On the Internet: Available on Netflix
There are a lot of names in history that we learn at school that if we stop to pause and consider them, we realise we still know very little about them. Marco Polo. He went to China. Did he discover China? Was he the first European to discover China? Was he the first Italian to trade with China?
That wasn’t something they really taught you in school.
Ditto Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai. What did they do, apart from rule a bit of Asia? Did you even know Kublai Khan was his grandson in fact?
Some of you will probably know all this, most won’t. So in many ways, now that period dramas have pretty much exhausted the 17-20th centuries in the UK and the US and are looking for new times and places to explore, we should be grateful for the likes of Marco Polo, Netflix’s new 10-episode drama released en masse over Christmas, for illustrating a period of Asian and European history about which most people know mere names at best.
The show tells the story of the eponymous Marco Polo, a young Viennese trader whose father returns from the East after years away, and decides to drag him and a few priests back to the court of the great Mongol leader Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan is looking to expand his empire to include South China by defeating the Song Dynasty, who have been walled up in a nearby city that has withstood assault for nearly 30 years.
Kublai Khan decides to take the young and loquacious Polo into his court and show him Mongol ways. But how will Polo to take to them? Will he survive the intrigues and politics of the court? Will he find love with a princess? And how good a pupil will he be to the blind Daoist monk 100 Eyes at the art of kung fu?
Wait… what was that?
Yes, because despite being on Netflix, which is normally a sign of good quality, Marco Polo was originally lined up to be a Starz production. Starz - that would be the home of Torchwood: Miracle Day and historically accurate fare such as Spartacus, Camelot and Da Vinci’s Demons.
So although this $90 million series is lavish and has many pluses, including filming in both Malaysia and the steppes of Kazakhstan, don’t expect a history lesson so much as a halfway house between Netflix and Starz’s sensibilities - think Game of Thrones meets The Last Samurai meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, spiced up with the usual female nudity.
Here’s a trailer.