Dan Dare: The Elephant in the Spaceship

During my post about The Man from Nowhere, I started to touch upon the incongruity of Flamer Spry’s presence on both the undersea expedition in Lex O’Malley’s Poseidon, and as one of the four man Earth Expedition across interstellar space to the planet Cryptos to save the peaceful Crypts from invasion, slaughter and slavery at the hands of their war-like enemies, the Phants. Started, but soon realised that the subject was one that needed to be considered as more than an aside.
Let’s say it bluntly. Under no circumstances, in any kind of realistic frame, should Flamer have gone on the Cryptos Expedition, nor probably on the Poseidon exploration too. He’s a thirteen year old boy, for heaven’s sake, and whilst I can understand and appreciate the commercial appeal of including a member of Eagle‘s audience directly in the story, the fact remains that Frank Hampson never touches on why this young boy should form an integral part of so many adventures.
We should probably gloss over this, and in a lesser series that would be easy. But Hampson has set standards of realism, in art and story construction, that do not allow us to ignore flaws and weaknesses in the logic of his world.
It was one thing for Flamer to play a substantial role in Prisoners of Space. His introduction in that story was logical, well-planned, and the result of a perfectly believable accident that, once it took place, established a situation from which the story-dynamic didn’t leave any room to extract the child.
And it was equally proper for Flamer to be at the Embassy Reception and enjoy recognition for his part in what occurred. Note though that, when the alarm sounded, and Dan scooted off into space with the interceptor squadron, Flamer is rightly not among the crew. That Lex O’Malley, who’s known Dan for maybe a half hour, does go up is another matter and one we’ll return to.
The one big question that’s never answered is just who Junior Cadet nickname-only Spry is in the first place. Flamer appears out of nowhere, along with Astral College and all its other cadets, Senior and Junior, in the first episode of Prisoners of Space. There’s no suggestion that Dan Dare has even heard of him before Flamer’s model rocket ship nearly prangs Sir Hubert, but Dan is sufficiently impressed by the young boy that he ‘punishes’ him by giving him a tour of the real thing. All of this is perfectly plausible, and given how well Flamer conducts himself in difficult circumstances, it’s entirely understandable that Dan should then look upon him as a sort of protegé. In that light, the decision to wangle a place for Flamer on the Poseidon expedition – a non-combat, search-and-rescue mission, remember – is equally understandable and even logical.
It’s what follows that stretches credibility. Dan is off to Cryptos, across interstellar space, with three volunteers, one of whom is going to be Digby. That Flamer should put himself forward as a volunteer is only to be expected. But he’s accepted: a thirteen year old boy on a potentially suicide mission, traveling to avert war five light-years from Earth? Were he and Lex O’Malley the only volunteers?
Consider the circumstances: Flamer is an approximately thirteen year old boy at Astral College, a full-time, military-based establishment. Like a boarding school pupil, he lives in. The College is in locus parentis. In practice, that would mean the Headmaster, and devolved authority to the masters. Ultimately, the responsibility vests in the Controller of Spacefleet, Sir Hubert Guest, who is also the supreme authority on Dare’s Expedition. Sir Hubert’s response is the screamingly obvious one: No. But he is persuaded to relent, and to authorise Flamer’s admission, by a speech from the young man.
What does Flamer say that convinces Sir Hubert, against his own better judgement, to allow him to go? It’s made up in equal parts of positive and negative arguments. The positive arguments are what you would expect in the circumstances: the opportunity, to see, to experience, to grow and to bring back to his classmates everything he learns. But it is the negative argument that is unusual. It’s basically a statement of the complete unimportance of Flamer Spry. Who is he? Nothing but a single Astral College cadet. If he should die, what has been lost? Just one, tiny, insignificant figure, less than nothing in the grand scheme of things.
It’s an impressive moment. I confess that I find it difficult to believe that a thirteen year old boy should have, let alone speak such thoughts. In their way, they speak to a nobility that is in keeping with Dan Dare himself, but which sits awkwardly with so young a figure. Or is it perhaps that, a long way away from what may follow, in the familiar surroundings of Spacefleet, Flamer is suffering from an excess of naiveté that lets him say things that do not suit his age?
But the statement is fateful in calling our attention to the complete blackout of everything that lies behind Flamer’s debut in Prisoners of Space. When he describes himself as nothing, as someone whose death would cause no loss, create no absence, leave no trace behind, it draws attention to that imposing lacuna: who is Flamer Spry?
He must have had parents (we cannot assume anything else without doing irreparable damage to Dan’s Universe, taking it into areas unimaginable by Hampson and impermissible by the Rev. Marcus Morris), but who are they? Where are they? What’s happened to them? And whilst there must have been Grandparents, are there other relatives? Brothers and sisters? Aunts and Uncles? Cousins? Is Flamer Spry really so alone in the world that there is no-one outside of Astral who has any interest in what might be his fate?
Though Frank Hampson began Dan Dare with short biographies of its principal characters, there does not seem to have been anything similar prepared in respect of Flamer Spry. Fans have long since set themselves to create continuities for the Dan Dare Universe, linking stories that were originally planned as one-offs. I am particularly impressed by the efforts of New Zealand Dan fan Denis Steeper in binding together so many stories into a comprehensive continuity.
But when it comes to Flamer Spry, there is no critical consensus among fans as to how his presence in the saga from 1954 to 1960 is to be explained. It’s been tentatively suggested that perhaps Dan knew the Spry parents, and Flamer when he was very young, and that he has taken an avuncular stance in relation to him. It’s a simple construct, and perhaps the Spry parents died when Flamer was young, or are stationed on Mars, or else working in some element of the Service that provides an equivalent to the Twentieth Century manner of getting unwanted parents out of the way, running Rubber Plantations in Malaya, or on diplomatic missions with the Foreign Service.
This might seem to be an awful lot of straining at gnats, but there’s a very good reason to hit upon an explanation of why Earth’s Chief Pilot of Spacefleet hangs around an awful lot with a thirteen year old boy. Because that really is the Elephant in the Spaceship.
Before I go any further, I’d better say that I don’t believe a single word of anything that I’m about to discuss. But nevertheless, certain things come together to make a substantial, if circumstantial case that in the modern world has to be addressed.
Let’s begin with the infamous Seduction of the Innocent, a book written by the German-born Child Psychologist, Dr Frederic Wirtham, and published to great notoriety in 1954, a year before The Man from Nowhere.
Though he was far from being the only moral crusader against comics in the early Fifties, Wirtham’s book has come to be the focal point for that period. Wirtham was a man who was seriously concerned about the moral health of America’s juveniles and who became fixated upon the idea that their comics were the most important single factor in leading them to juvenile delinquency, criminal habits and perverted sexuality.
I’m not going to tackle the book itself, nor any of its specious arguments, but one of the many accusations leveled by Wirtham was directed at Batman and Robin, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
Wirtham accused the Dynamic Duo of portraying an idealised homosexual life-style, the man and his underage boy spending all their time living in a house with no female element, eating and drinking with sybaritic delight whilst lolling around in silk dressing gowns. It’s utter nonsense, but it’s only a short step from there to cross the Atlantic and look at the relationship between a tall, handsome bachelor man, who has demonstrated a lack of interest in any female company (Professor Peabody). He already spends all his life with a devoted male who has abandoned his wife and children to serve him. And now this ‘confirmed bachelor’ suddenly starts taking around with him a thirteen year old boy…
I’ll repeat myself: I think it’s nonsense. But though I don’t for one moment believe there’s a fire, there is an inordinate amount of smoke to be waved aside.
Go back to the opening episode of The Man from Nowhere. Dan sees a tall, burly, bearded Naval Commander (and what else is the Navy famed for, beside Rum and the Lash?). Dan immediately wants to be introduced to this craggy, ultra-male figure, and before you know it, O’Malley is following him out of his element into space, and Dan is following O’Malley out of his own element into the deeps.
And who are the two less-than-plausible figures who follow Dan into Interstellar Space? Not the devoted Hank and Pierre, colleagues, friends and spacemen, but a Naval officer and a thirteen year old cadet.
Just how much smoke do we have to experience before we cannot help seeing the red flame within?
I know what Dr Frederic Wirtham would have made of it, and the good doctor would have been wrong about it. But in after decades, when we have all grown cynical, when we have become infinitely more aware of transgression being concealed by the face of celebrity or authority, we cannot any longer ignore such signs. Even in the Fifties, the phrase ‘confirmed bachelor’ was being used as a code for men whose interest was not in women.
Unfortunately, there’s not an answer, a definitive conclusion to be written. We have a situation that was created in conditions of innocence that have, in changing times, become impossible to maintain without an effort of naiveté. I don’t believe any conscious undertones were intended, and I know nothing about the people principally involved that would suggest any unconscious undertones were involved, but in 2015, we have to face the fact that someone, somewhere, would have called Social Services long before Flamer Spry blasted off from Earth in Lero’s ship.

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