Thankfully, for the last of the quintet of short stories that Motton and Watson executed between 1962 and 1963, Operation Darkstar was both a change of pace and a significant improvement on what had gone immediately before.
This time, there is no threat to the world. Indeed, Dan Dare and Digby are allowed to leave the immediate environs of Planet Earth for the first time since Odhams were still masters, and not just the Earth but the Solar System.
The cause of this is the discovery of a ‘Dark Star’, i.e. a sun going through its dying phase, transmitting previously hard-to-detect radiation. Professor Julian Egon has discovered such a star, far nearer to Earth than any previously detected, with a single planet orbiting it. Dan is put in command of a two ship expedition to explore the planet and collect scientific date.
Dan’s ship, with Digby and his crew, will take off first, with the second ship following after a fourteen day interval. The commander of the second ship is Captain Egon, son of the star’s discoverer who, in that capacity, requests the honour of being the first man onto the planet. Dan’s perfectly willing to concede that honour (even though Egon’s main objective is glory), but command insists on seniority. This leaves Egon fuming, since he considers himself just as good as Dan Dare, so he engineers an accident which sees Dan laid up with a broken ankle, for fourteen days.
So commands are swapped. Egon takes Dan’s ship, with Digby, who spends the whole time on the wrong side of the arrogant Egon, Dan follows in Egon’s ship. He’s going to be needed to save the day, because when the ship commanded by Egon finds itself trying to land on a sea of oil, Egon’s panic crashes it into the mountains.
Dan’s temporary command includes spacemen Newcombe – an everyday, competent crewman – and Mumper who, as his name gives away, is a constant pessimist and complainer. This ship lands on the other side of the Oil ocean but in a crevasse, where it promptly suffers an avalanche. But on the Dark Star planet, the rocks are amazingly light and friable, there is no atmosphere above two thousand feet and water is at a premium, and has to be boiled down from the rocks.
Dan makes friends with the local natives, who agree to rescue the ship in return for half the water supplies. They also supply a kind of helicopter to take Dan and the crew across the ocean to find Digby, Egon and the others. They have fallen into the hands of another all-purpose dictator, Naz the Tyrant, who is working them like slaves. Egon, unlike Dan, hasn’t yet come up with an escape plan, possibly because he’s too busy eyeing up the waste-products of the water-bearing rock: gold, jewels, precious metals…
But Dan masterminds a rescue and is piloting everyone away, until one last warrior gets on board. His gun is trained on Dan, who calmly plots out for everyone to take advantage of his death to seize control and overpower the alien. This is too much for Egon who, awakened to decency and honour at the last, intercedes to sacrifice himself, dying in overcoming the warrior.
Everyone returns safely, with tons of precious gold etc, but on strict water-rationing all the way back, much to Digby’s consternation.
Operation Darkstar is a simple, straightforward story, with a slightly predictable cad-redeems-himself twist at the end. It’s got its flaws, mainly in the unexplained areas: where is the Dark Star, how far off, why are the two ships setting off at fortnightly intervals, and there’s a Hampson-shaped hole at the end the size of a Jumbo Jet in the way Dan flies back to Earth, leaving the planet’s inhabitants to go on eking out a vanishing water supply on a dying world whose atmosphere is shearing away, and instead of trying to assist, he runs off with the money.
But apart from that, it’s harmless, inoffensive and not actively stupid.
Watson had kept the faith. His commitment to Dan Dare had provided a rallying point for the strip’s readers. There was something worthwhile to keep coming back for, every week, so they kept coming back, and they kept demanding Dan be restored to the cover, be restored to colour. They were almost on the point of being rewarded.