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The Road To Cathay
on 17 June 2015
John Lucarotti's lost epic, `Marco Polo', has a very special reputation among fans of the classic `Doctor Who' historicals. As yet, I haven't watched the recon or heard the soundtrack, so this Target novelisation by him was my first introduction to the story.
When the TARDIS gets stranded in 1289 on the high, freezing Plain of Pamir, "the roof of the world", with serious electrical problems, the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara are rescued by a passing caravan on its way to Peking. The leader, young Venetian nobleman Marco Polo, agrees to take them down to safety - with the TARDIS on a sledge. But Marco has a hidden plan; he will take the TARDIS all the way to Peking, to present it as a priceless gift to Kublai Khan and thus buy his freedom to return home to Venice.
That's more or less the whole story right there; despite many attempts to escape, for one reason or another the Doctor and his friends can never quite manage it and eventually find themselves, weeks later, arriving in the heart of ancient Peking at the court of the Great Khan Kublai. The story is enlivened by the scheming and banditry of the Tartar warlord Tegana, who serves a rival khan, and the love story of Ping-Cho, a girl of noble family being taken to Peking for an arranged marriage, but who has fallen in love with Ling-Tau, one of the Khan's elite messengers.
This is a very unusual and very long story. Not only was it originally a seven-parter, but the story unfolds at the leisurely pace of a horse-drawn caravan over not hours or a few days like most `Doctor Who' stories, but over several months; across the Gobi desert, down into lush farmland and bamboo forests, through way-stations, villages and towns until the final arrival at the Khan's Summer Palace and on to Peking.
It's a journey of cultural discovery, complete with different customs, clothing, meals that must have sounded incredibly exotic to viewers in 1964 and the people and places of China before it was even called China - in 1289, Peking is capital of Cathay. There's time for evening chess games and even a dance and song performance by Ping-Cho. The different characters of the Doctor and his friends are very well written as they form an uneasy part-friendship with Marco. He's a good man and they instinctively like him - but they are his prisoners as far as Peking and he wants the Doctor's `flying caravan' for his royal master.
The eventual meeting with Kublai Khan is comical and works well; he's an elderly man with gout and takes a liking to the Doctor, playing high-stakes backgammon with him - and winning the TARDIS fair and square. Only when the Doctor saves the Khan's life from an attack by Tegana are our friends free to continue their voyaging, in an ending that is more traditional and less rushed than in the original scripts. Here, rather than them simply escaping during the fight, Kublai freely returns the TARDIS in gratitude and asks the Doctor to accept a high rank at court, and there is a final, delightful twist with the TARDIS key - "the key to the world".
The only reason I haven't given this book five stars, is that I felt it was just too short. I believe that Target books had a standard length, rarely exceeded, which was fine for a four-parter but not for a seven-part epic of this scale. The dialogue is just as good as I expected after watching `The Aztecs' and there are moments of real magic in the descriptive prose, but I'm sure the author could have expanded the landscapes and details of the journey to double the length if space had been available.
Perhaps not many readers would have wanted that, but for me that's the real delight of this book; a journey with the Doctor not through Space and Time, but at the slow speed of a cart, through an historic world which now seems as wondrous and remote as Kinda or Traken.