Doctor Who - Marco Polo by John Lucarotti

Published: April 1985

Edition read: Target first, 1985

Coolest Cover: On balance I think I’ll go for the video cover. Only joking- David McAllister’s likenesses are a bit iffy, as if he was OK drawing Mongol hordes and Chinese palaces but less comfortable with your actual people.

The BBC Budget Wouldn’t Run To: There’s an awful lot of gold once we get to Kublai Khan’s palaces. Not to mention all the caravans, processions and so on.

Purple Prose: All the descriptions of Chinese delicacies which nearly had me forswearing vegetarianism and off down to the takeaway.

The TARDIS dematerialises with... "a shimmering shield of light"

Ramblings: After a concerted effort to get the highlights of Peter Davison’s last season into print, going back to a monster-free seven-part story unseen (as far as we know) by a living soul in Britain since 1964 represents a serious gamble on Target’s part, while also showing a great deal of faith in the story itself and John Lucarotti’s adaptation. One immediately obvious point to make when reviewing the book is that the original serial unfolded over seven weeks and, as far as we can tell, cultivated a sense of time passing and a lengthy journey, whereas the book has precisely 144 pages in which to tell the same story. Nevertheless, Lucarotti had already turned in a lively retelling of ‘The Aztecs’, and while the job of adapting ‘Marco Polo’ would have been a difficult and demanding one, the story would never be safer than in the hands of its own original writer.

Lucarotti’s adaptation thrusts us squarely into the action- we begin in the TARDIS, on the Plain of Pamir, with no reference to any previous adventures. His approach to the work of condensing the seven episodes down mainly takes the form of reporting conversations which- knowing the nature of 1960s historical Doctor Who -probably took several minutes on screen down to a sentence, although having said that, it’s not difficult to imagine that the middle episodes largely took the form of arriving at another way station, the Doctor trying to get the TARDIS back from Marco Polo, Tegana trying to slaughter everybody and a miscellaneous local attraction such as the Singing Sands or the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes. While it’s impossible to maintain the same sense of the passage of weeks and months in a book which takes a couple of hours to read, the sense of progression is still very much there and there’s a strong sense of atmosphere. It’s also one of the better adaptations in the sense of capturing the characters as they appeared on screen- Polo himself is basically fair but single-minded, which makes for a certain amount of depth and ambiguity, while Tegana comes across well as a man on what is to all intents and purposes a suicide mission, equally prepared to kill allies as well as enemies if they seem likely to impede his murderous errand for Noghai.

If there’s a weakness in the original story and the adaptation, it comes towards the end when we meet Kublai Khan and discover his palaces; after a careful build-up, we’re left marking time with a fussy little old man who goes on about his aches and pains until Tegana turns up and makes his assassination attempt. While from a dramatic point of view this probably made sense at the time and gave William Hartnell a chance to play a different aspect of the Doctor, it does mean that a story which builds up a great deal of atmosphere on the Silk Road loses its focus a little towards the end, and Lucarotti only has a certain amount of space in which to attempt to evoke the splendour of the Khan’s court. But it’s certainly a strong adaptation of a very special story from the series’ early years; whether fans will ever get to see any footage from the televised episodes isn’t for this review to attempt to guess, but the book is a very acceptable substitute. It only goes to show what an inspired decision it was to track John Lucarotti down and get him to adapt his own scripts, as his almost unique understanding of how to make historical characters come alive transfers equally well to the printed page as to the television script.

As a sideline, some readers may remember that several years ago, Virgin Trains named one of their then-new Super Voyager trains Doctor Who. As another of the same class was named after Marco Polo, a Doctor Who-Marco Polo combination is entirely possible somewhere on the Virgin network.