At only twelve weeks, The Ship That Lived is the shortest Dan Dare story (excluding annuals) ever to be produced by Frank Hampson, and only a handful of stories, during the year that Odhams spent trying to kill the series would occupy less time than this.
It’s the true end of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, a coda upon personal lines that sits, a little awkwardly, at the end. When Reign of the Robots was first reprinted, by Dragon’s Dream, it was excluded, leaving the Trilogy essentially incomplete, and me wondering what came next, an answer I didn’t get until a long series of Saturday afternoons, a decade later, in Manchester’s Central Ref, studying bound volumes of Eagle‘s first ten years.
To be honest, I don’t really agree with splitting off The Ship That Lived as a separate story. It’s an interlude in the wrapping up process, whose concern is about getting Dan Dare and, of course, the restored Anastasia back safe and alive.
So: Sir Hubert pilots ‘Old Annie’ back with the seriously injured Dan aboard. How serious? Without immediate medical attention he’ll die. As they near Venus, they are attacked by Treen Spacesharks, and Anastasia is damaged. But the cavalry, in the shape of Digby and Flamer, Crusoe and Friday in two Treen ships, drives off the attack, Leaving ‘Annie’ on a crash-landing course, Sir Hubert pinned by wreckage and Dan doomed.
Until orders from his Controller sink into Dan’s subconscious, waking him to pilot Anastasia to a safe landing, albeit in the flamebelt, at risk of both sinking and the Silicon Mass.
Seriously injured? Short of saying “’Tis but a scratch”, Dan’s near-instant recovery to full fitness is absolutely miraculous.
The story then concentrates upon freeing ‘Old Annie’ from destruction, with the aid of lifting machinery from Mekonta. The Ship indeed Lives!
Throughout all this, cooperation is secured from Treen-dominated Venus by the simple expedient of leaving Lex O’Malley behind to dangle the Mekon off a crane, under threat of dropping him on his head (I would really not rather have the image that has just come into my head at that point).
But Stranks and Hampson recognise an imperative. The Mekon cannot be captured, not after this. There will be no Venus Rehabilitation Centre this time, if the Authorities get hold of him, and good villains cannot be allowed to die. Amidst the celebrations at rescuing Anastasia, the overlooked, physically helpless Mekon gets hold of a flying chariot and runs. To Dan and Co, it looks like suicide, sacrificing himself to the Silicon Mass.
Only Digby, and the reader, realise that some strange craft, sent by ‘The Last Three’, has taken the Mekon aboard. It would be three years before the Mekon reappeared, and far longer than that before a different writer, in a different era, would bring The Last Three to us. Frank Hampson would not draw another story with his iconic villain again.
Anyway, now we can go back and conclude Reign of the Robots properly, which is why I think this fragment in a larger tale should not have been separated into a story of its own. Everyone regathers. The Therons resume charge of their hemisphere. Sondar stays to help mop up Treenland, and restore peace. Dan and his extended Co. return to an Earth in which Spacefleet at least is getting itself back to normal, under the likes of Valiant and Straight, with muscle supplied by Selektrobots now under local control. Digby even has one to make his Colonel’s tea in the morning.
Until the next call to action.
As this is such a short story, and therefore such a short post, I’m going to move on to a fairly substantial point. Though it’s the lesser part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, Reign of the Robots is by far and away the biggest thing to happen in the entire series. The whole planet Earth is invaded and, for a decade, subjugated, with incalculable loss of life, and an unbelievably traumatic effect on the lives that survive it to see ‘normality’ restored. In his work on both Dan Dare Chronologies and subsequent fictions, Denis Steeper refers to this period as the Treen Holocaust, and whilst it may seem inappropriate, even tasteless, to apply that word to a children’s fiction, there can be no doubt that it is apt.
Nothing of that appears again in the Dan Dare series. ‘Crusoe’ and ‘Friday’ appear in the first episode of the next story, The Phantom Fleet, but then disappear forever. Stripey is still Digby’s pet in that story. Dan continues to fly Anastasia until the very end of the series. But in every other respect, the invasion of Earth is wiped clean. The Crypt ‘suspacells’ might as well not have existed. The Sargasso Sea of Space, an obviously fertile source for future stories, is referenced in a letter page, when it is promised that a future story will deal with a prominent alien ship. But the Sargasso will only return in ‘fan fiction’, where it will, after many years and indirections, become the raison d’etre for Spaceship Away.
In a series that operates with a certain continuity, it is a terrible, unbridgeable hole.
But how could it have been otherwise? The longer we think seriously and rationally about the ‘Treen Holocaust’ and the effect it would have on Earth, the more we understand how impossible it would be to depict even a fraction of that in a comic paper. But it’s not beyond the wit of either Stranks or Hampson to have included some cursory references to rebuilding Spacefleet, in men or resources. Even the three grown-up Astral heroes, Valiant, Albright and Straight disappear without trace, just when they could have been useful additions to the cast.
Perhaps the creators realised that, in using planetary conquest as a big story, they had gone far further than could be remotely handled by a series aimed at boys aged 7 to 14. That they had bitten off more than they could chew. That heroic fights might best be reserved for saving civilisations on other planets, from which you could come home without having to see what really was meant by reconstruction.
But it was all too late by then, and all that could be done was to turn exceedingly blind eyes, and look elsewhere. After all, it was only for kids, wasn’t it?