Weighing in at an impressive 800 episodes, Doctor Who has been entertaining audiences for the past 50 years. Yet, despite this vast backlog of content, I know next to nothing about the actual series. For that reason, I’ve decided to watch this unusual show from the beginning, to discover the source of its unique appeal. Come with me as I tackle this daunting sci-fi phenomena from the very beginning in The Complete Doctor Who.
Marco Polo and Doctor Who’s Lost Episodes
Hi everybody. Normally about now we would launch into our usual dose of space/time fun, except this time we’ve hit a pretty sizable snag. All seven episodes of Marco Polo, the next serial in the show’s chronology, no longer exist. Yup, that’s right, they’re gone, like forever gone.
This is one of the more troubling aspects of Doctor Who, the fact that a great many of the show’s episodes have been lost.
When I began looking into Doctor Who as a whole, I found this pretty disheartening. This dearth of missing material makes it literally impossible to view the entire series as a whole. Now, if we were talking about a few isolated episodes it might not be such a big deal, but, according to Wikipedia, there are an astounding 97 episodes that no longer exist.
You’re probably wondering just what the hell happened. Well, back in the early days of the series it was the BBC’s policy to wipe videotapes. It seems there were a number of reasons behind it, simple cost saving concerns (since the tapes could be reused for new recordings) and storage issues, coupled with confusion over what department was responsible for the archiving of old material.
Regardless of the reasons, the result is that between 1967 and 1978 a vast portion of the show’s backlog was gutted, leaving us with a very fractured remnant of its earliest years. Our beloved first Doctor, the ever-grumpy William Hartnell, has 12 of his serials effected by this, while the second, Patrick Troughton, has been hit even harder. Of his total 21 serials, 14 of them feature missing material.
Originally, this total was even greater, but fortunately, over the years, a number of alternate recordings have been found, including a case as recent as last year when nearly the entire serial The Web of Fear was found in Nigeria of all places.
Obviously, when you’re dealing with a phenomena as widely celebrated as Doctor Who, the fans aren’t likely to take this sitting down, so, over the years, there have been a number of attempts at approximating this missing content.
Since the original sound recordings of the episodes still exist, they have been used in conjunction with tele-snaps (production photos taken during the time of filming) to create a kind of slide show, layering the original dialogue over the pictures. While not the most satisfying of viewing experiences, it does give the dedicated viewer an idea of what the episodes originally looked and sounded like.
While there are many cases where entire serials have been wiped out, sometimes it’s only a single episode or two that’s missing. In cases like this, animation has been used to fill in the missing content, which is again paired with the original soundtrack. This has been used on the DVD releases of The Reign of Terror and The Tenth Planet from Hartnell’s years, as well as The Underwater Menace, The Moonbase, The Ice Warriors, and The Invasion from Troughton’s adventures.
There’s also a series of novelizations put out by Target books, covering all of the missing episodes, which is another acceptable alternative.
The DVD copy of The Edge of Destruction I watched contains a tele-snap reconstruction of Marco Polo and seeing as how that’s all we’ve got, I’ll give you a brief synopsis of what goes down.
As far as things go, it’s a pretty standard story that hits all of the usual tropes we’ve seen so far.
Everybody stumbles out into their latest destination, where they’ve landed on a snowy mountain. Susan finds an enormous footprint, which turns out to be a normal footprint which has melted on the sides. Great storytelling guys, always lead with something interesting, then pull back to reveal something crushingly mundane.
Seconds later the Doctor emerges and announces that the TARDIS is busted once again. I don’t even know what to say here. I’m literally out of jokes. The TARDIS is just the absolute worst.
The whole group sets out and encounters a group of Mongolian warriors, who believe them to be evil spirits. The Doctor and company are about to be executed when they’re rescued by none other than Marco Polo himself.
Marco brings them back to his camp where he introduces them to the rest of his group, the warrior Tegana and Ping-Cho who is pledged to marry Kublai Khan. Incidentally, she also bears an uncanny resemblance to Jimmy Fallon in drag.
Marco, it seems, is growing tired of his time in the east and longs to return to his beloved Venice. Unfortunately, Kublai Khan refuses to let him leave, so he decides to seize the TARDIS and give it to the aging Khan in exchange for his freedom. It’s also important to note that despite knowing literally nothing about it, Marco is somehow aware that the TARDIS can fly.
Then they all hit the old desert trail, giving us my new favorite picture of the TARDIS.
Maybe it’s best if it remains horse-drawn for awhile.
Meanwhile, Tegana is plotting treachery. He dumps out their supply of water, leading them on a parched trek through the desert during which the Doctor once again collapses from exhaustion.
He gets placed into the TARDIS to rest and manages to capture the condensation from the inside of the ship, thus saving everyone’s lives.
We get a whole bunch more travel, that’s tedious even in this heavily condensed form, before they finally reach their destination. Kublai Khan is introduced and he and the Doctor complain about their mutual aches and pains.
Time travel everyone, voyage into the past, meet key figures from history, then commiserate about how getting old sucks. Maybe next episode, he’ll jump to Biblical times to complain about lower back pain with a cross-hefting Jesus.
After that we get a subplot in which
Mr. Fallon Ping-Cho steals back the key to the TARDIS, then gives it to Susan. Everyone piles into the TARDIS, except for Susan who gets captured (of course she does) by Tegana. Marco Polo shows up, breaks up the confrontation and promptly takes back the key.
Meanwhile distraught over the prospect of marrying the seventy-something Khan, Ping-Cho flees to another city where she encounters a man sporting an eye patch, bad teeth, and a monkey on his shoulder.
Despite being the seediest looking person in human history, she gives him all her money on the promise that he’ll let her join up with his caravan. Surprising no one, he never comes back. Then Ian shows up and takes her back to the Khan’s palace, where the Doctor is playing backgammon with Kublai Khan in order to win back the TARDIS.
At this point, Tegana makes his long anticipated attempt on the Khan’s life. He is immediately foiled by Ian, then promptly takes his own life. Then, with that out of the way, the group takes off in the TARDIS, in full view of the Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, and a detachment of the Khan’s men.
Now, I’m no scientist, but it seems like revealing time travel to people living in the thirteenth century might be something you want to avoid. Then again, if you’re going to travel through time and space, you might also want to tackle that in something with more structural integrity than a cardboard box, but since that’s not likely to happen, I guess I’ll just go ahead and let them have it.
So, quick reappraisal here. After sitting through this tele-snap presentation, I’m beginning to think maybe it’s not so bad that these particular episodes are missing. They don’t feel so much like a new story so much as a reassembly of everything that’s happened to this point. The broken ship, the Doctor’s near death, a series of never-ending subplots designed to keep them from returning to the ship, we’ve seen literally every one of those things before and we’re only four serials into this show. They can’t really have run out of material by this point, can they?
Oh well. Join us next time for The Keys of Marinus.