Alongside a great deal of other classic television, a lot of 1960s DOCTOR WHO episodes seem to be lost forever, due, it would seem, to an unfortunate lack of foresight on the part of television companies in the past. Whilst it is very lucky that quite a substantial chunk of the first year of the programme does still survive, this is the earliest DOCTOR WHO story for which no episodes now exist in their original form, and also the first true "historical" narrative the series attempted, so it is very fortunate indeed that somebody took the time to make an audio recording of this story and enable us to enjoy it again after so many years.
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.