They’ve been around for quite a while, since 2016 in fact, and they’ve been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra as well as being issued in rather expensive triple CD boxsets. The pair of these, each comprising three full-length episodes, have been around my compacted dwelling space for quite a while too, albeit measured in months rather than years, awaiting time amongst all the other things I do for me to just sit down and listen undistracted. Now I have begun and, late though it may be, I’m going to set out my response.
The Dan Dare The Audio Adventures Project was set up by B7 Media, using a team of scripters, with Andrew Mark Sewell as Director and Simon Moorehead as Producer. B7 have a lot of experience in SF Audio books, having done a number of Dr Who projects beforehand. However, I have to give them massive black marks for Volume One for claiming that Dan Dare was created by the Reverend Marcus Morris and only ‘written and drawn’ by Hampson. Dare was entirely Hampson’s work and Morris gave him full credit for creating everything about the character. It got my back up a long way.
Six stories have been produced, each taking their titles and at least the shells of the subjects of Frank Hampson’s original Eagle stories in mostly chronological order. I remember reading brief synopses of the planned stories, which had been freely adapted. Indeed, there’s a charmingly self-congratulatory note from episode 1 scripters Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle about the sterling ways in which they’d not just updated Dan Dare to accomodate changes in scientific knowledge and technology in the years since his debut, but how they’ve revised the whole thing to put female characters on a par with male and to remover ‘all traces of cap-doffing class deference’ out of the Dan/Digby relationship. I reserve making comment.
Anyway, what of the actual adaptation? Let me credit the good things first. The acting is generally excellent throughout, though I have reservations about Geoffrey McGivern’s portrayal of Digby, though much of that has to do with the writing of the character. Ed Stoppard (son of playwright Tom) is very good as Dan himself whilst Icelandic actress Heida Reed plays Professor Peabody. These three are the central characters, alongside Raad Rawi fighting his way through several effects as The Mekon and Bijan Dameshmand arriving late as Sondar but clearly intended for a more major role in the ongoing series. The acting is good, the production very clear and precise and the effects effective.
Those are the good things.
You all know me as a lifelong Dan Dare fan, wedded inextricably to the original Frank Hampson version of the character. Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle say the character had to be updated. I say that’s not necessarily true. BBC Radio once did a four part play, which I also have, that adapted the first story pretty closely, so it can be done without dipping into satire and cynicism about older and simpler ideals. But I’m not so stupid as to imagine that most attempts at a modern Dan Dare will be of a modern Dan Dare. That means changes.
There are three principle types of change that have gone into this episode. Advances in scientific knowledge and technology have been catered for. They preserve the science of the original stories from seeming foolishly outdated. These I am ok with. The other two types, changes of character and of plot, which are inter-related, are much more serious and for me, only Dan Dare, of the central cast of characters, remains a fair representation of the character worthy of the name. He’s solid, he’s intelligent, he thinks quickly, he is an inveterate optimist, free of cynicism. Overall, he tends more to the flippant that the original, but he never goes OTT with this, and at least one of his quips is laugh-out-loud funny, if rather obvious. In the comic, these lines would have come from Digby, but we don’t have that Digby with us.
However, cynicism is the word I would apply, in spades, to both Professor Peabody and Lieutenant, not Spaceman, Digby, though both of them would prefer it if you called them pragmatic. I’ll go into these interpretations in a little more detail shortly, but their ‘remaking’ is part and parcel with the overall episode.
It’s the same old story. This is a perfectly good, in fact probably very enjoyable radio SF series crucified by having Dan Dare and other quasi-random names attached to it surgically when these names lack the associations they’re earned. Dan is the only character to remain properly true to his original: everyone and everything else is no more than a label.
As for the story, it is, naturally, about Earth’s first contact with Venus and the first encounter with the Treen (not Treens, the name is here plural instead of singular) and their Supreme Leader, the Mekon (whose title is Supreme Leader, not Mekon, mking the name by which he is known illogical). That’s all the similarities, though. As for the set-up, where do I begin? Practically every detail has been changed. Let me try.
Ten years ago, due to a spaceship crash on Birmingham, for which the Pilot, William Dare, left on life support ever since, was scapegoated, the ISF (Interplanetary Space Fleet). His son Dan, a Colonel and a Test Pilot (Colonel in what? Test Pilot for what? Never explained) is committed to clearing his father’s name (resemblances to Geoff Johns’ revised origin for the Barry Allen Flash, written 2009, 100%). He also applies to be transferred to ISF every year on the anniversary of the disaster even though it no longer exists, because he believes it will once again.
He is unaware that seven years previously an alien spacecraft crashed in Lancashire, chock full of advanced alien technology and instructions from Sondar on Venus, explaining how to build a spaceship to travel to Venus and meet him. ISF was revived, secretly, still under Sir Hubert (we assume Guest, his surbame is not mentioned) but supported by private enterprise – the Eagle Corporation, natch – who leading scientist and premier free-market worshipper and all-round corporate shill is Professor Peabody (Jocelyn, mentioned once). Dan will pilot both the ship to Venus and the massive publicity campaign over the return to space, because he has a pretty face.
Meanwhile, very much against Dan’s wish, the final member of the crew is Lieutenant Digby (we assume Albert, also not mentioned, probably too old-fashioned). What Digby is Lieutenant of is never mentioned: we assume it’s of ISF since Sir Hubert sends him to fetch Dare, but then Dare is disgusted by him because he represents military brass, and is the warmongerer and weapons master on the mission.
I think that is enough to demonstrate just how different the audio adventure is to the original story. Only the shell of the latter is preserved. Nevertheless, I have one more serious example to put before you, and that’s The Mekon. Yes, he’s the Supreme Intelligence behind the Treen but he is portrayed as almost a benevolent dictator. He runs everything and everyone along lines devised by himself and which guarantee an orderly and peaceful environment for his subjects. He has no desire to take over Earth, not yet anyway.He is content where he is. As for Sondar, he’s a terrorist.
This is a much-diminished version of the Mekon, and I have to say that he loses traction by being only heard and not seen: the brilliance of the character and his true menace lay, like the Daleks over decade later, in his being simultaneously an easy shape/design to recognise yet by that being utterly unhuman. And it is painful to listen to both Peabody and Digby calling him ‘Supreme Leader’ (Christ, no!) and theformer sucking up to him and talking about corporate mergers, sharing his technology and off about ‘No profit, no freedom’.
Yes, true colours come out at the end. The Mekon intends to send the Earthmen back home infected with a disgusting, fatal, rapid-spreading virus that will trigger as soon as they’re in Earth orbit and basically kill off the entire population, leading Peabody to flutters of self-disgust at how she could even have thought of collaborating with him, but by then she has touched pitch.
And as for the Mekon, once he’s forced into flight off-planet by Dare’s ingenious trick that raises the Treen mindlessly against him, he decides on revenge by taking over the entire solar system: better late than never. Meanwhile, he’s taken the only virus antidote with him, so Dare, Peabody and Digby can’t go homde and are forced to go chasing after him, thus setting up the sequel.
So, overall, the same old story. A potentially good audio adventure crippled by tagging it to an existing creation with only minimal and superficial connection to the original, mostly in name only. Why do that? The audience that knows Dan Dare will only be offended, the audience that doesn’t won’t know the difference. Give the characters new names – if you have a spark of originality in you. After all, based on the first episode at least, this is substatially the best effort I’ve seen, read or hurt – in its own terms.
So I’ll make a point of listening to the test of the series, and I’ll drag out the BBC radio series as well, of which I think I’ve got two DVDs. I shall keep you posted.