Doctor Who #20: Assassin at Peking

"What do we owe?" "Oh, thirty-five elephants with ceremonial bridles, trappings, brocades and pavilions; four thousand white stallions, and twenty-five tigers. [...] And the sacred tooth of Buddha which Polo brought over from India. [...] I'm very much afraid all the commerce from Burma for one year, sire."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 7 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 Apr.4 1964.

IN THIS ONE... Tegana tries to assassinate the Khan but is foiled by Marco Polo, Ping-Cho gets out of her wedding through bad luck, and the after failing to win the TARDIS at backgammon, the Doctor is handed the key and finally leaves China.

REVIEW: The Doctor is a character who can definitely afford to play a long game, and having bidden his time, he now tries to win the TARDIS from the Khan. The friendly backgammon wager continues the "tourism" feel of this serial and is pretty humorous too. The Doctor owns half of Asia, there, for a while. when the Khan finally agrees to play for the flying caravan (which he has yet to see), there's another reversal of fortune and the Doctor loses the game. Strangely, he chuckles. We're used to later Doctors showing inappropriate emotions, but we often forget the first Doctor also had that particularity. His reputation as an irritable old man sometimes makes us remember him only in that capacity. Another reversal of fortune - given the Chinese obsession with gambling, is this a deliberate theme? - happens to Ping-Cho, who gets out of her wedding when her wizened fiancé dies off-screen from a potion of eternal youth made from mercury and sulfur! The dark humor definitely makes up for the deus ex machina. Ping-Cho isn't disappointed of course, but what about those 6000 wedding guests? (And the gorgeous look of Peking in this episode almost makes you believe we might have seen that number onscreen.)

Tegana is still the character to watch though. He once again gets out of trouble by pointing fingers at others, and even gets Marco Polo in hot water. His simple villainy is just telling the truth. Though he lies about his enemies' motivations, he doesn't when he reveals they've lied about certain things. The Khan, wiser than Tegana's previous pawn, Marco Polo, calls him out on his powers of persuasion. It's a wonderful moment among many. But Tegana's attempt on the Khan's life may not be one of them. Hard to say without video evidence, but this great warlord misses an almost paralytic old man with his first stroke (nice of the Vizier to sacrifice himself) and then is (rather slowly) intercepted by Marco Polo. Losing that fight, he commits suicide by throwing himself on a blade. Pretty harsh, but totally in keeping with Asian tradition. And though it's not all that satisfying to have a guest star save the day while our heroes aren't even in the room, this serial has always been the story of Marco and Tegana. Even after the TARDIS leaves, we aren't allowed to enter and are left with Marco's final words. The next week might have featured the continuing adventures of Marco Polo, this TARDIS thing just another strange episode in his crazy life.

Doctor Who as a series has yet to really cement what it is about. This is one avenue, especially in regards to historicals: The TARDIS drops into a place and time, and while the characters do affect the action, they are basically observers. The ship might drop into any period piece or even contemporary show. We've all had those fantasies of the TARDIS materializing in our favorite films and television shows, haven't we? So the ship finally leaves 13th-century China, and it's a bit of a muddle. Mirroring the resolution of Ping-Cho's story, the Doctor is just given the key and told to leave. There aren't even any consequences for Marco from the easy-going Khan. The former probably believes saving the Khan's life has bought his freedom anyway, and the latter says he would have lost the ship to the Doctor sooner or later.

THEORIES: So, 'shippers... Does Ping-Cho end up with Ling-Tau?

VERSIONS: The Target novelization has Tegana killed by Ling-Tau's arrow and omits the sword fight entirely. Lucarotti is on record as saying that sword fights are tv stuff, not book stuff. Perhaps he also felt the suicide was too harsh for the Target audience (pun intended, so sue me).

REWATCHABILITY: High - Though it suffers from a rushed ending, there are a lot of great moments in this episode. The Khan's wagers, Ping-Cho's wedding blues, and Tegana's treachery are all highlights.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - The best historical we haven't got, Marco Polo is a gorgeous production with strong characters (especially the villain) and excellent dialog. Its pace is leisurely, but they get the period details right, feature enough action to satisfy viewers, and provide some of the best moments for Susan in the entire canon. Even the educational bits are well done and stand up today.


Randal said...

Two episodes found!!!! Wheeeeeee!!!!!

Siskoid said...

I didn't think it would happen again in my lifetime either.


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