I’ve just finished season one of Marco Polo on Netflix and I have to admit to quite enjoying it. That “I have to admit” is mostly for myself, as I watched the first two episodes about a year ago when it originally came out and walked away. I had to get myself into the Braveheart meets Gladiator zone of “historical” entertainment and then it worked. It’s enjoyable with some fun characters, smarmy intrigue, good martial arts and absolutely horrible battlefield scenes.
So this isn’t about Marco Polo. Well, it is, but it is in the same way that Forrest Gump is about late 20th century history. Polo gets shoe-horned into a bunch of important points in the period, even when he should not be there. The series understands that we basically know that Marco Polo went to China and that’s about it. We know the Mongols were tough as nails and were barbarians. That’s the level of knowledge this series assumes you have and if you have more than that, you might not have a good time. That is, until you get into that headspace that allows for the return to the Roman Republic after Commodus’ assassination and Franco-Scot noble William Wallace dressing like a 17th century Highlander while usurping Robert the Bruce’s pivotal role in assuring Scots’ independence in the 14th century.
The writing is fine but it’s not original. There’s a lot of stock characters, stock dialogue, and stock political tension and intrigue. Marco Polo gets to be involved in the aspects of Kublai Khan’s reign and conflict with Song Dynasty China that he almost certainly was not. He also gets to learn martial arts from a blind monk, and that’s really what I came back for. That was so much like Nefertiti Overdrive – throw in some martial arts, it’ll make it better! – that I had to come back. And I am glad I did.
Marco Polo is absolutely not great, but darn is it entertaining. It’s also nice the number of roles it provides for non-White actors. Heck, even the main Caucasian isn’t North American. He certainly did better with martial arts than Iron Fist did in Iron Fist. In fact, I would have been happier to have Claudia Kim (Khutulun), Tom Wu (Hundred Eyes) or Chin Han (Jia Sidao) play Danny Rand in Iron Fist given how well they pull off their fight scenes.
But this is bad history. The broad strokes are fine, but the details are almost all wrong. And the battle scenes do not please me. There are some great fight scenes – when it’s character fighting character – but when the Mongol host faces the Chinese army it really fails. I mean, it’s not alone in this – I’m looking at you, the Two Towers, with your cavalry charge downhill on loose shale, and you, the Return of the King, with another cavalry charge against a wall . . . a wall! Still, those scenes were merciful few and relatively short, whereas the rest of the series is pretty fun.
I give Marco Polo season one four hastily erected for false tension trebuchets out of five. That’s for entertainment value rather than quality. It’s a great costumer with action and drama, and a lot of fun characters and situations that draws one along with its story even when one is shaking one’s head.