This Neat Thing – 17th December 2014

So I’ve started watching the latest Netflix Original series Marco Polo. One of the things I love about television series and film based on historical characters and/or events is that I’m ultimately drawn to look up what is known to have happened and draw the stark comparison to the hilarity that ensues on screen.

We’ve all seen it before, whether it was the story of Julius Caesar, the Civil Wars, and the Rise of Augustus (HBO’s Rome), the Slave Revolt of Spartacus (STARZ’ Spartacus), the history of the Tudor family during the reign of Henry VIII (Showtime’s The Tudors), the world of Mary Queen of Scots before she was that (CW’s Reign), or the world of American folklore (Fox’ Sleepy Hollow). Artistic liberties are taken, story lines are embellished for dramatic effect, and characters are developed by some rather cleaner 21st century actors. And yet, we are drawn to these stories on screen as we (sometimes) are in history books and literature.

For example,  **SPOILER ALERT**, Kublai Khan does not kill his brother Ariq after hand-to-hand combat on foot (the Mongols were famously said to be born in the saddle and die there). He comes to an arrangement whereby Ariq is spared from death but loses much of his power after threatening Kublai’s own strongholds. Marco Polo (so far as we know from his Travels, at least) was not abandoned to the court of the Khagan by his father and uncle (points, though, for casting an actual Italian actor to play Marco; the accent draws contrast between the characters in a delightfully subtle way). More importantly – and perhaps this is where I enjoy the choice of liberties made by the writers and producers of the series – by the reign of Kublai Khan, the Mongol ‘Empire’ (more on the use of quotations later) was fractured and divesting itself of its uniformity. Rather, during the late 13th century, Kublai was consolidating power in Lower Mongolia and in China, while his brothers and cousins were in control of the Golden Horde based at Batu, Mongolia based at Karakorum, and elsewhere.

So the fact that Marco Polo addresses a relatively unexplored period of history for the western world (the conflict between the Mongol Khanate under Kublai and the Song dynasty in China that ultimately led to Kublai establishing the Yuan dynasty which would rule over China into the 14th century) is an appealing one. Remember when we learned about the different groups of people vying for power in China throughout the second millenium CE? No, neither do I.

As an extra bit of icing on the proverbial cake, do you remember the nervous, anxiety-ridden scientist in Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine? Guess what? That same guy, British actor Benedict Wong, is currently managing his weight quite effectively as Kublai Khan himself.

To cut a potential rant short, I’m enjoying the series so far. It’s not well written, it’s not well acted, it’s not well edited. But it does have me trundling over to the internets to find out what was actually going on back then, and learning something new is always neat.

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