Reimagining Doctor Who

Marco Polo

Episode notes

1289, The Pamir Mountains (Note; there is no Plain of Pamir – in fact, it is the first of many mistruths presented as fact in this story…).  This telling needs a degree of condensing of its plot, a quickening of its pace, and an escalation of its stakes, with an extra added focus on the theme of the traveller, told in flashback by Polo as recounted to Kublai Khan (along the lines of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities), and paralleled against the figure of the Doctor, who is at the beginning of his own great travels. 

The sub-genre of the pure historical is established here, the first of two this series, and of only three in the entire run.  Why is that?  Because, ultimately, there are so few, very limited ways to tell this story of an excursion into the past, which cannot alter the events of history: “Not one line!”.  So if you remove agency from the way the characters interact with the events, it only leaves leeway in the leads’ interaction with historical characters on a human level, careful all the while to ensure that there is no knock-on effect to the history that these historical characters will shape through their actions until eventually basically whittling down the avenues for storytelling for the regulars to simply ‘escape back to the TARDIS in the nick of time’.

Yet here, and even in the original, there are numerous historical inaccuracies, chief amongst these that Noghai Khan, who was the general who co-ruled over the Golden Horde, which stretched across Eastern Europe and into the Russian Steppes. Noghai Khan never actually set foot in China, much less ever warred against Kublai Khan (both were directly descended from Genghis Khan). Instead, it is more accurate to replace Noghai Khan with the Mongol ruler Nayan, who was a fourth generation descendent of one of Genghis Khan’s brothers, and who led and lost a rebellion in Manchuria against Kublai Khan and was executed in July 1287 – two years before the events of this story. For the sake of drama, we can employ a bit of licence here in delaying his demise and by changing the site of the uprising to Peking, on the Khan’s doorstep. Alternatively, this could be a ‘hidden chapter’ located within history’s folds that were have not as yet been told. Another historical inaccuracy is that there is no Plain of Pamir, but rather that the Roof of the World that provides the title for the opening episode of the original would be a plateau high in the Pamir Mountains.

The foiling of the Doctor and Marco Polo as travellers, along with Susan, Ian, and Barbara as the Doctor’s companions and Polo with his own travelling companions, is the primary impetus of the emotional drama here; reflecting on how the journey shapes and changes each of us, what home means, and comes to mean (including home becoming not the place that you came from but the place that you will one day find – Susan – becoming a relationship – Ian and Barbara – and becoming a mental state of discovery – the Doctor). 

Unashamedly, this version of the story is to borrow from the scene between Polo and the Khan from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, such that Polo, probing the Doctor for stories of his travels to fantastical places throughout (during which ‘lost’ stories, such as “The Keys of Marinus”, may be retrieved (?)), understands that all cities he speaks of are reflections of his home city.  That is, we view the world – and indeed, all the universe – through the eyes of a citizen of our own homes.

And so, nearing the end, Polo is able to tell a lot more about the Doctor than the Doctor believes he may have allowed Polo to learn, surmising the Doctor’s character, which he recognises very much like his own, but also understanding more of his own home, both present and future.  The story concludes with Polo wishing the Doctor riches and fulfilment throughout his travels and, one day, a safe and happy homecoming – but equally, and here evoking Cavafi’s “Ithaka”, that he does not hurry the voyage at all.

Cold Open

After their previous adventure, a broken TARDIS materialises in the Pamir Mountains. Susan, Ian and Barbara investigate their surroundings, noting the giant footprint – which Ian explains is so large because actually the ice has melted around the initial footprint of a man – and looking for water and fuel. The Doctor attempts to repair the TARDIS but upon re-entering the console room, he finds its inner dimensions reduced to that of a plain old police box.

Act One


The Doctor shuts the door immediately, keeping the demise of the TARDIS a secret from his companions. At the same time, Susan, Ian and Barbara are confronted by the Mongol warlord, Tegana, and six of his men. They have watched the ‘blue caravan’, as they call the TARDIS, materialise from thin air and were even able to see that its inner dimensions were larger than its outward appearance would suggest. Tegana concludes that the travellers are evil spirits. The captured party arrive to take the Doctor prisoner, and the Doctor takes the key to the TARDIS from Susan as he tries to hide from his companions the fact of the Ship’s apparent demise. The Doctor appears overwhelmed and faints.

The travellers are taken to the caravan party of Marco Polo, who receives them as guests over tepid tea (the reason for which is explained by Ian to Polo not due to temperature but to elevation), much to disgust of Tegana, who wishes to destroy them. Susan befriends Ping-Cho, while Tegana argues with Polo that the travellers are evil spirits. While the Doctor convalesces, Polo is taken by Susan, Ian, and Barbara to the TARDIS, and Polo arranges for the mysterious blue box to be taken down the mountain (in the way described in the novelisation). Back at the camp, the Doctor is beginning to feel better but refuses to let anyone into the TARDIS. Ian and Barbara ask Susan what is wrong with the Doctor, but she tells them that he has closed his mind to her, alluding again to the low level of telepathy between the two of them. At the same time, Tegana has convinced Polo to not let the old man back into his magic caravan lest he transform back into a powerful spirit; something that Polo does not believe but is happy enough to entertain as a request from his trusted companion, and so Polo requests that the Doctor turn the key for the TARDIS over to him. After all, he still cannot figure out how the four of them made it to the Roof of the World in that blue box. (That leaves one key still with the Doctor.)


After two days of travel, Marco Polo’s caravan arrives at Lop, where they rest and refuel. The TARDIS is placed in the courtyard but the Doctor is prevented from entering it, lest he – as an ‘evil spirit’ – dematerialises. Polo has his own plans for the TARDIS; he intends to win his freedom from the Khan by gifting him the rarest of finds; a caravan that flies.

Meanwhile, Tegana is handed a poison by a conspirator that he will use on Polo’s water supply as they head into the Gobi Desert. Barbara briefly overhears them speaking and picks up on the name of the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes before Tegana terminates his conversation and rounds on Barbara for spying. Tegana is actually in the employ of the Lord Nayan, to whom he will gift the magic caravan of the Doctor’s and so bring Kublai Khan to his knees.

The caravan enters the Gobi Desert. The Doctor and Polo initially clash, but as they ride together, they enter into extended conversation about their travels. Further scenes involve Ian and Barbara, who are becoming closer, and Ching-Po and Susan, who form a strong friendship while discussing their pasts and fanciful versions of their possible futures.

That night, amidst the singing sands of the desert, Polo and the Doctor play chess; a game which will be concluded when one of the commanders of an army cries Shah mat or “The King is Dead” (presaging the events of the climax). Again, this is an opportunity for the two of them to further their contemplative discussions about travel and how their experiences have changed them while framing their words through the metaphor of chess. Susan and Barbara have their wonderful discussion about all the mysteries in the sky that we get in the original, before Barbara and Ian again resume their own conversation, in which it is increasingly clear that they are coming closer together. The Doctor and Polo, all the while, continue their game into the night. The winds drop, and in the ensuing eery silence, Polo informs them that it means a sandstorm will hit them tonight.

First Turning Point

Susan and Ching-Po have climbed out in the middle of the night to stare at the still moonlit desert before the storm hits when they see Tegana emerge from his tent. Unnoticed, the girls follow, and observe him near the supply wagons; however, he mounts a horse and rides off into the distance along with his six men when they call to him. Susan and Ping-Cho at last can see his handiwork; many of the water gourds have been slashed. Before the girls can return to the camp to warn everyone, they are caught mere metres from safety in the sandstorm just as it begins to break. They are rescued by Polo and Ian and are able to tell of what they saw Tegana do: ““Here is water, Marco Polo – come for it!”


Act Two

Rising Action

The next morning, the sandstorm having passed, the travellers decide that they must press on to an oasis to the north rather than turn back to Lop, where Tegana or at least Nayan’s men will be waiting for them. For four days, the caravan rides through the desert under an intense heat with no water. The Doctor and Polo head the party, and their conversations lapse into the fantastical, as though hallucinating due to the heat of the day and their own increasing dehydration. In pairs, Ian and Barbara, as well as Ping-Cho and Susan, each continue their conversations, allowing us a greater degree of characterisation by being able to see their thoughts about home, what it means to them, and with whom they are able to build their lives at home. The caravan comes to a halt at the end of the fourth day. Their gamble with their own lives has failed; they have run out of water and they are still far from the oasis.

The next morning, free from the gaze of Polo and with Tegana and his men gone, the Doctor uses Susan’s key to enter the TARDIS so as to check on its progress. The dimensions have not returned to their normal size but the walls are starting to resemble their old, roundelled pattern. The Doctor notices a dripping from the ceiling and delightedly sees the condensation on the interior walls. He collects the water in one of the empty gourds he finds outside and then presents it to Polo, who misconstrues that the Doctor was carrying water in his blue caravan all this time before Ian can explain to Polo the basic twentieth-century school textbook science version of how condensation forms. On the strength of a single gourd of water collected from within the TARDIS by the Doctor, who is careful not to let any of the others in, and allaying Susan’s skepticism that the transcendent dimensions of the TARDIS would mean that it would be impossible for condensation to form within by saying that he is accessing the water from the food dispenser, which he has been able to get working again, the caravan is able to forge ahead and make it to the oasis where they rest and restock on fresh water before continuing on to the city of Lanchow (modern day Lanzhou, and at the geographical centre of China), passing through the Jiayu Pass en route, where they first encounter the sight of the Great Wall in its original splendour at its most western extremity.

Arriving at Lanchow, through which the Yellow River runs, Polo demands to know where Tegana is. It’s clear that the city is awash with Nayan’s spies and they initially learn very little. They can do nothing except rest while they can, and that night Ching-Po recites the song and dance of Ala-eddin, which reveals to Barbara a clue of the secret location of one of Ala-eddin’s caves amongst the Maijishan Grottoes as the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes – a name Barbara recalls overhearing Tegana mention in Lop as the place that he and the stranger will next meet.

First Crisis Point

Barbara leaves in the night for the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes, where she is discovered and seized by Tegana and his conspirators, who include the Lord Nayan – the man who Tegana spoke with in Lop. She is taken away on horseback in the night (Tegana still believing her to be an evil spirit whom they will make pilot the blue caravan).

Rising Action (continued)

The next morning, the party discover that Barbara is missing. The Doctor uncovers a note she left behind in her room that cryptically alludes to the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes referred to in Ping-Cho’s dance that they all witnessed the previous evening. Arriving at the cave, they discover her scarf and find an old man, the Mongol Malik, who initially mistakes the party to be sent by Tegana. Threatened by Ian and Polo, he tells them that Tegana took Barbara with him to Peking as he set out to fulfil his mission for Lord Nayan; to murder Kublai Khan (Shah Mat) so that Nayan may be crowned Khan in his place.

We cut to Barbara who is now with the riding party led by Nayan and Tegana. By campfire, Barbara is interrogated by the Mongol warlords and through her quick-wittedness and the advantage of her future knowledge, is able to equally confound and convince them both of her knowledge of sorcery. At dawn, the party splits; Nayan going on to his stronghold at Karakorum, where he has amassed 10,000 men for the planned attack on the Khan’s palace at Peking, while another group of men, led by Acomat, go to intercept Polo’s advance party in order to kill them, and lastly a group of remaining men led by Tegana who take Barbara on to Peking, where they will act as the vanguard and prepare for Nayan’s planned invasion.

Ian begins his own side-mission on the trail of Barbara and her kidnappers. Steaming ahead bearing the Khan’s seal given first to Polo and now to him, he rides the long road to Peking, encountering at least one ambush at a trading post one night. It’s at this point that we can drop in the events of Sir Ian of Jaffa’s quest as laid out in David Whitaker’s novelisation of “The Crusade”, Doctor Who and the Crusaders, especially the scene with the ants.

The travellers depart Lanchow along the road through the bamboo forest that leads to Shang-Tu, Malik having been taken prisoner by Polo. From Lanchow, Polo sends forward a rider to Shang-Tu to warn the Khan, while their caravan follows at the rear, including the TARDIS, as the travellers make their way to court via horseback. Along the way, they are attacked by bandits led by and in the employ of one of Tegana’s men, Acomat (should this just be Malik, the man we see in the Caves of Five Hundred Eyes?).

The TARDIS is stolen in the skirmish so Polo – who is admits to the Doctor that he plans to present the flying blue caravan to the Khan in order tha the may win his freedom and so be able to at last return home– and the Doctor plan to retrieve it with the help of Ling Tao, a rider from Shang-Tu, who has come to tell Polo the Khan has received his message, and that an armed procession is on its way to fetch the travellers to Peking, where they will prepare against Nayan and celebrate the wedding of Ping-Cho. Polo, the Doctor, Ian, Susan, Ping-Cho and Ling Tao begin their final leg to the Palace of the Khan at Peking, their caravan following behind them. It is evident that there is a romance developing between Ping-Cho and Ling Tao.

The Doctor’s aged body suffers from the days of riding to Peking where they meet up with Ian before they are brought into the presence of the Khan – himself an old man who suffers from aches and pains, and who strikes an immediate affinity with the old figure of the Doctor – who thanks Polo for sending warning of Nayan’s plans, which has allowed him to fortify the city and prepare his army. There have, however, been no sightings of the conspirators in Peking, meaning that Barbara is still in danger, much to Ian’s despair.

Second Crisis Points

Ping-Cho is taken to her designated quarters ahead of her marriage to one of the Khan’s old courtiers, with Susan attending to her. They hatch a plan for Ping-Cho to again escape by substituting a disguised Susan in her place and with the aid of Ling Tao, with whom Ping-Cho has fallen for and vice versa, but their attempt is foiled when they are stopped by the Khan’s guards.

The Khan at last gladly receives the gift of the TARDIS from Polo, who at that point informs the Doctor that he will take the Khan to all parts of his kingdom; however, the Khan refuses Polo’s request to let him return with his father and uncle to Venice. Bitterly disappointed and angry with the Khan, Polo at last acquiesces to the Doctor’s long wish to have his TARDIS returned to him, and – knowing that the Khan has a weakness for gambling – they arrange for the Doctor to gamble for the TARDIS with the Khan over backgammon. They have made and lost their second great gamble; the Doctor loses.

Cut back to Barbara, Tegana, and the invasion vanguard, who have arrived in Peking under the cover of darkness, via a meeting with Nayan and his army who are amassing in secret in the hills around Peking, and who are given refuge to a safehouse in Peking operated by the secret sympathisers to Nayan’s cause. Just before dawn the following morning, a signal goes up from Tegana from atop the safehouse on the outskirts of the city to let Nayan’s advance party know that everything is ready to proceed.

Meanwhile, Nayan’s forces have gathered in the mountains beyond Peking and now ready themselves to begin their march upon the palace at dawn.


Act Three


The day of the wedding arrives. Polo and the Doctor converse one last time, during which Polo concludes that, in all their conversations about all the cities that they have seen, the Doctor has been speaking of places separated by time as well as space; he is not an evil spirit, as Tegana believed, but a traveller like Polo except through time, which Polo figures is itself just another road, albeit one he can only traverse in one direction. Before Polo can reveal to the Doctor what he has discovered about him, they are interrupted when, with wedding ceremony being prepared to take place, the attack begins from Nayan and his army. The wedding guests leave to lead their battalions in the defence of the city, including the would-be groom with his lieutenant, Ling Tao.

Meanwhile, Tegana and his men have left the safehouse and infiltrated the palace in an attempt to assassinate the Khan – an act that would mean Nayan immediately inherits the throne, as in the rules of chess – but Tegana is thwarted by Ian, Polo, and the Khan’s own men. Before Tegana is killed, Ian extracts from him the location of where they are keeping Barbara. Leaving the Doctor and Susan with the Khan, Polo goes with Ian, who rescues Barbara and other women being held captive by Nayan’s men. This scene should be based on the events in Whitaker’s novelisation of “The Crusade”. Ian and Polo then return to the safety of the palace with Barbara, just in time before it is barricaded to protect the Khan from the battle.

Outside the palace, Nayan and his men arrive and a pitched battle between the two armies ensues. Amidst the chaos, the battle reaches its climax with the death of the king – but not the one expected by Nayan and his army. Shah mat!


It becomes apparent that Nayan’s forces have been quashed before the would-be usurper is killed by the Khan’s men, but Ping-Cho’s intended husband is killed in the fighting.


Ling Tao returns from the battle and embraces Ping-Cho. Susan bids Ping-Cho farewell, as she, the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara enter the TARDIS, which by now has fully regenerated itself.

For the services he has shown today and over the years, the Khan at last relents and allows Polo to return to his home in Venice. Finally, Polo and the Khan observe the TARDIS dematerialise, Polo wishing the Doctor good luck – but not godspeed – on his travels, and in his return home.

Remember to share your thoughts in the comments section below, please.

(Available 23 May 2023)


(Previous episode: Flight Through Eternity)

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