Doctor Who – Marco Polo Episode Two: The Singing Sands
“Here’s water, Marco Polo. Come for it!”
It’s time for another episode of Marco Polo, and this week I have fewer comments. You can draw your own conclusions from that about the episode, though today’s not been encouraging me to write, anyway. After three months – that’s a whole Marco Polo’s-worth for the time travellers – of pills and strict diet to prevent my gout recurring, I’m now in my agonizing second attack, which makes me wonder why I bothered cutting out half the things I eat (such indulgences as asparagus and peas). I never drink anyway, but it’s enough to make me start. Couldn’t it at least have waited until Episode Six, where there’s a comedy tie-in with the story? So, starting with my ungenerous reaction on the very first time I listened to this episode, back in 2001…
And I Said…
In Episode Two, the Doctor’s asleep, and so am I, I’m afraid.
It can’t just be because the Doctor gets just one line and a cough and a spit at the end, but almost nothing of Episode Two turns up in the condensed version and even the Time Team don’t say a word about it, which says quite a bit about how disposable it is.
Episode Two: Tegana acts suspiciously, but Marco takes it out on everyone else. Also Episodes Three, Four, Five…
The episode starts with framing to make us sympathise with Polo:
“The journey across this vast ocean of sand is slow and hazardous. To make matters worse, the old Doctor continually shows his disapproval of my action by being both difficult and bad-tempered. For three days, during which time we have covered no more than thirty miles, I have had to endure his insults.”So, Marco, you’re taking these people into the Gobi Desert by force, you’ve stolen their property and are keeping them in check at swordpoint from your band of thugs (really your Khan’s, whose power you’re abusing). But we should pity you, because they’re calling you names. Boo hoo, etc.
Polo comes across remarkably like a powerful, privileged modern-day opponent of gay marriage saying he’s the real victim because he’s been made to feel bad just because he’s a bad person.
I don’t know if all the Recon colours are accurate, but they’re very vivid, almost Technicolor. The Daleks is brilliant in claustrophobic, shiny black and white, but for this exotic travelogue the colour helps balance the lack of movement in the photos by making the whole thing come alive.
Tegana’s a good plotter, but his contempt for Polo keeps showing through and tripping him up. When he sneers openly at Polo’s confidence they have enough water to cross the desert, then tops his relentless negativity by demanding a bigger drink, it’s no wonder Marco snaps at him to exercise restraint! Is the warlord testing how much piss-taking his arrogance can get away with?
Polo’s hypocritical spin, week two:
“A game of chess, Ian?”The man is forever blaming other people for his decisions – when they’re really his desires.
“Oh, I’m not very good, but I’ll give you a game.”
“I gladly accept your challenge.”
Tegana has a nice character moment over chess – fascinated by two armies eager to cry “Shah mat.” “Oh, check mate,” Ian chips in. “It means ‘the king is dead’,” corrects Tegana (perhaps incorrectly, by modern translations, but with relish).
Barbara comforts Susan over her sulking Grandfather, explaining that he feels defenceless without the TARDIS: “When we’re in it, we feel safe and secure, but out of it…” What? Has she forgotten the previous story? Surely the script editor can’t have – he wrote it. David, have you fallen asleep, too?
Framing the episode with the journal is designed to make us sympathise with Polo’s self-pity about the Doctor’s temper. Not me. So, Marco, you’re taking these people into the Gobi Desert by force, you’ve stolen their property and are keeping them at swordpoint from your band of thugs. But we should pity you, because they’re calling you names? Boo hoo, etc.
It’s the first Doctor-lite episode, by accident and hasty rewriting to accommodate the ill actor, but he’s even more the central character for everyone constantly talking about him, from Susan upset to Polo bitching to Ian hanging a Cathay hat on it with all his ‘The Doctor’s still asleeps’. It feels like he’s a constant presence, fulminating in the background.
Susan has some lovely lines, but for all her opposition to Ping-Cho’s nuptials they hint in retrospect at her own impending leaving:
“One day, we’ll know all the mysteries of the sky – and we’ll stop all our wanderings.”
Barbara finds night in the desert very beautiful, but Marco snaps: “Even at night, the desert is dangerous.” He’s terribly prosaic for a writer, as he’s about to prove by not spotting the ‘code’ in which Tegana comments on his chess game:
“Marco, can you save your King?”
Ping-Cho’s excitement at the Moon rising soon over the desert, “like a great silver sea,” at last prompts an unearthly thought from Susan: “The metal seas of Venus…” She’s never seen a moonlit night, emphasising their artificial existence in the TARDIS.
On a more Earthly level, here at last – five minutes into the series’ fifteenth episode, and after teetering but not quite making it through scenes in each of the previous three stories – is Doctor Who’s first unambiguously Bechdel-passing scene, as Susan and Ping-Cho talk together about the wonders of the night.
“Oh, cra-zy…” murmurs Susan in wonder as she sightsees to rippling, eerie music. She’s never this 1963-hip again.
As Marco is woken by a horse neighing, the Recon shows his head on a gorgeous blue pillow with a gold sash, his body under a gorgeous red cover with gold trim. It’s so incredibly Technicolor that it looks like a quick snapshot from Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone’s The Adventures of Robin Hood!
It’s usually Ian and Marco who are compared in this story, but the Twentieth-Century man suddenly speaks with Tegana’s superstitious voice when the sound of the rising sandstorm spooks him “like all the devils in hell.”
Marco is furious at Susan’s “We went for a walk,” shouting at the girls and showing the stiff, authoritarian side that always comes out when he doesn’t get his own way. And despite being very mildly critical of Tegana in person for doing just that, the cringing lickspittle kow-tows to him later in his journal!
Tegana gets his poison out. For most of the story, it’s more metaphorical, and it doesn’t have much impact here, either. He clearly fears being challenged next time if he goes for another wander.
Doctor Who’s first unambiguously Bechdel-passing scene: Susan and Ping-Cho talk together about the wonders of the night.
While Barbara is strangely dim and wimpy (shaken more by a storm than by the Daleks or the Tribe), Susan really gains from playing off Ping-Cho – especially, here, intelligent and confident in seeing that Tegana’s not a man who’d go for a walk just to see a pretty night… And that, though a special emissary surely wouldn’t lie about such a thing, that makes it all the stranger that he did.
Carole Ann Ford’s great when she’s determined, and Susan is the first to work out Tegana’s place in the plot, which advances it. Or would, if there were any advance in the next four weeks.
Using panoramic production photos rather than the more confined Tele-snap shots rediscovered after the Recon was completed has its advantages and disadvantages: greater scale but less variety; a mass of colour but fewer scene-specific images; and, as they cross the desert, the wagons and hats give the feel of a Western, but against a rather limited backcloth background.
Tegana turns even his uncontrollable arrogance to his advantage: by being so obvious, he’s daring everyone to think that he must be open about everything and so couldn’t be a plotter on top.
There’s a neatly ambiguous scene where it’s not clear if Tegana’s being stupid or clever: taunting Polo over his writing then patronising him over his swordplay, he obviously gets Polo’s back up and is refused permission to give the night guard orders… But is it a double bluff, so that when he creates a distraction in order to slash the gourds, he can be certain no-one will say he ordered the guard away from them?
Tegana swallows his arrogance and gets his own way at last by posing as selfless and heroic in riding ahead to the oasis rather than running out on them – though he has no intention of coming back to the desperate wagons. He can’t bring himself to wheedle like Polo, but he sees himself as the hero and can strike a more convincing pose than the Venetian.
Slaking his thirst and pouring water back into the oasis, Tegana famously gives the cliffhanger laugh: “Here’s water, Marco Polo. Come for it!” with such relish that should Richard or I ask the other to pass something but we want to stay lounging on the sofa, our flat regularly echoes to the likes of ‘Here’s ketchup, Marco Polo. Come for it!’
Radio Times Teasers for Marco Polo
The Singing Sands
“Marco Polo warns Ian of the death in the desert, and Susan goes for a walk.”
Next Episode – The Cave of Five Hundred Eyes
For which an exciting “Next Episode” caption was surely designed to encourage kids to think there’d be monsters, as with the misdirection at the start of the first episode. But was the story too obviously ‘real’ by then for it to work?
Previously on Marco Polo:
The Roof of the World
Coming Soon on Marco Polo:
Five Hundred Eyes
The Wall of Lies
Rider From Shang-Tu
Mighty Kublai Khan
Assassin at Peking