The first series of Marco Polo, released by Netflix, comes hot on the heels of the likes of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. It’s the second most expensive television series ever made. Expectations were high.
Adapting the 13th-century traveller’s account of his travels, the series tries to turn the adventurous trader’s service at the court of the Great Khan Qubilai (1260-1294) into a grand epic of medieval Asia. And the results are very impressive – visually. The photography and costumes are beautiful.
But that’s about it. The producers claim to have consulted Persian and Chinese sources in pursuing Polo’s experience. This is visible in nice details such as the ‘Phags-pa script, a new way of writing Mongolian developed under Qubilai’s rule, which is incorporated into some of the gateways. Early scenes show some of the complexity of Mongol Eurasia; several languages are spoken, and Mongolian terms are used throughout. So at least there was some effort.
A discussion between Qubilai and his brother Arigh Böke on rulership and their parents Tolui and Sorghaqtani Beki also reflects the claim to historical authenticity. These are important figures in the early empire, but hardly household names. But this is where the influence of history stops. It soon becomes clear that this detail is simply a veneer, which has little impact on a narrative that relies on spectacle and stereotype.
And so despite creator John Fusco’s claim that Polo’s original story is “much more compelling and exciting than the mythology,” huge changes are made to the record. This Marco Polo takes his place as a hero at the centre of conflict throughout Qubilai’s three decades of rule. Such adjustments for effect are understandable; the Travels are descriptive and often dull.
The result, however, is a glossy but confused presentation of outright Orientalism, which is only topped off by making a white European male the solution to Asia’s challenges. This is the central problem – Polo’s Asia is not an alien land. We find ourselves in territory all too recognisable from martial arts films and colonial imagery. All the Eastern stereotypes are here, from endless kung fu to writhing naked courtesans and horrific cruelty.
The reliance on stereotype is reflected in the costumes – Qubilai’s hair and clothes are impressive, but many characters are assigned unchanging uniform combinations. This probably reflects a lack of investment in exploring their motivations and in the viewer’s difficulty in telling them apart. Perhaps it also draws on anime and gaming images.
Rather than drawing on political and cultural concerns of the period, which would have given the show a bit of originality, the series rejects Polo’s account. For example, the division of northern and southern East Asia into Cathay and Manji is ignored. Instead, artificial differences between “China” and “Mongolia” are reinforced. A cultured, subtle and cruel “Chinese” Song Dynasty is lined up against the brutal and clumsy “Mongols”. Qubilai’s rule, governing millions, is thus made trivial and simple.
Little administration is evident, only incidents to shock Polo and the viewer and move the plot along. Where is the theatre of rule? Where are the feasts and hunts, court ritual and offerings, factions of advisers, envoys from Ilkhanate Iran, other Christians, Buddhists, Daoists and Confucian scholars? This exaggerated simplicity is prominent in the few Mongol military operations we see, where a tiny army gallops at random – ignoring the empire’s huge and complex use of non-Mongol civil and military machinery.
And religion is apparently non-existent in this 13th century. Beyond the Polo family’s failed attempt to bring priests to court (and a psychedelic experience among the Ismailis which is best forgotten), the only religious activity we see are the prayers of Qubilai’s military adviser Yusuf and occasional references to the Turco-Mongol concept of Eternal Blue Heaven.
The acting is simplistic, too. Only Benedict Wong’s Qubilai and Joan Chen’s Chabi show any depth. This is perhaps because only they are allowed any – heavy-handed plotting leaves much of the cast stuck in inflexible roles.
So in this cliched world, it’s unsurprising that Lorenzo Richelmy’s Polo is more a 21st-century backpacker than a 13th-century traveller. Christian and medieval Venetian frames of reference that would have informed Polo’s life are almost entirely lacking. Polo doesn’t ask nearly enough questions, and seems neither to be surprised by his surroundings nor compare them to the world of his youth. The lack of such normal reactions in a central character is a failure on multiple levels – he neither acts as a guide for the viewer, or provides a point of human interest.
Two major characters seem especially symptomatic of the series’s lazy and troubling presentation of tired tropes. Chin Han’s portrayal of the Southern Song chancellor Jia Sidao (a name never pronounced the same way twice) is cartoonishly chilling, the confusing glimpses we get of his childhood reinforcing a blame-the-weirdo narrative of deviance. The transformation of Mongol general and statesman Bayan of the Ba’arin (who Polo describes as “Hundred Eyes” via a Chinese misreading of his name) into a blind martial arts superhero is similarly bizarre. Both figures are robbed of agency and turned into ornamental pantomime.
Whether Marco Polo captures viewers’ imaginations in the same way as Game of Thrones, as Netflix certainly hopes it will, remains to be seen. But I doubt it, because the series has far more to do with a depressingly patronising assumption about the taste and attention-span of today’s market than the experiences of a 13th-century traveller.