(Originally published in Spaceship Away 23, Spring 2011)
Despite the failings of Marooned on Mercury and Prisoners of Space, Dan Dare’s 1958 adventure The Phantom Fleet holds the distinction of being the most criticised story of Frank Hampson’s career. It is known mainly for being the only story where Eagle editor Marcus Morris intervened, demanding it be cut short.
But does The Phantom Fleet deserve its reputation as too slow and dull? It is certainly full of flaws, but I believe the worst of these come after the point where Morris stepped in; especially the pathetic ending. Is it possible, at this remove, to look through the story we know, and catch glimpses of the other Phantom Fleet, the story Hampson might have produced if he had been left to his own devices as usual?
Before we can do this, we need to understand the context in which the story appeared, both on and off the page.
Behind the scenes, everything appears settled. The team has been long-established at Bayford Lodge, the years of insane hours are, if not over, somewhat reduced, and Alan Stranks has been the scripter for the past four years, freeing Hampson to concentrate upon Dan Dare’s direction and future.
All is not well though. Hampson is drawing less and less personally, and wants to stop entirely, to establish himself as a director of assistants working to his requirements. The team is, after all, good enough for this. But slowly his bitterness and frustration at not being able to expand Dan Dare as he has always envisaged – into the American market, into animation – is beginning to eat at him. Only the previous year, he has submitted – and withdrawn – his resignation.
As for The Phantom Fleet itself, the story began on 25th April 1958 (Eagle volume 9 no 17) faced with an insurmountable problem, namely The Man from Nowhere Trilogy. For just short of three years, Hampson and Co had guided their audience through non-stop, high-power adventure, for great stakes: a planetary invasion to foil, the Earth to liberate from the Mekon. And suddenly, after literally longer than most of Dan’s readers could remember, they had a new story to read. A new story, with new dangers, new opponents, new problems, all of which had to be set up. The non-stop action of three whole years has, literally, had to stop.
There was another problem about The Phantom Fleet, though it’s far more apparent to us now, since it is an element that in 1958 would have exercised neither Hampson or his readers, and that is the almost total lack of continuity to the just concluded Trilogy.
True, Stripey is on hand, and Lex O’Malley, and in the first episode we see Crusoe and Friday (though they vanish completely thereafter). But Spacefleet is back up to full strength, an entire fleet of alien ships enters the Solar System unnoticed and, after ten years of devastation at the Mekon’s hands, when it is proposed that a wholly unknown alien race should colonise one of Earth’s oceans, only a single member of the World Government Cabinet seriously objects – and he is made to appear an extremist! And if that is not enough, the Treens – recent conquerors of Earth – are already allowed their own, independently controlled fleet of fighting spaceships!
But at least the story gets off to a galloping start: a sudden total breakdown of system-wide communications, spaceships in peril, Sir Hubert missing, a mysterious ship seen by Digby alone, Anastasia captured by the ‘Clustaships’ and the brainwashing of Sir Hubert who announces the intended surrender of Earth to – the Cosmobes! No complaints at the first eight episodes, surely?
Then, abruptly, the storyline changes. The Cosmobes are revealed to be small and cute, the idea that they plan to take over Earth and shape it to their needs is completely forgotten, and the newcomers just want help: a single ocean to occupy. It’s the Crypts all over again; especially once the Cosmobes reveal that they’re being pursued by a hereditary enemy, the Pescods. Even more so when we discover that the Cosmobes are not above lying and manipulating for their own benefit. Dan Dare is put into a sticky situation when, having used his influence to get the Cabinet to allow for a Cosmobe ship to descend to Spacefleet HQ for examination, the Cosmobes, having won safe passage through Earth’s defences, promptly split (literally) and invade the ocean.
All this takes place against the imminent arrival of the Pescods, the ‘real’ enemy (or so the Cosmobes maintain). The Pescods are pursuing the Cosmobes, or are they? The Pescod fleet makes its first appearance in the vicinity of Venus: did the Cosmobes sneak past Venus and out past Earth, or are the Pescods entering the Solar System from a different sector?
There is to be no time to think about that one because it is now the point at which we must address the question of when Morris ordered the story to be cut short. Sadly, no-one now recalls at what point that instruction came out, and we must rely on the story itself for any indications we can find.
For 23 episodes, Frank Hampson’s signature has appeared on page 1, just under the title, even though Don Harley is doing most of the principal drawing. Suddenly, the signature disappears on 4 October 1958 (volume 9, no 40), and so does Hampson and his team. The art is now done by Desmond Walduck. This seems to be the obvious point where Morris intervened. It’s easy to see Hampson surrendering control of the story whilst he sat down to plan the next epic adventure, and Walduck being called back to run the story down.
Given that at this point the story starts to crumble to pieces, the case seems conclusive. But there are still 13 more episodes before the story is over, and would Morris have agreed that three months was ‘cutting it short’? What’s more, four weeks later, Hampson and his team return for another three episodes before vanishing again, this time for good. Given that Hampson had to come up with something better, a six week wrap-up seems more reasonable.
Nevertheless, my instinct has always been to see Walduck’s introduction as the turning point, and the collapse of the story from this point onwards is, for me, the most important evidence. From here to the end, things are dire.
The Cosmobes come up for air, the Navy see them as cute, want to take them home as pets, and even Lex O’Malley is almost prepared to mutiny against the idea of hunting them down. Then the Pescod fleet arrives. The Pescods, being water-breathing creatures, unable to live on land, head straight for the ocean. Except for one ship, which lands in the most inimical surroundings, the desert, for no apparent reason except to make itself available to attack. As for the Cosmobes, who have publicly betrayed their word and invaded Earth, all it takes is for Professor Peabody to tell the World Government that the Cosmobes are our friends and they are immediately declared allies.
Dan’s attack on the desert ship is ineffective, so he sets out to get himself and Digby taken as captives. They’re actually making headway in disabling the vessel, but a rescue ship turns up and drags them off to the ocean. Was the point of the desert diversion to take human prisoners? If so, why are Dan and Digby left in an inadequate cell, with no guards and every possible exit opened? They escape, rendering their attempts to get captured pointless, at which point Lex chivvies everyone out of the area as the Pescods are burrowing into the base of Krakatoa. Which duly explodes, blasting the entire fleet to smithereens.
If nothing else, this ending makes The Phantom Fleet unique. It is the only story in which Dan Dare is completely ineffectual, and it makes the Pescods are the only creatures in the entire Hampson canon to be wholly without redeeming factors. Even the Space Bees of the Red Moon are allowed to be a tragic accident of nature.
We know that neither of these things had any place in Dan Dare’s universe, and in Frank Hampson’s perceptions. So can we, at this long remove, look at this disregarded story and try to see it as Frank Hampson might have done?
If we go back to the final episode before Walduck, and the Cosmobes don’t surface to look cute, what then happens? Perhaps the Cosmobes disappear into the depths, difficult to reach, but the arrival of the Pescods makes them the more pressing problem. The Cabinet agrees, reluctantly, to postpone pursuing the Cosmobe problem. Dan and Digby manage to get taken captive, which brings them before the Pescod High Command. The Pescods have no use for the surface and offer a strict non-interference agreement: humans don’t go underwater, they don’t go on land. And the Pescods will accept no interference with their vendetta against the Cosmobes.
Dan brings this ultimatum to the Cabinet, who are not prepare to accept it. As they have two invasions to face, some members suggest letting the Pescods deal with the Cosmobes for them: Dan and Sir Hubert are outraged and the Prime Minister agrees that this breaks all Earth’s fundamental principles. So what do they do?
Dan faces possible court martial for bringing the Cosmobes to Earth. He volunteers to track down their base, both to establish contact and give them chance to explain their breach of trust, and to seek aid against the Pescods. The Ultimobes explain their desperation to set up defences against the Pescods in time, and freely offer to share these with humanity. World Government agrees an alliance, and a treaty ratifying the Cosmobe presence if they can help rid the Earth of the Pecods.
Dan, however, is unhappy about plotting the genocide of the Pescod race. With Cosmobe aid he constructs a trap which, if sprung, will destroy the arrogant Pescods, but which he plans to use as a lever to force their total evacuation. The Pescod High Command is captured and required to surrender or see their entire race destroyed. They do so, reluctantly, and are forced to accept a situation where their weapons are neutralised and they are escorted out of the Solar System.
Between the need to strike a different attitude towards others now they cannot be so belligerent, and the High Command being impressed with Earth’s approach in not simply destroying them, there are grounds to hope that the Pescods will learn peace from the example of Earth.
This, I submit, is a far finer, far more Hampson-like conclusion to The Phantom Fleet. It is, impossible to suggest that this might be, in any way, what Frank Hampson had in mind when Marcus Morris told him to cut his latest story short and come up with something better. But I believe it to be far closer to the aims and purposes of Dan Dare’s creator than the illogical mess that resulted from those instructions, and I also believe that if The Phantom Fleet had taken such a course, considerably more of its audience would have enjoyed and respected it, both in 1958 and 2011.