1.14 Marco Polo Pt. 1 - The Roof of the World Written by John Lucarotti, Directed by Waris Hussein
The TARDIS malfunctions and will need several days to fix, fortunately for the travellers they are helped out by Marco Polo.
Great opening episode, introducing a troublesome situation to the travellers and setting up a number of things to be overcome before the story reaches its conclusion. The fact that it holds up so incredibly well on audio, with me having to read the script and look at the telesnaps, says a lot.
All the characters seem to work, not just the regulars. Polo's reasoning for his actions are understandable, Tegana is loyal to his master, Ping Cho is honoured to be travelling with Marco. Everyone is well drawn. And the Doctor's laughing fit as he realises how much trouble they are in just makes it all the more enjoyable.
Also of note is the series managing its educational duties without feeling forced. When Polo gives a full account of his his life since arriving at Kublai Khan's court, there is solid reason for it. And Ian's explaining the reasons for the soup not being warmed fully by the fire due to the altitude feels natural, a sharing of information.
I had wondered if the story would still be as good as I remembered it to be, and with this episode, it's off to a cracking start.
"Hear me, Mongols... in these parts live evil spirits, who take our likeness to deceive us and then lead us to our deaths. Let us therefore destroy these evil spirits before they destroy us!" - Darren Nesbitt (Tegana)
1.15 Marco Polo Pt. 2 - The Singing Sands Written by John Lucarotti, Directed by Waris Hussein
The caravan starts to make its way across the Gobi Desert.
The interactions of the characters continue to carry this story through, with the addition of a sand storm to add some extra elements of danger, beyond the plotting of Tegana. Some of the sound effects for the storm are genuinely creepy, with a mix of screams, laughs, and moans along with weird electronic howls.
One thing that stands out is that there are solid reasons why the caravan can't return to Lop, stated clearly within the story, so one doesn't feel that a more dangerous option is taken on a whim.
"One day, we'll know all the mysteries of the skies... and we'll stop our wandering..." - Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
1.16 Marco Polo Pt. 3 - Five Hundred Eyes Written by John Lucarotti, Directed by Waris Hussein
The caravan arrives at Tun-Huang, and fresh danger.
A slower episode, not adding much to what went before, but still well-written. Again, the educational component of the story is incorporated well with the story, the facts directly relating to some of what is encountered.
"And you still don't seem to realise that you're speaking to a man of superior intellect." - William Hartnell (Doctor Who)
1.17 Marco Polo Pt. 4 - The Wall of Lies Written by John Lucarotti, Directed by John Crockett
The travellers try to prove Tegana is up to no good.
A character episode, relying on the shifting balance of trust between Marco Polo, Tegana, Ping Cho, and the TARDIS crew. Polo's guilt and frustration are obviously taking there toll, making him angry and causing him to act out more - but thanks to the first episode, we still understand his motives and they seem realistic even in the face of all this trouble.
"I wear the gold seal of Kublai Khan, and by the authority it invests in me, I do hereby seize and hold your caravan in his name. Be warned. Any resistance to this decree is instantly punishable by death." - Mark Eden (Marco polo)
1.18 Marco Polo Pt. 5 - Rider from Shang Tu Written by John Lucarotti, Directed by Waris Hussein
Kublai Khan sends word that Polo is to reach China with maximum speed.
The interactions between Marco and Ian are beautiful - each respects the other and are honest, both wish to return home and the TARDIS is their only means of doing it. This episode sets thing in place for the final two, and moves at a steady pace.
"If you're half as aggressive with this as you are with your tongue Doctor, we can't lose." - Marco Polo (Mark Eden) handing a sword to the Doctor.
1.19 Marco Polo Pt. 6 - Mighty Kublai Khan Written by John Lucarotti, Directed by Waris Hussein
The travellers meet the Kublai Khan.
More beautiful character work between Ian and Marco, and the meeting of the Doctor and Kublai Khan is wonderful.
"The TARDIS has been stolen!" - Ian Chesterton (William Russell)
1.20 Marco Polo Pt. 7 - Assassin at Peking Written by John Lucarotti, Directed by Waris Hussein
The travellers are held prisoner at the court of Kublai Khan.
A masterful finish, tying together all the threads neatly with only the lightest of conceits to create a happy ending for Ping Cho.
"Those who rise against us must be humbled." - Kublai Khan (Martin Miller)
Marco Polo 10/10
Worked out on the basis of the score for each episode, Marco Polo would rate 9 out of 10. However, I think it's a tale where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The story flows beautifully and never seems forced. The characters act and react in ways that make sense given the nature of the people and the situations they're in.
I have other Doctor Who stories that I would place ahead of this as favourites, but that doesn't mean they are better stories. This rates as highly as it does mostly from great writing, as well as excellent pacing and acting. Every episode adds to the story, to the setting, to the characters' motivations and actions. There are three and four part stories where entire episodes end up running on the spot - for all that happens within the episode, it fails in terms of forwarding story or character - Marco Polo always manages to keep at least one of its story or character threads progressing in every episode.
Most importantly, for me the story has probably the greatest sense of verisimilitude of any of the historicals - there are always hints and clues at the larger world of which this tale is just a part. For many historicals the setting is established at the beginning and then largely ignored, apart from the occasional bit of rather obvious exposition. But in Marco Polo we are given constant small references to the world and its attitudes as we go. The information doesn't seem forced or shoehorned in, this is Cathay at the time of Kublai Khan and we're learning about it as the travellers do.