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14 January 2013

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day Fourteen - The Roof of the World (Marco Polo, Episode One)

Dear diary,

Brace yourself; I'm going to open today's entry with a statement that may not get me many fans… I like that there are missing episode of Doctor Who.

Yes! I know! I should really mourn their loss - 106 little pieces of the show that I may never get to experience in their original format. I should hate the fact that they're lost from the archives. I should be up in the attic, hunting around for film cans in the vein hope that I've got a part of The Web of Fear tucked up there or something.

But the fact is, as far as I'm concerned, the fact that we're missing these little bits of the programme's history somehow makes it all the more magical. It makes the 1960s era of the show seem distant and difficult, but it makes it seem so mythical, too.

Perhaps I'm more willing to accept the fact of missing episodes simply because I'm a fan of archive telly in general, so I'm used to there being gaps in my favourite shows. Most of the first season of The Avengers is missing from the archive (oh, but how I love the few episodes that survive from it!), the same is true for Dad's Army, or Adam Adamant Lives!, or The Army Game. Take a look at the DVDs on my shelves, and you'll find that a good chunk of them are missing an episode or two because of the archiving policy of the era.

That's not to say that I don't like to see episodes returned. I was ecstatic when two turned up in 2011, and I'd be thrilled if some more turned up. Of course I would! I'm not mad! But I don't see them as all that big of a loss while they're still missing.

Besides, calling them 'missing' episodes is almost as ridiculous as calling the period between 1989 and 2005 the 'wilderness' years. They're not all that missing at all! We've got a soundtrack for all of them. That's bloody lucky. That's simply not true of the other examples I've given above for show's missing pieces of their past. On top of that, we've got tele-snaps for most of the stories, plus a wealth of behind-the-scenes photos.

Still, all that said… It does make it hard to do a marathon of Doctor Who from the start. The last time I tried it, I didn't even bother with the missing episodes, I just skipped over them to the next available story. This time, though, I'm doing every episode, which means delving into various reconstructions.

They'll be taking a number of forms over the coming months (in just a few weeks, Reign of Terror comes out on DVD, with it's missing episodes fully animated! And just in time for when I have to watch it!), but for today's story, I've been listening to the narrated soundtrack, and taking a look at the tele-snaps as I go.

Now, let me get this one out of the way early on, because I'm likely to ramble on about it plenty over the next week; William Russell's narration on the soundtrack is superb. The man is simply amazing. His work for Big Finish over the yard has been fantastic, and even here, he's giving it his all. He really is one of the greatest ambassadors the show has ever had, and I really do hope he gets a chance to pop up in the 50th.

As for the episode itself… Marco Polo has a reputation for being one of the great lost stories of Doctor Who. There are parts of the internet where you can find it held up as a cure for all the evil in the world. It has to be said, I've always been more than a little skeptical of this. I don't tend to like it when people constantly tell me how good something is.

Based on this first episode alone, though, it is rather brilliant, isn't it? I've found myself being swept up in the story with this one, which is always a good sign, and the 25 minutes just breezed by. Right from the word 'go', with the travellers exploring their surroundings on the mountain top, I caught up with events, and it's not long before their being swept away to join Marco Polo's caravan.

This episode is perhaps the best example we've had so far of the show fulfilling it's original intention to educate the audience, as well as to entertain it. We're given discussions of Marco Polo's journey and of his life, given specific details. Coming to this after a recent re-watch of Andrew Marr's fantastic History of the World documentary, it's startling how much they impart here.

And yet, I wasn't bored at any point. I'd worried, without having anything much to focus on, that my attention would wander away from the story, and I'd end up missing bits. I'm really glad that the educational stuff is nicely mixed in with enough of a story to keep me interested.

Marco Polo isn't really a good guy, here. He's certainly not evil (unlike Tegana, who might as well be twirling his mustache as he laughs from a corner), but he tells the Doctor that he's taking the TARDIS, and that's that. Mark Eden plays those scenes really well, in what might be one of the best performances we've had in the series so far.

It's continuing a trend of having a very strong opening episode, so I'm hoping that can hold true for the next few days…

Next Episode - The Singing Sands

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