countries, meaning that many copies were made. However, this may amount to ‘only’ nine prints, as many were bicycled between broadcasters. And of these nine, Australia and Nigeria almost certainly destroyed their copies. Meanwhile Sierra Leone and Mauritius returned their prints to the BBC in the 70s, and the fate of the films sent to Canada, Iran, Kenya, Thailand and Ethiopia is unknown. So could these countries hold the key?
Possibly. And possibly not. Iran and Kenya have confirmed that they don’t have any lost Doctor Who serials, and whilst the fate of the Canadian prints is vague, it is highly likely that they destroyed their films in the late 60s or 70s. Which leaves us with Thailand and Ethiopia.
And this is where things get a little interesting – and a little heart-breaking. Because apparently, in the mid 90s, the BBC was contacted by a TV station saying that it had a complete set of lost Doctor Who serials – and basically everything from the programme’s first two seasons. The TV station offered these prints to the BBC who, for some reason, declined the offer to have them returned, and authorised their destruction.
At the same time, until proof of this destruction emerges, we won’t know for sure. Similarly, there is a precedent for foreign broadcasters telling the BBC that they have destroyed their films – and even confirming that they don’t have any lost Doctor Who serials – when the exact opposite is true. Indeed, when the Second Doctor stories ‘The Enemy of the World’ and ‘The Web of Fear’ were found in Nigeria in 2012, they were originally believed to have been destroyed in the late 60s.
Then there are lost Doctor Who serials like ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan.’ Few foreign broadcasters showed any interest in this story, and indeed the only country that requested a viewing print was Australia, who ultimately rejected it. And yet despite this, three complete episodes have somehow survived – two of which being in the aforementioned Mormon church (for reasons unknown) with the third being retained by a BBC engineer, who intercepted it before its destruction. Similarly, other missing episodes such as the second part of ‘The Underwater Menace’ (which is much rarer than ‘Marco Polo’) was rescued by a BBC employee, and survives to this day.
The probability, therefore, is that some trace of ‘Marco Polo’ must exist somewhere. In fact, one could argue that the story is almost conspicuous by its absence, and there are certainly private film collectors who hold onto lost Doctor Who serials with no intention of ever sharing them, as is probably the case with ‘The Web of Fear’ episode three – the only episode to remain missing from that story. So it is conceivable that someone, somewhere, could have a complete copy of ‘Marco Polo.’
Moreover, the missing episodes hunter Philip Morris has stated that he believes there to be at least six missing Doctor Who episodes in the hands of private collectors. Some episodes of ‘Marco Polo’ could certainly be included in the haul.
In the meantime, we are fortunate enough to have a full set of audio recordings for this and many other lost Doctor Who serials, as well as a high quality set of colour photographs taken during the production, and telesnaps for most of the episodes.
So do you think ‘Marco Polo’ will ever be returned to us? And would you like to see the story recreated as an animated release? Let me know in the comments below.
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