Dan Dare: The Report of the Cryptos Commission

Before going on to consider some of the later Dan Dare stories that supplement the canon, I’d like first to look at a fan project that I find absolutely fascinating, and which is an invaluable piece of work in formulating an overarching continuity that brings together the vast majority of the preceding stories into a continuity that fits.
I’ve said before that ‘continuity’, a frequently exaggerated concern for the consistency of stories and series created by multiple writers and artists, is primarily an American concept, introduced at Marvel Comics in the early Sixties as an attractive and intriguing promotion tool, creating the impression of an integrated story background. It’s subsequently been fetishised, with uncountable stories created out of nothing more inspired than the urge to reconcile a minor contradiction between issues published years apart, but it’s permeated the whole comics world.
It clearly wasn’t a concern for Frank Hampson, and any of those who followed him. Visual continuity was paramount, and a fundamental element in Hampson’s insistence on presenting the fantastic in as realistic a manner as possible, but beyond certain broad-brush elements, not an influence in story-telling. In succession, the Mercurians, the Thorks of Saturn and the Cosmobes appear, and once their story is done, vanish almost completely, which scant concern for the effect of having such people exist in a joined-up Solar System.
New Zealand fan Denis Steeper was one of those fans who wanted to devise a continuity that would plausibly, logically and entertainingly draw together all the disparate strings left in loose ends. This was originally intended as an article for Eagle Times, the quarterly magazine published by and for Eagle fans, but the project expanded beyond the scope of an article and eventually saw the light as an independent, 110 page ring-bindered publication under the name The Report of the Cryptos Commission.
There are many among Dan Dare fandom who dislike TRCC, and accuse it of being boring and long-winded. Given that it’s framed around a Formal Report by an Investigatory Commission into the seemingly limited subject of the Crypts and Phants and the truth behind what they did tell Earth, that’s hardly surprising. Steeper himself points out that it’s not meant to be dramatic as such.
The Report itself forms the majority of TRCC but Steeper elects to present it as having been a secret report, not made publicly available until 2041, thirty years later, and now published with historical commentary by Dr Nigel Dare (Dan’s nephew from The Big City Caper), and it’s via these ‘footnotes’, amalgamated with the Appendix on the Dramatis Personae that he is able to both open up Dan Dare’s Universe and create a framework that pulls together nearly all the stories and the short stories from Annuals and other Specials up to 1966 into a single time-line that can also be projected past Dan’s promotion to Controller.
The first step is to establish a historical background for Dan’s Earth, in which Great Britain remains the pre-eminent power all the way into the Twenty-First Century. To achieve this, Steeper reasons, would require a greater level of stable, intelligent governance of Great Britain, which he chooses to create by ensuring that the Plantagenet Dynasty retains the Throne of Britain, offering strong, wise leadership over centuries.
The divergence comes at Castle Chaluz, where in our world, Richard Lionheart dies, beseiging the castle, when struck by a sniper’s arrow, delivering the Crown to King John with all its consequent effects. To divert history from this course, Steeper conjures up a fire-breathing machine, crewed by green dragons (obviously Treens) that scares the shit out of both armies, resulting in the siege being lifted, Richard returning to England and, in due course, passing the crown to his son, Arthur II.
With John out of the succession, a permanent peace is negotiated with France, a centuries-long Concordat. England retains Normandy. There is no Civil War. With France on their side, Britain repels the American Revolution. When the move to self-determination becomes unstoppable (displacing the American Civil War), it is 1865. Cooler British heads agree this, binding America into the three-way Alliance, alongside France as junior partners. The Empire spreads.
But it takes more than a single change to so comprehensively alter history across so great a period. Steeper knows this well enough. Despite the fact that England and France dominate Europe so, the First World War still takes place, built on German expansionism. The Russian Tsardom still collapses, but Communism is avoided by the expedient of having Lenin and Trotsky shot through the head in 1917, allowing the fragile Democratic Government room to breathe and survive.
Steeper is, to me, on shakier ground by having Hitler rise in Germany and the Second World War happen. It’s an absolute necessity in Dan’s world, a fixed point, but the changes he has already made mitigate in every respect against the creation of the circumstances that brought about Nazi Germany. Sensibly, given that this section is intended as a broad sweep of counter-factual history that’s not intended to delve into detailed arguments, he doesn’t seek to justify Hitler’s War (nor does he at any time encompass the Japanese end of business): it happens, and from its ending, Dan’s world as we know and have seen it in Eagle begins to grow as Hampson outlined.
As history it’s a perfectly good account, though if I’m being honest, I have my qualms about it. Being something of a History buff (Grade 1 O-level, Grade A A-Level, Grade 2 S-Level) there are things beneath the deliberately superficial level that I can’t ignore.
By extending the Plantagenet line into centuries of wise and enlightened rule, Steeper places a massive weight upon Kingship and extends its importance in Great Britain – and, by inference, the world – in a manner that should make a greater difference than shows.
Say what you like about King John’s reign, and many have, it brought forth Magna Carta, the first brake or fetter upon the King’s temporal power. And though this was solely for the benefit of the Barons and the Aristocracy at first, it was nevertheless the forerunner of Democracy in England, and the Parliamentary system (which some say are incompatible institutions, but let’s not digress that far).
Replace John with a wise and good King, too good to warrant opposition, and from where comes Democracy? Where comes the need to place a check on the King’s power if the King is handling it well and smartly, an endless succession of Captain Carrots as in Discworld? Where comes a concern for and by the common people if paternalistic government succeeds too well? Only Injustice creates progress: despite Steeper’s confidence in the Plantagenets, I find it hard to see myself where Democracy gains a foothold. The Upper Classes are not noted for their willingness to cede power to those they think of as their inferiors.
This train of thought is repeated in sharper focus with Steeper’s solution to the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalinism and the Cold War. In isolation, it’s far too simplistic: the social pressures and concerns that wove together to create the conditions for the October Revolution threw up Lenin, Trotsky and their fellow revolutionaries, but by that token they mean that you can’t kill Communism (and by implication, Socialism) by shooting two people in the head.
But, of course, given the change in history engendered by Richard Lionheart’s extended reign, do the circumstances that gave rise to Marxism etc. still pertain? The only argument is circular: Lenin and Trotsky are still important enough to warrant execution. And what of Mao Zedong, and Chinese Communism?
Of course, I’m reading far too much into this alternate history than I should. Part of it comes from differing political instincts. Steeper, from what he puts into TRCC, is considerably more Conservative than I. There is a King behind Great Britain, and rather more titles. There is, nor has there ever been, a Labour Party. The world is divided between Liberal and Conservative, and whilst I accept fully the post-Treen holocaust assumption of Conservative dominance, I can’t share any enthusiasm for it, not even in fiction.
I’ve probably spent far more time on that aspect of TRCC than I should, since its main objective is to codify Dan Dare’s adventures into a coherent chronology.
The framework is, as I’ve said, that of a major inquiry into the Crypts and Los-System. Steeper has a fine old time of it, constructing an elaborate theory predicated on the assumption that everything Lero ever told any Earthman is untrue (without being a lie). It’s a fine mystery, sometimes too intensely analysed, and Steeper elevates the status of the seemingly humble and simple Crypts in the saga, whilst accounting for their subsequent removal from the series (except for the odd background appearance here or there in stories clearly not tied to the Man from Nowhere Trilogy).
Steeper’s second construct has a similar, though more urgent purpose, and this is to account for the absence of Saturn. The series begins in the Inner Planets, Venus, Mars and Mercury in quick succession, and whilst the Mercurians drop out of sight immediately, this is not surprising. They are vastly different from the other races, and suited only for conditions on their home planet, so it’s understandable that they stay under the radar.
But the civilisation of Saturn, the mixture of colours and politics, the aristocratic, even feudal system across its Nine Moons, makes it as major a power as the parent planet is within the Solar System. Numidol’s absence as a factor in future tales is inexplicable.
But Steeper’s answer is so obvious as to be implicit in Hampson’s story. Red Tharl’s overthrow of Lo Rootha ti Numidol and Vora is not the end but a beginning. Tharl has Nine Moons, nine cultures, almost nine political systems to unite under his rule, and Steeper’s invention of the Union Wars is less an invention than a teasing out of the obvious. It would be less realistic, having concluded Operation Saturn in the indeterminate state Hampson leaves the Nine Moons, if peace and a strong factor in the Outer Planets were the instant result.
This explanation is vital to the larger story of the Mekon’s successful conquest of Earth, and the ensuing Treen Holocaust. If Saturn is such a major power, and Tharl an ally of Earth, how and why did he not come to our planet’s assistance. By distracting, and weakening him at the only point where he might have made a difference, Steeper not only justifies Saturn’s absence from events but extends the difference beyond the final resolution of the Union Wars, as Earth regards Saturn with suspicion and resentment.
Steeper has much more to do in establishing the basis for the Mekon’s success in 2002. After all, if we’re being reasonable, Dan Dare’s absence, with only one ally who has previous experience of thwarting Ol’ Greenbean, is not the be-all and end-all of Earth’s defeat.
But instead of devising an approach that explains the 2002 victory alone, Steeper goes for a much more expansive, over-arching backstory, of which the invasion of Earth is but an element, a part of the web and warp, the rise and fall of the Mekon’s plans over several decades. And he achieves this brilliantly from the least promising, indeed latest of materials, Laszlo Romanov.
Yes, the blind, cliched controller of the exceedingly dull FIST, introduced by Keith Watson and the un-named writer of ‘Give me the Moon!’ Steeper extrapolates backwards from Laszlo to his late father, Magnus Romanov, of ‘Big M’ Industries, and retrofits the Dan Dare saga to a long, detailed, plan of conquest and treachery that takes in so many stories into one conspiracy.
By bringing Romanov into the picture shortly after Dan Dare first liberates Venus, Steeper provides  the Mekon with access to the necessary resources to plan and ultimately execute a robot-based Blitzkrieg on Earth. Romanov’s resources, together with the plans and constructions of the Last Three on Venus are an unassailable foundation. It also enables Steeper to tie together stories from several Annuals as being short-term disruptive elements under the aegis of the overall plan.
It even allows Steeper to account for that mysterious, indeed all-too-convenient disappearance of the Mekon’s invasion fleet at the end of The Moonsleepers. With the Last Three destroyed, the remnants of Big M Industries become the Mekon’s major source of war materials, but Laszlo Romanov has not forgiven the Mekon for the betrayal of his father…
I’m very impressed with this aspect of TRCC, which justifies the entire project in this aspect alone. Steeper’s attention to detail in attaching so many stories to this continuing thread, without adding to or distorting the originals, is reminiscent of George MacDonald Fraser’s consummate ability to insert Flashman into so many areas of history without disturbing actual historical detail.
The other big area of Dan Dare history that Steeper addresses in TRCC is the Sargasso Sea of Space that appears without warning between Venus and Mercury, and which contains so many derelict craft of extraordinary design. Given its potential for stories, it’s astonishing that Frank Hampson never returned to it: few would have complained if, instead of The Phantom Fleet, Alan Stranks would have gone straight back to the Sargasso and, as we’ll see before very long, others set out to repair this omission.
What Steeper does is to link this area in to the Red Moon – which was destroyed between Venus and Mercury – and centre both the asteroid and the Sargasso around a miniature black hole, a gravity well for craft drawn to the Red Moon, and subsequently.
It also gives him a way of accounting for the appearance of the Tempus Frangit, a near spherical spaceship, whose design closely echoes a completely spherical craft abandoned in the Sargasso. Let this craft be a hitherto unsuspected time craft…
So, The Report of the Cryptos Commission. It might have its flaws, some of which I’ve referred to, but in its overall effect it’s a superb document that draws together almost all the original saga into a purposeful narrative and not a series of disjointed adventures, the effects of which having no bearing upon succeeding stories.
As I’ve mentioned in passing, Steeper has omitted three stories from this account, being, in order, The Earth-Stealers, The Web of Fear and The Menace from Jupiter. Operation Earth-saver very nearly missed the cut, but in the end survived, and the effects of The Earth-Stealers do stand in the chronology, transformed into another Mekon assault on Earth.
Steeper also has fun with the order of the stories. Up to and including The Platinum Planet, the print order is sacrosanct, but thereafter he has distributed some of the Watson-era stories to decidedly achronological places in the timeline, to entertaining effect. And he’s soared into imagination by adverting to numerous stories that tale place after Dan’s elevation to Controller (which, at this stage, is only Controller (UK), with further promotion yet to come).
Some of these latterday stories, and a couple of invented stories from within the main continuity, have since come into being, and I’ll be looking at a couple of these next, including stories Steeper has written himself.
But before getting onto these additions to the continuity, there is a professional effort to consider.

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