I’ve already written at length about Dan Dare and The Phantom Fleet for Spaceship Away 23, also available on this blog here.
Before I first read this story, in the Hawk Books facsimile reprint series, the only thing I knew about the background to this story was the very limited reference made to it by Alastair Crompton in the wonderful The Man Who Drew Tomorrow: “(not a success in most people’s eyes, Marcus [Morris] gave him instructions to cut it short)” (brackets in original). Crompton has since updated and revised his book as Tomorrow Revisited from which the above comment has been removed, but still praises Hampson for being not so egotistical that he couldn’t accept others’ opinions when work was sub-par, which amounts to the same thing.
This brief dismissal left me greatly intrigued about The Phantom Fleet and, in a perverse way, almost determined to enjoy it.
My previous essay set out to explore at what point this wrap it up ‘command’ had come, and the effect this had had on the story. Indeed, as far as I was concerned, most of what was wrong with this story was a consequence, not a cause precedent, of such interference, and I was arrogant enough to suggest a more Hampson-like ending that I still believe would have vastly improved The Phantom Fleet.
However, the best outcome was that my article was the spur for a letter published the following issue, from David Gould, a former Fleetway lettering artist and a contributor to Dan Dare fandom, bringing back to light information that had been published in the Eighties that included the original Phantom Fleet synopsis, and a memo to Marcus Morris about the unwelcome prospect of the story being extended into a second phase, under a change of name, but which also commented that Hampson himself would be happy himself to see this tale wound up, allowing Dan to start exploring new planets again.
There are different opinions to this day about The Phantom Fleet, and whilst I am still in the camp of those who don’t think it deserves its poor reputation, it can hardly be argued that it is without flaws, especially with regard to its ending.
To begin with, The Phantom Fleet has to operate under the handicap of following 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 had had to stop.
Moreover, just as with Reign of the Robots, the story is set on Earth, and is about another threatened invasion by an alien race.
This created a massive internal opposition within the story. Because you’d hardly know that Earth had just come out of a decade of Treen Occupation. 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 are already operating their own, independently controlled fleet of fighting spaceships!
Captive of the Pescods
Stranks’ synopsis makes clear that the ‘Phantom Fleet’ and its unknown occupants are to be considered a danger throughout. The very presence of the Fleet cuts radio/electronic communication throughout the Solar System, leaving Dan and Digby (in Anastasia) to operate on sight only as they seek to retrieve Sir Hubert from the luxury liner Gargantua, which is in danger.
Hampson however had already made one substantial, if not major change to the synopsis. In Stranks’ original plan, Professor Peabody would have been heavily involved from the start, but Hampson replaces her with Flamer Spry (and Stripey).
But after episode 8, the synopsis is as good as junked, with an unexpected change of direction. The Cosmobes, having been built up as a danger to the entire System, are revealed to be small and cute, and the idea that they plan to take over Earth and shape it to their needs is completely forgotten: 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 (who are not even mentioned in the synopsis).
The parallels increase 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.
Though this is a truly serious situation, and one over which, if Dan were to be court-martialled, he would have neither complaint nor defence, the story lets itself down badly by letting all of this go in a very inferior way. The Cosmobes disarm the Navy, and Lex O’Malley, by looking cute, Peabody overcomes the Government’s suspicions by telling them, in very stern tones, that the Cosmobes Are Our Friends, and the Pescods breeze in, squirting all manner of acidic liquids all over the place, in a manner that positively shouts of serious of serious psycho-sexual issues on somebody’s part.
In my previous article, I speculated that Morris’s ‘instructions to wrap it up’ might well have come into effect around episode 23. This was based upon all 23 episodes to this point having been signed by Frank Hampson (though the majority of the principal art was evidently being done by Don Harley). But the next episode not only lacked Hampson’s name, it was clearly the work of another artist, Desmond Walduck stepping in again. And it’s at this point that the story started to go haywire.
However, David Gould produced not only the much-departed from synopsis, but also the afore-mentioned memorandum, from Ellen Vincent, dated 16 September 1958. In it, Mrs (?) Vincent refers to the arrival of script 29, which is a bit better than recent weeks, but also to a telephone conversation with Hampson in which he mentions that Stranks is thinking of changing the story title on script 30, leading Ms Vincent to surmise that this means another twenty weeks.
She also records that Hampson would be “happy to see this present story wound up”, and concludes that both this and Reign of the Robots have been about saving Earth, “which is getting monotonous!”
The memo gives us an idea of how far ahead of publication the series was working. Ellen Vincent’s memo was sent in the week of publication of Eagle Volume 9 no 37, eight weeks in advance of the issue that would feature script 29 (which Hampson and his team had not yet begun drawing). Only three weeks later, Walduck would start a four week stint of art. Hampson and Co would return for three weeks, the second of which being script 29.
Needless to say, the story title did not change with script 30, the last episode of The Phantom Fleet drawn by Frank Hampson. The story did not last a further twenty weeks, only six, all drawn by Walduck, before the Pescod threat was abruptly eliminated, without any input by the star of the series, when they blew themselves to smithereens by burrowing, all unaware, into the base of Krakatoa.
Dan meets the Pescods
So The Phantom Fleet, which was beginning to come apart from episode 24, was wound up, leaving Dan Dare and Frank Hampson free to leave Earth and explore strange planets again. Its flaws are shown to be the responsibility of Alan Stranks, the writer of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, the decision to cut losses and go a response to his wish to extend a story that only superficially resembled that which he had described at length when selling the tale in advance.
Some Dan Dare fans are adamant that the concept was never strong enough for a series: an eight-pager for an Eagle Annual maybe. I’m not of that opinion, but mine is that of the adult fan who never read this story at the age it was originally intended for, who could read a story without a thirst for non-stop action, and who therefore didn’t mind playing a longer, patient game. Perhaps reading it one episode at a time, over three-quarters of a year, would have coloured my response differently.
And perhaps there were other factors, behind the page, that detracted from Frank Hampson’s attention, that kept him from investing his full heart into his work as he had done for the past several years.
By this time, the Bayford Lodge studio was running very smoothly with its smallest number of artists: Joan Porter, to manage the studio and act as personal assistant to Hampson, Don Harley as first lieutenant and ‘second best Dan Dare artist in the world’, Keith Watson, who would become more prominent in the future, and Gerald Palmer, who never played a major role of any kind. They worked well, they bore up under the strain, they were what Hampson had been seeking.
Because Hampson wanted to step back, to relinquish day-by-day responsibility for the series, to draw much less. He wanted to use his time to design, to conceive, to set directions. He had ambitions for Dan Dare, ambitions that, now the strip was well established and he had a Don Harley to lean on, he could begin to explore.
Hampson wanted to sell Dan Dare in America. He wanted to move into film production. The one would require a wholesale re-think, of format, pace, attitude, the other was a logical development from the studio he had trained to work together.
But Hulton weren’t interested. They didn’t have the knowledge, the contacts or the interest. They were magazine publishers, in England, and they were fighting decline, a decline which meant that Eagle’s profits were to be earmarked for supporting the group, not fulfilling Frank Hampson’s ambitions.
Frustration had already led him to submit a letter of resignation a year earlier, whilst Reign of the Robots was still in its early stages, a resignation Hulton were minded to accept if it rid them of the expensive studio at Bayford Lodge, but before they acted, Hampson withdrew his letter. The following year, things were no better. Was Frank Hampson’s heart as deeply in the current story as it would ordinarily be? It was taking place on Earth, which didn’t call for any great exercise of his imagination. And he had an idea that would fulfil that hope.
And nobody knew what was about to happen.