Season review: Marco Polo (Netflix)

Would have been better as 'Kublai Khan'

Marco Polo

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.

Press release
NEW YORK, NY – April 8, 2014 – The Weinstein Company announced today that production is underway on “MARCO POLO,” a Netflix original series based on the epic adventures of Marco Polo. Shoot locations for the ten episode first season include Italy, Kazakhstan and the new Pinewood Studios in Malaysia. Netflix plans to premiere the series in late 2014.

The famed explorer’s journey takes him to the center of a brutal war in 13th century China, a world replete with exotic martial arts, political skullduggery, spectacular battles and sexual intrigue. The global cast includes Lorenzo Richelmy (IL TERZO TEMPO) as Marco Polo, Benedict Wong (PROMETHEUS), Zhu Zhu (CLOUD ATLAS), Tom Wu (SKYFALL), Remy Hii (TREADING WATER) and Rick Yune (OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS).

Creator John Fusco (FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, YOUNG GUNS, HIDALGO) and Harvey Weinstein will serve as executive producers. Dan Minahan (GAME OF THRONES, TRUE BLOOD) will also serve as executive producer and will direct two episodes. Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Academy Award nominated KON-TIKI, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES) will direct the season’s first two episodes. Patrick MacManus will serve as co-executive producer. Collin Creighton will produce on behalf of The Weinstein Company.

“Television audiences today are more discerning than ever before both in terms of character and the scope of the worlds those characters live in. We are proud to present a series that rivals some of the most successful films we’ve ever made. Marco Polo is a figure all have heard of, but few truly know, and we are excited to introduce him to the world. And we are shooting all over the world. From the sweeping vistas of Kazakhstan which act as backdrop for the wars and conquests of Kublai Khan to the intimate moments within the alleys and canals of Marco’s hometown of Venice, Italy, this is spectacle in the truest sense of the word,” said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Company.

“John, Dan, Joachim, Espen and our partners at The Weinstein Company are elevating the art of storytelling and delivering cinematic quality that we’re certain our members will enjoy,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix Chief Content Officer. “In this commanding, epic story of Marco Polo, through the magnetic cast they’ve assembled, the spectacular martial arts work they are showcasing and the exotic locations that serve as a backdrop, they have really outdone themselves.”

Is it any good?
Netflix is certainly being wise in releasing all ten episodes of the show in one go because if you had to wait a week between episodes and all you had to go on was the first one or two, you wouldn’t bother getting to the much better final few episodes.

For starters, the title is slightly misleading, since this is far less a show about Marco Polo than it is about Kublai Khan and the rest of the supporting cast. Indeed, the show’s biggest weakness is Polo, who despite going through a similar journey to the one Tom Cruise’s character goes through in The Last Samurai, manages to be incredibly passive and uninvolving, with very little to do until the last couple of episodes.

However, a show called Kublai Khan focusing purely on him probably wouldn’t have even been green lit. Which is shame, because the big revelation of the show is Benedict Wong, who plays Khan. Wong, a British character actor you’d probably recognise from a dozen movies and TV shows if he hadn’t put on 30 pounds to play the part, is amazing as the Mongol leader, looking every inch the Khan and dominating every scene he’s in. If the only thing that comes from this is that Wong gets more work, that would probably be worth it.

Indeed, the show acts a showcase for the acting talents of a huge number of Asian actors from around the world. This is slightly problematic, since among the many accent clashes that take place, particularly from the Australians in the cast, since there’s no real casting demarcation between who’s cast as a Mongol and who Southern Chinese. Nevertheless, the producers do go to some effort to make people at least dress the part.

The other standout of the show is Chin Han, who plays the Southern Chinese chancellor and all-round bad guy Jia Sidao as the antithesis of the Khan – a deliberate, cultured, disciplined politician determined to get to the top not with a sword but with his mind… and some underlings with swords. Han, who along with Mongol empress Joan Chen appears to have survived the cancellation of Serangoon Road, has been doing well as the villain in numerous movies and TV shows, including The Dark Knight for some time, but always as something of a supporting villain to the main villain. Here he shines in the spotlight of principal villain.

Of course, since it’s impossible to say Asian in connection with a drama without someone wondering if there could be some martial arts in it somehow, Jia Didao is a master of praying mantis kung fu, too; correspondingly, Polo is required to learn Mongol ways including various animal styles of kung fu from Daoist monk ‘100 Eyes’ (Tom Wu, who ironically played Genghis Carnage in Kick-Ass 2). This is, of course, very silly and very ahistorical but to the series’ credit, while it’s not quite up to Hong Kong’s best, the surprisingly few fight scenes are very well choreographed, and Wu is as good as you’d expect of someone who is a British wu-shu champion.

Mind you, for those of you looking for real history, you’d be wise to switch off at this point, not least because 100 Eyes was actually a Mongol general and not a monk at all. If you stick with it, you’ll see even worse offences, mind – along with as much female exploitation and lesbian prostitute/concubine sex scenes as an unreconstructed teenage boy could ever hope for, but which will probably leave everyone else feeling bored and not even slightly titillated. Despite the political intrigues that are the dominant theme of the series, as well as the frequent beheadings and stabbings, this is the most Game of Thrones-like aspect of the show and you could probably have taken them all out and not lose a single plot or character point along the way, probably saving yourself an entire episode of viewing time.

Another demonstration of the wisdom of Netflix’s release policy is in the fact that pretty much all the first seven or eight episodes are the same. In fact, there’s probably only one truly standout episode of the whole lot and that’s an oddly episodic, rather serial addition, in which Polo heads off to look for some Hashashins. It’s one of the few episodes were Polo actually has a personality and leads the action, has a great guest cast, and there’s a really quite creepy, unexplained moment that you’ll remember long afterwards.

By the end of the 10 episodes, though, if you make it that far, you’ll probably want more. You might even want to go back to the first confused episodes so that you can take it some of the character set-ups. You might even want there to be a second season.

Because although the show is very definitely a weak imitation of several better shows and movies, it is ambitious, a good showcase for Asian talent, mildly if not accurately illustrative of an interesting part of history and pleasant enough viewing. I’d recommend watching them all in one go if possible, though.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.