Doctor Who: Marco Polo

Doctor Who: Marco Polo October 21, 2011

There is a nice audiobook of this lost episode, which combines the original soundtrack with narration, to good effect. This is the first episode to feature the Doctor and his companions traveling to a period in history that intersects them with famous people and events. It is also one of the few episodes from which not even the slightest snippet of actual broadcast footage survives.

The Doctor and his companions land on “the roof of the world” and there encounter Marco Polo, who is en route to Kublai Khan’s summer palace. The TARDIS, as ever, is experiencing technical difficulties, meaning that the travelers must stay for a while.

The subject of religion, and the relationship between super-advanced technology and the supernatural, is raised in the very first part. Confronted with the notion of the TARDIS as a vehicle that can move through the sky, Marco Polo mentions the Buddhist faith, and says that he has seen – even though he does not understand it – the levitation of cups by Buddhist monks. And when he has the idea to make the TARDIS a gift to Kublai Khan and is told that only the Doctor can operate it, he thinks those same Buddhist monks may be able to do so as well.

Here’s the bit of dialogue I mentioned, verbatim:

POLO: So, this is your caravan?
IAN: Yes, the Doctor calls it the Tardis.
POLO: Where are the wheels?
IAN: It doesn’t have any.
POLO: Then how does it move?
IAN: Through the air.
TEGANA: Did I not say they that they were evil spirits?
POLO: Are you of the Buddhist faith?
IAN: No, why?
POLO: Well, at the Khan’s court in Peking, I have seen Buddhist monks make cups of wine fly through the air unaided and offer themselves to the Great Khan’s lips. I do not understand it, but I have seen it.

Later in the dialogue, when Polo indicates his plan to give Kublai Khan the TARDIS, and suggests that the Doctor build another one, only to be told that it is impossible, Polo responds by saying “Surely, for a man who possesses a flying caravan, all things are possible?” To which the answer is no. The Bible, of course, says things of the sort that “with God all things are possible” and “everything is possible to the one who believes,” but as with Doctor Who, so too in real life, all things are not possible. If they were, either in the real world or a fictional one, it would make for an uninteresting and unrealistic story with no genuine hurdles or challenges. And most would agree that that is not the real world, nor the basis for an interesting and engaging fictional one.

I believe that this episode’s reference to Buddhism is the first explicit mention of religion on Doctor Who. I wonder whether the setting of the 60s and the increased interest in and awareness of faiths from South and East Asia had anything to do with Buddhism being the first one mentioned. And I can’t help but wonder whether the message of the writers was to mock the simpletons of long ago who mistook technology for mystic arts, or to suggest that in fact the two are comparable phenomena, where knowledge available only to some enables the accomplishment of things that seem mysterious and impossible to others.

I also am struck by the fact that, in spite of the TARDIS’s time-traveling ability, the Doctor and his companions never encounter Jesus, or Muhammad, or similarly important figures from major faith traditions. Does this reflect an avoidance of the controversial, or was something else the motive?

In the process of searching for the snippets of dialogue I wished to quote, I found a web page dedicated specifically to all of the mentions of or allusions to Buddhism in Doctor Who. There are many of them, and some are intriguing indeed.

There are reconstructions available of this episode, including ones that use snapshots…

…and others that use animation:

Next up: The Keys of Marinus!

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