At different times and from different sources, I have read many different accounts of the creative process that went into the fifth Dan Dare adventure, Prisoners of Space.
The only thing that everyone agrees upon about this new story is that it was principally drawn by Don Harley, and finished by Desmond Walduck, a freelance artist who had helped out in the closing weeks of Operation Saturn, and who was regarded as a safe pair of hands for work that couldn’t be encompassed by the Hampson studio.
Indeed, by the time Prisoners of Space started, it was something of a stretch to call Hampson’s much-reduced team of assistants a ‘Studio’. Eric Eden had gone, Bruce Cornwell had gone (again), Harold Johns and Greta Tomlinson had been fired, Joyce Porter had married: all that was left was Don Harley and Joan Humphries.
The main question is who was responsible for the writing of Prisoners of Space. It has been stated to be Alan Stranks’ first Dan Dare story. It’s been stated to have been put together by Frank Hampson, and there is one particular element in the story that inarguably comes from the man at the top. But I find it difficult to believe that either Stranks or Hampson was responsible for the majority of the story, because Prisoners of Space, like Marooned on Mercury before it, is a loose, unstructured story, consisting mainly of running around corridors, lacking in scope or depth.
The story starts by introducing Astral College, Spacefleet’s cadet training school, and head boy Steve Valiant, along with his two best friends and study-mates Mark Straight and Tony Albright.
Now I have an immediate problem with those names. It’s one thing to introduce Steve Valiant, as a junior Dan Dare, complete with similarly symbolic surname, but to surround him with Messrs Straight and Albright is over-egging the pudding. It’s just not real, and it turns all three characters into cyphers from the outset, and not real characters with personalities.
This is demonstrated by the other, and far more important character introduced on the second page, namely Junior Cadet ‘Flamer’ Spry.
‘Flamer’ – who will join the series regular supporting cast for the next six years – is the ineluctable evidence that Hampson was involved in at least the starting weeks of Prisoners of Space because ‘Flamer’ (who is given no real first name in the entire series), is as much Hampson’s son Peter as Sir Hubert is his father Robert. (Actually, less so: Peter Hampson has commented that whilst his father took Peter’s face and hair for ‘Flamer’, Cadet Spry’s body was based upon one of Peter’s classmates).
Cadet Spry, we quickly learn, is a precocious talent. Dan Dare’s latest ship, a one-man craft nicknamed the ‘Performing Flea’ has just been taken off the secret list and ‘Flamer’ has already built a working model. Which gets accidentally set-off in his absence by Cadet ‘Tubby’ Potts. The mini-‘Flea’ almost prangs Sir Hubert, who is understandably testy about the whole thing. Spry confesses and is facing expulsion until Valiant alibis him as being in his study when the rocket went up. Sir Hubert passes responsibility for punishment to Colonel Dare who, impressed by ‘Flamer’ (who he seems to be meeting for the first time), opts to ‘punish’ him by giving Spry and Valiant a tour of the real ‘Performing Flea’.
Thus far, primarily comic. But Hampson also establishes a serious element to the background. Venus Transport ships are going missing without explanation in the area of Station XQY which, by fortunate coincidence, is the destination of the ‘Performing Flea”s test flight: the course is pre-programmed into the Autopilot which will enable Dare to pilot the ship alone – without even the faithful Digby – and the test flight will be the perfect cover for an investigation of that sector.
All is going well so far so here is where fate steps in to overturn the apple-cart. Naturally, when Dan says he’ll show ‘Flamer’ and Steve round the ‘Performing Flea’, he means Digby will do it, under the watchful and disapproving eye of ‘Old Groupie’. Groupie played a small part in Operation Saturn as a madcap, ex-RAF type piloting an air-taxi but he’s now been taken on by Spacefleet as a civilian mechanic, and is acting considerably differently: he’s now a Grumpy Old Man.
Which leads directly into disaster. Digby’s gone to make a cup of tea, ‘Flamer’ is lying on the pilot’s couch, hands on the controls, dreaming of taking off and suddenly grumpy old Groupie grabs his ankles and yanks him back. Before he can let go, ‘Flamer’ has yanked the controls back as well: autopilot kicks in and the ‘Performing Flea’ is launched on course to Station XQY.
Even up to this point, I can believe in Frank Hampson directing the story, even to the discovery, when the ‘Flea’ reaches XQY that its entire staff are dead and that The Mekon has taken control, and is behind the missing spaceships. But I cannot believe that Hampson plays much part, if at all, in what would follow next.
Having two Earth ‘children’ in his hands, the Mekon takes advantage by offering them as hostages: hostages for Colonel Dare, who must come alone and unarmed, to be exchanged for them. It’s opportunistic and this move drives the rest of the story.
Dan’s friends – including Hank, Pierre, Peabody and Sondar – argue against whether he should be allowed to go, and whether he ought to lie to the Mekon – who will undoubtedly lie to him – and go armed and supported. But Dan is adamant about his right to sacrifice himself: who can say that Steve Valiant or ‘Flamer’ won’t grow up to become even more important than him? And his word is his bond, and not just Dan’s bond, but that of Earth.
So Dan borrows Sir Hubert’s Astro-Arrow to set off to XQY. Only he doesn’t go alone and unarmed. Digby has no intention of letting that happen, and whilst Dan is determined to shop his batman to the Mekon once he arrives at XQY, such moral absolutes disappear on the instant when Dan is presented with evidence that the Mekon doesn’t intend to release the hostages at all.
This touches off an extended cat-and-mouse chase around the station featuring Dan, Digby, Steve and Flamer, which goes on for weeks on end. People keep nipping into ventilation or garbage chutes and turning up elsewhere in the station, like a three-dimensional game of Snakes and Ladders. Dan is ‘killed’ three times and each time ‘returns from the dead’ unscathed, impressing and frightening the hell out of the Treen, Xalto, who swaps sides. It really is Marooned on Mercury‘s underground corridors again, this time on a much more restricted scale.
And during this sequence, the Mekon introduces the title of the story: a small, battery-powered space cell, with 24 hours oxygen, in which Dan Dare will be imprisoned and left to die.
The whole thing comes to an end when Digby and ‘Flamer’ get away in the Astro-Arrow (Dan’s attempt to retrieve the ‘Performing Flea’ ends in its destruction and one of his several ‘deaths’), and an Earth fleet has taken off under Sir Hubert’s personal command. He’s in Speedstar and Pierre and Hank are in Lodestar, the two fastest ships in the fleet, but all Hank and Pierre are supposed to do is pick up Dig and ‘Flamer’ and taken them back to Earth, which is tactically moronic.
As for the Mekon, believing Dan Dare to be dead (hint: he’s not) he orders XQY to be booby-trapped and evacuates, to pick up his plan, the one he’s been preparing so carefully. No, he doesn’t (and I refuse to believe that Frank Hampson is party to this): he jets off to Venus and Mekonta where, on arrival the Treens will rise up and reinstate him.
When the Mekon returns to Mekonta, he is indeed greeted with an impromptu Treen uprising. However, he has carried with him on his flagships two things of which he is not aware. One is Dan Dare, and the other is a limpet bomb due to go off more or less at the same time as touchdown. Dan gets out with sufficient time to adjust the timer, and to call in Spacefleet (who have gone to Theronland) to bomb the living crap out of Mekonta.
So Sir Hubert leads both Speedstar and Lodestar (you seriously did not think that Messrs Lafayette, Hogan, Digby and Spry would actually obey a direct order from the Controller of Spacefleet to go back to Earth?) on a bombing raid. The crew includes ‘Flamer’ Spry, as it obviously would, and it’s a damned good job too, because he’s the one who spots Dan, Steve, Groupie and Xalto staked out in the Mekonta sun, ready to be fried.
The Multum Mark V missile is diverted into space where, as luck would have it, it hits and vapourises the other two ships of the Mekon’s fleet. The Mekon intends to retreat to ‘Orbit Mortus’ where even Dan Dare cannot follow him (what and where ‘Orbit Mortus’ is was never referred to again, a delicious loophole for the enterprising who write and draw new Dan Dare stories to this day). But Dan hastily radios the Mekon to alert him to the limpet bomb attached to his ship, which hasn’t got long to go… In order to survive the Mekon has to abandon ship, in the very space-globe he intended for Dan Dare’s death-cell. At long last, he is captured by his arch-enemy, and taken to Earth to be tried to his crimes.
That’s more or less the whole story, though I note that I have rather short-changed Steve Valiant in my account. Valiant pulls off a familiar Digby-like trick whilst a hostage, pleading with Dan to sacrifice himself to get the hostages free, whilst all the time tapping out a Morse message of defiance, demanding Dare stay away, that his life and that of his fellows is meaningless and should be sacrificed. In order to maintain his usefulness to the Mekon, Valiant has to endure the taints of his fellow hostages, who truly believe him to be a coward and a traitor.
I’ve also short-changed Old Groupie, but that’s rather more intentional. After kick-starting everything by yanking ‘Flamer’s ankles, Groupie is required to do little more than make grumpy remarks. His only other contribution to the story is to be ‘killed’ by a Treen blaster in the back. But he miraculously recovers, a recovery that remains unexplained until the last page when, with everyone in the shower, we finally see that he’s wearing a large mustard plaster for his back, made with unusual ingredients that turn it into the perfect defensive shield against Treen blasters! Yerssss.
(For those who do not understand what a mustard plaster is, which included your blogger until he googled the term, it is a poultice of mustard seed powder spread inside a protective dressing and applied to the body to stimulate healing. It can be used to warm muscle tissues and to treat chronic aches and pains. For long a part of conventional medical treatment, and available in prepared versions in pharmacies, it fell from favour in the 20th century, and is now only used as a home remedy. Thank you, Wikipedia).
Despite all I’ve said, and despite a number of flaws that I’ll come to in a moment, Prisoners of Space is a much more enjoyable adventure than Marooned on Mercury, a fast-paced if inconsequential romp, even if it does border faintly on the ridiculous when you stop to count just how many people use that chute to the ‘Obbo’ turret, both up and down.
A substantial part of this is the art. Visual continuity to Hampson is maintained by Harley’s pencils: without wishing to be disrespectful to the late Harold Johns, Harley is a substantially superior figure artist. Walduck’s finishes, superimposed on Harley, give the overall appearance of the art a slightly blurred effect, softening the look. As the story proceeds, the overall art gets simpler and rougher: Harley has stated that he believed Walduck was working on other art simultaneously and devoting less time to Dan Dare than he should.
Incidentally, Walduck does insert one (forgivably) self-indulgent touch: in the last episode he draws himself as a press photographer (the one who shouts ‘Hot Headlines!’).
However, it has to be allowed that Harley’s visual imagination did not extend to the creation of space vessels of realistic or distinctive appearance: Speedstar and Lodestar are simple, smooth-sided rocketships with tailfins, a design far below Hampson’s standards.
Ultimately though, I have to get back to the story. Up to a point, I can accept Frank Hampson as its prime mover, but just as with Operation Saturn, I am convinced by internal evidence that Hampson removes himself, or is removed by his health once more, from the direction, leaving inadequate and cliche-driven hands to progress matters.
The most blatant evidence for me is in how the story totally ignores the consistency of Dan Dare’s Solar System. ‘The Venus Story’ clearly established that travel between Earth and Venus takes seven days by Impulse Wave engine, and there is no suggestion that this has suddenly been supplanted by much faster fuel (monatomic hydrogen was a one-story thing).
But in the later stages of the story, Dan calls in Elite Squadron to attack XQY, a flight that will take 12 hours. Not long after, he sets a limpet bomb to the Mekon’s flagship on a three-hour timer, which expires very shortly after touchdown. So the Earth to Venus run can now be done in a mere fifteen hours?
This cavalier attitude is compounded by the fact that Dan then resets the bomb by a further hour, an hour that then spans thirteen weeks of publication and, more importantly, the arrival of Elite Squadron (which is not as fast as Speedstar/Lodestar, remember), its diversion to Theronland, which is in the other hemisphere of Venus, a lot of kicking of heels waiting for a decision on what to do and a bombing run to Mekonta. This is not something Frank Hampson has concocted.
There’s also a major story discrepancy over the Mekon’s initial plans. The story starts with concerns over the disappearance of five ships on the Venus Transport run, followed immediately by a blackout at XQY. This is all down to the Mekon, and is clearly a planned assault, leading up to some attack that the mighty brain has devised.
However, the plan is ultimately no more than a MacGuffin: once the Mekon has his hostages, he focuses upon using them to rid himself of his worst nightmare, Dan Dare. Having believed that he’s done so (third time round), does the Mekon revert to his carefully devised plan? No: that’s forgotten: all he can think of doing is to make an unplanned landing on Venus, and overthrow the Theron guards.
Without backing. Without resources (three ships do not a fleet make). With a perfectly good plan, that has had all the time since Marooned on Mercury to be worked out, just thrown to the space winds. And with the Therons and Earth set to oppose him with all their military might. That’s not the Mekon, seriously. Ol’ Greenbean just doesn’t work that way.
Another thing that jars in the latter half of the series is the collective disobedience of Digby, Flamer, Hank and Pierre. Of course they weren’t going to go back to Earth and watch from afar. But all four of them were in flagrant breach of direct orders from their Commander-in-Chief, who huffs and puffs and threatens them all with punishment, as indeed they all deserve: they’ve mutinied in a combat situation, this is court-martial stuff. The story breaks all its own insistence upon realism by allowing them to get away with it unscathed.
And it positively sinks beneath the waves when Digby and ‘Flamer’ are not only taken aboard Sir Hubert’s ship for the bombing raid on Mekonta, but given positions of vital responsibility. I mean, ‘Flamer’ Spry is only an Astral College Junior cadet. A precociously talented one, granted, but when battle breaks out, he’s running around with a paralysing pistol fighting Treens that are about two foot taller than him.
But ‘Flamer’ Spry was now a foregone conclusion. There would be no space for Hank and Pierre in the next couple of stories, but despite the discrepancy of having a Junior Cadet on active service, ‘Flamer’ was here for the duration. Of the Frank Hampson era, at least.
I’ll have more to say about him in relation to the next story. The only other thing for now is that name. Given his bright red hair, and his status as a Junior Cadet, aged about thirteen at a push, ‘Flamer’ is a pretty obvious nick-name. But nowhere in the series is Cadet Spry accorded a first name. In the military world of Spacefleet, it beggars belief that no-one in authority uses Spry’s baptismal name even once.
Long term fans, especially those who have laboured to produce elaborate continuities that interlock all the Dan Dare stories into a consistent time-line for the Eagle run and beyond, have given the adult Captain Spry the first name of either Christopher or Toby: Denis Steeper, who is my particular source for such things, formally names him Toby Christopher Spry.
So enter Flamer Spry. And in the next story, which definitely introduces Alan Stranks as Dan Dare’s writer for the rest of the Fifties, enter a second new member of the supporting cast. The early days of the series were done: Dan Dare and Frank Hampson were about to move into their Mature Age.