Doctor Who #18: Rider from Shang-Tu

"And your home Susan? You've never told me about that. Is it so very far away?" "Yes, it is. It's as far away as a night star."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 5 of Marco Polo, a story that has been entirely lost. For these reviews, I've looked at the Loose Cannon reconstruction (part 1, part 2, part 3). First aired Mar.21 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The heroes save the caravans from bandits through wit and swordplay, and move on to Cheng-Ting where Ping-Cho steals the TARDIS key from Marco Polo to help the TARDISeers escape, even as Tegana plots to have the ship stolen.

REVIEW: They could have escaped before the bandit run, but our heroes are just too honorable (well, the Doctor would have bolted) and they stick around to warn Marco Polo. Strangely, there's no talk of saving history by staying, or whether history would have sorted itself out. We're a couple of serials away from any discussion of the travelers' impact on historical events, and though the characters know Marco Polo's role in history, the past is used first and foremost as an environment, a canvas against which the cast's adventures are told. We're still not sure what the rules of the world are, though they do seem to include getting out of a cliffhanger at the start of every episode. Hard to say without the video, but this one sounds like an exciting sequence - a sword fight and Ian pulling another MacGyver act by making bamboo explode in the fire to scare away the superstitious, cowardly lot. Marco rewards them by canceling their arrest and basically going back to the previous status quo. They're not prisoners anymore, but he still keeps the TARDIS keys until they reach the Khan. To his credit, Marco seems to have gotten tired of being manipulated by both Tegana and the Doctor.

It doesn't stop Tegana from playing his games though. We see how far he's ready to go when he kills one of his own men during the bandit attack to keep up appearances. He continually asks awkward questions to place doubt on the Doctor's actions. And as soon as they get to another outpost, he's soon making deals with one-eyed thieves. He's Doctor Who's first delicious villain (the Daleks are many things, but not delicious). The theft of the TARDIS that night is twinned by Ping-Cho's theft of the ship's key as she proves to be a good friend to Susan. The scenes between the two teenage girls make me wonder what the show might have been like if Ping-Cho or another teen had boarded the TARDIS with Susan. It really makes Susan shine to have someone her age to bounce off of. Like Ping-Cho, Susan is homesick, but so much farther from home. There's a very sweet sequence in which the girls look at goldfish in a pond and spot the ones that make them think of their caravan companions. It's a glimpse at how Susan sees each one: Ian is energetic, Barbara independent (and perhaps a little lonely?), Marco solemn... No Doctor in the pond, sadly. Ping-Cho thinks of Susan as "wicked".

Cheng-Ting, the latest Chinese outpost, is the most impressive yet, with its white walls, round windows and lush gardens, even though there's a sense that it's cobbled together from the same set pieces. It's symptomatic of the era that the only actor of actual Chinese origin in the episode is an extra playing a dead guard (though Doctor Who won't do much better more than 10 years later in The Talons of Weng-Chiang). The characterizations are thus necessarily variable. The eponymous rider from Shang-Tu, Ling-Tau, is played by the obviously Euro Paul Carson, for example, while Zienia Merton's half-Burmese origins help Ping-Cho look the part (and oh my God, I just realized she was a Space 1999 cast member!). The fat outpost manager Wang-Lo played by Gabor Baraker is notable for being the type of fat businessman that crops up in a lot of historicals in the Hartnell era. In fact, he plays a similar role in The Crusade.

REWATCHABILITY: High - If we could see how badly staged the sword fight was, maybe I'd drop it a rank, but the episode is saved from that potential indignity. And in any case, those lovely moments between Susan and Ping-Cho are worth the listen.


snell said...

"the Daleks are many things, but not delicious"

Tonight, on Iron Chef, your secret ingredient is...

Siskoid said...

...canned squid.

Randal said...

Obviously Euro. Heh. Years away from Weng Chiang, though.


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