The Long Journey Back to Cathay – ‘The Black Archive: Marco Polo’

Marco Polo is the one story from the very first season of Doctor Who for which no footage exists at all, so how can we know what it was really like?

“So much has been written about Doctor Who over the years, that it’s almost impossible not to have had our memories of the show overwritten by the sheer weight of words and recollections from others. October looks at how the story has been refashioned and how we see, read and interpret our experiences”.

Obverse Books’ Black Archive series looking at individual Doctor Who stories continues with this look at a story from the very first season of the show, Marco Polo. This is the one story from the season from which no episodes or footage exist at all, so most of us have sadly only encountered it via the soundtrack and the telesnaps. Of course, we all have opinions on the story despite that, but how can we know what it was really like?

The author, Dene October uses this as his starting point for the book. He was lucky enough to see it on its first broadcast back in 1964, which is pretty amazing; but even more amazingly, he saw it a second time after moving to Australia after the UK broadcast. Thus it became embedded in his mind and a favourite story. Despite this, he ponders throughout how those clear memories might have been corrupted through the years. How much can you trust your memories formed over fifty years ago?

Using this as a basis, he looks at the various reconstructions of the story that have been made over the years, with close attention to the two reconstructions by Loose Cannon, the colour one and the one that followed later that used the tele-snaps as a basis. So much has been written about Doctor Who over the years, that it’s almost impossible not to have had our memories of the show overwritten by the sheer weight of words and recollections from others. October considers this at length, looking at the way his memories don’t always tally with how things actually were. Using the memory bridge theory, he looks at how the story has been refashioned and how we see, read and interpret our experiences. It’s a clever way at looking at a missing story and I found this a fascinating, if rather deep theory.

Much of October’s analysis throughout the book is informed by his study of The Travels of Marco Polo. This text was used by as a basis for the story by John Lucarotti. Over the years, several versions of the text have been discovered and translated, each with subtle differences to the others. Irresistably, October compares these texts with both the Doctor Who story and the way in which fans have reconstructed it. There is no one definitive version of The Travels of Marco Polo, just as, until the story is hopefully one day rediscovered, there is no definitive version of the Doctor Who story we can watch.

October’s love of the stories of Marco Polo is obvious throughout. His analysis of the various versions of the text, compared to the depiction of the character in the Doctor Who story is a great way to look at this story and adds the historical context to the man. As with the reconstruction of the story, how much of Marco Polo himself was reconstructed in the The Travels? This we will probably never know fully, but the various versions do give an insight into the man he might have been.

This also ties in neatly with an analysis of how much the story was informed by the BBC’s Reithian values, to educate and inform the audience. The historical stories were conceived partly as an educational tool for the children watching and Marco Polo, as the first of the historical stories is a natural place to consider this. October has certainly done plenty of research about the BBC of the time and how this impetus to educate the audience informed the genesis of this story as much as Sydney Newman’s encouragement to the production team of using Marco Polo as the basis of a story for his new show.

The Black Archive have proven throughout their series of books that they have a talent for finding authors with something new to say about one of the most documented shows ever. The match of author and story has once again paid off for them and this is yet another illuminating and thought provoking addition to their range.


❉ ‘The Black Archive: Marco Polo’ by Dene October is available from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 – £7.99.

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