Marco Polo was the fourth serial in the first season of Doctor Who. This was the first occasion in which a famous person from history appeared on the show. It also saw the TARDIS act as a plot piece rather than something the travelers must return to once they have finished their adventuring.
Marco Polo did a much better job of recreating historical societies than other serials. It showed a mixed-ethnic group rather than a stereotypical collection of one race. Reference is made to real world narcotics when Ping-Cho relates a fairytale that features hashish. Such references don’t reappear until The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
Almost uniquely for the 1963 series, this story has a narrator. Mark Edenreads aloud while the map of the travelers’ journey is shown.
Although it was the first two Dalek serials that eventually made it to film, Marco Polo was the first story to be considered for cinematic treatment. In fact, it was Disney who made the approach.
Marco Polo is perhaps most notable as the earliest and longest Doctor Who story which is completely missing. Its first episode, “The Roof of the World”, is the earliest-broadcast episode to be missing.
Episode 1: The Roof of the World (Lost)
The TARDIS crew have arrived in the snowy wastes of the Plain of Pamir. The ship is damaged and unable to provide light, heat or water. The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan face the prospect of freezing to death as night approaches and the temperature plummets.
Ian and Barbara go out onto the tundra to look for fuel, but Barbara sees a figure in the snow and they hurry back. Meanwhile, the Doctor has discovered what is wrong with the TARDIS, but is interrupted by Ian and Barbara’s return. The creature follows them back and appears at the TARDIS door. The foursome chase after it but are soon surrounded by Mongol soldiers on the verge of killing them for being evil spirits. A Western man, who turns out to be Marco Polo, interrupts them.
Polo welcomes the Doctor, who is suffering from altitude sickness, and his companions to his company. He introduces some of his fellow travelers, including Tegana, a Mongol warlord. Tegana is a peace emissary from the Khan Noghai, who has been at war with Kublai Khan. A young Chinese woman named Ping-Cho is also travelling with Polo so she may meet her seventy-five-year old groom in her arranged marriage. Ping-Cho forms a strong friendship with Susan.
The Mongols fear the Doctor is an evil sorcerer who is powerless outside the TARDIS, so Marco Polo forbids him from entering it until their party has stopped in a town at the edge of the desert. Here, Polo says, the Doctor may fix his vessel.
When the caravan stops at the way station in Lop, Marco Polo tells the Doctor he is requisitioning his “flying caravan” as a prize for the Emperor to attempt to buy his way out of his service.
Meanwhile, the lord Tegana purchases a poison for the caravan’s water supply as it ventures into the Gobi Desert.
Episode 2: The Singing Sands (Lost)
The travelers make their way across the Gobi Desert. The Doctor, in a show of petulance, refuses to come out of his tent when they settle for the night, distressing Susan. One night when Ian and Marco Polo are playing chess, Susan vents her frustration that they are stuck on Earth rather than exploring the stars. This spirit for exploring provokes Ping-Cho and Susan to follow Tegana as he walks off into the night. A vicious sandstorm, during which Ping-Cho and Susan are briefly lost, prevents Tegana from poisoning the gourds. Instead he slices them open in the night, knowing full well that bandits will get the blame.
Marco Polo insists the caravan press on to the next stop, but the water rations grow lower as the days pass. Finally, Tegana is dispatched to find a fabled oasis. The Mongol finds the oasis easily, but does not return with water as promised.
Episode 3: Five Hundred Eyes (Lost)
With the water supply completely exhausted, the situation grows desperate. The travelers only survive the arid conditions when the Doctor and Susan collect water which condensed on the TARDIS walls in the night.
The caravan moves on to the next way-station at Tun-Huang, where stocks are replenished and they meet an incredulous Tegana, who rejoins their caravan. Ping-Cho makes their stay pleasant with the tale of Ala-eddin (Aladdin) and the Hashashin (or assassins).
Tegana slips away during the performance and makes his way to the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, where he is told by the Mongol agents Malik and Acomat that Noghai is assembling an army and marching toward Karakorum. Tegana tells Acomat, a bandit, to attack the caravan soon and kill Marco Polo and the others. Their plans, however, have been partially overheard by Barbara, who followed Tegana to the cave, though she does not realise the extent of Tegana’s involvement. She is found and held prisoner by Malik while Tegana returns to the caravan, feigning surprise when her disappearance is discovered.
The Doctor deduces that Barbara may be at the cave and heads there, accompanied by Susan and Ping-Cho. Susan cries out in fear when she sees a pair of “painted” eyes moving!
Episode 4: The Wall of Lies (Lost)
Marco, Ian and Tegana arrive at the cave after being tipped off by Chenchu. Barbara is rescued after Ian discovers the secret room.
When the party returns to the caravan, Tegana tries another tactic. He tries to make Marco suspicious by telling him that Susan has an unhealthy hold over Ping-Cho and the Doctor has a second key to the TARDIS. This is countered when Barbara states that she was only in danger as she followed Tegana to the cave, but Tegana flatly denies ever having been there before. Marco stamps his authority on the caravan by separating Ping-Cho and Susan, making them ever more suspicious of Tegana. At the next way station Tegana’s plans are bolstered when he proves to Marco that the Doctor has a second key to the TARDIS by getting Polo to witness the Doctor leaving the ship. Polo seizes the key and tries to go in, but the Doctor warns him that the ship will be destroyed if an unauthorized person enters it. He is taken away and held under guard.
The caravan now catches sight of the Great Wall of Cathay. The route turns south to Lan-Chow along the banks of the Yellow River. At the next town, Sinju, Tegana meets with Acomat and tells him to attack the caravan two nights later as they journey through the bamboo forest. Everyone is to be killed. Acomat goes to wait in the jungle for Tegana’s signal to attack.
To escape from Polo, Ian cuts through the tent and avoids the guard. His plan is to knock the guard out and allow the others to escape; however, when he reaches the front of the tent, he discovers the guard is already dead.
Episode 5: Rider From Shang-Tu (Lost)
Unwilling to leave Polo and his party to their fate, Ian alerts them to the oncoming danger. He wakes Polo, who wakes Tegana, and they begin to arm themselves. Ian decides it would be best to frighten off the attacking bandits by throwing bamboo into the fire to explode noisily. When the bandits attack, Acomat is slain by Tegana as he is on the point of exposing him. The other bandits flee in fear. In thanks for their help defeating the bandit attack, Marco Polo allows Susan and Ping-Cho to share company once more and permits the others to walk freely again.
The Doctor and his companions have worked out that Tegana is the source of many of the journey’s troubles, but cannot make Marco Polo realize how dangerous he is. A new traveler arrives at the caravan, a message rider named Ling-Tau. He has traveled from Shang-Tu (three hundred miles away) in just twenty-four hours, changing horses every three miles. He bears a message commanding the caravan to speed up, so Marco orders that once they reach the city of Cheng-Ting, the travelers shall all take to horseback while the TARDIS and the other belongings are brought on later. As ever, Tegana has another plot at the next way station. He meets an ally called Kuiju and bribes him to try to steal the TARDIS while the convoy is split up and take it to Karakorum, where Noghai’s troops are massing.
Ping-Cho knows where Marco has hidden the two keys to the TARDIS and gives one to Susan to help the time travelers escape. Later that night the Doctor and his companions sneak out to return to the TARDIS and escape, but Susan returns to say goodbye to Ping-Cho and is restrained by Tegana.
Episode 6: Mighty Kublai Khan (Lost)
Ian leaves the TARDIS to convince Tegana to free Susan. Tegana orders the others out of the TARDIS and frees Susan only when the Doctor returns the TARDIS key to Polo. Ian takes the blame on himself for stealing the TARDIS key to save Ping-Cho. As the journey enters its final phases, Ian tries to ingratiate himself with Marco Polo again by telling him the truth about the TARDIS. Marco does not believe that the TARDIS can move through time and says he knows Ian to be a liar as he has deduced that Ian did not steal the key and it was Ping-Cho after all. Ping-Cho hears this and, fearing detection, she flees the caravan.
On finding her missing, Tegana and Ian offer to go looking for her. Polo says that Ian should go as when they meet Kublai Khan, Tegana should be there. Ian finds her back at Cheng-Ting, having ridden there alone, which is just as well; while there he uncovers the fact that Kuiju has stolen the TARDIS from the second convoy. Back with Polo, Susan and Barbara confront Polo. They believe Ping-Cho should not marry a man so much her senior. This provokes Polo to send Tegana after Ian to ensure he is not trying to liberate Ping-Cho and make off with the TARDIS.
Eventually Polo’s party arrives at Kublai Khan’s palace. The Doctor initially shows belligerence towards Khan but they soon bond over their great ages and the maladies that ensue. Before Khan and the Doctor go off together, Khan tells Polo that soldiers are swelling around their borders, so that it would appear that Tegana’s information has been incorrect; Khan awaits the great warrior’s return. When Ian and Ping-Cho find the bandit on the road to Karakorum, they force him to admit the truth, but then Tegana arrives and threatens to kill Ping-Cho.
Episode 7: Assassin at Peking (Lost)
The stand-off between Ian and Tegana is broken when Ling Tau and a band of soldiers arrive. They kill Kuiju, but yet again Tegana talks his way out of a tight situation. The entire party agrees to ride on to the imperial palace in Peking. During the stand-off, expecting Ian and Ping-Cho to be killed, Tegana pledges his allegiance to Noghai.
Meanwhile at the capital city, the Khan engages the Doctor in a game of backgammon. The Doctor wins thirty-five elephants, four thousand white stallions, twenty-five tigers, the sacred tooth of the Buddha and the entire commerce of Burma for a year — but wagers all this on the liberation of his TARDIS and loses. The Khan presses Marco for the history of the “magic caravan”. The emissary admits he was wrong to try to obtain the vehicle, but only did it to buy his freedom. The Khan is not impressed. He warns Marco that if he does not regain his trust, he will be banished from court.
When Tegana returns to court, he convinces Khan that Polo has been defying the laws of the land by not confiscating the TARDIS and slaying the Doctor and his companions when they tried to steal it back. Ian and Ping-Cho tell Khan that Tegana stated he is working for Noghai. Khan is not sure whether to believe them. He says it must be judged in a matter of the court.
Nevertheless, events take a turn for the better for others. Ping-Cho is spared a loveless marriage when she learns the elderly man she was to marry has passed away after drinking an elixir of life. Offered the chance to return to Samarkand, she instead chooses to remain with the Khan’s court in Peking.
The Doctor and his companions, now imprisoned, decide someone has to stop Tegana. They believe he is going to kill Khan to create an easy victory for Noghai’s army. They attack their guard and break free. They meet Polo and tell him of their theory. Polo immediately runs to the throne room.
Tegana has slain Khan’s guards, as well as the Grand Vizier when he tried to protect the Khan, and is moving in for the kill when the Doctor and his allies arrive. Tegana is stopped by a lengthy sword fight with Polo. His mission failed, Tegana takes his own life with a spear rather than be killed by Khan’s men. As the bodies are removed, Marco Polo hurriedly gives the Doctor and his party the key to the TARDIS and bids them escape. The “magic caravan” fades away before the eyes of the Khan and his courtiers. The Khan forgives Marco Polo, and implies that he will be permitted to return to Venice. As Polo wonders where the Doctor and his companions are now, an image of the time travellers standing around the TARDIS console is shown superimposed against a starscape…