‘Marco Polo’ is one of the most cherished of the missing Doctor Who episodes. But why do fans hold this story in such high regard?
Missing Doctor Who episodes are often elevated to a mythical status. Those stories that have been lost to the (singing) sands of time are frequently shrouded in mystery, as fans fantasise about how good they must have been.
This is certainly true for ‘Marco Polo’ – the fourth Doctor Who story to be transmitted and the very first of the missing Doctor Who episodes in the BBC archives. It’s a seven part epic, and sees the Doctor and his companions Ian, Barbara and Susan travel with the eponymous adventurer across the snow-swept Himalayas and the Gobi Desert as he journeys to meet with the mighty Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty.
And for those of you who are a bit sketchy on your history, don’t worry. These missing Doctor Who episodes were designed to be educational in nature – being targeted at children primarily – and were written with the expectation that the viewer would no little of 13th century China, or indeed the traveller Marco Polo. Indeed, all of the First Doctor’s historical outings were based on this remit, and ‘Marco Polo’ was arguably the first of its kind. (The Doctor and his companions had previously encountered cavemen in the year 100,000 BC, but this adventure was more referential than historical.)
When the story opens, we pick up where the previous serial ‘The Edge of Destruction’ left off. Susan has discovered a giant footprint in the snow and believes that it has been made by a giant. This proves to be something of a red herring, however, as Ian quickly concludes that its large size may simply be down to how it has melted.
But the travellers are not out of the woods yet. These missing Doctor Who episodes quickly pick up the pace when the TARDIS team is accosted by Marco Polo and his party. Polo reveals that they are in the Himalayas, and when he sees the Doctor’s “magic caravan” he decides that it will make the perfect gift for the Mongol leader Kublai Khan, to whom he is travelling.
As such, the Doctor and his friends are forced to journey on with Marco Polo and his entourage in a trek that proves to be a perilous one. The TARDIS is on the blink, and Marco Polo has a traitor in his midst – namely the Mongol warlord Tegana, who is hell-bent on wiping out the entire party, by whatever means.
But having failed to poison them and make them die of thirst, Tegana is a bit antsy by the time they reach Kubali Khan’s summer palace in Shang-Tu. The Doctor, however, manages to strike up a friendship with the Mongol leader, which he tries to use to his advantage in order to win the TARDIS back. Tegana, meanwhile, ultimately takes his own life to avoid capture by Kublai Khan’s men.
And if this sounds like a lot of information to cram into one adventure, bear in mind that these missing Doctor Who episodes comprise an epic seven part story. In fact, ‘Marco Polo’ is the longest of all the historical Doctor Who serials, and is truly one-of-a-kind.
Indeed, it proved immensely popular with contemporary viewers, with over 10 million people tuning in for its final part. These missing Doctor Who episodes were also praised for their production design, and the serial is frequently described as something of a visual tour-de-force, such was the lavishness of its costumes and sets. This feat is all-the-more impressive when you remember that ‘Marco Polo’ was made on a micro budget in a tiny studio by a relatively inexperienced director.
The director in question was Waris Hussein – a British-Indian director of just 26 years of age, who had been instrumental in Doctor Who‘s early success as the director of the very first story ‘An Unearthly Child.’ Hussein had done a sterling job on his first Doctor Who outing, and the producer Verity Lambert quickly asked him back for more.
And whilst much of his work on these missing Doctor Who episodes has “all gone to pot” (thanks to the story’s untimely destruction in the 1960s) a number of production photos and telesnaps survived the purge, detailing the splendour and scale of the production design. What we are still missing, however, are some of Hussein’s more interesting directorial choices, such as the animated map which describes the party’s travels towards Shang-Tu, narrated by Marco Polo.
In addition, there is the rather mysterious scene in which the Doctor and his friends are gathered around the TARDIS console, projected onto a starry background, which appears at the end of episode seven. This was included as Marco Polo wondered about the adventures that his new friends would have next.
But of course, these missing Doctor Who episodes are not completely gone. We do still have the audio soundtracks, thanks to the dedication of contemporary fans who recorded the story’s soundtrack during the original transmission. This has since been released on CD and vinyl.
And there is always hope that these missing Doctor Who episodes will turn up one day. Although the original videotapes were wiped, a total of nine film copies were made for overseas sales. And whilst the prints that were sent to Australia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Mauritius were almost certainly destroyed, there is still something of question mark over the films sent to Canada, Iran, Kenya, Thailand and Ethiopia. We’ve written more about the hunt for ‘Marco Polo’ here.
Moreover, thanks to the original soundtracks, there is the possibility that the BBC will animate these missing Doctor Who episodes one day, following in the steps of the recent ‘Galaxy 4,’ ‘The Evil of the Daleks‘ and ‘Fury from the Deep‘ releases. Marco Polo’s travels might not be over just yet.
Do you think these missing Doctor Who episodes will return to the archives one day? And what is your favourite moment from ‘Marco Polo’? Let me know in the comments below.
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