by John Lucarotti

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.In the early months of 1964 the BBC transmitted a programme that was very special indeed. Marco Polo was seven episodes of quality Doctor Who commissioned by producer Verity Lambert to suit the guidelines imposed by the Head of BBC Drama, Sydney Newman. Newman wanted the programme to educate and entertain children, and so this story was one of which he could be proud.

Writer John Lucarotti was contacted by script editor David Whittaker and asked if he would like to contribute a story to the brand new series. "I went to see David and Verity at the BBC," Lucarotti recalls "and they told me Terry Nation was mucking around with things called Daleks and what did I have in mind? Well, a couple of years previously I had done a fifteen-part radio serial for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation so all the homework was already in my head.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission."I suggested the subject (much as I loved him, it wasn't Bill Hartnell's idea). I agreed to send in my storylines and went back to my Spanish hideaway in Majorca. But by episode four's outline I was hopelessly bogged down. I needed to write scripts, to meet my characters, so I phoned David (no easy matter in those days) and told him my problems. 'Start writing' was the reply, and Marco Polo came to life."

Waris Hussein was chosen to direct, having previously helmed the series opener An Unearthly Child. Barry Newbery, who had also worked on that first story, returned as designer. He faced the gargantuan task of building sections of the Himalayas, the Gobi Desert and Kublai Khan's palace in a tiny studio. "Before I started my designs, I had to research the period," says Barry.

"I had a friend who worked in the British Museum and he suggested a book by Sir Orrel Stein, who was in the Gobi Desert in 1902 as a spy for the British Government. His cover was that of an archaeologist, and he toured the borders of Russia and came back with photographs of petrified towns which had been covered in sand drifts and eventually uncovered hundreds of years later by winds.

"Another of the books I read was Days in the Life of China 1100-1300, which contained an awful lot of information. There were lots of things I came across I couldn't use. I discovered Kublai Khan had a summer palace and in the grounds he erected an enormous tent which seated three thousand people. Can you imagine? He also had fresh cherries flown in from Cairo by pigeon."

All seven episodes of Marco Polo are missing from the BBC archives, and they remain only as a handful of telesnaps and rehearsal shots, together with poor quality audios of the episodes.

The story begins as the travellers arrive in the Himalayan Mountains in the late 13th Century. They are rescued by the Venetian Marco Polo, and due to a misunderstanding about the nature of the TARDIS, are forced to travel with him to Kublai Khan's palace at Peking and try to prevent the time craft being given to the Emperor as a gift. Meanwhile, one of Polo's party has his own treachery planned...


On a snowy plateau, Susan and Barbara have found the footprint of a giant - but Ian thinks it could just be an ordinary print enlarged by the sun's heat. The Doctor is more worried by a major power failure which has affected the TARDIS - they are without heat, and will freeze to death.

Moving to a lower altitude, they meet Tegana and the Mongols, who are ready to kill them until another man arrives and instructs they be taken to his caravan. In the stranger's tent, they meet a young girl called Ping-Cho, who gives them cups of warm liquid.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

POLO: I'm afraid the liquid is not too warm. But the cold here is so intense it even robs the flame of its heat.

DOCTOR: It's an excellent nourishment, sir.

IAN: The cold can't affect the heat of a flame sir. The liquid boils at a lower temperature because there is so little air up here.

POLO: You mean the air is responsible?

IAN: Well, the lack of it. Just as the lack of it is responsible for the Doctor's mountain sickness.

Barbara is the first to realise that the man is Marco Polo. The year is 1289, and they are on the Roof of the World - a plateau in the Himalayas.

As night falls, Susan and Ping-Cho share a room and become friends. Ping-Cho reveals she is travelling with Polo to Shang-Tu, where she will meet her future husband, who is seventy-five years old.

In the morning Ping-Cho explains to the Doctor that a war between the Mongol warlord Noghai and Kublai Khan is over. Tegana is an emissary of Noghai travelling to Kublai Khan's court. Ian shows the exterior of the ship to Polo, who has it loaded onto a sled so the travellers can join him.

POLO: Success! My plan has worked. The strangers and their unusual caravan accompany me to Lop. Our route takes us across the Roof of the World, down into the Kashkar Valley and south-east to Yarkand. Here we join the old silk Road, along which the commerce and culture of a thousand years has travelled to and from Cathay. I wonder what the strangers' reaction will be when I tell them what I propose to do?

At Lop, Polo tells the travellers that he has served Khan for many years, but his requests to be allowed to return home have been denied. He intends to give Khan the TARDIS: "A gift so magnificent that he will not be able to refuse me this time." The Doctor responds with laughter!

Tegana meets a man secretly in the streets of Lop. The man gives him a phial of poison for Polo's water barrels. Tegana plans to steal the TARDIS for Noghai!


POLO: I have taken charge of the travellers' unusual caravan and set out into the Gobi Desert. The journey across this vast ocean of sand is slow and hazardous. To make matters worse, the old Doctor continually shows his disapproval of my action by being both diffcult and bad-tempered. For three days now - during which time we have covered no more than thirty miles - I have had to endure his insults.

    Barry Newbery based the set of the desert on the prehistoric landscape he had created for the first story. "I gave my assistant a pair of secateurs and a hawthorne bush and showed him a photograph of a petrified forest. I asked him to cut the bush up and put twigs around the backdrop with big ones at the front, gradually having smaller ones towards the back covering a distance of about eight feet. The director then brought the cart in which we had travelling across the desert, but it obscured the backdrop and our work was never seen. We should have been told beforehand where it was going to be put.

The water supply is scarce and must be rationed. While the Doctor sulks, Ian and Polo play chess.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

TEGANA: I find it a fascinating game of strategy of war. Two equally balanced armies deployed upon a field of battle, and each commander determined to be the one who cries 'Shah mat'

IAN: Shah mat? Check mate?

TEGANA: It means the king is dead.

Later that night, Susan and Ping Cho leave their room to see the beauty of the sands in moonlight. They follow Tegana and a Mongol, but see a sandstorm on the horizon - heading their way! As they take cover, the pair hear demonic laughter above the howling wind.

BARBARA: Ian, what is it? What's happened?  

IAN: Don't be afraid, Barbara. It's a sandstorm. It sounds as if all the devils in hell were laughing.  

POLO: It's the wind shifting the sand.  

BARBARA: It's terrifying. 

POLO: Not always, Barbara. Sometimes it sounds like... musical instruments being played - the clashing of drums and cymbals. I've heard it sound like a great many people talking as they trekked across the desert. It can also be like a... like a familiar voice calling your name. You're not the only one to be afraid. Travellers of the Gobi Desert have good reason to fear the singing sands, Barbara.

The absence of Tegana, Susan and Ping-Cho is noticed and Barbara panics. However, as the storm subsides the two girls return. Polo says they must resume their journey at first light.

POLO: Progress today has been good, although we were all very tired after a sleepless night. How can I ever repay Tegana for saving Ping-Cho and Susan? We covered fifteen miles before I gave the order to set up camp for the night.

Susan is suspicious of Tegana, rightly so - he is outside at the supply wagon, piercing the slans of the water gourds...
Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

When Polo hears of the damage, he is convinced it has been inflicted by bandits. They now have enough water for three or four days with rationing - just enough to return to Lop. Ian believes that is foolhardy - the bandits will be waiting. They must head north to a small oasis, but that is seven days away.

POLO: Have I made the right decision? Each day our progress towards the oasis becomes less. On the first day we covered twenty miles, on the second, fifteen; the third, ten; the fourth day's total was eight. Now on the fifth day we have travelled only two miles before the heat of the sun has forced us to stop. We are nearly exhausted and our situation is perilous.

As they camp for the night, the last of the water is gone. Tegana volunteers to ride ahead and bring back a supply. Unless he succeeds, they won't last another day!

Tegana reaches the oasis. He drinks his fill, but has no intention of returning to the others...


POLO: What has happened to Tegana? Is he lost? Perhaps he never found the oasis. But in the hope he did, I inched our caravan forward through the night. What a misery! A bitterly cold wind swept down from the north and set us shivering as we stumbled on.  I fear the end is not far off.

Sleeping in the TARDIS, the Doctor is awoken by a droplet af water. He and Susan collect the precious fluid and share it among the others - the ship has condensation! Polo does not understand, and thinks that the Doctor has been hoarding it all along. At the oasis they find Tegana, who blames his delay on bandits. Barbara suspects he is lying. Polo demands that the Doctor give him the key to the ship.

POLO: My conscience pricks me! I was adamant - despite the Doctor's protests - that the key and his caravan should be handed over to me. Now we journey on across this burning desert. And I shall not rest until I see the temple spires of the city of Tun-Huang.

They arrive at the way station in Tun-Huang.

    "I'd read that the way stations were all constructed along similar lines," recalls Barry Newbery. "I decided that they would only differ in quality, and used the same set for each episode which saved us an awful lot of money. I would only change the windows, the doors and the floor pattern, and the courtyard outside would be different. Each station would get more and more opulent as they neared civilisation."

Polo tells Barbara of the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, which is nearby. The history teacher is fascinated.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

POLO: On the walls are painted the faces of two hundred and fifty evil men who once lived there. They were the Hashashins.

SUSAN: Hashashins?

POLO: Yes, and they were so called because they used a drug - Hashish.

SUSAN: Are there still Hashashins in the cave?

POLO: No, Susan. They were put by the sword twenty years ago by a great Mongol conqueror called Halagu.

Ping-Cho has a story of Halagu and the Hashashins, which she will tell later.

The Doctor is delighted that they will be staying for a while. He will have a chance to repair the ship - he made a second key before handing the original to Polo.

The party gathers in the way station to hear Ping-Cho's story.


Gracious maidens, gentle lords
Pray attend me while I tell my tale
Of Ala-eddin, the Old Man of the Mountains
Who by devious schemes, evil designs
And foul murders ruled the land.
No host of arms, no vast array
Of banners served this wicked lord.
They were but few - ruthless, reckless men
Who obeyed his cruel commands.

Thus did he persuade them,
Promising paradise, he gave his followers
A potent draught and whilst they slept
Transported them to a vale where streams
Of milk and honey, wine and water, flowed.
Here were gardens and flowers of every hue
And essence. Here, too
Golden pavilions outshone the sun

And even the stars of heaven envied
The bejewelled interiors strewn
With incomparable silks, tapestries And treasures.

Hand-maidens, dulcet-voiced
Soft of face, attended them, and thus bemused
Did they dwell in this man-made paradise
Until Ala-eddin intent upon some evil deed
Proffered again the Hashish draught
And brought them sleeping to his castle.
What lord, are we cast out of paradise
Awakening, they cried. Not so,
Go abroad, seek out my enemies
And strike them down. But care not
For your lives. Paradise is eternal.

So terror stalked the land for many years
Until one day came mighty Halagu
To stand before Ala-eddin's lair
For three long years in siege.
And thus fell Ala-eddin and his men.
Now honest hands reap harvests of life
From the soil where death and evil
Reigned. And those who journey
Through the vale are heard to say
Tis truly paradise today.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

Ian and Susan observe that the Hashashins gave their name to the English language - assassins. Polo adds that they lived in the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes.
Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

In the outer chamber of that cave, Tegana meets two Mongols, Malik and Acomat. They reveal Noghai's army is marching, waiting to hear news of Tegana's success. Tegana advises Acomat to attack Polo's party on the journey to Shang-Tu - they are all to be killed. Barbara is making her own examination of the cave when she is captured by the Mongols.

Her absence is noticed, and Ping-Cho tells the Doctor of Barbara's interest in the cave. Together with Susan they go to find her, and examine the famous eyes - so lifelike because of an exposed vein of quartz which shines. They find Barbara's handkerchief and call out her name. Susan screams as she sees a pair of eyes move.


They find Tegana, who warns them they must leave or face the evil spirits who dwell in the cave. Ian and Polo arrive and discover a hidden door in the rock face. Barbara is saved just in time.

Back at the way station, Tegana attempts to turn Polo against the travellers, hinting that the Doctor is able to enter the TARDIS without the key he surrendered. The travellers enter, Barbara claiming that she followed Tegana to the cave. Tegana refutes this, causing Polo to seriously doubt the Doctor and his friends.

POLO: Poor Susan and Ping-Cho. Yet what alternative had I but to separate them. Now my caravan seethes with suspicion and discontent as we journey south-west. The route takes us to the ancient cities of Su-Chow and Kan-Chow where the Great Wall of Cathay begins. Following the wall, we travel south to Lan-Chow, which lies on the banks of the Yellow River. Here our route swings north and with the river always in sight, we journey towards Shang-Tu.

The Doctor tells his companions that his work on the TARDIS is almost complete. It has taken three weeks, but one more night should do it. His only concern is Ping-Cho, who knows about the duplicate key.

POLO: For the past three days I have followed the course of the Yellow River as it flows north to the small town of Sinju which lies nestled against the Great Wall.

Another way station. The Doctor is seen entering the ship by Tegana, who gleefully informs Polo. The old man is caught in the act, and his duplicate key confiscated.

DOCTOR: Put that key in the lock, Polo, and you'll destroy the ship. Then where will your precious Khan be, hmmm? You need more than a key to enter my ship. You need knowledge. Knowledge you will never possess!

POLO: Tell me.

DOCTOR: No! Understand? No! I'd let you wreck it first!

POLO: Guards! Guards!

DOCTOR: Let go of me!

POLO: Hear, witness. I wear the gold seal of Kublai Khan, and by the authority it invests in me, I do hereby seize and hold your caravan in his name. Be warned. Any resistance to this decree is instantly punishable by death.

DOCTOR: You poor, pathetic, stupid savage.

POLO: Take them away!

They continue the journey.

POLO: What a nightmare this journey has become! Our progress is impeded because Tegana, the bearers and I must constantly be on the alert from any signs of trouble from the prisoners, and Ping-Cho's resentment of me only serves to make my task more difficult. But I have succeeded in keeping her away from them by setting up a separate tent for the Doctor and his companions.

In their tent, the travellers now face the frustration of having a perfectly working TARDIS but no way of entering it. Ian decides to make a dash for freedom, planning to leave through the back of the tent and capture Polo. Cutting the canvas with a piece of glass, he stealthily creeps up on their guard. The man offers no resistance when challenged - he has already been stabbed in the back...


In an area of the bamboo forest, Acomat and a Mongol are awaiting a signal from Tegana - the waving of a burning torch - which will order their attack. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan see Tegana preparing his signal and Ian immediately warns Marco. The Doctor would prefer for them to leave in the TARDIS, but Tegana again sows seeds of doubt in Polo's mind. Ian invents an ingenious plan to fool the bandits by throwing bamboo stalks into the fire. They will explode with an almighty crack!

In the quiet moments before the attack, Ian tells Polo that they were trying to escape, using him as a hostage. The bandits charge. Tegana kills Acomat, then the bamboo explodes. The terrified bandits flee.

POLO: At sunrise we buried the dead, broke camp, travelled to the edge of the bamboo forest and out beyond it onto the plain. But, at midday, as we were all tired after the events of the previous night, I ordered a halt.

In return for saving his life, Polo frees the travellers.The TARDIS, however, remains the property of Khan. After Polo has left them, Barbara tells the others she recognised Acomat from the cave. Tegana must have been involved in the attack.

Ling-Tau, a rider from the summer palace at Shang-Tu, arrives. Ping-Cho goes to Polo's tent to tell him, and sees where the TARDIS key is kept - inside his journal. Polo makes her promise to tell no-one. Everyone is amazed that Ling-Tau only left Shang-Tu one day ago.

DOCTOR: But that's three hundred miles away, isn't it?

LING-TAU: We change horses every league, my lord.

IAN: Every league!

(The courier jingles one of the belts around his wrist)

LING-TAU: That's the reason we wear these, my lord. To warn the post-house of our arrival and when we get there, a fresh horse is saddled and waiting, ready for the next three miles.

BARBARA: And you ride without a rest until you reach your destination?

LING-TAU: Yes, my lady.


Ling-Tau presents Polo with a sealed parchment. Khan requires their presence without delay - so they must continue their journey, while their possessions (including the TARDIS) take a longer route.

POLO: My only concern now is to reach the Summer Palace as quickly as possible. So within an hour we were on the move again, and on the sixth day of our journey the spires of Cheng-Ting could be seen on our horizon. By later afternoon we had arrived at the way station of the White City, as Cheng-Ting is often called.

The way station at Cheng-Ting is beautiful, with hanging gardens and a pool of goldfish.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.
Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

    Barry Newbery's set was outstanding. "I made a garden with a moon gate, running water and a fish tank. When Waris Hussein came into the studio he rubbed his hands together, jumped up and down and cried 'Whoopee!' That is the sort of thing that a designer will never forget."

The TARDIS is placed in the stables by a man called Wang-Lo. Meanwhile, Tegana is hiring Kuiju to steal it.

As night falls Ping-Cho presents Susan with the TARDIS key.She explains that she doen't feel she has broken the agreement with Polo as she only promised not to tell anyone its location. Under darkness the four travellers make their escape. They are inside, powering up the ship for departure. Outside in the courtyard, Susan meets up with Ping-Cho. They sadly hug each other good-bye. Susan quickly rushes back to the TARDIS. Suddenly, Tegana emerges from the darkness, and grabs Susan.


Tegana forces the travellers to leave the ship, and the Doctor  hands the key back to Marco Polo. To save Ping-Cho, Ian says he stole it from Polo's room.

POLO: A day of hard riding. We left Cheng-Ting at dawn and by dusk had covered forty miles. As this is a densely populated area of Cathay, accommodation is not hard to find and we have stopped for the night at an inn. Our baggage - including the Doctor's caravan - is following on with a trade caravan.

Ping-Cho overhears Polo telling Ian that he is aware she took the key. The girl decides to leave. When her absence is noticed, Ian goes to search for her while the others continue the journey. He finds her back at Cheng-Ting, but she has been robbed. She is nevertheless adamant that she will not return and be married to an old man. But there is worse to come: the TARDIS has been stolen!

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

POLO: I hope all is well and Ian has found Ping-Cho. Our progress towards Shang-Tu continues to be excellent and we are now beyond the Great Wall, spending the fourth night of our journey at an inn about fifty miles from the Summer Palace.

Tegana tells Polo that Ian has not gone to find Ping-Cho, but to steal the TARDIS. Polo gives him leave to go back and find them.

Polo's caravan arrives at the Summer Palace, and they are granted an audience with Kublai Khan. They marvel at the beautiful architecture.

DOCTOR: All Chinese... very interesting. It's odd that a Mongol should choose Chinese architecture, isn't it?

SUSAN: Did you see those beautiful pavilions?

BARBARA: Yes, weren't they magnificent?

POLO: Some of them are made of solid gold.

DOCTOR: How large are the grounds?

POLO: Oh, they're enormous. They have to be to accommodate the Khan's two great passions - hunting and falconry. Do you know in his stables, he has ten thousand white stallions?

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

As Khan enters, the travellers are forced to bow - an action which hurts the Doctor's back. Khan is also afflicted with pangs of old age, and grants that the visitors may ride in state with him. Susan is amused by Khan's frailty, but Polo points out that he is the greatest administrator the world has ever known

Ian and Ping-Cho have traced the TARDIS to a clearing. Kuiju's there, and Ping-Cho recognises him as the thief who stole her money. They confront him, and he admits he was paid to steal the TARDIS. At that moment, Tegana arrives - his sword drawn, cutting the air before him.


The fight is halted by the arrival of Ling-Tau. Kuiju is accidentally killed, and Tegana tries to convince the guards that Ian was stealing the TARDIS. Ling-Tau refuses to pass judgement, and takes them all to Peking.

At the palace, the Doctor is beating Khan at backgammon.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

KHAN: What do we owe?

DOCTOR: Ah, Thirty-five elephants with ceremonial bridles, trappings, brocades and pavilions; four thousand white stallions, and twenty-five tigers.

KHAN: That's not too bad - so far.

DOCTOR: And the sacred tooth of Buddha which Polo brought home from India.

KHAN: Oh, That? What else... what more?

DOCTOR: I... I'm very much afraid all the commerce from Burma for one year, sire.

KHAN: Oh, the Empress - hide it, hide it!

The Doctor persuades Khan to stake the TARDIS on their next game. Barbara thinks this will solve the problem - Polo will have made his gift, and the Doctor will reclaim the ship. The only problem is Ping-Cho's absence - her future husband is attending a banquet for six thousand people at the palace tonight in readiness for their wedding tomorrow. Ling-Tau reports that Ian and Ping-Cho are held under guard for trying to steal the ship. The Doctor returns. He has lost the game!

    Barry Newbery recalls the set for Khan s palace "I used archaic Chinese banners which I had seen in a book. There were lots of Chinese actors in the studio, and they all recognised the signs but none of them had any idea what they meant."

Polo hears Ian and Ping-Cho's case against Tegana, but without further evidence he will not act. He informs Ping-Cho she will be married in the morning and then taken from Peking.

Tegana ingratiates himself with Kublai Khan. He turns the Emperor against the Doctor and his companions further and then even implicates Polo. When Polo returns, Tegana tells Khan that he planned to bribe him with the TARDIS to obtain his freedom.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

KHAN: We are distressed and angered by your conduct, Marco. Please think about it. [To Tegana] You'll also attend us after the banquet, Lord Tegana. We'll discuss the terms of our settlement with Noghai. But we... be on guard against you.

TEGANA: What have I that the Khan should fear?

KHAN: The power of persuasion.

Tegana is surprised.

Later, Ping-Cho is told by the Emperor and his wife that her husband to-be has died after drinking the Elixir of Eternal Youth! Ping-Cho says she cannot grieve a man she never knew, and asks if she can stay at Khan's court. Khan asks her opinion of the Doctor and his friends, and appreciates her positive reply. He trusts the girl.

The Doctor and his friends try to understand Tegana's motives. They realise he plans to assassinate Kublai Khan so that Noghai's army can launch a successful attack. They must warn the Emperor! Ian overpowers their guard, and they find Marco Polo. Polo does not believe them, until Ling-Tau brings news that Noghai's army is marching. He rushes to the throne room. He finds Tegana bearing down on the Emperor with a drawn sword. Polo goes to Khan's defence and the two men fight.

    Stunt arranger Derek Ware choreographed this sequence. "I used to do the action for all of Waris Hussein's stuff, he says. "He did not like action - he preferred love stories and things with depth, but in his early days he always got adventure. He was quite happy to give me a free hand. The duel was between Mark Eden and Derren Nesbitt, who were both young and full of energy. Derren had done quite a lot of movies in the Fifties and had a lot of experience of fight scenes, while Mark was very game and charming to work with. I hear that he arranged a couple of small fights in Coronation Street. "There was very little time to rehearse the fight - perhaps a couple of days. I used scimitars and was going to have a death blow to the back of the head. Verity Lambert over-ruled this - she said it was too gruesome."

Kublai Khan's guards rush in and surround Tegana. He seizes a sword and impales himself. With gratitude, Polo returns the TARDIS key to the Doctor, and quickly he and his companions depart.

Photograph copyright Barry Newbery. Used with permission.

POLO: I'm sorry, my lord. I had to give them back their flying caravan.

KHAN: If you hadn't, the old man would have won it at backgammon. But it is true... a flying caravan. There's something for you to tell your friends in Venice.

POLO: No, my lord. They would not believe half the things I have seen in Cathay. But what is the truth? I wonder where they are now... the past or the future...

Adapted from Nostalgia: Marco Polo, Doctor Who Magazine #162 (July 1990), pp.22-29. Photographs are copyright Barry Newbery and are used with permission.

  • Fan-produced photovideo reconstruction of all seven episodes has been made by A Change of Identity and Loose Cannon Productions.

  • Transcriptions of the scripts for each episode are available on the Scripts Project page.

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