Set in the 13th century, the series follows the adventures of Marco Polo, who departes with his father and his uncle to China. His journey through Asia lasts three and half years and leads him through barren deserts and vast steppes. Marco spends several years in Beijing as a guest of the Great Khan, earning the trust of and respect from the Emperor.
Marco Polo (Kenneth Marshall) accompanies a Venetian merchant fleet as it stops for the night. A raid results in Marco being taken prisoner.
In the year 1299, in the Italian city of Genoa, Rustichello da Pisa (David Warner) is held in a prison cell and questioned for information about Marco Polo. Marco Polo is revealed to be another prisoner, but is accused of lying. The people questioning him are Brother Damien of Milan (Patrick Mower) and Fillipe of Genoa (Tony Lo Bianco), both members of the Order of Saint Dominic. Both are concerned that the tales of Marco Polo are heretical and will corrupt the minds of people, especially children. As Rustichello narrates, the story shifts to Marco Polo in his youth.
In his youth, Marco Polo was eager to hear merchants tell stories of their travels. As his mother (Anne Bancroft) lays on her deathbed, Marco's aunt Flora (Sada Thompson) laments for his father, who has sent nothing but items that she sees as idols of another god.
His father Niccolò (Denholm Elliot) and uncle Matteo Polo (Tony Vogel) return home. They appear before the Council of the Republic of Venice, hoping for a possible alliance between the Mongols and the Republic. The Polo brothers show the council Mongolian currency and tell stories of the might of the Mongols, but they are quickly rebuked due to pagan nature of the Mongols. The Council has no interest in an alliance with the Mongols.
Marco's father and uncle tell him of stories of the great Kublai Khan and his court in the Yuan Dynasty in China. Intrigued, Marco asks them to take him with them, but he is refused.
As Niccolò and Matteo attempt to find a sponsor for their next voyage, the father of a girl Marco earlier attempted to run away with demands compensation for Marco taking her virginity. Niccolò and Maffeo realise that they must take Marco with them on their journey, but only as far as Jerusalem until the heat dies down in Venice. A few days before arriving at Jerusalem, Marco has his first taste of the world when he witnesses a contingent of Crusaders massacre a tribe of Bedouin. They bring along Marco's long time friend Jacopo (F. Murray Abraham).
In the city church, the Polos, at the favour of the cardinal of Acre, receive some oil of the Sepulchre via a letter from the Pope. The priest of the church is extremely reluctant to do it, but grants it. The oil is given to the cardinal of Acre (Burt Lancaster), who reveals he has been chosen to be the new pope by the college of Cardinals, and is taking the name Gregory. In real life, it corresponds with the election of Teobaldo Visconti as Pope Gregory X.
As the Polo family ready themselves to go East again, they are caught up in an ambush that kills Jacopo.
As they are taken prisoner, the party is taken before the Bedouin leader. The captor leader is an Italian who converted to Islam after being taken prisoner in Tripoli. He sets the party free.
Back in Genoa in 1299, Rustichello is given a break from the interrogation before the Doge of Venice (John Gielgud). They find it hard to believe that the world to the East is full of pagan culture and gods. They do reject it but want more information to consider. Looking at the things he wrote down, the council are impressed by the depth of material. Picking off where he left off in the story, Rustichello says the party reaches Badakshan, Afghanistan in 1273 and hunts for food. Continuing on into winter of the same year, they suffer an avalanche from Muztagh-ata mountain and Marco wakes alone in a mountain temple, which is filled with riches and statues of wonderful lost statues that simply amaze and the people are very welcoming. It is revealed that the temple is a Buddhist temple in Tibet. Here he questions his spirituality at the monks' invitation study Nirvana, an invitation that was difficult to refuse.
By spring of 1275, they reach the steppes of modern-day Gansu province, where they encounter a Mongol tribe. They stay at a Chinese-speaking group who entertain them for the visit. At night, Marco engages in a wrestling match in which he is defeated. They spend a few days there.
Back in 1299, Rustichello's writings end there and the priests demand that he continue writing the stories he kept to himself. There, the council demands he write what else he heard from Marco Polo.
Marco Polo arrives in the city of Shangdu in 1275. They are granted a meeting with Kublai Khan (Ying Ruocheng), who greets them generously. His wife is very accommodating and hosts a feast in the Polos' honour.
That night in Shangdu, Marco Polo family is treated by Kublai Khan to a dinner and feast plus live entertainment for the night. The next morning, Kublai Khan and his son Chikin invite Marco Polo to a private meeting on the water front in a lake. He converses with the khan, discussing a lot of things. One of the things he is intrigued by is the devices they have to tell time, that is different from using the solar devices the western employ. The ruler asks for knowledge of other places, a request he responds with fascinated places such as Kashgar and cloths produced with asbestos. Pleasing the ruler with his knowledge, Marco Polo gains favor for his frankness to the ruler. Marco is tasked to update the maps of the empire, a task he eagerly does.
As Marco continues to bond with Chinkin, the ruler's son, to learn more of the time. As they went on a hunting trip, the son suffers from the falling sickness (most likely epilepsy) and is brought back to Kublai. Marco Polo is appointed at a position in the court of the Kublai Khan. Due to his rise of the power in the court, he is gaining new enemies: the priests led by Saiamon who believe that the Kublai is coming under bad influence from foreigner influence (Marco Polo). As Chinkin and Marco arrive at the Great Wall, he learns the Great Wall is constructed by people commanded by the emperor. He is also told of the story of Meng Jiangnu, who cries of grief of her dead husband, who worked on the great wall, destroyed a portion of the wall, unable to be reconstructed.
Later that night, Marco's good Chinese friend is executed because he witnessed the epilepsy of the son of Kublai.
In the autumn, Kublia Khan's subordinate in Persia, Ahmad Fanakati (Leonard Nimoy), returns to the Kublai's place, with the news that he has completed the conquest of the empire.
As Ahmad meets Marco Polo, he is planning more conquests to strengthen the presence of the Mongols.
As Marco's father and uncle work on trade routes, Marco is given some time to relax at the imperial complex and shown some of the people and life. He met some of the astronomers of China, then shown typical acupuncture done on the streets. However, its impossible to avoid the interest of the Chinese who have grown a bit fond of the non-Asian.
That evening, the gathering of leaders introduces rulers from the region, including one who has converted to Christianity. Kublai plans to invade Japan, but the advisers are cautious and believe it is prudent because they are experts on horseback and weak in the sea. Afterwards, Kublai Khan's consort convincingly tells Kublai to forgo invasion of Japan, since the other leaders did not dare to stand up to Kublai due to his fearsome temper.
Marco polo's father and uncle comes back home. After the meeting, Ahmad Fanakati, the master of the financial system in the empire, is granted an audience with the Polo family. He tells Marco of two things to learn. One, Marco is to not trust anyone, especially people who seem friendly. Second, he reveals that he is the master at the financial system of the Empire and want to send Marco to the region of Yanzhou help collect taxes to the treasury. Marco is to go out and consort to the person named Talib, who is to be trusted. And no one else.
The next day, Kublai spends time with the Chikin. Chinkin is to be married and is not welcome to the people who despise Marco Polo. As he bids him farewell, the son leaves. That afternoon, Marco Polo leaves for Yanzhou.
As Marco Polo comes at a river, an assassin fails, having been killed by Jacopo (F. Murray Abraham). It is immediately revealed that Jacopo did not die but has followed them to China and to the river. Jacopo rejoins their group.
Back in 1299 in Genoa, Rustichello da Pisa, is to be summoned to answer for his words. The brothers are deeply resistant and intolerant in belief of the stories Rustichello has told. They are undignified about it. As Marco Polo arrives Talib's place, he is told people know of the attempt on his life, since news travels extremely fast. Arriving into town, he witnesses a short demonstration of protest against the rulers. Meeting the head of the town, Marco is welcomed to the house, seeking his advice. He is warned that the town's secrets are best not be revealed, having a white woman resident accidentally reveal herself. As he goes outside, he meets a villager Wang Zhu (Soon-Tek Oh) preparing a boat for the Dragon Boat Festival. Wang Zhu reveals that corruption occurs greatly and Talib pockets half of the town's tax, sending the other half to the empire's treasury.The next day, Wang Zhu takes the Polos to visit the Immortals, wise men who live in the mountain. One Immortal tells of the yin-yang. Other than that, he is pretty vague in his words.
As Marco wants to see his departed father and uncle, the resident foreign lady, Monica (Kathryn Dowling) wishes to take him to them. As they pause for the night, they find his father and uncle. When they go back, they witness Talib's soldiers raid and ransack the village, having not paid the taxes.
Upon completion of the tax collection, Jacopo decides to stay while Marco and the family leave back to Kublai's court.
In the court of the Kublai Khan, the two commanders in the invasion of Japan report back their defeat. Kublai Khan orders their death.
The Buddhist monk Saiamon over the years has grown envious of the influence of the khan. He initiates a plot to remove Marco Polo from the influence of the great Khan He starts by sending an assassin to kill Ahmet, sends a letter to Nayan to start his rebellion and murders the queen consort. In a meeting with the Khan, he manipulates the khan into showing hostility with Marco Polo, accusing Monica of conspiring to start an uprising of the Chinese officials. Kublai immediately commands the execution of numerous people even associated with any conspirator.
As soldiers ransack a village in search of someone, Marco encounters Saiamon, unaware that Saiamon is at the head of the plot.
A governor of a region, Nayan has risen up in revolt. Marco reaches out in peace, but fails. In a private meeting after a meeting of the most prominent leaders, Marco Polo is asked "what would you do if you were the great khan?". Mercy is the answer to the rebellious Nayan. However, Kublai Khan declares mercy to be inconsistent to the khans. He leads an army to crush the army, but finds none as Nayan has dispersed the troops to avoid much bloodshed.
Years pass and Marco Polo decides to leave. Kublai Khan is disappointed and reluctantly sees him off in one final ride. Two years later in 1294, the great khan dies, never having seen Marco again.
Back in 1299 Genoa, Marco Polo is brought before the court of Doge of Venice. The knowledge is believed to be heretical and different from "current" knowledge. However, Brother Damien confirms the truth by knowledge produced by various travelers and Arab traders. The monks confirm that the knowledge brought back from the East are not heretical, as sailors and traders have confirmed their star charts. Further more, they have brought similar stories, thus exonerating Marco Polo. Marco Polo is released as a free man.Kenneth Marshall as Marco Polo
Denholm Elliott as Niccolò Polo
Tony Vogel as Matteo Polo
David Warner as Rustichello da Pisa
Burt Lancaster as Pope Gregory X
Vernon Dobtcheff as Pietro d'Abano
John Gielgud as Doge of Venice
John Houseman as Patriarch of Aquileia
F. Murray Abraham as Jacopo
Anne Bancroft as Marco's Mother
James Hong as Phags-pa
Ian McShane as Ali Ben Yussouf
Leonard Nimoy as Achmet
Mario Adorf as Giovanni
Patrick Mower as Brother Damian
Tony Lo Bianco as Brother Nicholas
Marilù Tolo as Donna Fiammetta
Ying Ruocheng as Kublai Khan
Junichi Ishida as Prince Chinkin
Tetsurō Tamba as Saiamon
Gordon Mitchell as Arnolfo
Sada Thompson as Aunt Flora
Soon-Tek Oh as Wang Zhu
Georgia Slowe as Caterina
Kathryn Dowling as Monica
Zhengyin Cao as Yanzhou Governor
Terry Raven as Talib
The Miniseries has won 2 Emmy Awards. For his work in costumes in Episode III, Enrico Sabbatini won the 1982 Emmy in Outstanding Costume Design for a Regular or Limited Series.
Vincenzo Labella as a producer, won the 1982 Emmy in Outstanding Limited Series.
The miniseries also received 7 nominations in 1982.