Dan Dare: The Platinum Planet

                                                                                      The first page

Whilst Mission of the Earthmen and The Solid-space Mystery had been decent, if not inspired efforts at maintaining the standard of Dan Dare stories, The Platinum Planet was where things started to fall apart, a process accelerated in the closing weeks of the story, when a front page re-design cramped up the page area in which Harley and Cornwell had to work, with effects we will go on to discuss.
At the beginning, the set-up offered almost unlimited potential: one of the Mekon’s adherents, escaping Venus Rehabilitation Camp, has stolen a spaceship and aimed for Spacefleet HQ to cause havoc. His target was the Control Tower, and it was not a good auger for things that he missed it completely, for no reason, and instead crashed into an unimportant hanger. Nevertheless, Dan and Digby decided to use the Zylbat’s VTO engines to control the resultant fire with their downdraft, only for the fuel stored under the hangar to go off. The Zylbat’s controls were damaged, and the ship took off at maximum speed, its navigation locked. Worse was to come: though our heroes repaired most of the physical damage, they were not aware that the hibernation gas pipes had been cracked and as soon as they take off their helmets…
In between episodes, the two were knocked out for as long as it took for the gas chambers to run dry. When they woke up, they were in an unknown area of space, having travelled for ‘years’. They were hopelessly lost.
But, as better writers than Eric Eden have found, it is one thing to set up an interesting situation by sending your characters on a journey, but the story stands and falls by what you have for them to find and do at journey’s end.
At this journey’s end is the Platinum Planet of the title. Dan and Digby first discover a green planet, which they narrowly avoid, after which they use their remaining fuel to follow a transporter that seems oblivious to their presence to a planet which appears to be made of platinum, with a few random rock formations. It’s actually a planet-wide artificial construction sealing off the surface from the outside.
(Can you imagine what that would entail? The labour? The time, the engineering achievement? Even if we assume this planet has platinum in abundance, it’s horrendously unbelievable.)
This is a planet with a platinum roof, beneath which, of all the things you could find on a world advanced enough to do something incredible like this, our heroes find a primitive, hypno-controlled absolute dictatorship.
Yes, the entire population lives, works, eats, sleeps, breathes with hypnotic helmets on their heads that continually control their every movement.
Scientifically, it’s perfectly plausible that the technology to build a planet-sized platinum sheath could also create this kind of absolute control but a moment’s thought is enough to tell you that the idea is insane beyond belief. Even accepting that someone capable of this level of scientific advancement should actually have the mentality of a crummy gang-boss, how can you control and direct the movements of an entire planet (‘three trillion thought-controlled serfs’) and interlock their vasty and various actions?
It’s the question that blows all credibility out of the water, and it’s not made any more plausible by the fact that, by the close, Eden has produced a single person to run the entire system as a power-crazed, self-indulgent tyrant, named Astorat (a Catalan word meaning astonished, which suggests to me that either Eden made it up as a variant of Ashtoreth, a Syrian deity, or else he was making an extraordinarily perceptive metafictional comment on his own story: I’d go with the former, personally).
However, we’ve a ways to go before Master Astorat – who is as petty, vainglorious and childish as you can imagine, a walking cliché that makes this set-up even less plausible, since there’s no way he could have put this set-up together – appears on the scene. In the meantime, Dan and Digby are thrown off-planet, to the green planet, where they are expected to work for the Platinums.

                                                                               Dan and Dig meet General Zeb
Hmm, paired planets, one technically advanced, the other primitive. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a direct rip-off from Mission of the Earthmen. This time round, the green planet is a fiefdom of the Platinum one, populated only by the malcontents, misfits and rebels from Platinum society, or would be invaders from other planets in the system. Dan and Digby meet former General Zeb, a purple-skinned humanoid with two tremendous walrus-moustaches, one on his lip, the other on his forehead, where it sweeps round to the back of his head. Zeb explains that ‘to colonise is death’, meaning that as soon as the green planet has been properly civilised, with roads and cultivation etc., the Platinums will take that over and kill the slaves who’ve done the hard work.
Zeb, being a war leader, has not been idle. He’s built a missile to rocket a picked band of colonists back to the Platinum planet, to retrieve all their spaceships and escape. Dan decides to go one better: they’ll overthrow the dictatorship first (shades of Trip to Trouble and the Grandax of Gan).
It’s at this point, when the colonists have escaped back to the sealed-in planet, that an indignity occurs. I don’t know what lay behind the decision but, with six weeks remaining in the story, Odhams made the editorial decision to cramp and weaken Dan Dare by forcing the series to share the cover with a new feature, Men of Action. This feature was a text and art mini-account of the lives of famous people – racing drivers, motorbike riders, skiers, speed record holders, mountain climbers – placed as a strip down the left hand side of the front page, below a truncated Eagle logo box, with Dan Dare squeezed into the right hand side, it’s width approximately three-fifths that of the cover.
It was a shock, and an attack on Dan Dare’s prominence, and to make matters worse, in order to keep the episode length consistent, Harley and Cornwell had to cram the rest of the story into five narrower tiers of panels on page 2, an impossible strait-jacket. There was no room for their art to breathe, no space for anything other than the perfunctory account of what was going on.
It was a demoralising attack on the primacy of Dan Dare within Eagle. Worse would follow in the not-too-distant future, in the form of changes that all Dan’s fans have interpreted as a deliberate attempt to kill the series, and this would naturally appear to be a precursor to that move, were it not for the fact that this was still Odhams in charge, and not the soon-to-be-incoming Longacre.
What momentum remained in The Platinum Planet was killed off. The rebels win. Astorat tries to pull of a you’ll-never-take-me-alive defiant suicide but makes himself look a fool when his leap out of a high window ends in a safety net ten feet down. Once again, Dan and Dig have saved the day.
Of course, they’re still an unknown distance from Earth, having flown on for years, with no way home even if they knew the way home, but not to worry. This insoluble trap unsurprisingly proves to be only too soluble, as Zeb has a limitless number of starcharts and a few details about Earth will soon reveal it’s whereabouts (oh yes? And when exactly did he go a-roving so incredibly far from his home system and not be noticed snooping around by Spacefleet?).
And Dan and Digby can have unlimited amounts of fuel, supplies and presumably the local equivalent of hibernation gas, not that anyone thinks to mention this, to enable them to get home, years later, no doubt. I bet that doesn’t cause any problems!
No, all round, The Platinum Planet is not merely a weak story, unable to create interest in a mixture of former Dan adventures and full of clichés, it’s a dumb story that has thrown in ideas without the slightest notion as to how plausible they are. In that sense, it’s the complete antithesis of Hampson, and from three men trained by him, that’s a disaster.

In Praise of Pratchett: Pyramids

What distinguishes the Discworld series from practically all the others is that it’s not a single series but rather an umbrella, incorporating multiple sub-series that feature separate sets of characters. Rincewind, Granny Weatherwax, Death, all had appeared so far, and more were to follow, but there is also a non-series sub-series, and those are the ones where the characters don’t recur, where their stories are done and complete in one volume.
Obviously, in the early years, we didn’t know which were going to be which, but Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids is, retrospectively, the first of this indefinable subset. It’s also the one where the seeming convention that the odd-numbered Discworld books weren’t much cop is blown spectacularly apart.
Pratchett himself described Pyramids as ‘Ancient Egypt turned up until the knobs fall off’, which is a better description than anything I can come up with. In fact, it not only describes this particular book but it can stand for the series as a whole. It’s not a formula, but a fundamental approach. Future books will engage themselves with a theme, which Pratchett will then exaggerate to such an extent that its most elemental truths will start to shape themselves.
But for now, let’s concentrate on this single book. It stars Teppic, or more properly Pteppicymon, heir to the ancient kingdom of Djelybeybi, a river valley on the south side of the Circle Sea, that is 150 miles long and two miles wide, and stuffed full of pyramids.
In order to further his education, Teppic is sent by his rather doddering and increasingly distracted father, King Pteppicymon XXVII, to get an education in Ankh-Morpork, at the Guild of Assassins. Teppic learns many things at the Guild: style, self-possession, history, geography, an appreciation of the comforts of Western Civilization (Ankh-Morpork? Civilised?), how to kill people in any way imaginable whilst preventing them from killing you, and that he’s not cut out to be an assassin.
This last part is very important.
What Teppic also learns along the way is that absolutely everything he learns makes him less and less fit to become the next King of Djelybeybi, particularly with reference to Djelybeybi’s Gods. And their Pyramids.
This only starts to become a serious problem when Pteppicymon XXVII decides, in one of his less lucid moments, that being a God means he can fly. We then start to see a fair amount of the story through the eyes and ears of his ghost or, this being Ancient Egypt with the knobs off, his Mummy.
Teppic finds himself drawn back to take over as King, and God, to Djelybeybi, full of ideas about modernisation, comfort, and and a gentle acceleration towards catching up with the Century of the Fruitbat. However, he has reckoned without Dios. Dios is the High Priest. Dios has been the High Priest for as long as anyone can remember, indeed for considerably longer than anyone could possibly remember. Dios knows what is to be done, at any hour or indeed minute. And Dios is there to ensure that it continues to be done, despite the quite obvious attempts of the King to insert that hated and impossible word Change into the River Kingdom.
This starts to cause a serious problem when Teppic finds himself condemning his father’s favourite handmaiden, Ptraci, to death because she doesn’t want to be put to death as part of his entourage in his pyramid.
Actually, though Teppic doesn’t know it, the one time he throws himself into his role as king in a way that conforms with Dios’s requirements is when he orders that his father’s Pyramid be the biggest one in Djelybeybi, in fact twice as big as every other one. Because pyramids are dams in the stream of time. And one this size…
First, however, Teppic has to get Ptraci out of the dungeon into which he has thrown her. It’s an easy task for someone with the training of an Assassin, though it’s complicated by Ptraci’s underlying belief that, as a good citizen of the River Kingdom, she ought not to be going against the King’s commands.
It’s a richly comic moment, but it’s also a moment that allows Pratchett to articulate one of his most  serious beliefs, a kind of raging disbelief at how easily humanity surrenders its free will, its freedom to think, and to act for itself. Dictators don’t need guns and ammunition for we have this astonishing willingness to walk ourselves into cells, lock and bolt the doors behind us and resist to the death any idea of escaping.
Over and again, Pratchett will construct situations that demonstrate the bars in people’s heads, with consummate simplicity, relying only on our ability to recognise these things in everyday life to convince us that this fantastic disconnect is hard-wired into our heads. Discworld is less a reductio ad absurdum than an expansio ad absurdum (forgive the cod-Latin, please).
But Teppic has more than the fate of one handmaiden (who happens to be his half-sister) to deal with, more even than his own fate, condemned to death in his own name by Dios, who refuses to accept that Teppic is the King because Teppic does not act like the King. No, his father’s pyramid is far too big, it is storing too much time, and not flaring it off, until the whole thing rotates ninety degrees.
And so does Djelybeybi. Ninety degrees, out of existence in the ‘real’ world, locked into its own time, where the Gods are really real, the Mummys have woken up, and, outside, the River Kingdom that has been keeping the Empires of Ephebe and Tsort from (literally) rubbing up against each other and exciting themselves to War, the River Kingdom is the tiniest crack in the ground, visible only to camels in dire need of water.
It’s an almost identical situation, given the obvious differences, to R. A. Lafferty’s classic short story, ‘Narrow Valley’.
It shouldn’t really matter to Teppic. He’s gotten out at the last second, with Ptraci, and the Discworld’s greatest mathematician, a camel known mainly as You Bastard, and he doesn’t want to be King of Djelybeybi, any more than he wants to be an Assassin. But that’s not the point. He is the King, and that’s his country, and those are his people (not to mention his ancestors). And even the most reluctant of Kings has gotta do what a King’s gotta do, which is to get in there and sort it all out.
And sort it out Teppic does. The River Kingdom returns, Dios disappears to wherever he’s come from, which makes for a curiously circular journey, without a beginning but, at long last, an end, and Teppic abdicates in favour of Ptraci. There’s a new High Priest, also determined to maintain the daily ritual of life, but he’s no match for a former handmaiden who’s heard of Western Comfort and is determined on having it. There’s a pre-echo of Carrot in how Ptraci uses her ignorance to cut through opposition.
She even manages to persuade Teppic to stay in a curious ending that blatantly implies that she and he are going to settle down forever in what is openly going to be an incestuous relationship. It’s a weird, though not jarring ending, culturally apt to the River Kingdom (Pratchett jokes about it happily, earlier in the book), narratively apt given the boy-and-girl-against-the-world relationship of the pair. But it’s still incest, and nobody seems to have blinked an eye at it, ever.
That raises an interesting point. We’re not yet at the point where Pratchett begins to formally incorporate the theory of narrative as a shaping force in Discworld, but in Pyramids we start to see its unnamed outline. It’s an inevitable development: Pratchett began by taking the piss out of fantasy, which can hardly be done without a deep and sharp understanding of the forms of fantasy, its tropes and its stories, and as soon as he began to see the possibilities inherent in that approach, it’s hard to see how else Pratchett might have developed his craft. You can’t set out to paint a picture of Ancient Egypt turned up until the knobs fall off without paying due attention to the story shapes that make it thus.
Pratchett had begun to discover the way by which narrativium works. All that remained was to name it.

Incidentally, whilst honeymooning on Madeira in 2000, we saw a Portuguese language copy of this book on sale in the hotel shop. I was seriously tempted to buy it as a kind of primer on learning Portuguese. Silly idea, as I’ve never since been anywhere they speak the language. Obrigado.

You’ll Never Get Me Up In One Of Those…

An e-mail came round this afternoon, asking for sponsors. This is fairly common in a company our size, with as many agents as we have on this site alone, though a check is kept to ensure we’re not always being bombarded with requests for money.

The reason this one caught my eye is that it told me that three of my team-mates plan to raise money by throwing themselves out of an aircraft at 15,000′ – with parachutes, naturally, though with some of my team-mates I’d gladly contribute if they promised to do it bareback, so to speak. Not only that, but each of the three of them will be carrying someone on their backs (I assume the passengers will also be wearing parachutes, as this could be an intense period if they were to be doing it bareback). If it were me, I’d definitely be clinging like grim death to the female member of this courageous and philanthropic trio, but then I’d welcome a much less fraught excuse to cling tightly to her any time.

It reminded me of the occasion on which I was asked to volunteer for a parachute jump.

I was at my second firm, the one in the centre of Manchester, one of my two favourite employers as a Solicitor. This was the one where everyone, with one exception, was within a dozen years of my age, either way, with the great atmosphere, and the enviable record of sports and games that we played, though these only involved the men.

It was, I think, somewhere in the early summer of 1985 when our junior cashier, Shirley, came up with the idea of a parachute jump, and went around asking everyone if they were interested.

It was something I’d neither done nor considered, and I was interested by the idea. Several people were, and we left it for her to organise.

It never happened. I have no wish to blow my own trumpet but the honest truth was that if I organised it, it happened, and if anyone else did, it didn’t.

One thing that became apparent, several weeks later, when Shirley brought the idea up again, was that I was no longer prepared to do a parachute jump. She was disappointed at my withdrawal and pointed out that I’d been so enthusiastic when she first brought it up.

Where Shirley had gone wrong was obvious: she had allowed me time to think about it. To think about flying along (which I had never done at that point) through the unsupported air, about staring out of a door into the void and the unsupported air, and finally about actually letting go of the aircraft and falling precipitately through the unsupported and unsupporting air.

If she had somehow managed to get me to that open door within half an hour of asking if I would do a parachute jump, she might have been able to do it, though honesty compels me to state that she would probably have been pushing it if she’d given me thirty seconds to think.

Nowadays, and in fact at any time after that little non-escapade, there would be no chance. I would be clinging to the plane in a manner that would make a leech of a limpet look Teflon-coated and I would take large handfuls of the plane frame with me if you ever managed to get me through the door, before which I would have made sure that all involuntary, terror-based projectile emissions had been carefully directed at anyone trying to throw me out.

In short, you are never going to get me up in one of those.

So, whilst I respect and admire my three colleagues and the worthy cause for which they are doing this, I am deleting every possible thought of what they are going to do to themselves.

Better them than me – and I REALLY mean that!

The Infinite Jukebox: The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset

Some songs are a product of their time, and some songs exist in an eternal present, untouched by the entropy of time. Some songs are both at the same time.
The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ could not, I firmly believe, have been written and recorded in any decade other than the Sixties. Yet at the same time, it has stepped outside any passage of the days, an immortal moment of sound and voice that can never be dated. It carries its time with it, like an aura, worn lightly, its effect undimmed and uncaptured.
This is the mature Kinks, the later Kinks, the Kinks who outgrew their earlier raucousness of guitar. This is the band that, denied access to America, chose to be English, not in some foppish or stilted manner, but to reflect English thought, preoccupation and mannerism in songs that flirted with caricature but maintained a delicate balance due to Ray Davies’ skill with words.
At the same time, the band’s sound drew off a folkish tinge, Ray’s acoustic guitar dominating the sound, Dave’s electric guitar kept from free reign, its early weight taken down. The sound separates, the instruments existing in separate planes. There’s almost a deliberate amateurism to some of the songs, an endearingly English way of being modest, of not getting above oneself.
‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a London song, sung by London boys, about London. It was written when London was, or seemed to be, pretty much the most important place in the world, Swinging London, the hotspot for fashion, music, progression and hope. Yet it’s a song that, even as it borrows from the touchstones of Swinging London – Terry and Julie are namechecks to actors Terrence Stamp and Julie Christie – stands foursquare on the ground, anchored by its own sense of place.
The song begins with a descending bass-line dominating unobtrusive music, before Dave picks out the melody on a guitar that sounds individual notes, lacking a flow, given a bass edge themselves. This leads into Ray’s opening verse.
He chooses to anchor the song to the city, the dirty old river that both divides and unites it, the eternal rolling into the night, that a part of him would wish to stop, knowing all the time that to do so would destroy the city. It’s a city of motion, the people as much as the river, though their motion dizzies him, as much as the taxi-lights overwhelm him.
But he is where he should be, where he knows he belongs, and the city has a sign for him, the sun setting over Waterloo Bridge. As long as he can gaze on that, he knows he is in his own Earth, and he will not give in to fear.
He then introduces Terry and Julie: not the stars that dazzle up West, but two ordinary young people, whose distinction is only for each other. Terry meets Julie at Waterloo Station, every Friday night. It has the atmosphere of ritual, but it’s nothing so grand. We don’t see beyond the simple words but we instinctively understand all the things that lie behind it. Which one comes by train, which one arrives to meet the other? Unimportant: the working week is over, the things that separate them no longer hold them, they are together again, their real life about to begin.
The singer watches. He has neither a Terry nor a Julie to meet, a lack he shrugs off as being due to his laziness. He doesn’t want to wander, he stays at home at night. But behind the words, they are excuses. Something scares him, and he retreats to his self-adopted place, where the City is his love: he needs no friends. Doth he protest too much?
Terry and Julie need no friends, but that’s because they have each other. They might be lost in the crowd, millions of people, swarming like flies round Waterloo Underground: swarming, with its connotation of flies swarming around a piece of rotten meat, gorging on its foulness perhaps. But Terry and Julie are not part of them: they have crossed the river, gone into their own place, where they feel safe and sound.
They too gaze upon Waterloo Sunset, though now they stand at a different vantage to the singer. There will be others, people for whom place and location are the anchor to lives in the middle of a turbulence that threatened to turn the world upside down, but sadly did not do so.
For the singer, for this young couple, there is the bridge and the sunset, an echo of Wordsworth, drawn from the more upmarket environs of Westminster Bridge to the places where the ordinary people go.
And the bridge and the sunset stand forever. The band gather together to end the song, repeating that Waterloo Sunset’s fine, the melody released, the walls gathering. Terry and Julie married, had kids, grandkids, lived out their lives in the shadow of Waterloo Bridge.
No, not the shadow, but the light, the light of sunset.


In Praise of Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters

This is the one.
It’s the opening scene. A blasted moorland. High mountains. A flash of lightning illuminating a dreadful scene. Three huddled figures around a bubbling cauldron. An eldritch shriek splits the night: “When shall we three meet again?”
Then, after a pause, an ordinary voice replies, “Well, I can do next Tuesday.”
It’s the archetypal Terry Pratchett moment, and I howl with laughter every time I read it, every time I think of it. Let’s face it, if you haven’t laughed at that, you and I have absolutely nothing to talk about.
To put it at its simplest, this is where it clicks. Where everything comes together, without a single false note. Where Pratchett starts pulling comedy gold out of everything in sight. Where story, character and theme blend together to make each element a simple delight and the whole something far greater than the sum of its parts. There will be the odd, less-than-brilliant book to follow, but they’re going to be rare, and even the least of these will still be better than nearly everything around them.
The prentice phase is over.
Wyrd Sisters brings us back to Granny Weatherwax, or rather it re-introduces Granny, along with the rest of the Three Witches, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. Forget the Granny we saw in Equal Rites, think of her as a distant relation, the Earth-2 Granny, this is the real thing. The Kingdom of Lancre solidifies around them. The Fool capers dismally, concealing not only a very keen intelligence but also a solid core of human decency, of a kind that will grow to be the underlying characteristic of all Terry Pratchett’s work.
It’s revealing nothing anyone doesn’t know to call this book a Shakespearian adventure. It’s full of exaggeration and inversion, puns and jokes, madcap notions and – which is what always distinguished Pratchett from his (laughable notion) competitors – the gift of depicting a thing in the elemental form that underlies it. It’s about the Theatre, about the ability to lie openly and create the truth. About a form of magic vastly different from that which the Witches manipulate, because it is made between human beings collectively.
The plot is nicely basic. King Verence of Lancre is assassinated by his cousin, Duke Felmet, at the behest of the latter’s bullying wife, the Duchess. Both the Duke and Duchess are, in their separate ways, quite mad. They’re obviously MacBeth and Lady M, though Pratchett distributes the latter’s role between the two conspirators.
There is an heir, a baby, rescued from the melee, and placed by Granny and the coven with strolling players, where he becomes an actor. But the Kingdom needs his return, and despite having made a very good case why Witches can’t meddle and raise Kings, Granny moves Lancre through fifteen years to enable an adult TomJohn to return to his inheritance.
Except that he doesn’t want it. And fortunately there’s a slightly elder half-brother, named Verence, who can take over as King. Kind, conscientious, ecstatic at being able to rip of the hat with the bells on it, not to mention interested in Magrat.
And he and TomJohn really are half-brothers, which is not to say that the late King Verence I is necessarily their father…
What Pratchett had found in this book was the sense of Discworld being a mirror, a twisted, funhouse mirror, but not of Fantasy but rather of Reality. Fantasy ceases to be the subject of Pratchett’s humour, and becomes the vehicle. Each book from now on will have a theme at its heart that resonates, which Pratchett digs into, and draws out of it unexpected insights and deep wisdom, all of which is expressed through laughter.
Let’s not leave without noting the first appearance of Nanny Ogg. Granny’s old friend and sidekick, Nanny arrives full blown, a force of nature in herself, complete with her enthusiasm for that unusual folksong about Hedgehogs. Nanny, the all-mother, the living proof of matriarchal supremacy, secure in her domain.
It’s leaping ahead, but Pratchett once commented that he’d made Nanny a mother of fifteen, and started throwing in names for sons and daughters willy nilly. One day, he thought he’d better add them all up, and found he had named exactly fifteen. He seemed to be a bit surprised at that. I’m not. Whether you call it That From Which It Comes, a la Dave Sim, or a subconscious sense of structure, as I do, it’s a great thing to have.
A lot of writing comes from far more than deliberate thought.

Dan Dare: The Solid-space Mystery

So: we’re back in the Solar System, where all seems peaceful and normal, except that the freighter ship Martian Queen (looking nothing like the Martian Queen menaced in Project Nimbus) starts panicking over a little red spaceship rushing around at a frantic speed, apparently far too fast. At great risk to itself, the Martian Queen cranks up its own speed, desperately hailing the runaway.
Which is, of course, the Zylbat, with Dan and Digby just waking up from their hibernation chambers and, once they pick up the signal, stopping on a sixpence. Which is more than the Martian Queen  can do as, before it can decelerate to a safe speed, it crashes into something that isn’t there and is destroyed.
After a brief interlude during which they’re almost shot as space-looters, Dan and Digby learn that the Solar System is menaced by invisible and undetectable pockets of ‘Solid Space’, ionised or magnetised pockets of space gases. If a spaceship hits one of these, it will crash, unless it is travelling below a maximum speed of 1.3 Atmospheric (?). But Earth’s economy is still utterly dependent upon freighting of food and raw materials and if this is the maximum allowable speed, that economy (and starving population) will collapse.
After another brief interlude during which the Zylbat (now decorated with the SF logo) escorts a test flight undertaken by the hitherto and latterly unseen Captain ‘Shorty’ Long, Dan and Digby discover that the Zylbat is a super-spaceship, proofed against magnetic resonance, and able to detect and dodge at ultra-high speed the Solid-space pockets.
In order to pass on these bounties to the rest of Spacefleet, our heroes need to find a supply of Indium. This is found in abundance on Mars’ moon, Deimos, but purely by chance, Dan and Dig discover a vital clue, flying through a mysterious beam whose source lies somewhere between Venus and Mercury. There’s also a Treen-designed ship flying parallel to the beam, though Governor Sondar denies any knowledge of such a craft.
Which ought to clue us in that we will shortly be seeing the return of a very familiar character who’s been missing from the series for an unprecedented whole six stories.

                                                                                Recognise him?
Dan and Digby track the beam to discover a satellite shaped like a light bulb. This is the source of the magnetic rays that are creating the Solid-space pockets and it is by now no surprise to the reader, though a complete shock to Dan and Digby, to discover that this is all the work of the Mekon, last seen being swallowed up by the equatorial Silicon Mass during The Ship That Lived (though the readers knew better).
There is no explanation here of the Mekon’s escape, no further reference to the ‘Last Three’, just his latest murderous plan, for which our heroes are to be left to die in space, to prevent them spilling any beans. This is no challenge to Dan Dare, who gets the pair of them back onto the satellite and succeeds in using the beam to attract Spacefleet’s attention with an S.O.S. Signal.
Sir Hubert sends out a ship to investigate, turning one last time to the stalwart Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette. Hank will enjoy a nostalgic reappearance many years later, but for Pierre, like Flamer and Professor Peabody before him, this is the end of the line. Thankfully, and puzzlingly, these are the real Hank and Pierre, not the superbly drawn puppets of Project Nimbus, which comes as something of a surprise since Eric Eden was the writer of both stories, but it’s a delight to share their company for a final adventure.
Whilst Digby is sent back to Earth for reinforcements, Dan, Hank and Pierre allow themselves to be captured and brought to the Mekon’s spacebase, where they recover and escape in the Zylbat. Digby’s rescue mission succeeds and the base is taken in a firefight, whilst the Mekon’s attempt to escape in his flagship is thwarted by the Zylbat blowing it to buggery.
Everyone is convinced the Mekon is dead again, though we, the readers, get to see him being loaded into an escape capsule. There may not be any evidence of the capsule escaping, but we know better than that…
So it’s old home week for the latest Dan Dare story, with the Mekon coming out of mothballs, and Hank and Pierre, plus Sir Hubert Guest almost reuniting the original Venus team. And Messrs Eden, Harley and Cornwell are certainly setting out their stall to be as much like Frank Hampson as is possible when you’re restricted to a story less than a third the length of the original Venus adventure. I’d like to herald The Solid-space Mystery as a success, but I can’t do so. Because as stories go, it’s bland, and bland almost to the point of dullness.

It’s not that there are defects in the story (other than one to which I’ll come, momentarily), but it’s a repeat of the main criticisms I had about Mission of the Earthmen: that it’s the work of three perfectly competent craftsman, each of whom have a good understanding of what goes to make up a Dan Dare story, in word, plot and art but who lack the creative spark.
It’s not a criticism of them, at least not a fair criticism. It’s just that they weren’t Frank Hampson and they didn’t know how to go that further degree. Take those interludes I mentioned earlier, the ‘looting’ incident, and ‘Shorty’ Long’s flight. The first is insignificant, undeveloped, and whilst the second does play into the story by showing that the Zylbat isn’t affected by the magnetic waves, the peril surrounding this is wholly artificial and has no bearing on the story.
And once the Mekon comes onto the scene, his plans are broken far too quickly and far too easily, despite the fact he’s two steps ahead of Dan at all times. If the Mekon had been this easy to overcome at the start, he’d never have been brought back for a second outing.
Nor do I like the idea of the Zylbat as the all-purpose, do-everything-you-want craft it is painted here. Can travel billions of miles of interstellar space, offers unlimited suspended animation for its crew, zig-zags around undetectable dangers at full speed and even travels on water like a hovercraft: what is this? Supercar? (Which turned up later the same year).
As far as the art was concerned, Harley/Cornwell continued to turn in very respectable work, though the preponderence of the story took place in space, and in artificial light, making the overall impression of the story darker.
There is one substantial issue to go into, especially as this issue will take on a certain prominence over the next two stories. Remember that Mission of the Earthmen took place in a vastly distant galaxy, only brought in reach by the Nimbus drive. Dan and Digby ended that story abandoned in that galaxy, Earth’s fleet having been called home to deal with a menace that we now learn to be the Solid-space pockets. Dan and Dig follow by Zylbat, which cannot hope to match the speed of the Nimbus drive but which offers another version of the Crypt ‘suspacells’, enabling Dan and Digby to survive the long journey.
But just how long is this journey? How much time does it take for the Colonel to get back where he belongs? The answer is that we don’t know and we have not a single factor upon which to make a calculation worth any more than a random guess. We only know that it takes a long time. Earth to Cryptos is ten years, there and back. Just how much slippage of age have Dan and Digby experienced in comparison to their old friends?
More importantly, just how long has the Mekon’s menace been at work, and if it’s as disastrous as it’s painted, why hasn’t Earth collapsed already? These are all questions that the creative team show no signs of having even discovered, let alone considered or resolved.
Of course, there is an easy solution. What if the menace that required the Fleet to head home had nothing to do with Solid-space? It might have been some completely different problem that Earth dealt with without needing Dan Dare for once. Then the Mekon puts his plan into effect, not that long before the Zylbat arrives.
It would provide an explanation, but it would be a cheap excuse that no-one would wear for an instant.
No, Messrs Eden/Harley/Cornwell have gotten themselves into a tangle by not thinking this through. And the same issue will cause even greater problems in the next story, only two weeks later.

The Infinite Jukebox: God Only Knows

The Infinite Jukebox has a lot of Beach Boys songs on it, and a lot of love songs. The two come together in possibly the purest song of all, Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows”.
This is one of those songs where it’s impossible to believe that it was written by two people, that it’s not the creation of a single mind, a single heart and soul, but it’s true. Brian Wilson was no lyricist so, whilst the melody and the arrangements are his, the words, pure and simple yet equally from the heart, come from his frequent collaborator, Tony Asher. They are an integral part of the whole, and Asher deserves the greatest credit possibly for so thoroughly understanding the music as to match its calm, its pure essence, its ethereality with words that waste no language, that cut so truly to the centre of any relationship between two people that’s called by the name of love.
“God Only Knows” was a massive hit here, a number 2 single, the Beach Boys’ biggest success in Britain to date, though immediately overtaken by their next release, “Good Vibrations”. In America, where the religious sensibilities made a song with God in the title – and one that was not about any deity – so much more questionable, it was restricted to the lower half of a double A-side and barely scraped the Top 30.
There are many many instances in the Sixties of American tastes being considerably better than British: this is a welcome opposite.
The song was Carl Wilson’s first lead vocal with the band. Later in his life, he spoke of the greatest honour he had ever received as being when his brother Brian asked him to sing this song. Though the two brothers’ voices were similar, Brian chose Carl to sing “God Only Knows” because of the additional sweetness of his voice. He’s also the only actual Beach Boy to play on this record, the backing track being recorded by the experienced session musicians always called in to do the studio work.
I don’t have the words to describe the music, but from the moment of that introduction, the song exists in a higher atmosphere than we breath on Earth. Musicologists have linked it to the music of the baroque, and of Handel, and there is a choral texture from the outset that suggests harpsichords, though it’s a regulation piano that first emerges from the horns, violas and cellos, laying a suggestion of rhythm for Carl to come in over.
I may not always love you, he sings, a line of ambivalence for which Asher fought Brian’s reluctance. In a song that’s about love, about an overpowering, soul-deep love, it’s a strange way to begin, when every other line in that first verse exists to deny it, but it’s only a lead-in to what the song says, to what love says: God only knows what I’d be without you.
Because, in words that lack decoration, lack equivocation, that are so straightforward as to almost be brutal, which encompass everything in the shortest possible statement but are simply beautiful, Asher’s lyrics and Wilson’s music recognise that love is about transformation, about becoming something which alone you are not and never can be.
And love transcends. Having contemplated but implicitly dismissed the notion that his love might not be eternal, the singer turns to the thought that her love might not be eternal. If you should ever leave me, Carl sings, though life would still go on, believe me (this is not a song to desecrate with the notion of any kind of death), the world could show nothing to me. For what good would living do me?
Instead of answering, when we all know the answer he would give, he repeats: God only knows what I’d be without you. Though by now we understand the import of that line.
So far, that gorgeous intro excepted, the music has been muted, rhythmic, the voice carrying the melody as the piano, a tambourine and the lightest of taps on the rims of the drums provide a propulsion that is joined by an organ playing a series of single notes.
Then the bridge cuts in, with a roll of drums and a hitherto unexpected melody, and for a brief moment voices chant, a Gregorian element, but still only three voices: Carl, Brian and Bruce Johnston, splitting the range into three parts. No Al Jardine, no Mike Love, no Dennis Wilson. Voices chant and cross, in true Beach Boy harmony, but only for a short space of time, until Carl repeats both his central question and that reinforcing verse that stipulates that, contrary to his opening line, this is eternal. This is love or nothing.
For a moment, the music tallies, reduced to Pete Townsend’s one note, pure and easy, and then the voices return, the same three voices, weaving into and out of each other, variations on that theme, all and part of that line, and it could go on forever and none would mind for the music holds and the voices sustain and there is no end to this melody, only a fade-out.
There are many who liken “God Only Knows” to a spiritual or religious experience, who take the love as being that all-consuming, transcendent love for the God-head, for the spirit. And the music and the sound is holy, even to those of us who have no faith, who believe in no god. This is religious music for all that it is a three minute pop song.
But to me, it is and always will be the love song beyond which there are no love songs, that says all that has to be said, that says to her that you have made me whole and complete, that you have given me something beyond description, that can only be felt, absorbed, lived, that together we are what neither of us could be and nothing could be greater than that.
God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You.