In the end, it all comes down to the roll of a dice. Five weeks earlier there was a big chess metaphor, with Tegana relishing the game of strategy. Here, it’s the Doctor and the Khan playing a game of chance for the TARDIS (or Tardis, as most of the characters charmingly refer to it). Initially, these are the only stakes that are raised, but as the episode unfolds we learn Ping-Cho’s elderly fiancé has arrived ready to claim his child bride, and then Tegana, successfully turning the Khan against Marco and the time travellers, comes close to executing his strategy, slaying the Khan and claiming Cathay for Noghai.
But, ultimately, all Tegana’s strategies come to nothing. By chance, his assassination is foiled at the last moment by an incidental character hurling himself before the Khan. By chance, Ping-Cho is spared marriage because her fiancé drinks an elixir of life and eternal youth and promptly expires. There’s no grand farewell for the TARDIS crew, they just make their escape in the confusion following Tegana’s gruesome impalement suicide. There is no grand design. Everything is just a game, as the dialogue repeatedly reminds us: ‘Now, enough of this game’; ‘That’s our last game’; ‘You don’t take your prize until you win the game’; ‘What’s Tegana’s game?’
Which is, aptly, a good summary of this whole adventure. In the end, I feel there’s an exchange from The Simpsons that sums it up perfectly:
Lisa: Perhaps there is no moral to this story.
Homer: Exactly! It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Marge: But it certainly was a memorable few days.
If anything, Marco is the only character who seems substantially changed by the experience, so it’s entirely appropriate that he should get the last word. Having witnessed the Doctor’s flying caravan, and granted his own freedom to return home, he’s finally willing to believe Ian’s fantastic story about time travel. Mark Eden is the solid actor around whom this whole story has been built, grounding it, and developing Marco’s character through his interactions with the TARDIS crew, who have essentially treated the whole experience as a diverting but overlong holiday. I get the impression that the time travellers, like the actors playing them, probably remember this as the one where we got to go to China and wear awesome costumes. It’s certainly the first adventure where none of them seems to have learned very much.
Marco Polo has an awesome reputation, but I struggle to see the justification. It’s certainly good. Derren Nesbitt is very strong as the tough guy villain, a role he’d corner the market in during the late 1960s. Tegana’s absolute certainty – ‘Noghai’s sorcerers will reveal [Tardis’] secrets’ – contrasts well with Marco’s questioning, empirical approach. There are several very funny bits, mainly about the indignities of old age. Although some of the episodes throw a one on a dice and others a six, there’s a sense of slow but steady progress towards Peking. The sets look amazing, from what visuals we have, as do the costumes.
However, if this one had never existed, and the TARDIS doors opened at the end of The Brink of Disaster onto the beaches of Marinus, I don’t feel like there would be a missing link in the regulars’ character development. This is a fascinating could’ve-been, a glimpse of a series where the TARDIS crew are tourists, not adventurers. I don’t think this is a template for 50-plus years. All the talk of games betrays the truth of Marco Polo. In the end, that’s all this story is: beautifully made, fantastic-looking pieces being moved around an elaborately decorated board with the sole purpose of getting to the last square.
Assassin at Peking no longer exists. Not in any of its regenerations. This review is courtesy of the excellent Loose Cannon reconstruction
Next episode: The Sea of Death