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Doctor Who - 4 - Marco Polo (BBC Original Television Soundtrack) Audio CD – Audiobook, 3 Nov 2003
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The first Doctor, William Hartnell, and his companions join the caravan of the legendary explorer Marco Polo in this seven-part "lost" story from the programme's original 1964 series.
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In fact William Hartnell's era as DOCTOR WHO is particularly well served by this series of BBC Soundtrack releases, not least because some of the shortcomings of the visuals of 1960s television can be overlooked - although set photographs that do survive show that this production may well have overcome many of those shortcomings - and the listener can concentrate on the story and the performances, and "MARCO POLO" is a beautifully structured gem which never outstays its welcome despite its long running time. Over the course of seven episodes our heroes spend a significant amount of time in the company of the eponymous traveller (played here by a youthful Mark Eden) as he travels from the "roof of the world" to the court of "mighty Kublai Khan" all the while trying to thwart the evil plans of the warlord Tegana (Derren Nesbitt) whom Marco seems to trust rather more than he should, and Susan, the Doctor's Granddaughter, also manages to form a strong friendship with Ping-Cho (Zienia Merton) a young girl who is being transported far from her home to be married to an elderly man she has never met.
I have enjoyed this range for many years now, with the soundtracks of old stories enhanced by the addition of narration which, in this case, is appropriately (and rather excellently) provided by William Russell who played Ian Chesterton (the science teacher) in the original show. I find that the explanatory narration very successfully replaces the missing visuals and doesn't detract at all from the story, and whilst I know that there are some who would rather not have anything added to the original soundtrack recordings as aired, I tend towards the view that they do help to sell the story and in this form the stories are reborn in an audio medium and can happily help pass a long car journey or long day at the computer. When listening, you should try to remember that this story dates from simpler times when the show still had an educational remit, so you do find references to how condensation happens and the source of the word "assassin" as the story rattles along. William Hartnell's Doctor is rapidly transforming into a more loveable character already somewhat removed from his early - rather abrasive - performance, and the classic original lineup is completed - alongside the aforementioned Ian Chesterton - with Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright (the history teacher) and Carole Ann Ford as Susan.
This story follows directly on from the previous story (which does exist and is known as "THE EDGE OF DESTRUCTION" in its DVD release) and leads on into "THE KEYS OF MARINUS" (which also exists and will soon also be available on DVD), so buying this story will fill a gap in the unfolding narrative of the "Adventure in Time and Space" that the show styled itself as in its formative years. Interestingly the DVD set "DOCTOR WHO - THE BEGINNING" which includes the aforementioned "EDGE OF DESTRUCTION" alongside "AN UNEARTHLY CHILD" and "THE DALEKS" also includes a 30 minute "reconstruction" of "MARCO POLO" which takes highlights from the soundtrack and links them with existing photographic material to provide just a taste of what this long lost show might have resembled.
As ever, the sound quality is mostly pretty good across the 3 CDs, considering the source material, although it does fade out every so often. The packaging designers have also taken the time to include a replica map of the journey taken by the characters during the story which is typical of the care that the producers of this range put into these releases.
None the less, I was involved in the story from the outset, even in audio-only form. It's not a fast-paced story - historicals seldom would be - rather, it takes a laid-back pace over its seven episodes (indeed, the story spans a period of several months) and allows the listener to soak up the atmosphere.
Atmosphere is something Marco Polo does very well indeed. The sound effects and incidental music of flute and harp suit the story perfectly and are very evocative. Indeed, given that this is a first season story and entirely studio-bound, one suspects that the serial is almost more atmospheric without the pictures.
John Lucarotti's script is intelligently written and contains several well-formed characters and subplots. This is reinforced by strong performances from all concerned (even William Hartnell doesn't fluff to many lines) with guest stars Mark Eden as Marco Polo, Derren Nesbitt as Tegana and Zienia Merton as Ping-Cho, who forms a very close bond with Susan, all adding something to the story.
Finally, William Russell provides effective linking narration that doesn't interfere with the dialogue or the mood of the story as a whole. It may drag ever so slightly around episode six, but Marco Polo is an excellent piece of Who that is well worthy of its reputation as a classic.
Overall, I highly recommend this. And if you enjoy it - well The Travels (Classics) might just whet your appetite for more adventuring in Cathay!