Reign of the Robots is the third but not quite final part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy.
The Cryptos Expedition returns to Earth after ten long years away in space. It’s an autumnal scene, all greatcoats, full uniform and spitting rain (much to the displeasure of Stripey, who has been brought back by Digby with lack of any forethought on how the little creature is going to survive on Earth), but Spacefleet HQ is deserted. There is nobody on the entire base, and leaves are everywhere.
All communications are dead and there are rats in the canteen. Dan and Co head for London, where they find the city equally empty and unused. They are not aware that they are under surveillance, by something robotic.
At the Space Ministry, they discover that someone has defaced the bust of Sir Hubert Guest by scrawling the date 2002 across its base. ‘Grand Slam’, the ultimate, all-out defence level against planetary invasion, has been activated. Their next stop is Sanctum, the ultimate Government Bunker, impenetrable. But Sanctum has long since been penetrated. The voice that greets them from within, having waited many years for Colonel Dare’s return, is both instantly recognisable and horrifying: it is the Mekon. He has conquered Earth.
And he has had sole control of the planet for nearly a whole decade.
It’s a fine, fast introduction to the story, all the above having been accomplished in only two episodes.
The Mekon is in fine form, confident and sneering, but he has been waiting for Dan’s return the whole time, waiting to rub his arch-enemy’s nose in his triumph, as if it doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, until Dan has to acknowledge it.
We don’t get details of just how the Mekon defeated Earth (these have been left to the imagination of fans, delightedly filling in gaps) but in essence he has triumphed with newly bred Supertreens and Ultratreens, but primarily with mechanical forces, overwhelming Earth with an army of Electrobots.
Dan and Co undergo a tour of what has been done to the planet, their population, now the Mekon can establish rigorous scientific control. The various scenes are couched as historical experience, recreating dimly understood episodes of human history under Treen observation
But what they really are are differently purposed, coldly imaginative concentration camps, though the horrors of the day-to-day of such camps is elided over. It’s intended audience, still a long way from exposure to the realities that informed Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau et al, cannot people those camps with what they were and are. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and one which is too much for a children’s SF series.
Finally, the gang are taken to Mekonta, on Venus. Before they go, Stripey is taken away, to be slaughtered. The Mekon has no time for creatures who do not serve a useful purpose. Though animal lovers need not be offended, any more than those who oppose taking children into combat need ultimately be concerned about Flamer Spry’s seeming death: Sardi, the Treen officer who removes the little animal, is not Sardi but Sondar, Earth’s friend and ally, substituted in his place.
(All Treens look alike, to a higher degree than we imagined it would seem. Though it doesn’t say much for the Mekon that he can’t tell he has an imposter in his personal guard when Dan and Digby can recognise Sondar instantly).
The Mekon wants Dan in Mekonta for a specific, and especially cruel purpose. In the House of Silence there are crystal chambers in which he finds the preserved bodies of his friends: Sir Hubert Guest, Hank Hogan, Pierre Lafayette and Professor Peabody: the old Venus Expedition team that broke the Mekon’s power back in 1996. They’re not all dead yet.
But the touch of a switch is all that is needed for a joyous resurrection. The four are not dead and these are not casques, but Cryptosian ‘Suspacells’. Lero left the formula with Sir Hubert, to be discovered after take-off, the Mekon captured it and, in anticipation of Dan’s return, froze his friends They are only one year older than Dan and Digby, not ten!
As before, the Mekon wants to break Dan, turn him to his side, and threats against his friends are the chosen method. Dan reiterates Earth’s commitment to honesty, the need to keep their word once given, both as a good in itself, and because, if they lie to the Mekon, who will trust them after they regain control? With his friends’ backing, Dan refuses to collaborate.
Just as with Rogue Planet, Stranks and Hampson’s major obstacle lies in rendering a story in which it’s plausible that the four members of the Cryptos Expedition can engineer the overthrow of the Mekon, his Supertreens and his overpowering Robots that have held Earth, Mars and Venus in subjugation for nine long years.
The two situations are not directly comparable. Earth’s situation is worse than Cryptos, but Dan has more basic material with which to work. There is a Spacefleet Underground, an echo of the Resistance in France and elsewhere, in the still fresh World War. It not only consists of SF veterans, such as George Bryan (seen in The Red Moon Mystery as senior officer on the Mars Ferrys) but its leaders are the new generation of Spacefleet, Steve Valiant, Mark Straight and Tony Albright, Astral College’s senior boys, ten years on.
Moreover, as the story nears its end, there is an active, and considerably better-equipped Theron Underground, led by none other than Volstar himself, with President Kalon in safety, who will put in Dan’s hands the final weapon that disables the Mekon’s robotic domination of the three planets.
But the key to the Underground’s eventual success has two elements.
The first, and overwhelmingly magnificent of these is discovered when Dan succeeds in escaping the Mekon’s clutches, blasting off from Venus in a Treen ship. He discovers a space zone out of radio range, a dead zone of drifting spaceships, floating derelict and wrecked. Some are of familiar design, others have never been seen before. It is an astonishing Sargasso Sea of Space.
The graveyard includes a Spacefleet X12, a design still on the drawing board when Dan left for Cryptos, fully lit. He heads for it, hoping to find it usable, but discovers it occupied by its original crew, Captain Bob ‘Crusoe’ King and Engineer Angus ‘Friday’ McFarlane, trapped on board a ship damaged in the Mekon’s original attack on Earth, and eking out their lives in isolation. Dan’s appearance, and the chance, suddenly, to strike back and help to rescue the Earth, galvanises the pair, but there is something even better that they need to show Dan first, in the Sargasso.
It is the Anastasia.
I don’t know how many boys, reading The Red Moon Mystery in 1952, really registered that Dan’s personal spacecraft, designed for him by Sondar in gratitude for the first overthrow of the Mekon, had been abandoned and lost. As the story reached its end, Anastasia had been used to tow the Chlorophyll beacon that drew the Red Moon away from Earth, to a rendezvous with the Treen fleet. It was certainly never made anything of, and I, like, most of its audience, would have just assumed that Anastasia had been taken aboard one of the Treen ships. But it had been abandoned, and had never appeared since, until Stranks/Hampson pulled it as a lovely rabbit out of a hat, dry but still fully-functioning in Space, and giving Dan the manoeuvrability he needed.
So the pieces begin to come together. On Earth, Flamer’s uncanny ability to mimic the Mekon (a much less succulent rabbit out of the hat and one that gets harder to accept once we ourselves arrive in an era of Electronic Voice Recognition) disposes of the common or garden Elektrobots, but fails to dispel the more powerful Selektrobots. To end that threat, Dan must ride the Theron Underground guided missile to ensure it hits the satellite which controls the remaining robot army.
It’s a suicide mission, and one that Dan goes on willingly, regretting only that he cannot say goodbye to Digby. But even in heroic circumstances, suicide is not an option, and besides, there is Anastasia.
Sir Hubert insists on taking this mission himself, going out to rescue Dan, who is as a son to him, just as Pop Hampson was father to Frank Hampson himself (sometimes our relations escape into our stories and the feelings cannot help but resonate throughout the drama). Dan guides his rocket to the target, bailing out when it is on course. The satellite is destroyed, bringing an end to the reign of the Robots, as the Selektrobots become so much metal junk.
But debris has struck Dan’s escape capsule. He is floating in space, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. If not for Sir Hubert’s pursuit in Anastasia, he would be a goner. Even once he has been hauled to safety inside his personal spacecraft, it still seems as if the Pilot of the Future has sacrificed himself to save his planet…
I mentioned above that though Reign of the Robots was the third part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, it was not the last. This is because, on this cliff-hanging note, the story ended, to be succeeded, the following week, by The Ship That Lived. To which, of course, I will be coming next. I shall have more to say on this transition then.
My first exposure to Reign of the Robots was immediately after Eagle‘s death-by-merger into it’s old, and much cheaper, knock-off rival, Lion (which I also read). The Rogue Planet reprints were heavily condensed to make the story’s end coincide with Eagle‘s last issue, and Reign of the Robots kicked off with Lion & Eagle‘s first issue. In black and white. On cheap and nasty paper.
I think I stuck with the title for about nine weeks. I was getting old (fourteen), and I had already replaced most of my weekly comics with football magazines. The time was ripe, and even Dan Dare looked like crap, reproduced like this.
Eventually, I read the (full?) story in the third Dragon’s Dream reprint edition, where the art had been chopped about appallingly whilst trying to compensate for the removal of the Eagle title block on every cover page.
To some extent, these experiences have influenced my response to this story, which I cannot help but see as the weakest part of the Trilogy. There are several factors in this: Reign of the Robots is not so much a continuation of the story in the first two parts as a ‘what they found when they got back’, disconnecting it rather from the overall story-line. It suffers artistically in the return from those beautifully rendered alien planets (the autumnal rain Britain opening, necessary as it is, imposes an emotional damper that permeates all the story). That Earth has been attacked in this manner, that it has been subjected to an unimaginable horror for a decade, makes the story entirely too dystopic, a mood antithetical to Hampson’s whole approach to the Dan Dare series.
And the art itself, overall, is not up to the standard of the previous two volumes. Perhaps this is in part due to the quality of the issues used for Hawk Books’ facsimile reprints (shoot from surviving comics, not the original art). There seems to be a faint blurriness to some pages that doesn’t help the detail, and there are a number of episodes where art is clearly being done outside the studio, probably by Desmond Walduck, though the style differs from what we grew used to in Prisoners of Space, being much cruder.
The Frank Hampson/Don Harley signature block is not in evidence here, indeed no pages are signed until the twentieth episode when Hampson signs his name only at the foot of the second page, but a ‘Frank Hampson Production’ block appears on the twenty-sixth episode and thereafter more frequently, but still irregularly.
We know that Hampson was beginning to think of withdrawing from actual art. His studio was smart and efficient, and in Don Harley he had an extremely worthy first lieutenant. Hampson had ambitions for his series. He wanted to promote a version of it for the American market. He wanted to meet men he admired over there. He wanted to tackle animation. All of these things would take time, but the studio could take the strain, Stranks was reliable, and if he were to step back from the day-to-day art, he could take on a more directorial role, develop ideas, new approaches.
He’d reached an artistic height in Rogue Planet, rich, complex, detailed, beautiful. His studio couldn’t quite match that, but then his studio couldn’t take Dan Dare forward, the way Frank Hampson could. If Reign of the Robots represents a falling off, to me it is most likely because Hampson was expanding his horizons. A brilliant future would lie ahead. If only.