It’s now 2067. TV Century 21 starts its new year offering a FAB1 cover and a headline suggesting the Hood has been killed as a tie-in to the newly-released ‘Thunderbirds are Go’ film.
Inside we find Secret Agent 21 and his assistant Jack Reed (no Tina, he) still escorting their SOFRAM Head prisoner through the organisation’s determined attempts to kill him, part 3 of 4 film still strips telling the story of the big film and Moonshot Apollo part 14, still telling the tale of the planned expedition to the Moon. Next, My Favourite Martian, some ads and Catch or Kill, bringing us the the Thunderbirds centre-spread with Frank Bellamy. After that, The Munsters, Get Smart! and Fireball XL5, all in black and white, and Stingray in colour. Finally a couple of feature pages before The Daleks on the back page. I retract my notion that the replacement artist could have been Eric Eden: this guy’s colours are far too garish and shouty for anyone brought up by Frank Hampson.
Issue 105 (21 January) featured a free gift and another mini-revamp. After two years, My Favourite Martian (which had been cancelled in mid-1966) was dropped, as were The Daleks. Fireball XL5 took over their back page slot, restored to colour but reduced to one page, whilst Mike Noble also popped up on the new series, Zero-X, featuring the Mars exploration craft from the Thunderbirds film, making a second trip to the Red Planet.
Moonshot Apollo, having run its course, was replaced by Countdown 54321 (or 54321 Countdown: the logo isn’t explicit), supposedly matching up 2067 technology to the 1967 developments that led up to it: an amusing conceit for the ever-interesting science features.
Issue 107 (4 February) introduced a new one page comic strip, Wright (C.H.A.R.L.I.E.), about inept scientist Professor Wright and the inept inventions he comes up with for Central Headquarters, Atomic Research Liaison for Industrial Experimentation. No trees were ripped up by the contents of this strip.
Two weeks later, art duties on Fireball XL5 changed again, presumably because Mike Noble was having difficulties producing three full colour pages per week (even two was double Frank Hampson’s maxim). The new artist had a good, softer line and produced impressive work on faces, but Noble was the classic Fireball artist and the standard by which the strip was to be judged. In fact, after a couple of weeks study, my educated guess is none other than Don Lawrence. Which was confirmed by a signature in issue 113 (18 March).
Both up front stories were rocked by serious developments as Twenty-One’s former assistant Tina seemingly came back from the dead, only to prove to be a foreign agent to absolutely no-one’s surprise, and Captain Paul Travers was sentenced to death for wilful disobeyance of an order and would up on the run trying to uncover a world-threatening conspiracy. Travers ended up proving the existence of a would-be world-conquering conspiracy and getting both reprieved and reinstated.
But Twenty-One’s luck with assistants continued to be bad as Jack Reed was killed in issue 124 (21 June).
Given that Lady Penelope’s adventures during TV Century 21‘s first year were planned as a lead to Thunderbirds, there was a moment of retrospective recognition on the following issue’s cover, an above the headline announcement of a new expedition to Mars and the Rock Snake Hills that caused so many problems to the Zero-X in ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’. It’s commander was a new member of a top secret organisation. His title was Captain Black…
Another new artist took over Get Smart! in issue 128 (1 July), reintroducing a more representational look, which in the case of Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) was most welcome. Based on certain body poses used in the second week of his tenure, I suspect this to be Tom Kerr, later to draw Oddball Oates for Lion.
The new Stingray story starting in issue 129 (8 July) had me staring in disfavour, as typed narrative captions in the first three panels were credited with numbers, as was a fourth on page 2. All the other captions, much briefer than this quartet were in the traditional hand-lettering. This was either a sudden decision to treat the readers as infants who needed to be taught how to read comic strips, or else an embarrassing production cock-up.
The appearance of only one, unnumbered typescript caption, as an unboxed catch-up the following week would appear to confirm the latter.
The Countdown 54321 feature in issue 130 (15 July) had a visionary subject, as it looked at the use of solar energy in 2067, as it sprang from small beginnings a hundred years earlier. With an opening line of “Now that the Earth’s resources of coal, oil and natural gas have declined to practically nothing…”, it was both delightfully prescient and horribly depressing, when you remember that in over half that period in a children’s comic we have still to get to grips with that danger.
A week later, Agent Twenty-One and his Chief, S (Steve Zodiac Senior) foiled an attempted military takeover of the United States, intent on withdrawing it from the World Government. Both men were injured, and as a consequence, both were retired, S from the USS and Twenty-One from active service, to replace him as USS Chief. That looked like the end of the series, except that there was still a To Be Continued box at the bottom of the strip’s second page.
At the same time, Mike Noble vanished from Zero-X, after one episode of a new story: not permanently, thankfully, as he would be back after a four week absence. His replacement was sadly inadequate.
Countdown 54321 was renamed simply Countdown in issue 132 (29 July): Carol Vorderman was only six. But this was a one-week phenomenon. And Wright (C.H.A.R.L.I.E.) disappeared to be replaced by R.E.Cord, supposedly the amateur sportsman who’s always on the ball. In terms of both story and art it made the unlamented Professor Wright look like Thunderbirds.
And Catch or Kill also disappeared without warning, though not John Burns, retained for Front Page. This new series, which had been subtly trailed for weeks, in a Contact Twenty-One feature about the staff of TV21, actually featured the magazine itself, as a 2067 newspaper. A mysterious stranger turns up at the editorial offices, claiming to dream disasters (i.e., past TV21 stories) the night before they happen, and predicting a fire at Liverpool Spaceport that duly happens.
The following week, the comic led with a ‘news’ story, and a blurred photo, of two unusual aircraft piloted by women pilots, attacking a British target jet. Like the Captain Black newsflash, there was nothing about it inside, but the ground was very definitely being prepared for something that would appear on ITV Midlands the following month.
And inside, an advert on page 8 told us to Beware the Mysterons, though it directed us to Solo, a short-lived boys comic, for the details.
Countdown 54321 in issue 134 (12 August) was another of those still rare moments that I remember from the Sixties, comparing jet-liners, with 1967’s Concorde being set up as a forerunner of the already known Fireflash.
Twenty-One’s elevation to chief of the USS lasted only until issue 135 (19 August), when the status quo ante was restored. Simultaneously, Mike Noble resumed duties on Zero-X, and Countdown 54321 was re-named Then and Now. The following week, John Cooper left Special Agent 21 in the hands of someone completely inadequate to replace him.
Issue 137 (2 September) devoted its entire front page to foreshadowing the newest Anderson series. Captain Black’s Mars Expedition was announced lost, an artist’s impression of something we would very soon recognise as Cloudbase was shown and an ‘editorial’ demanded answers about a new, super-secret organisation, identified by a stylised S badge. Spectrum was very nearly here.
And there didn’t look like being much longer to wait. The current Front Page story ended in issue 138 (9 September) with reporter Pete Tracker being summoned back for an urgent assignment in Nice, investigating a mysterious craft 50,000 feet above Nice. Indeed, a week later, Twenty-One sacrificed his second page for the first official announcement of Spectrum, without, as yet, any mention of any other Captains in the organisation.
The same issue added a most improbable third TV cartoon page, in the form of Sgt. Bilko, another one-pager looking to be drawn by Tom Kerr. Properly The Phil Silvers Show on TV, Bilko had no more fantastic content than had Burke’s Law, but the timing was also implausible: the show had originally been broadcast in America from 1955 to 1959, and had been a staple repeat on BBC1 from 1961 until March 1967. It’s appearance as a British produced strip six months later in an SF comic is completely inexplicable. Maybe Alan Fennell was simply a Bilko fan? (I know I was). Actually, it was a refugee from the aforementioned and now failed Solo. At least it replaced the hopeless R.E.Cord.
Issue 140 (23 September) was a set-up for change. All serials came to an end. Captain Black’s disappearance on his return to Earth was woven into and explained by Front Page, leading to the scoop headlines of the previous week. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was advertised as a new TV in October and a new strip in issue 141. It was not a revamp as Lion did them, but another new TV21 was on the way.
Captain Scarlet was on the cover. Stingray suffered another loss of prestige, moved to pp 2-3 but reduced to B&W with yet another art change. Front Page was hauled back to one page and The Munsters had another change of artist. Captain Scarlet’s series leapt into the centrespread with a very welcome return for Ron Embleton. Fireball XL5 moved inside again, and like Stingray was also converted to black and white: either I’m very mistaken or Tom Kerr was being kept very busy by the comic. Thunderbirds, at any rate, kept its page length, its colour and its artist, though Frank Bellamy had to draw two individual pages now. Special Agent 21 got his second page and John Cooper back, whilst the back page was a 3D Spectrum photo from the TV series.
And, for the first time since its inception, TV21 got an increase in page count, to 24, and still for the original 7d!
Indeed, I was right about Tom Kerr on Fireball XL5 because the following week, he was allowed to sign his page.
Moving on to issue 145 (28 October), this was another of those rare instances where I have a recollection, and for me a poignant one. The Then and Now feature compared rock-climbing in 1967 and 2067, and it was a feature that caught my mountain-climbing Dad’s interest. I remember him poring over it, impressed. I’ve been waiting for that page to appear.
Meanwhile, Tom Kerr didn’t last long on Fireball XL5, replaced in the same issue 145, the change being a clear downgrade to someone who did not have the facility of converting puppet faces into realistic-looking ones.
As the year wound down, issue 150 (2 December) saw the newspaper concept extended into a wraparound, incorporating the back cover. This made room for a mention of a Lady Penelope assignment, presumably tying in with her ongoing series in her own title.
And then the year was over, in promises of a new look TV Century 21 coming in 2068. Get Smart! didn’t quite make it to the end, and all the series were run-down to the end of their current stories, some of them very brief, in readiness.
After just short of three years, TV Century 21 was well-established and still popular, thanks to the ongoing success of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s world of futuristic puppets and machines. 2067 was the year of Captain Scarlet. The comic didn’t go quite as overboard on him and Spectrum as it had Thunderbirds, but International Rescue were still, and have always been the Anderson’s biggest and most successful creation.
As the year went on, both Fireball XL5 and Stingray underwent further downgrades, unsurprising really given the increasing amount of time since they had ceased production and appearing on our TV screens. But it was surprising that the comic began to include more original features, away from the Anderson Universe. The success of these were mixed: Catch or Kill and Front Page were decent mainly for their art, whilst I won’t even deign to re-mention the two comic pages.
The Zero X strip was more like it, but even that was because of the scope it gave Mike Noble for his ebullient art. Zero X and its crew did have their roots in ‘Thunderbirds are Go’, but they had only a limited role, as victims, and not one of the four regular characters had the least personality upon which to build their own series.
But still my verdict is as before, to which I’d add the nuance that in general, TV Century 21 does help to blanderise itself by the length of its stories. Where Lion frequently made the mistake of dragging its stories out far too long, TV Century 21 keeps them short, far too short for anything except action. Six weeks or thereabouts is not enough to build a story of decent intricacy. The comic treats its readers as kids, which almost all of them were, anyway, but it plays safe of matters of their concentration, and lets them down in that sense.
Still, there would be changes made for the next year of operations: what would they be?