‘Marco Polo’ the famed explorer might, by many, not seem like a bold move by Netflix studios. Having explored vast amounts of the world – during the time that it was not entirely accessible – many would presume his exploits perfectly fit the small screen standard that has become common in the larger narrative arcs – that films struggle to contain. However, when you look into the size of the budget (£90 million over ten episodes), and the placement of the young explorer, during his time in war-torn China, the risk becomes more obvious.
Beginning with the revelation of finding an unknown son, Niccolò Polo leaves venice to travel the silk road, a location occupied by Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan – himself at war with China. Sneaking aboard the same vessel as his father, young venetian Marco stows away in hopes of joining his father expedition. However, in return for the permission to travel the merchant road, he is abandoned by his father as payment for the privilege. Locked away, and treated as a servant, Marco is slowly inducted into the world of the Mongols – receiving training and knowledge on their way of life.
The first episode of this historical drama – the first from Netflix – is slow in building momentum. Focusing on the betrayal of his father, the show really aims to garner audience sympathy for its lead character. This pushes the introduction of secondary characters, and plot points out of the shows context for the vast majority of its one hour duration. Carrying a circular narrative, the episode begins in the middle and only really progresses slightly from where it begins. This could mean that the episodes that follow might push the storyline faster and into more interesting territory. ‘Marco Polo’ – through inducting the lead character into the mongol way of living – also deals the same knowledge on us viewers. Some facts may have been altered or exaggerated, but through presenting it how they have, Netflix have stapled a semi-factual storyline into realism – with the focus on a less known time in the famed explorers life.
As a large production, ‘Marco Polo’ carries a fairly unknown roster of actors. This could mean that the correct individual was chosen as the best for each role; or a conscious decision was made by the production team in hopes of lowering production cost. In ‘Wayfarer’ the acting is adequate but never amounts to anything outstanding. Lorenzo Richelmy (Marco Polo) has a lot of pressure on his shoulders, carrying this expensive venture into audience homes. He handles the pressure well, presenting his character with some intrigue – detailing the parts of the lesser known moments of his life. As Kublai Khan, Benedict Wong portrays the emperor as an arrogant individual that knows how he should be treated. This arrogance – which could have been fatal in the realisation of his role – garners only the influence that he holds on his court.
In a fairly mundane episode that holds not much character progression, two manage to stand out. Hundred eyes (Tom Wu) is a brilliantly designed, mysterious and interesting sword fighter that stands out through high quality acting. Through the realisation of his character being blind, Wu manages to further the intrigue resulting in the episodes stand out inclusion. Olivia Cheng (Mei Ling) is also rather excellent in this first episode. The emperor of China’s favourite concubine, the character showcases the other side of the war – and through smart sequences – hints at ulterior motives and/ or influence. Although the episode presents the characters well, they do however seem to blend into just becoming apart of a background ensemble.
‘Wayfarer’ is a beautifully shot piece of television. With the cinematography at such a high standard, the episode exhibits the beauty of the landscape – used to represent 13th Century China. With a lot of composition, in terms of introducing characters, the episode comes across rather heavy in places. Overall, the episode is fun to watch, but does not give audiences a lot that lingers, especially after its undramatic climax. With lots of different characters talking, and interacting onscreen, the show struggles to build any sort of momentum. This lack of forward motion, could well harm the audience appeal, which in turn could stop them continuing with their interest. A beautifully shot, but flawed introduction into a new television series. I personally hope that it gets better in the episode that follow.