TV Century 21 – 2068

Now it’s 2068. TV Century 21 underwent a major revamp, changing its title to the commonly used TV21, its logo-box from blue to red (or rather scarlet) and abandoning the pseudo-newspaper look in favour of the appearance of an orthodox comic.
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was now the cover feature, a banner headline, a couple of colour panels and continued inside. But if you thought the format of Keith Watson’s ‘hybrid’ year on Dan Dare in Eagle was weird, it had nothing on this, with the story getting two black and white pages, and then a third in colour. Art by Ron Embleton still, of course, but not being well-served like this.
TV21 Stop Press was next up, the last remnant of the ‘newspaper’, then Special Agent Twenty-One’s strip was thoroughly revamped and re-named Magnet. The period was updated from 2045 to December 2067, Brent Cleever has retired from being head of the USS to a remote farm in Gloucestershire, where he’s still working on deadly toys, and also a robot which turns on him.
The Munsters and Thunderbirds remained unchanged, but Fireball XL5 was reduced to a two page prose serial. Mike Noble was off Zero-X again, Stingray still in black & white, but cut to a page and a half. And the comic was back to 20 pages with the back page devoted to a Spectrum feature page. Bilko and Front Page were gone. Overall, rather a difference. Issue 155 (6 January) also included a sixteen page free giveaway fact file booklet on Spectrum.

Spectrum cover

The second week of the new comic started to develop things a little further. The scarlet theme of the first cover gave way to lightish blue: obviously we were going to cycle through, groan, the spectrum. Cleever’s robot blew up the moment it touched him, because the former agent had been transformed into a magnetic man. What else should I have expected? This was 1968, and all Britain’s boys comics were going to have to have superpowered characters.
I remember none of this, a process not aided by the sudden shrinking of the DVD copies, with certain issues having two pages crammed side by side in a narrower range, making the lettering unreadable.
A feature on The Inventors in issue 164 (9 March) confirmed that I hadn’t given the comic up yet as I distinctly remember reading about Percy Shaw, the inventor of the cats eyes road reflectors. I also remembered elements of the current Thunderbirds story, in which the Hood appeared to have killed Brains but instead brainwashed him to give up International Rescue’s secrets, and mounted an attack on Tracey Island.
At this point, after 165 consecutive issues, I hit the first gap. Only two issues, mind, but given the brevity of the stories in Captain Scarlet, enough to cause massive disruption to following the flagship series. I picked up again with issue 168 (6 April), with the mystery of Colonel White’s kidnapping resolved (and Mike Noble now assigned to an irregular run on Captain Scarlet). Magnet was ending its story, or so it appeared from what little I could make of the compressed pages, but Stingray and Thunderbirds were ongoing.
Sadly, another link to issue 1 had come to an end, as Fireball XL5 had given way to another prose series, looking into the further future of 3031AD., after Earth has been devastated by a meteorite, and is trying to reconstruct itself in colonies on the Moon. Single stories each week related to Project SWORD.

The Brent Cleever series rebranded itself Mr Magnet the following week. Perhaps Cleever’s magnetic personality was having a rejuvenating effect upon him because, although this was supposed to be taking place twenty years after his adventures as Twenty-One, the grey temples had disappeared, along with the lines on his face and he was being drawn just as young as before.
Issue 171 (27 April) opened up a new feature, ‘The Critics’, inviting TV21 readers to send in mini-reviews of books and films. Predictably, these were dumb: a book review in which the reader complained that there wasn’t action in every chapter, a book should have action in every chapter, except maybe the first, and a filmgoer criticising ‘A Man for all Seasons’ for an emotional scene between Sir Thomas More and his wife because it was soppy (I suppose it was, after all he was about to be beheaded, down with this sort of thing). It wasn’t repeated. Meanwhile Project SWORD had a splendid b&w illustration from Ron Embleton to commend it.
Embleton was back on Captain Scarlet a week later, in a new and once more disappointingly short story: even with four pages per week, two-parters were just not good enough. This was a serious case of dumbing-down beyond the level at which the comic had usually operated.

Mr Magnet – how the mighty fall

The full-scale reproductions were finally resumed with issue 173 (11 May), making the physical side of reading the comic easy again, though the long struggle, coupled with the constantly changing front page colour scheme were frankly offputting. TV21 had lost its freshness, and the way Captain Scarlet – the series where the Anderson shows plateaued, leading to the eventual fade – was dominating the comic, far more so than even Thunderbirds had, was starting to puncture its quality.
Unfortunately, this upgrade lasts only two weeks before the DVD reverts to the horribly compressed reproductions.
There’s a second and even bigger gap in the DVD record,with only four widely separated issues available between issues 179 (22 June) and 196 (19 October). At the start of this lacuna, Captain Scarlet had just lost his second colour page, reverting to b&w. By the time continuous coverage resumed, the comic had undergone substantial changes, as a result of a merger with TV Tornado.
I’ll return to them in a moment, but I do want to mention one disturbing thing in issue 188 (21 August). A letters page, entitled Shades of Opinion (readers were Spectrum Shades), had five short letters all addressed to Colonel White, three with answers. One of the two left without a response was from London reader William Saxby, writing about his next door neighbour, a ‘black boy’ from Africa. William plays with him most days and he’s stayed for tea many times, but some of his other friends’ parents won’t let him play with their sons because he’s black. William asked if other Shades have the same thing, and who they think is right?
To me, that’s the model of a letter than demands an answer, and a positive one to boot. The comic gets half a point for printing it at all, but several minus ones from shying away from a statement. Did William change his mind about his friend because he didn’t get the support that, in his honest confusion, he was seeking? How can we know? I’d hate to think of that African lad losing what sounded like a good friend because that kid started to feel awkward about treating him naturally.
But, to be fair, issue 193 (21 September) did include follow-up letters to William Saxby, three agreeing wholeheartedly that racism was stupid, and the fourth half-endorsing not treating black differently from white, though that followed a totally racist claim that blacks shouldn’t be allowed in the country at all (because they immediately get free stuff, etc.): but if they are here, oh well, treat them equally. That was one confused kid.

Mike Noble, still on Zero-X

The merger, which took place in issue 192, appeared to displace Mike Noble from Captain Scarlet, whilst condemning Zero-X to another art change, the result being flat, banal and poorly coloured. Stingray, after a long, multi-phase serial featuring first Troy Tempest then him and Phones as fugitives framed as traitors, was lost, ending the last of the original series, whilst two tv-based black & white series switched over from TV Tornado, in the forms of The Saint (Roger Moore, naturally) and Tarzan (the Ron Ely version).
Thunderbirds and The Munsters survived intact, unfortunately in the case of the latter, which had run out of steam a long time previously, whilst the TV series had been cancelled two years previously.
The case of Captain Scarlet was distinctly odd. There was a clear discrepancy between the artists on the colour cover page and the black & white interiors, and even without his signature, which adorned Thunderbirds every week, the covers to 192 and 193 are clearly by Frank Bellamy. Yet by issue 196, Noble is back again, with an intriguing opening episode in which Captain Black returns to Spectrum, completely human and completely unaware of the Mysterons, Scarlet completely destroys their city on Mars and, after six months peace and quiet, the World President announces that Spectrum is being completely wound up as a separate organisation as no longer necessary, its equipment and personnel to be reassigned among the other services. Do you smell a rattus norvegicus?
Of course it’s a gigantic bluff, and the moment Spectrum is gone (as is Noble again), with Colonels Metcalf and Svenson of the World Security Patrol off on a year-long mission in Fireball XL19, the Mysterons explode out of hiding to take over Earth. But the whole menace is defeated in the third week, as one Colonel Zodiac (aww, they remembered) retrieved Scarlet and Blue and the former faced down the Mysterons in their retrometabolised city by threatening to destroy their retrometabliser and kill everyone, himself included. Three weeks, for a story like that: pathetic.
After the merger, the Project Sword stories grew shorter and ever more trivialised, having no room to explore any of the future scenario. The Saint and Tarzan strips were similarly too short, at a page and a half each. Captain Scarlet continued to be far too short in episodes for a satisfactory story, and was now playing musical artists. A couple of episodes looked like the work of Keith Watson, whilst the colour cover on issue 203 (7 December) was by Special Agent 21’s John Cooper (who got his signature in), but not the rest of the strip.
Meanwhile, Mike Noble popped up back on Zero-X in issue 197 (29 October), with the last of his work for TV21 in any of its guises.
And that was the state of play at the end of 2068. Much of TV21’s distinction was lost in giving it over so wholly to Captain Scarlet and Spectrum, which on the tv screen was not proving to be the onward progression from Thunderbirds that had been expected. The abandonment of the newspaper format, the loss of Stingray, the merger that brought in inferior series that were not in keeping with the SF oriented Anderson-verse, these were all things that slowly flattened the title out. Retaining Zero X was one plus point, but only insofar as it allowed Mike Noble to strut his colourful stuff: the stories, the lack of any discernible character, and the stodgy ship itself did not make for a classic.
Time was limited for TV21. The comic would not survive to reach the 2070s in any form recognisable. The next essay will mark the end of the series.

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