An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

June 8, 2020

October: Marco Polo

Dene October, Marco Polo, The Black Archive 18. Edinburgh: Obverse Books, 2018.

Reviewed by Minjie Su (

Among all the missing Doctor Who episodes, Marco Polo – the fourth serial of the first season – is no doubt one of the most lamented losses. Initially aired between 22 February and 4 April 1964, the seven-episode serial is not only critically acclaimed for its beautiful costume design, careful staging and elegant (albeit slow) story-telling, but is also quite unique, in the sense that it marks Doctor Who’s first attempt at history drama, in which a historical figure takes the lead, while the alien and the sci-fi step back.

However, in a digital era as is ours, the loss of the original does not mean the story’s total disappearance. At any rate, these episodes are by no means forgotten. The past decades have seen a Marco Polo novelisation (1985) created by John Lucarotti (who was responsible for the original screenplay), fan theories and discussions, reconstruction with photographs and pictures, and the Loose Cannon reconstruction with a new introduction voiced by Mark Eden, the actor who played the title role in 1964.

Indeed, the missing Marco Polo episodes have become a component of the collective memory and a cultural phenomenon, and their ever-changing role itself a worthy subject for a cultural study. Therefore, it felt almost overdue when Dene October’s Marco Polo was published by Obverse Books, as part of its The Black Archive series. In this multifaceted book, October traces not only the history of the serial, but also that of The Travels of Marco Polo. In doing so, he establishes several parallels: between the show’s development and The Travels’ transmission and remediation history, between the Doctor and Marco Polo, and between TV and a more traditional type of literature. Binaries are challenged, boundaries are crossed, and the readers are invited to reconsider TV’s role as a medium and, most importantly, to reflect upon key issues such as identity, continuity, and cultural difference.

Intriguingly, such issues are just as relevant and applicable to studies of the Middle Ages and medievalism. Although October does not approach his subject from a medieval/medievalism perspective, or explicitly mention the subject, he presents a thought-provoking case study of the long and changing life of a medieval text – how it is created (noticeably originated from an oral tradition), transmitted, translated, redacted, appropriated, and given a new life in the centuries to come. He then ponders the comparability of this process and the development of Marco Polo and, from there, TV and film production in general, foregrounding the sense of continuity. Last but not least, since the story of Marco Polo takes place in the Yuan Dynasty in China (1271-1368) and involves characters of different backgrounds (the Gallifreyans, two ‘modern’ earthlings from 1960s England, Marco Polo, the Mongols, and the Chinese), its stark diversity allows October an opportunity to draw attention to the cultural and social construct of the ‘other’ in the attempt to define ‘us’. Overall, October’s book shows us that, however fanciful their facades may seem, stories speak to the worlds and minds of those who create and enjoy them. Instead of dismissing them out of pride and prejudice, one must learn to penetrate the appearance to grasp the essence and find common grounds in seemingly different things. This way of thinking is also one of the keys to unlock the medieval mind.

In terms of structure and content, Marco Polo the book runs in parallel to Marco Polo the serial, as each chapter is named after a corresponding episode and shares with it the same theme. Headed by an introduction that provides the readers with a few basic facts and a synopsis, the first chapter – ‘The Roof of the World’ – begins with the opening scene of the serial: Susan and Ian’s discovery of a mysterious footprint in the snow in the Himalayas, and their debate as regards to what kind of creature it may belong. The fanciful/supernatural and the rational/scientific are posited in clash with each other, but the matter remains unresolved, for each explanation holds in its own reasoning. As the book unfolds, a similar white-or-black way of thinking is presented at every turn but is problematised and challenged by the author’s refusal to voice any confirmation.

‘The Roof of the World’ turns out a rather apt name for Chapter One. For roofs define a space and set a limit as to how far we can reach, but at the same time provide a platform on which we may look into and dream about the distant horizon; Chapter One does precisely that. On the one hand, it contextualises the serial’s creation in the debate over popular history (television) v. elitist, academic history (book). On the other, it heralds some recurrent themes of the book and allows the readers a glimpse of what to expect. In particular, Chapter One breaks down the popular-academic binary by detailing for the readers The Travels’ historical background, its composition and co-authorship with Rustichello da Pisa, an Italian romance writer, and the manuscripts’ transmission and redaction, drawing attention to its similarity to the writing and making of a TV programme. By doing so, October shows the ambiguity of historical sources, reminds us not to let our judgement be clouded by prejudice, and points out the contemporary relevance of the medieval material.

The same subjects are continued throughout Chapters Two and Three but approached from two specific aspects of filmmaking: Chapter Two, ‘The Singing Sands’, focuses on voice while Chapter Three, ‘Five Hundred Eyes’, focuses on image and gaze. October begins both chapters with a detailed discussion of technical issues such as special sound effect and camera direction, which may prove hard and somewhat tedious for lay readers. But he then turns to character development and remediation. Two points are particularly noteworthy. First, in Chapter Two, October reads the sandstorm as a metaphor for media, where he ponders television’s capacity to convey, mask, and transform voice. He then turns to adaption and remediation, treating each version of Marco Polo’s story – be it a medieval text or a Netflix series – as giving 'voice to a culturally specific version of The Travels and equally mak[ing] Marco a spokesperson for that cultural point of reference’ (p. 56). Second, in Chapter Three, October highlights the role of the camera in presenting and communicating the story to the audience in the way that pure words cannot. In particular, he introduces the concept of ‘reflector relationship’ – pairing of characters that can ‘grant audiences insight beyond what is possible through the external focaliser’ (p. 77). In other words, the way a scene is staged and shot helps to reveal a character’s unvoiced mind through his/her pair’s behaviour and the movement of the camera, which may in turn better our understanding of the character in the original text.

The following two chapters – ‘The Walls of Lies’ and ‘Rider from Shang-Tu’ – turn to more abstract topics and focus on the trope of travel. In the former, October explores memory as media and reads its retrieval as a form of ‘mental’ travel. Here, he reverts to the footprint and the debate raised in Chapter One, and problematises memory (and television)’s reliability. After all, it is a social and cultural construct; its retrieval is not linear but ‘hops around’ in time and space just as the Tardis, and like the Tardis (that which does not always land where it is expected to), memory too is subject to human error. The same can be said for the writing of The Travels, which occupies a central place in Chapter Five. Unlike what the serial would want us to believe, the historical Marco Polo did not write his travelogue en route but revisited his memory years later. The process itself is ‘very Tardis-like in hopping between one time-place and another’ (p. 105). In other words, it is a product of virtual travel as much as of physical travel. From there, October extends the discussion to cinematic experience and underlines the similarity between watching a TV programme or a film and reading travel writings in the Middle Ages.

If there is a journey, there must be a destination and a home, which October reads as metaphors for ‘other’ and ‘us’, respectively. In the last two chapters – ‘Mighty Kublai Khan’ and ‘Assassin at Peking’, as the characters are finally brought face to face with the Great Khan, the supposed ‘other’, we as readers are invited to consider how remediation mirrors our own time and culture – after all, when we look at the television screen, we are also looking at our own reflections. October details Marco Polo’s description of Kublai Khan in The Travels, compares it to other contemporary accounts, and concludes that his travelogue too is a (re)mediated text: ‘when Marco speaks of the other it is through an agent of mediation that is hidden, that understands difference through an imagination of sameness (one mediated by the memory of home Marco carries with him and that is familiar to his audience)’ (p. 133). Likewise, Doctor Who presents a world of the other ‘promoted by an assurance of European superiority that post-war era had only just begun to question’ (p. 134).

However, where there is clash, there is conversation. Quoting Syed Manzurul Islam’s The Ethics of Travel, October identifies two types of travellers (and TV audience): the sedentary and the nomadic. The sedentary traveller refuses to be changed, their encounter with the ‘other’ only serves to confirm their own identity and superiority. The nomadic traveller, however, is not afraid to cross the boundary and embrace the ‘other’; as they journey on, they constantly review and revise their own identity, gradually becoming ‘othered’. Marco Polo is such a traveller, and so is the Doctor, who through the decades transforms from a higher intelligence who sees the Earth as a barbarian place to the inspiring hero that (s)he has become in later seasons.

Finally, in Chapter Seven (which also serves as a conclusion), October revisits the public v. academic binary and invites us to recognise the transformative power of stories, no matter through what media they are conveyed, and to reflect through these stories. The message is as relevant to medievalists as to those in film or cultural studies, especially when we take into consideration the rise of white supremacy in recent years and xenophobia emboldened by the current political climate. Although it seems a pity that Marco Polo the book does not touch upon these topics, it nevertheless calls these issues to mind and urges us to compare the Middle Ages and our era, and to consider what we may learn from our representation of the past and the ‘other’. All of this, I think, boils down to a simple question: which type of travel do we want to be, the sedentary or the nomadic?

Minjie Su
Linacre College, University of Oxford