So, here we are at the first of our Reconstructed episodes, an episode long lost. The Historian here, along with Ketina, Ronelyn, Schmallturm and Kroroboros, all gathered to watch an episode of Doctor Who that none of us had ever seen! Of course, an uncharitable soul might say we’ve still never quite seen it, but this reconstruction is the closest we will probably ever get! Onward!
Episode summary: First aired 22 February, 1964. Barbara and Susan have gone outside the TARDIS, into a mountainous, snow-filled landscape, where they discover what appears to be a giant footprint! The Doctor and Ian join them, but the Doctor, who appears to be unwell, decides he wishes to leave immediately. He reenters the TARDIS as Ian and Barbara wonder if they’ve landed back on Earth and where they could be? The Doctor emerges, telling them with alarm that the TARDIS’ power system is out and needs repair. It might take some time, during which the heat system will be out; if the crew do not find shelter from the cold, they will die come nightfall!
Ian and Barbara go exploring and Barbara sees what she thinks is a giant creature in skins, but Ian only sees the footprint–which looks like a fur boot. After returning to the TARDIS (where the Doctor tells them it will take him days to fix the circuit), the crew are surrounded by “creatures,” which turn out to be men calling themselves Mongols in skins! Their leader, Tegana, believes the crew to be evil spirits and is about to kill them when a European man steps forward and tells him to stand down. This man is the emissary of the great Kublai Khan–Marco Polo!
Polo takes them down to his camp (both because of the elements and the Doctor’s “mountain sickness”) where they meet Ping-Cho, the daughter of a government official, who Marco is escourting to her wedding…to a man some 60 years her senior. Although Tegana (who is the emissary of a rival to the Khan, sent to supposedly make peace) still distrusts them, Marco tells the travelers he will take them and their “flying caravan” down the with him plateau to the town of Lop, where the Doctor will be able to make repairs.
When they get to the town, however, Marco reveals his real plan: He, his father and uncle have been in the service of the Khan for 18 years and with to return to Venice. He believes that the gift of the amazing flying caravan will convince Kublai to let them go, taking the crew with him, of course; he thinks that they will be able to fashion another caravan in Venice! He will take them all across the Gobi Desert to the Khan’s city. Kublai Khan must accept the TARDIS, Polo reasons, as it will make him so powerful that no one will stand against him! Tegana listens with interest, but the Doctor replies by laughing uproariously–the whole thing is too funny to him.
Later, though, Tegana meets with a henchman who is carrying poison. They will leave just enough water for Polo’s caravan to enter the desert, then poison the rest…and then, after all others are dead, Tegana will take the spoils, including the TARDIS, for himself…. Script Project Transcript of Episode
Well. As you can tell from the above, a lot happened in this episode! This was the first chance for the show to fill the “educational” portion of its remit with a historical, and it’s glorious. A note about the Loose Cannon reconstruction: beyond the wonderful introduction by Marc Eden, the actor who played Polo, the backbone of the recon are the color production shots that exist. These are supplemented by hand colored b&w shots, composite pictures, and a bit of filming (the map, for example), meaning we’re watching the story in color! The sets and costumes being legendary for their color, it does make sense. In fact, the whole story, since it’s lost, is pretty legendary. So the question is: does it hold up to the legend?
I think the consensus of our group is YES. Yes, it does. It moves along quickly, packing a lot into 24 minutes. The writing is pretty fantastic and believable; the historical characters speak with a slightly stilted rhythm, but that’s what one would expect, and it comes off as natural. The acting itself is quite good; Eden shines as Marco and Tegana is shaping up to be an excellent villain. (Schmallturm remarked that his plan at the end of the episode is one of the better plans of Doctor Who villains, regardless of the era!) True, he is played by a white English actor, but you have to recall what the profession was like in 1964…and, as “white actor playing Asian characters” go, he’s inoffensive. The girl, Ping-Cho (also, I think, played by a white actress) doesn’t fare quite as well, speaking with a hint of music hall chinese accent, but it’s slight enough that you can just let it go by. As for the regulars, they were well served by the script as well. Barbara got the chance to be the historian and figure out when (1289) they are and who they’re speaking to (Polo), Ian gave us some science facts (about altitudes and oxygen) that were rather well integrated into the script, Susan found a friend in Ping-Cho and the Doctor was his wonderful, friendly, irracible, changable, maddening fascinating self. The more I see of William Hartnell, the more I love his Doctor; truly a great development of a great character! (Since I keep track of this kind of thing, I suppose I should add that the Doctor is vulnerable to altitude sickness and that Susan’s use of the 60’s word “fab” is something she says they say “when they’re back on Earth.” Oops.)
All in all, this was a gripping episode, a great start. All of us were definitely gripped (although I think Kroroboros found the stills and slightly quiet soundtrack a bit difficult by the end) to be on the edge of our seats for next week! One last note and then I must turn this over to Ketina: I loved the “fake out” of the “monster” at the beginning. This is the first Historical, no one had any idea what to expect. Maybe it could have been a monster! A yeti? (Not yet!) The fact that it turned out to be a man in skins was a masterstroke of John Lucarotti’s wonderful script. So! I will turn this over to my companion and, until next week, I remain
Despite my apprehension at watching a reconstruction, I really liked this one. The plot really moved along, we didn’t get bogged down running around in circles endlessly, and overall things made sense. Marco Polo’s logic regarding the TARDIS was fantasic “I know some Budist monks who, given enough time, can probably get it working.” Also seeing it in color, even if it was mostly stills, was super cool. They opened with the closing footage from the last story, but colorized, which set the mood excellently.
– The good: most of it. As I said, I was overall impressed with the acting and plot. Of course, I may be misled given the reconstruction was all done with stills. I also enjoyed the scientific and historical references. The explanation of the footprints for example (the snow may have melted around them, making them appear larger), altitude sickness, and explaining how altitude would impact how water boils was all really cool.
– The silly: The Doctor’s inexplicable laugher towards the end, after Marco Polo threatens to give the TARDIS to Kubla Khan. Without the visuals it wasn’t clear if he was hysterical or just laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
Also silly – Mongolians with British accents. And I couldn’t help but sing the Indiana Jones theme as they showed the map with the line filling in to show their travels.
I’m really looking forward to next week’s. It’s a 7 part story, so I hope they can keep the story and pace as interesting as this first episode.
NEXT WEEK: “THE SINGING SANDS”