I never expected to get to read this book, given that it is rare, in demand among Eagle fans and usually bloody expensive. But a copy in decent nick came up on eBay in the ruin-up to Xmas, with a cheap starting price and very little interest. Including the P&P, it cost me less than a tenner.
The book also doesn’t have a high reputation as either a Dan Dare adventure or an SF novel in general. Having read some of the criticisms, they are valid, but I did enjoy it and I have a better impression of it than the run of Eagle fans.
Basil Dawson was the real name of Don Riley, who received a one-week billing when he took over the writing of Dan Dare during ‘Operation Saturn’, when Frank Hampson’s second lengthy illness took him away from his artboard. Hampson had originally envisaged at anti-eugenics story, but all elements of that disappeared and the serial proceeded along more conventional lines.
Dan Dare on Mars was Dawson’s only novel. It’s set in 2002, after ‘Operation Saturn’ and before ‘Prisoners of Space’. That it didn’t come out until 19656, by which time Dan was on Cryptos, deeply involved with the Phant invasion, suggests to me that the book was held back for some time after its completion before being issued.
The book’s been described as basically a detective story (Dan paraphrases Sherlock Holmes’ most over-quoted line at one point) with a few, unimportant technical details added to make it appear SF. Whilst elements of that are true, I think it shortchanges the book to describe it thus.
The story starts with an utter disaster on Mars: all airtight domes are cracked open and the entire human population disappears, presumed dead. But there is a more serious problem over and above the colossal loss of life: apart from a few, decreasing sites on Earth, monopolised by the World Helenium Corporation, Earth’s major source of helenium are the mines on Mars. As Dan succinctly puts it, without helenium, there are no impulse waves, and without these, no fleets of ships bringing food from Venus daily.
Dan leads a task force to restore the mines and investigate the disaster. The civilian helenium experts are led by Torval, the senior engineer at the World Helenium Corporation. Right from the start, Torval rubs Dan the wrong way up, but only he suspects the man of active obstructions, despite a number of improbable events, including a messenger from Dan’s archaeologist Uncle, Ivor, still digging on Mars, being killed in the Chief Pilot’s office, nobody takes his concerns seriously.
Sir Hubert Guest is a background figure, and Professor Peabody (referred to only as Peabody throughout the narration) has a substantial supporting role as the liaison between the Spacefleet and civilian sides, but otherwise this is a two-hander for the Old Firm, Dan and Digby: there’s not even a passing reference to Hank or Pierre. And naturally, Dan turns out to be completely right about Torval’s motives: the man is out to render Mars helenium inaccessible permanently, in order to create an expensive monopoly and consequent overwhelming political power for his company.
The solution involves a decently clever insertion into Dan Dare’s continuity, albeit one that remains forever non-canon. There is a surviving race of Martians, the Pleons, who have been underground for the last 200,000 years. The Pleons were the smart Martians, the ones who saw the Red Moon coming and nipped underground to get out of the way.
Torval and co have been trying to whip the Pleons up into a war-like frenzy against the rapacious, militarised earthmen, coming to steal their planet and enslave them, and it takes all Dan’s efforts, aided by Uncle Ivor and the emollient Peabody to avert all-out planetary war, and reset things back to zero.
Not massively brilliant by any means, but better than a lot of the weaker Eagle serials (unlike Eric Eden, Dawson at least knew how to handle an ending). I liked Dawson’s handling of the military and planning aspect of Dan’s task force, and I thought his handling of the relationship between Dan and Dig to be on the mark. He’s obviously no great literary stylist, but I found him proficient.
And of course this is a novel aimed at Eagle‘s junior readership, written in the 1950s and shot through with the attitudes of the time, not to mention references to people like Gilbert Harding. The worst you can say of it is that, given its context, it’s no better than you’d expect, but even from my vastly different perspective, I found it pleasant and not insulting light reading, and I welcome it from more than the completist’s stance.
It’s a decade now since the surprisingly successful Virgin Comics attempt to revive Dan Dare in a form acceptable to the contemporary age, and now Titan Comics have discarded the habit of a lifetime, of only publishing comics that have been successful for other people, and have hired Peter Milligan to write and Alberto Foche to draw a new series.
This time, we’re looking at four issues, so that if it’s a disaster, at least it will be brief. Today’s visit to Forbidden Planet included the first issue, so I want to record a few immediate impressions.
Garth Ennis, ten years ago, seemed an improbable writer for a traditionally ‘straight’ character who was born out of the desire to present a truly clean-cut cut, moral yet still quite human hero for young boys, yet he understood the ideals of the Pilot of the Future came from and respected Dan Dare, and his version was worthy of revival.
Milligan, on the other hand, has always been an iconoclast, an underminer of all things established, and a trickster of a writer. I’ve read very little of his work, it just not being to my taste, so I was doubtful of the choice from the moment I heard of this.
His set-up does, at first, promise a different approach. For one, there is no Prime Minister appearing as a veiled depiction of David Cameron or even, thanks all the ghosts of Spacefleet, Theresa May. On the other hand, we have the Mekon: of course we’ve got the Mekon, we always have the Mekon. It’s like only ever having Doctor Who face up to the Daleks.
Milligan’s included a lot of the old cast already: Dan, Digby, Peabody, Hank Hogan, Sir Hubert, Flamer Spry, though he’s jumbled some of them around. Digby, or ‘Digs’ is now an engineer and openly calls his Colonel ‘Dan’, Peabody’s a Special Science Advisor who walks around in uniform and carries big guns, and Dan only ever calls her Peabody. Hank’s had one line so far, and already sounds out of character.
Then there’s the Mekon. Milligan’s story, subtitled ‘He Who Dares’ actually starts five years ago, with the Mekon as the democratically elected President of Earth and Dan’s little band declared terrorists. That is, until they expose the hypnosis machine by which ol’ Greenbean has cooked the result.
He’s been in rehabilitation for five years, concentrating his supreme intelligence on growing food on the moon. Even when a Liberation Army comes to free him, he orders them to disband and hands them over to Dan for incarceration.
Can the Supreme Brain overcome the Genetic engineering that made him into a power-crazed overlord? Has he? Milligan’s certainly come at things from a previously unexplored angle (for what it’s worth, I’m going for No).
But the only problem is, if the Mekon is beaten for good, there are no enemies left. No obstacles to Galactic peace and harmony and progress. Nothing for Dan Dare to be Dan Dare for, and Dan’s actually praying for something for him to do, to get back into space for.
Which is when a dirty great spaceship appears out of nowhere, Crypt-like, and destroys one of Saturn’s moons, just like that. Dan’s prayers have been answered, or so it seems. No hint yet as to whether Tharl and his empire exist in this Future, though again I’m going for No.
Apart from this bit about Dan Dare wishing for violence and enemies, which is not, never has been and never will be any part of any legitimate version of the character, it’s reasonable enough so far. Certainly worth suspending judgement over until we see more.
As for Foche’s art, I’m always going to start off by looking askance at anything not authentically Hampsonian, and it’s fair to say that this art in no way draws from the master. Apart from a token effort with Digby, and an even more token one with Sir Hubert, oh, and of course Dan’s eyebrows (that’s all anyone ever cares about: get the eyebrows properly crinkled and it’s Dan Dare, no matter how wide of the mark everything else is), Foche makes no effort whatsoever to follow any existing design work.
And his Mekon, redesigned to make the big brain a bit more organic, has immediately become less frightening, less distinctive, less alien. Even at his most evil in the flashbacks, this guy just doesn’t look in the least bit evil: Hampson’s Mekon, indeed his Treens, were unnatural. It’s why they worked so bloody well in the first place.
But I won’t judge until the series is over, unless it takes an irreversible nosedive into the sludge to the point where it’s obviously a schtumer. There are two pages of Foche’s designs featuring half a dozen and more characters we’ve not yet met, none of whom thrill me with anticipation, but we’ll see. It won’t take long, at least.
Another issue of Spaceship Away and another new Dan Dare story, written and drawn by Tim Booth, comes to an end, temporarily at least.
‘Parsecular Tales’ made its debut as long ago as 2010, immediately following on from the completion of Booth’s ‘The Gates of Eden’. It’s taken over six years to reach this point, issues 22 to 41, a loose, sprawling story, full of rambling diversions that never really amounted to anything, and which ended up in the same place as ‘The Gates of Eden’. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this story, and I’m not immediately convinced about taking it as ‘canon’.
The story is set in 2034, and according to Booth, Dan Dare has only just taken over as Spacefleet controller, as opposed to merely Controller (UK). Digby has finally accepted a promotion to officer, and is now a Major, and still the Controller’s right hand man. Hank and Pierre have left the Service, cashing in on their back pay from their period in suspended animation, Hank to become a Fluffalo (?!) farmer on a Saturnian moon, Pierre as a trader (and sometime smuggler). Everyone’s gotten noticeably older except Sir Hubert Guest, who is now the Prime Minister and looks completely unchanged, even though he’s 91 years old in Frank Hampson’s chronology.
Dan looks haggard and Digby’s gone bald and grown an enormous great handlebar moustache to compensate.
The looseness of the story was reflected by the looseness of its format. ‘Parsecular Tales’ began as six-page episodes, lacking the traditional Spaceship Away format of the Eagle title box. This continued for thirteen episodes, until Booth began producing ‘Mercury Revenant’ contemporaneously, when it dropped back to four page episodes for two issues, and then wound up as traditionally designed two page episodes, with the logo, appearing two an issue until the recent final episode. This puts the whole story at 112 pages by my count.
Booth starts with Hank on his farm, receiving an unscheduled visit from his old copain, Pierre, who has a delivery for him: it is a Thork telesender which he has to switch on and then just watch until something happens. This is many weeks later, in which time Pierre, heading for Venus for a ceremony recognising the overthrow of the Mekon has only got as far as CONSDOCK, a secret Earth Research Station commanded by Colonel Dare, with his batman, Spaceman Digby
Intertwined with this is a Thork take-off from Spacefleet HQ with the Controller and Major Digby on board, already in suspacells to permit a fast getaway at the kind of speeds only Thorks can endure. Funnily enough, they are en route to CONSDOCK.
But the Colonel in command is Alastair Dare, nephew to the newly-elevated Controller and former Olympic Runner (looking good considering that that was the 2000 Olympics on Venus), and Spaceman Albert Digby, scion of the newly-balded Major.
Alastair Dare is overlooking the forthcoming test flight of Project Magellan, the latest attempt to come up with a Faster Than Light drive. Controller Sir Daniel is there to inspect it, Major Digby to inspect his son.
But that’s not all. Booth is tripping from scene to scene, laying a network of seemingly isolated incidents that, as the story develops, will come together to fit a so-far-unseen pattern. Admiral Lex O’Malley, crossing the South Martian Pole solo for what appears to be no more than a bet, discovers something that has him calling for Dan Dare before he’s knocked out in mid-transmission.
And Hank Hogan’s telesender finally delivers an unexpected visitor, all the way from Mekonta: the now somewhat mature but still attractive Professor Jocelyn Mabel Peabody.
The action is kick-started by the sudden failure of the Asteroid Belt Impulse Wave generators, sending the Solar System grid off-balance. This causes panic everywhere, and the immediate postponement of Project Magellan (to be more or less forgotten for the rest of the story) whilst Dan takes personal charge of the Asteroid situation. Thankfully, there’s a ship on hand at CONSDOCK that can get a hand-picked team to a) the Martian South Pole to rescue Lex and b) the Asteroids, and this is Pierre’s Le Chat Noir, which may be old and decrepit like everyone, but which has multiple motors including Monatomic hydrogen and an untested Halley Drive (to later be forgetfully called the Haley Drive: sloppy).
But let us not forget Hank and Jocelyn, who aren’t exactly shagging from the moment they are re-united but might as well be. Booth goes further than he did in ‘The Gates of Eden’ to pointing this pair at each other, and given that Dan Dare is basically an asexual figure, I suppose it’s only fair, but there’s a large part of me that cannot be reconciled to the idea of this pairing, and which has me struggling uphill for much of the story.
Besides, that the Prof still wanting to crawl into Hogan’s arms when he’s wearing a garish pink zoot suit that’s an offence to the eyes is an improbability no story could ever recover from.
Still: the telesender has bounced Jocelyn from Mekonta to Rhea, and now it bounces both of them back for dinner. The Professor is involved in a Treen project to replace the spaceship with inter-system telesending, and both she and Hank are to be surreptitiously arrested and taken to the base of a secret Treen Trans-Temporal Research station, set up under the behest of Governor Sondar, but headed by one Halcyon Scobal, Chief Scientist.
Scobal is tall and striking, dresses in archaic clothing, plasters a basilisk symbol over everything within reach and his surname practically screams anagram across the entire auditory spectrum, but even with all these clues for the terminally hard of thinking, not to mention that he’s the living spit of his uncle, it takes Hank and Jocelyn absolute ages to recognise him as being the nephew of Doctor Blasco of ‘Operation Saturn’.
One final story element to throw in: before Peabody and Hogan are picked up by the Project security force, they have a strange encounter via the telesender, as a broken and battered version of Syndar appears, seeking aid and mouthing cryptic utterances, before vanishing. Remember Syndar? He was the cyborg Treen of ‘The Gates of Eden’ who was the aid of Bob Dylan, aka John Wesley Hibbings. And according to him, their base, Shelter, has been destroyed and Hibbings is dead. Only one of these things is true.
The thing is that, despite everybody’s memories having been erased after ‘Eden’, and Hogan having no idea who Syndar is, Peabody remembers him instantly, as do most of the others later in the story. Why is this? I’m sorry, Booth doesn’t provide any explanations. In fact, he doesn’t provide much of anything relating to any answers.
I’ve described the set-up at some length so that you can see that a good job is done in providing a web of disparate strands, out of which a good, cohesive story can be forged, but the problem is that they are all little more than gossamer threads, to be abandoned in favour of Booth’s real interest in the story, which turns out to be bloody Bob Dylan again.
What was O’Malley doing in the Martian Antarctic and what did he find there? No idea, don’t care.
Will Project Magellan succeed? No idea, don’t care.
What is Scobal/Blasco’s plan? Hooking up with the Vashtilian Migration, which is coming through the Solar System and will destroy it en route. What’s his part in all this? Don’t know, don’t care, blast him to death off-panel and have the Professor tell us it happened.
What about the Asteroid Impulse Generator? It was blasted by the Vashtilian’s, one wave of which appears to have slipped through the Solar System without anyone noticing, except that it destroyed Cosmic and the McHugh’s (McHugh’s? McHoo’s: sloppy). Incidentally, they destroy CONSDOCK too, and Shelter, though in contrast to what Syndar said earlier, it seems that was because it was actually in the way of the beam they sent to destroy CONSDOCK.
What’s Dan Dare going to do to protect Earth from the Vashtilian menace? Fuck all, actually, don’t care.
No, seriously. We really are re-running ‘The Gates of Eden’ here. Dan and Co get whizzed off into some kind of hyper-space to board a massive space vessel that looks like a gigantic juke-box, where of course Hibbings has been alive all along and is offering a repeat of the explore-the-Multiverse deal. O’Malley’s too busy with the Navy, Hank wants to go back to his Fluffalo farm, Peabody to join him there and Pierre wants to keep on trading. But Dan the newly-promoted Controller is fed up with Admin and decides to have some fun for himself, and Digby has completely reversed his original opposition, so to Hell with the threat to the Solar System, let’s boogie.
Cue final episode. Dan has disappeared, all sorts of plans are being carried out in and out of Spacefleet, nobody’s talking about or concerned in the slightest about the implacable, invincible Vashtilians, who have vanished as completely as any sense of logic or structure or consistency to this ‘story’. And Digby’s hair has started growing again…
It’s not even an ending, just a coming to a stop. ‘Parsecular Tales’, named for a made-up word whose most plain association is the parsec, a measure of spacial distance approximating to 3.6 Light-years, is a meaningless title, befitting a meaningless story. The inference is that it will return at some future stage but frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that nobody else seems to be able to produce new Hampson-continuity Dan Dare stories, I’d counsel against agreeing to run any more episodes.
This does not count as extended canon as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve extended this series of looking at the whole Dan Dare canon to include a handful of exercises in contributing to the extended Dare Universe, but this is where the show finally reaches the end of the road. The Invaders of Ixx is another prose novel by Denis Steeper, to follow on from the Pirates of Numidol Trilogy. It’s again set in the expanded continuity created by Steeper in The Report of the Cryptos Commission to link together all the original stories and bind them into a coherent history. The Invaders of Ixx is a much smaller, entirely linear story, set even later in Steeper’s chronology than anything before it, and resting upon one of the few continuity points Steeper was unable to incorporate into the Trilogy.
But for this link, however, it is almost completely detachable from the official canon. It is set in 2032, four years after Sir Daniel has become Controller in Chief of Spacefleet, in a universe that has changed drastically from that once depicted by Frank Hampson. Lasting peace holds between Earth and Numidol, even if mutual suspicion still affects both sides. Earth and the Therons have now moved on from their weakened state in the wake of the Treen Holocaust, though suspicion of the Treens still burns deep inside everyone. The Mekon’s resources grow ever thinner. Known Space, and the colonised worlds continue to expand. The Fenx are still an enemy and, in another region of Space, so too are the Vorde, despite a peace negotiated by Sir Daniel.
But it’s a Universe in which the cynicism that Steeper posits as inevitable after the Treen Holocaust has only gotten worse. Everyone is more corrupt inside, seeing only aliens and hating them and committing slurs. Politicians are more venal and self-directed. The military more eager for war. It’s a dirty, grimy Universe now, and one that Steeper lays on with a trowel, until it seems that only Dan and his immediate cohorts – Digby and Toby Spry, plus a Steve Valiant who is a junior but unrespected and ineffectual Dan Dare – are capable of acting with a concern for anything but their own private interest.
I’ll return to that thought before I finish, but it is all pervading.
The first of the five parts that go to make up this story, ‘Murder on Mars’, was originally serialised in Spaceship Away, where it appeared complete in itself. That concerns a plan by the Mekon to disrupt the Olympics on Mars, much as he attempted to do so when they were held on Venus, many moons ago. Mars is being terraformed, blocks of ice being catapulted from the Asteroid Belt and directed to sites on Mars where two oceans are slowly growing and more atmosphere is being pinned to the planet. The Mekon’s plan involves diverting one such iceteroid to crash onto the Olympics site…
All well and good, and properly diverted by Dan and Digby, but Steeper then goes on to build upon this footing a rather larger plan, with not too many direct links. Essentially, the Mekon has found allies, allies who are to invade the Solar System and take Mars for themselves, allies who come with an invasion fleet over 1,800 ships strong: an overwhelming enemy even for the combined forces of Earth, Theron, Thork and Lant.
These are the Ixx, and they are the insectoid race that briefly threatened the Outer Planets as long ago as Project Nimbus. Steeper posits their craft as being a scoutship for a race driven from their home planet, in search of a new home. He also posits two crewmembers being overlooked and surviving in a base on Jupiter’s Moon, Ganymede, now a part of Thorkspace.
And he posits these two Ixxians being found by the Mekon, who invites the Swarm in to take Mars from the cursed Earthmen, leaving the Mekon free to return to his rightful place on Venus. And, given the size of the Ixx Swarm, and it’s inevitable strength, humanity faces extinction.
Steeper uses the same technique as before, of multiple viewpoints weaving separate strands from multiple places. This time, without time travel, the timeline proceeds undisturbed. Dan and Digby fall into the Mekon’s hands at an early stage but escape with the aid of the two Ixxians who survived Project Nimbus, who introduced the Mekon to their people and who now bitterly regret it.
Ultimately, these two get Dan and Digby, now joined by Toby Spry, the Fleet’s leading zeno-expert, to the command of the Swarm where, with the aid of a surprisingly sympathetic senior advisor, not to mention Toby’s dueling skills with a Phant short sword, a treaty is negotiated to end the growing bloodshed without further loss or destruction to either side.
And only at the end is it revealed that the Ixx were not, in fact, the overwhelming menace they were taken for, and Earth could easily have had them. Indeed, Dan’s naturally chivalrous nature has struck one final time, instead of letting it all go to custard (a phrase that is used, over and again, in this novel, the meaning of which being obvious though not the derivation: maybe it’s just a New Zealand thing?)
I realise that I’ve presented the story in fairly perfunctory terms, and this is unfair to the novel. It is considerably more complex in its development and execution than I’m giving it credit for, and it’s a far better proof-read volume than the Trilogy. But in my present mood, I’m finding myself wanting to reject it.
Some part of that is that I am not in a sympathetic frame of mind at this time, some even is that I’ve been re-reading and writing about Dan Dare for almost a year and this is the end of it for me.
But most of it, too much of it is sadness and despondency at the Dan Dare story ending in this manner, ending in this damned grubby universe of mean and miserable people. Steeper is sadly right to say that, after the Treen Holocaust, it would be beyond naïve to think that Dan’s Earth would have, could have remained as clean and bright and optimistic, as utopianly hopeful as Frank Hampson had meant it to be. Jean Amery once said that “the first blow forever changes the torture victim’s world”. Beyond that, there is no more trust, no more illusion.
Steeper is only following that inviolable dictate. But that doesn’t make for a world in which I can be completely happy at seeing the Pilot of the Future: this, for me, is not the Future of which he was meant to be part. It may be realistic, but it is not worthy of Dan Dare, nor Digby, nor any of their companions who fought so many times to steer that world through dangerous presents, to achieve a universe that is as broken and corrupt as the one in which we live, you know, the one without an Impulse Engine.
I’d exclude The Invaders of Ixx if I could, consign it to an alternate Universe, much like that in which Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes’ Dare the Future belongs. But because of the Pirates of Numidol Trilogy, I can’t do that. It’s both or neither, and the Trilogy is too important to too many things in Dan’s universe to be ignored.
But I don’t have to like it.
Two things in this book exemplify the magnitude of this aspect. Steeper presents a series of newspaper headlines at the start of each chapter, from different levels of newspaper, one of which is clearly a tabloid. It’s headlines include the ongoing appearances, on page 3, natch, of Stephanie Rocket, a topless pin-up of implicitly voluminous size.
This latter aspect is emphasised when, turning the joke on its head, the implants explode during an illicit photoshoot at SFHQ.
It’s a mildly amusing but wholly irrelevant little strand, included presumably for satiric content, feeble though that is. But instead of leaving the joke at its evident punch-line, Steeper then goes on to write Ms Rocket into the actual story, with a slick lawyer intent on suing everybody even peripherally involved for million pound libel suits. A bitter taste extrudes itself into the mouth.
But for me the conclusive touch is indeed conclusive. One of Steeper’s creations is Major Hanna Bovaird, of Army Intelligence, stationed in Mekonta. Major Hanna plays an active role in investigations into the murders on Mars and subsequent intelligence operations derived from that. Her role changes once the Ixx Invasion ties up all of Earth’s resources, and Treenland revolts, throwing off the Occupation Forces’ yoke in readiness for the Mekon’s return.
Lieutenant Colonel Bovaird (promotion comes quickly) finds herself as Senior Officer. As such, she is responsible for the deeply secret Final Solution for the Treen Problem, an exceedingly illegal hydrogen bomb, stored in Mekonta, to be activated to wipe out the Mekon and the entire Treen race. Genocide.
Hanna, and a Sergeant, are the last ones left, with the responsibility of doing something that is ultimately the greatest wrong, but which will leave open the door for the human race to one day come back, a door the Mekon would close forever. It’s an irrevocable step: even the knowledge that the bomb, the plan existed, would forever change humanity’s relationship with every race that is prepared to trust it.
Dan’s success in negotiating a settlement with the Ixx obviates the need for the bomb. Hanna is a true-blue, honest, loyal patriot: though she gets a second promotion to full Colonel, she wants nothing in exchange for keeping her mouth shut. But that’s not good enough at the highest levels of Army Intelligence: the sergeant is killed in a hit-and-run accident at exactly the same time Hanna’s apartment block blows up, though she’s smart enough to avoid being in it at the time.
And to go on the run, keep out of it, until she reaches the Deputy of Spacefleet Intelligence, Steve Valiant’s old dorm-mate, Mark Straight. Under SF protection, she negotiates her safety at the highest level, a new role, posting to France, genuine prospects, and she will not speak.
All well and good. Steeper spends enough time on this, shows the value of intelligent diplomacy, the calming of the situation in everybody’s favour.
Virtually the last item in the book is a news item of the death of an Intelligence Officer, killed in a car accident in Paris, believed to have been drinking. Reports of a second car have been dismissed.
That’s too much cynicism for me. I could take it in the Trilogy, but it’s gotten too far away. No matter The Invaders of Ixx‘s qualities, I cannot accept the cynicism of the Universe any further. A very sad note on which to end this examination of Dan Dare’s Future.
After writing The Report of the Cryptos Commission and joining all the dots for a coherent Dan Dare continuity, Denis Steeper exercised his imagination further into a grand, sprawling, indeed massive Dan Dare story that became a prose trilogy exploiting absolutely everything he could think of from the original saga.
Simply by being entirely in prose, the Pirates of Numidol Trilogy is a mammoth anomaly in the entire Dan Dare story. It’s a massive exercise, the three novels – Pirates of Numidol, The Destroyer of Worlds and Operation Terra Nova – being written as one long, continuous story of, I believe, in excess of half a million words.
The Trilogy had been complete for several years before it saw print, in two large form paperbacks, eventually published with the assistance of Spaceship Away (another plus to be chalked up to Rod Barzilay) though remaining copies are very few and it is highly unlikely that a second edition will ever be published.
Steeper writes the books as a mosaic of multiple viewpoints. The story is laid out in primarily chronological order, each section identified at its head by the date and place where the relevant scene takes place, an approach which Steeper uses, initially, to only slowly let the reader in on what’s going on, as the jigsaw puzzle pieces eventually hint at a narrative shape. This technique also allows him to incorporate historical material that might otherwise be awkward to introduce as exposition.
The main bulk of the story is set in 2023 (though as both the Tempus Frangit and its sister ship, the Star Strider, are involved, it will not surprise you to learn that much of the middle book of the trilogy takes place in the past of the Solar System). It’s a year since Dan was elevated to Controller at the end of his series in Eagle, though as per Steeper’s own RTCC continuity, he is Controller (UK), on a par with the Controllers (USA) and (France) and the Controller-in-Chief is the political appointee, American Wynard Spencer, successor to Sir Hubert (now Lord) Guest, who was forced out when the Conservatives took control, of the World Government. And, in keeping with Steeper’s alternate history, our man is now Sir Daniel Dare.
Ten years have passed since the Mekon’s occupation of Earth was overthrown. Earth and the Therons are still recovering from the depradations of the Treen Holocaust, though it is the Earth, thanks to the technologies gleaned from the Space Sargasso, who have become the dominant power among the Inner Planets, at least militarily.
Numidol remains the major, indeed only power in the Outer Planets. After a decade of Rebellion and Civil War, the Nine Moons are united under Red Tharl, though the First Lord can never rest entirely easily in the Floating Palace.
Tensions remain high between Earth and Numidol. Tharl still resents the flatfaces for failing to send aid when Civil War threatened his nascent rule, and Earth still resents Numidol for failing to send aid when the Mekon attacked and conquered Earth. Both fleets keep a wary eye on the ‘border’, especially Earth, which blockaded it against Thork refugees seeking to reach Mars.
On Terra Nova, the Domination of Gaz is rising again, intent on an attack on Lantor. Calo, Minister of War, seeks space weaponry to hold off their enemy and, with the connivance of Cosmic Shipyards, offers unlimited supplies of the fuel helenium in exchange for weapon supplies that breach Earth’s laws.
In short, it’s the usual melting pot of tensions and situations. To this potentially volatile mix, Steeper adds his own creation, the Fenx. This race are Alpha Predators, wolf-like in appearance, natural hunter/killers who see every other race in the Universe as cattle, and who have the greatest of natural advantages in combat situations.
Steeper establishes a craft of Fenx as having been present on Earth in the Fourteenth Century, in Mexico, where they have inspired the brutal Aztecs and been accepted as Gods. This is a scout craft, sent to locate a suitable planet of edible cattle before returning to guide the entire Fenx race. Their craft is the mysterious Blue Ship of the Sargasso, and they have been in sleep there for centuries after surviving an attack by the Therons, who regard themselves as being responsible to Earth after being the cause of disaster to the former Atlantine civilisation in the former Mediterranean Basin.
This is how things stand as we begin. A series of border attacks are being made, on miners and traders. Earth ships attacking thorks. Numidol craft attacking Earthmen. Someone is trying to provoke a war between Earth and Numidol (no prizes for guessing that this is a plot by someone green-skinned and bulbous-headed, not a million miles from here…).
That kickstarts an adventure of massive scope in both space and time, that changes the landscape of the Solar System irrevocably before it is over and which, in its multipart sweep through Time, answers questions about the history of the various races of the Inner Planets that many of us fans had not even thought to ask. Steeper maintains, I estimate, over fifty different viewpoints, in all races, at all levels, not without difficulty in some instances, given the scope with which he’s working, but the slips are few and the story, given its size, is remarkably consistent throughout.
I’m not going to start going into details, because we’d be here all day if I started doing that. Suffice to say that the Trilogy succeeds, in some fashion, to touch upon every major Dan Dare storyline that I’ve discussed so far. Every major still-living character plays a substantial role, and Steeper creates dozens of roles in and around the main players with a verve that I suspect Frank Hampson would have thoroughly enjoyed, even though I think he’d have had mixed feelings about the project overall.
Before I start to look at that side of things, I do have to venture one criticism of the plotting, and that comes right at the very end of the Trilogy, indeed it consists of the Epilogue.
By the end of Operation Terra Nova, Steeper has played all his cards satisfyingly. At first, the Epilogue appears to be the traditional quiet aftermath, a relatively brief ordering of the universe in its new shape. Even a brief move onwards to 2026 is part of that process.
But then Steeper makes a puzzling and not-altogether successful jump to 2046. Again, such things can be an extremely successful way of showing in what patterns the dust has settled. But the time period is odd. In RTCC, Steeper ended his story in 2042 with Sir Daniel having just returned to active duty and gone on a mysterious mission. That’s been completed now, successfully, though without detail. Steeper seems to be projecting a picture of Dan’s Universe, twenty years on, showing it to still be what we expect it to be: full of tensions, clashes, trouble-spots etc. More (unseen) adventures have taken place, more are likely.
It’s all a bit diffuse, as if Steeper hasn’t quite worked out how to bring things to an end, until we realise what this is all for: this coda is to enable him to incorporate the final fate of the Pescods.
It’s a laudable ambition, they being the only substantial loophole he’s not managed to tie up during the Trilogy, but it makes for an awkward end to the story. Dan and Digby have no active part to play in the rout of these enemies, and the epilogue rather peters out as soon as their fleet is destroyed.
It makes for an undeservedly weak ending, given that none of this has anything to do with the series of events arising out of the Numidol Crisis that starts the book, and should have been ignored, despite Steeper’s urge to be comprehensive: over-comprehensive as it turns out.
As for the book overall, it’s a darker, less innocent version of Dan Dare and the Universe we know with him. As Steeper has pointed in, in RTCC, it has to be: unlike the comics, where the effect could not have been shown even had Hampson wanted to, you cannot have the Treen Holocaust and remain unchanged, not if you want to present a Universe with any consistency or credibility.
So this is all taking place in a world that is no longer as bright or primary coloured as it was before 2002. There is an increased suspicion on everyone’s part, between every race. The equivalent of racial epithets are in common use, and even more so in common thought. Earthmen calls Treens crocs, Treens call them short uglies, Thorks call humans flatfaces, Mercurians call everybody flabbies.
The World Government is under Conservative Control and they’re a bunch of self-obsessed, power-hungry shitbags (so we’re only talking realism here, right?). Cosmic Shipyards still hate the World Government, not to mention most sassenachs, and nobody believes in obeying laws that keep them from getting what they want. It’s a depressing Universe in which to live and though Dan and Digby and most of our main cast are relatively untouched by it all, at times it’s hardly possible to read without wanting to take a shower.
And I am seriously upset about Dr Ivor Dare being painted as an out-and-out racist.
There are other aspects of the Trilogy that I am unhappy about, although as with the stories that have appeared in Spaceship Away, I am not going to be over-critical. Denis Steeper is not a professional writer. His plotting is very good, but his actual prose is mainly practical and functional. He’s very good on detail, and can describe all manner of spatial situations with a factual eye for detail that would be totally beyond me.
On the other hand, despite a number of attempts to describe scenes of planetary and inter-planetary beauty, he is not a lyrical writer, nor does he go in for elegant prose. These are not issues in themselves, and whilst he often repeats ideas and phrases, these are not overwhelming. As to his writing style, he’s often guilty of over-explaining things, as if afraid that his readership hasn’t got what what he’s putting forward and needs their hand-holding too much.
The one thing I do have to be critical about is an area in which I have to be sympathetic with him, and that is proof-reading.
Steeper apologises upfront for the inevitable mistakes. He can’t afford professional proof-reading and whilst he’s gone over the manuscript many times, he’s sure that there are things he’s missed. And there are. In fact, the errors, typographical or otherwise are profuse, and I have to wince at them. Indeed, if there ever is a Second edition, I would jump at the chance to proof-read, at no charge whatsoever!
But like I said, I sympathise. Including a couple of projects not intended for public consumption, I have written and published over a dozen books and I have had to proof-read all of these myself. It is ten times easier to proof-read someone else’s writing than your own, and none of my books have been remotely the length of the Trilogy, so I understand the sheer scale of the task.
But oh for the chance to create an error-free version!
Overall, the scales still come down heavily in favour of the Pirates of Numidol trilogy, and I’m very glad to have had the chance to acquire and read this. For those who have not read it, there may still be very limited copies available and both Spaceship Away and I will gladly pass on any queries to Denis Steeper in New Zealand.
And after completing the Trilogy, Steeper went on to write one single-volume novel, which will form the last entry in this series.
The advent of Spaceship Away was a godsend to many, not least those who had dreamed of working on their own Dan Dare stories. One who was far more advanced than most, and far more qualified, was Tim Booth, writer, artist and musician, who approached Rod Barzilay with a story he was writing and drawing. Barzilay approved of it, and Booth’s The Gates of Eden debuted in issue 9, running for 39 episodes.
I love it. There are reasons why I shouldn’t, and I’ll explain these, and it’s something Frank Hampson would never have countenanced, for many reasons, and it’s not as if it has a proper ending, except in the closing of a door to something way beyond the Dan Dare series. But I still love it: for the imagination it displays, for the long periods in which it focuses on Hank and Pierre and their continual banter, and for its art.
I didn’t really care for Booth’s contributions to Green Nemesis. He’s not as precise an artist as any of the ‘professional’ stable, his work is frequently fussy and over-detailed, and his colouring is far too Sixties psychedelic to be wholly suited to Dan Dare.
But for The Gates of Eden, Booth adopted, and primarily hewed to a simpler, more direct style, with more naturalistic colouring. In some ways, it’s like a cartoon version of Hampson’s style, and the early style at that, which befits a story that slips into continuity between The Venus Story and The Red Moon Mystery.
And Booth is to be congratulated lavishly in one tiny aspect at least: he is the first and only Dan Dare writer or artist to show Albert Fitzwilliam Digby speaking to his wife!
Booth takes his time over the first half of the story. He’s not just preparing for the dramatic aspect of his tale, he’s enjoying himself filling in details of Hampson”s world that were left to our assumption. I do have to criticise one immediate detail, which is that The Gates of Eden begins in 1998, and one of its preliminary details is Dan being taken off a mission to the Asteroid Belt to supervise the first full Venus Food Run: given that the Venus Story ended in 1996, that’s an awfully large gap for a planet so desperate to escape from reliance on food blocks.
But Dan, and of course Digby, have to go to Venus, leaving Hank and Pierre, that pair of puzzled pilots, to go it alone in the old-fashioned Nimrod. Their mission is to identify suitable asteroids for Impulse Wave Relay stations to be built upon, extending Earth’s space-shipping range. En route, picking up newly-designed spacesuits, they bump into the designer, Professor Peabody, with Tystar, the young son of the Theron Volstar. These two will also have a part to play, when things hot up. Take note that the ship they are travelling on is the Milton Caniff.
Meanwhile, the ‘Frogboy’ and the ‘Yankee Palooka’ fly on to the Asteroids, the latter toting a ukelele/mandolin on which he sings, badly and, if the picture in his cabin is any evidence, a bit of a torch for the fair Jocelyn. And the two ‘copains’ go about their mission, but Pierre the more sensitive of the two, has the feeling that they are being watched, and he is, of course, right.
On Venus, the urgent reason for Dan to supervise this Food Run is carefully revealed, and it is a genuinely touching moment. There is a symbol of Treen/Theron co-operation, designed and constructed in secret: nostalgia overwhelms as Sondar and Volstar present the Pilot of the Future with his personal spacecraft, the Anastasia.
And there’s a perfect excuse for a first mission, as radio contact is lost with Hank and Pierre in the Asteroids. Dan and Digby take their new craft (about which Dig has doubts, given the number of windows that will have to be polished) and set a course.
En route, two things happen: first, the Milton Caniff goes missing, with young Tystar and Earth’s premier food expert, Jocelyn Peabody aboard, and the Anastasia is overtaken, swept up and given a lift by an American crewed Rescue Fleet commanded by Colonel Estev Cyonna.
Yer what? Estev who?
This is a moment to step away from the story and address some of the issues that ought to disqualify The Gates of Eden from consideration.
Those whose knowledge of comics, strips and cartoonists stretch beyond the purely British world of the Eagle ought to have recognised the name Milton Caniff as being the highly influential master of the adventure strip, the writer and artist of the legendary and rip-roaring Terry and the Pirates. Caniff was a master of chiaroscuro, an artist dedicated to realism and accuracy, one of the most influential American strip artists of the Twentieth Century.
Personally, like many, I prefer the dozen years Caniff put in on Terry to the near fifty he spent on his second great strip, the one he left Terry to create and, more importantly, own. That was Steve Canyon, and if you jumble the letters of the improbable Estev Cyonna… And within Booth’s style, he is drawn to be Canyon.
I’ve not the least objection to that, but I feel that, as a matter of consistency, I ought to. It’s not just Caniff and Canyon, but there are spaceships of all sizes and dimensions, such as the rock-crusher Bo Diddley, the Little Eva, Miss Liberty, Crazy Horse, Dixie Darlin’, the Thomas Pynchon. Admittedly, the list of ship names also includes the Lancastrian but that’s very much an exception. Booth peppers his strip with American names and icons, all of which should be thought of as inimical to the atmosphere of so British – so English – a character and series, as Dan Dare.
That’s not all, but we’ll return to that subject after another section of the plot, this time the ongoing mystery of what is happening to Hank and Pierre.
They are being watched and, what’s worse, whilst investigating one asteroid’s possibilities, their ship is taken, leaving them in desperate straits with only a few hours of oxygen each before inevitable death, long before Anastasia could possibly reach them.
Only death is not inevitable. Hank and Pierre have been led, and where they have been led is into the interior of the asteroid, where they find a strange, unmanned base. It’s accessed through a mysterious, yet familiar to Pierre, set of numbers: 21 – 12 – 1918, it’s got breathable air and it’s got a doorway out into the open. It leads to Eden, a planet of natural goodness and beauty, an idyllic yet empty world that proves to be populated by robots fighting an automatic war.
Just what the heck is going on?
What’s going on is a cyborg-Treen, Syndar by name, vat-brother to Sondar and so valued by the Mekon that, when involved in a bad crash, he was rebuilt with robotic parts. Let’s be honest, if it was hovering near the margins of an authentic Dan Dare story, at this point Booth takes it outside the line and keeps it over for almost everything that follows. The Mekon repair a damaged Treen? No, he wouldn’t, under any circumstances.
Syndar conducts Hank and Pierre from Eden to Isshka, a primarily water planet, via some form of telesender. They are greeted by a mermaid, or rather Professor Peabody, with Tystar. Forget Tystar, the Prof looks like she’s never done before, with a grin on her face far more sexy than any look managed during Eagle‘s run, and she changes out of her wet-suit on-stage, revealing a fetching pink slip. No wonder Hank closes in for a hug. And good old Jocelyn is definitely on-side with what’s going on.
Then, with Dan and Digby being led carefully to a rendezvous at Shelter, a secret asteroid base constructed and run by the man behind all of this, we get the great revelation. And it’s Bob Dylan.
No, it’s actually former Earth scientist and spacepilot John Henry Hibbings, who prefers to be known as Mr Jones (as in you don’t know what’s going on, do you?) and in both the visuals and the dialogue, the Dylan references pile up so thickly you could pick them up in lumps. And is not the title of the very story a not-in-the-least coded reference to the man?
Let’s cut quickly to the chase. Dylan/Hibbings has bummed around in space since the Sixties. Early on, he found some crystals with power over space, time and dimension. He has learned how to master them. But the longer time has gone on, the more he has sensed something dark, dense, distant, a threat of immense proportion. That’s why he’s gathered the Venus team, minus Sir Hubert, together. It’s a repeat of what the McHoo will do in Dan’s future, collecting an unparalleled Space Exploration Team. Will they help him?
Unlike McHoo, Hibbings/Jonesy will not force a decision. Should Dan and Co refuse, they will be returned to those places in space and time where Hibbings first interfered, without memory, to live out their lives as they choose. With Tystar absenting himself from decision-making, it becomes a matter of democracy.
There are two in favour – the Professor, already enthralled with the possibilities of discovery, and the ever-adventurous Hank – and two dead-set against – the disbelieving Pierre and Digby, who has taken against this ‘snake-oil salesman’ on sight. The final decision falls to Dan. As it must always have been, and by this I don’t mean the future we already know of, he turns it down. He’s younger, less convinced, lacks the personal elements of his lost father and McHoo’s fait accompli, but it’s down to his duty, to his Controller, to Spacefleet, to the people of Earth.
So Hibbings keeps his word, and everyone goes back, without memory, without trace (save for Hibbings’ compulsion to re-string Hank’s rackety old mandolin). What remains is the successful conclusion to the Venus Food Run and a soiree hosted by Jocelyn, at which Pierre re-finds the mysterious numbers, that mean nothing to anyone save Digby who, metafictionally identifies them as Frank Hampson’s birthday.
Where do we start with all the ways in which this is absolutely wrong for a Dan Dare story that seeks to ground itself in the authentic canon? I’ve already alluded to the overt Americanisation of things, the worship of Caniff and the utter wrongness of Syndar, but the biggie is of course the presence and tutelary spirit of Mr Robert Allan Zimmerman.
Booth’s fixation with Bob Dylan practically takes over the strip. This buttresses the Americanised aspect of the tale but also gives it a distinct leaning towards the Sixties, when Dan’s proper metier is the Fifties.
Then there’s Eden, and the opening of the gates to a wider world, to more universes that Dan’s own. Booth even uses the word Multiverse to describe what lies beyond, a word that I at least cannot hear or read without instantly thinking of the Justice Society of America and DC Comics. It’s wrong, completely wrong, and it has the unintended effect of diminishing Dan Dare by making his Universe one among, well, a Multitude.
None of this is appropriate to a series whose basis lay in hard science, in plausibility and realism. So far as what Booth introduces here, it is advanced science of a kind indistinguishable, in Arthur C. Clarke’s saying, to magic, and so in Dan Dare terms it is magic, by virtue of not having any rational explanation, such as Impulse Waves, or Nimbus Drives.
Of course, there is another interpretation of this final phase of the story. It can be cast into symbolic terms and read as a metaphor for Frank Hampson’s desire to extend Dan Dare’s reach, into American newspapers, into animated films, to take Dan into a world wider than that occupied by Hulton Press, where stories may well have had to be retold in a different manner to his art boards. Though the analogy is weakened by it being Dan himself, supported by the solid, stolid Digby, who rejects such an expansion.
As for that metafictional ending in which the characters themselves disclaim any knowledge of their creator, let’s adopt Dan’s final verdict and not go there, just not go there.
Yet for all that I said I loved The Gates of Eden, and I still do. That’s why it appears here in this series, on an equal par with the official canon. The only part of it that makes me truly flinch is Peabody’s overt sexuality, because it’s just wrong for Dan Dare’s world (and besides, forget this anonymous Jack Gurk – Professor Jocelyn Mabel Gurk? No way – if there’s any marrying to be done, it should be with Dan, there’s definitely a story there in getting him to come down off his Confirmed Bachelor perch and recognise what good things could ensue).
As I said before, I recognise the people. Booth’s story and setting may be wrong, but I believe it’s Dan and Co who take part in it. And I will forgive much for Booth bringing Albert Fitzwilliam Digby and his wife and four-times mother to his children together at long last, even if it’s over distances counted in the millions of miles, via a viewscreen, Earth to Anastasia. “’Ullo monkey, how’s tricks?” she says, getting a word in edgeways before Aunt Anastasia starts hassling Digby about wrapping up warm in space.
There’s a long overdue world in that greeting, and enough to let us all know just how the Digbys keep their marriage on track when he’s never home. That’s the real Gates of Eden.
We all of us, Dan Dare fans, think and talk of The Menace from Jupiter as the last story in the saga, omega to The Venus Story‘s alpha, but as I’ve mentioned in passing before, really it’s not. Prisoners of Space was re-printed, I was properly introduced to Hank and Pierre and Flamer, though the serial was messed around, reformatted, reduced inside to be spread across about two-thirds of the centre spread. And when it finished, there was another new story. Underwater Attack has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted, nor has there been the remotest enthusiasm for its reprint, nor any notion of incorporation within the Dan Dare legend. I’m not even going to really write about it now. All I know is that it lasted only four weeks – the same length as a story from an Eagle annual – and was drawn by Eric Kincaid, who was an Eagle veteran having, for years, drawn the Roving Reporter page.
All I remember is that it began with Dan and Digby on leave, diving in somewhere like the Mediterranean, when they encountered a party of what seemed to be aliens, green-skinned, goggle-eyed, grill-mouthed. Fearing an alien invasion, Dan and Dig snooped on these creatures, fund and got captured and taken into their base, where they proved to be a Government experiment into new undersea suits. Ho hum.
That was the real end and, just as we traditionally think of the classic Being There as being Peter Sellars’ last film because we cannot bear to recall the horrendous piece of imbecile shit that actually was the last thing he worked on, so do we omit Underwater Attack from our consideration.
Yet though the true canon came to an end in the late Sixties, there have been numerous stories since. For the most part, whether it be 2000 A.D. or the New Eagle, I don’t count these. Irrespective of any real qualities they may possess as stories, they are not Dan Dare as I recognise him.
But there are a handful of stories that aim to contribute to the Dan Dare legend, and which are of a sufficiently high quality – or, better yet, fidelity – that they deserve consideration. For the most part, they are the work of the fans, and not the professionals, although a couple of those stories which ran in Spaceship Away gloss over that seeming boundary as we shall see.
So I’m going to extend this series a little longer, to pay tribute to the works that stretch the boundaries of the mythos and give the long-term readers like myself what we have always longed for: More.
First up, however, is not an actual story, but it is an absolutely fascinating publication that demonstrates a tremendous imagination, applied to the notion of drawing all the stories together into a consistent continuity.
In memory, I always think of The Moonsleepers as completing a trilogy of successive Mekon stories, but though the Tyrant of Venus makes a second successive instant return, this adventure is not about him, and he is very much a background figure. Instead, The Moonsleepers sees the return, for the final time, of Xel.
Overall, this is a longer, better story than The Mushroom, though it’s marred by some inattention to detail and inconsistency. Nevertheless, it’s much improved, and in its extensive scenes on Triton, Moon of Neptune, Watson’s art is unsurpassed as he depicts a snow and ice world.
Or, since this is achieved almost solely through colour, with little or no line-work, perhaps that accolade should go to Eric Eden.
Whilst All Treens Must Die! Began with due process, with the Mekon going on trial, The Moonsleepers skips that part and goes straight to Xel’s punishment. He is an alien warlord, nasty and brutish, filled only with hate, beyond all hopes of integration into Earth’s society. He is also powerful beyond most restraint and an obvious threat so, after a presumed trial and conviction, he is sentenced to life imprisonment, on an isolated satellite, on a distant orbit, without the resources to escape. Xel is placed in completely solitary confinement, to be visited once every eleven months when further supplies will be dropped off.
It’s the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment, but it’s also the only practical solution to Xel’s menace that there is. Digby, showing a touch of soft-heartenedness, wonders why they can’t use the Tempus Frangit to take him back where they found it, whilst Dan, showing a touch of hard-headedness, rules this out on the grounds that time travel is far too costly even for good deeds. And besides, they only know the way to Meit, and have no clue whatsoever as to where Stoll may be.
But everyone knows that prisons do not hold villains in fiction. For there is still the Mekon, who may have no love for Xel but who recognises him as a useful idiot… I mean ally. The Mekon frees Xel from his satellite, by kidnapping a Theron ship, killing its crew and delivering the ship to his ally. And Xel has one further advantage: the Mekon has preserved the ship’s passenger, Sir Hubert Guest, on tour presenting his memoirs, ‘The Parting Guest’.
About which Digby has disingenuously wondered whether Sir Hubert will mention him or Dan.
Under hypnotic control, Sir Hubert admits that Earth scientists have detected potential signs of life on the afore-mentioned Triton. So Xel, with Sir Hubert, heads for Triton, where he will discover a race of indolent, lazy, weak-willed folk, living in cities that provide them with heat, light and food, enabling them to lead a life of doing and thinking nothing.
Xel whips them into shape to create an army, an invading army in spaceships of his design. And whilst he attacks Earth, the Mekon will attack Venus, the two-pronged assault intended to stretch and divide the defences of the Inner Planets and give the attackers victory.
Sir Hubert is the latest, and almost the last of Keith Watson’s nods to the antecedents of the series. Though he is the victim of Xel’s domination at the beginning, he does play an active part in the story, unlike Hank Hogan: once Xel finds his powerbase, Sir Hubert is inessential but, despite his isolation so far away, he manages to cross an ice-desert and pilot an escape craft back to Earth, alone, with inadequate supplies, to warn Dan Dare.
Though it looks to have killed him, the old spaceman makes it, only to find his story doubted as the product of fatigue, dehydration, radiation exposure, space sickness: hallucination. Only Dan is prepared to believe his old chief, so he and Digby set off for Neptune in Anastasia.
What they discover is a well-advanced plot, and a ready-to-launch fleet, complete with trained-and-terrorised crew. The Tritons serve their new master out of a combination of the promise of a warm planet of their own (just like the Navs with the Mekon in The Wandering World), firmly-inculcated fear and the same kind of drugs Xel used on his Stollites in Operation Time Trap).
Though Dan and Digby cause some havoc by attacking Xel, he is too much for them with an army at his back. He steals Anastasia, co-ordinates his attack with the Mekon and, believing his hated earth foes dead from falling into an ice crevasse, launches his fleet. But the Earthmen have been saved by Triton’s weaker gravity and stow on board a ship whose crew have reverted to type and gone to sleep.
Digby accidentally sets off a missile that shoots down another of Xel’s fleet, which leads to some confusion and a deliberate attempt to cripple the fleet before it nears Earth. But automation overrules, and the ship the pair occupy is being drawn back into formation, to be shot down, when Digby once again uses his muscle to bend the pipe mixing Xel’s drug into the Tritons’ food. With a now docile crew at their behest, Dan is able to fly his ship on a shorter route to Earth (?!), so as to arrive first (crash-landing on a beach south of Cromer in Norfolk, with which I was familiar from a couple of family seaside holidays, when even younger).
Earth’s defences are alerted and Dan leads the interceptor squadron. The Therons rush a fleet to assist, the arrival of which, like the Prussians at Waterloo, secures the day. Then they spin on their heels and shot off back towards Venus, where a mighty space fleet has been detected approaching, except that a gigantic white light flares in space, and the fleet vanishes, presumed vaporised.
As for Xel, the last action of the brief war is his being shot down over the Arctic by Dan and, on landing, a few steps leading to the deep icy waters, in which his electric whip floats… Like Vora, Xel is missing, believed dead. He will certainly not return again.
Overall, The Moonsleepers is a good, fast-paced story, told in a crisp, dramatic manner. It introduces a new and unusual race to the panoply of life in the Solar System, bringing Neptune into the range of planets Dan and Co have visited, furthest out from the Sun (discounting the Wandering World as neither a real planet nor properly in our Sun’s orbit). The art’s excellent, whether it be deep space, the ice-deserts of Triton or Cromer Beach.
But there are a number of inconsistencies that nag at the reader’s mind as the story progresses. Primarily, these relate to just how long it takes to get to or from Triton. Xel, in the Theron ship, takes ‘weeks’. Sir Hubert makes the return journey in a mere escape capsule, whose journey coincides with the ‘many weeks’ and indeed ‘months’ that Xel takes to forget the Tritons into fighters.
Almost immediately, this becomes ‘a month’s’ travel, and then ‘several weeks’ and if this were not already confusing enough, Sir Hubert’s journey is analysed as being up to three-quarters of the time since the Theron ship disappeared – time during which an extensive space search was made, leading to the former Controller being presumed dead, coinciding with the moment he is struck by an electric bolt on Triton as Xel discovers the Moonsleepers’ city.
Related to this is the fact that Anastasia – a two-seater personal ship – is presented as the only ship on Earth capable of travelling as far as Triton (because it has Theron magnetic motors) and the time factor goes out of all control.
Then there is Xel’s fleet. I’ve already alluded to Dan racing the fleet to Earth by taking a ‘shorter course’. Obviously, that is complete nonsense. Xel isn’t going to rendezvous with the Mekon’s fleet, he’s heading for the planet and there is no believable reason why he is not taking the direct route down the gravity well. And perhaps we should mention that, Neptune being the eighth planet from the Sun, there’s the small matter of the Empire of the moons of the sixth planet, whose spacelanes, Xel’s armada will have to cross.
But, as better folk before me have long since pointed out, Red Tharl’s disappearance is the great mystery of the series. Once Dan and Digby get outside the orbit of Saturn, it becomes an unavoidable one.
I began this essay by referring to my automatic memories of The Moonsleepers being the final part of a Mekon trilogy, but whilst Ol’ Greenbean is an established threat in the background of this story, his direct role is perfunctory. He actually only appears in two, widely-separated panels, and in one of those a long way from ‘camera’.
And the story’s ending, the menace of his fleet approaching Venus being wiped out in a single, unforeshadowed panel, is a complete puzzle. It’s probably the most care-less moment in the entire series, an abrupt closing off off a plot in the most casual of manners, not much of a step up from ‘…and then they all woke up.’
It smacks of a desperation to end the story, somehow, anyhow, because it had to end, and yet the Mekon was literally the most peripheral element of the story, which belongs to Xel, and there’s not the remotest suggestion that the battle against the Mekon was ever meant to be a significant strand, let alone a segue into another story. Dan Dare isn’t even there to face-down his archenemy.
It’s a complete mystery and I’d dearly love to know the background to this. I have a half-formed suspicion that will require a close re-reading of the next story to see if there is any justification, but even in its half-formed state it’s based on no confirmed information. We’ll see.
Because, yet again, change was on the way.
The boy who had been reading Eagle since Odhams had taken over had seen plenty of changes in Dan Dare alone, not to mention changes in the other features the comic had to offer. But he could not have been prepared for the changes between the 3rd and 10th March, 1962.
One week he was reading not merely Dan Dare but also Storm Nelson and ‘Riders of the Range’, veterans of the Hulton glory years, as well as the more recent but still established ‘Knights of the Road’ and ‘Danger Unlimited’. Then there was the series of Famous Short Stories, the new football strip, ‘Home of the Wanderers’ and the centrespread, a rather stilted historical drama entitled ‘The Sword of Fate’.
Then, a mere seven days later, it was all gone. No more Silver Fleet or Jeff Arnold and Luke. No crime-cracking lorry-drivers or Queen’s Messengers. Everything swept away, even down to the famous red title box, with the name of Eagle spelt out in red letters against a white background, the eagle itself flying across the middle letter.
After a mere twenty weeks, ‘Men of Action’ had gone from the cover, but the biggest shock of all was that, after nearly twelve years, so too had Dan Dare. Eagle’s cover was now divided into three colour panels, advertising stories inside.
‘Home of the Wanderers’ had survived the cull, sneaking onto page 3, and it had been joined by adaptations of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger book, ‘The Lost World’ and Max Brand’s short story ‘Flaming Irons’. Frank Bellamy had taken over the centrespread for the life story of Montgomery, and there were yet more new features, one in comics form, ‘Sergeant Bruce C.I.D.’ and the other in words, ‘Beau Fortune’.
Thankfully, there was still Dan Dare, but there were still more shocks. Not only had Dan lost the cover for the first time in Eagle’s history, but he wasn’t in colour any more. Eagle’s flagship character had not just been shunted inside, he was reduced to black and white!
Indeed, there was even more change than the boy reader realised, for on top of everything else, there was a complete change in the creative team. Eric Eden, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell were kicked off the series without a word of explanation and, in Harley and Cornwell’s case at least, without a word. Notoriously and disgracefully, they had completed the art for the final episode of The Earth-Stealers and then were left to wonder where the next script was coming from. Whether Eden was treated similarly has never been disclosed, but presumably he did get some notification about not pitching a new story.
Eden’s place was taken by David Motton, who would write most of the rest of the series, to mixed responses from Dan Dare fans, but it was the new artist who was the most interesting part of the changeover, for this was Keith Watson.
After quitting Eagle in disgust at Odhams’ treatment of the series, Watson had gone on success drawing Dan’s main rival, Captain Condor, in the rather more downmarket Lion. When Longacre decided on a new artist, Watson was free, having recently been relieved of the Captain Condor job, and accepted the offer to take over.
Ironically, Watson got the job on the strength of his work at Lion, not because he had previous experience on Dan Dare. Incredible as it may seem, Longacre had no idea Watson had ever worked on the series before. And, as Watson later commented, had they known, he would not have got within a mile of Dan Dare. And because of that twist of fate, the series survived.
Because Longacre wanted Dan Dare killed. It was never admitted, but the conditions they placed on the series made it obvious. Taken off the cover, crammed inside, reduced to black and white, restricted to stories no longer than thirteen weeks in length, no supporting characters and nothing but Earth-threatening menaces, it is abundantly clear that the intention was to weaken the series and kill its appeal until it could be cancelled with minimal protest.
But appointing Keith Watson would frustrate Longacre’s plan. He’d started as Frank Hampson’s assistant, he’d resigned over the mis-treatment of the series and here he was as its artist, and his heart and soul went into the determination to restore Dan’s former glories. Out went Frank Bellamy’s designs, in favour of the traditional Spacefleet uniforms and insignia. Watson would show, with some of his inventive layouts, that he had learned from Bellamy too, but he brought back the Look, so that Dan Dare looked like Dan Dare again.
And without the need to colour the art, Watson had additional time to hone his work. In some ways, he was more stylised than Hampson, and in years to come there would be occasions when his faces were too abstract and cartoonish, but at least at first he was drawing his socks off and giving every reader something to cling to.
If Longacre hadn’t appointed Keith Watson, and instead brought in an artist who was just doing the job his client wanted of him, Longacre would probably have got their way. Thankfully for all of us, their ignorance, and their underlying arrogance in not needing to know, undermined them fatally.
The story itself was crisp and direct, and might have made a good story if allowed room in which to breathe. It ran a mere thirteen weeks and would not have felt over-stretched if that length had been doubled. Operation Earth-Saver started in Australia, at Woomera, where Dan and Digby supervise the launch of a new satellite, to study cosmic radiation at an orbit of 5,000 miles, before they go on a fishing trip. Almost immediately, various regions on Earth, starting in Cornwall, suffer rapid and excessive plant growth.
This plant growth threatens a world crisis. Food, vegetables, flowers and even garden insects grow to fantastic sizes, becoming unusable as food and causing ecological disaster everywhere.
Dan enlists the assistance of leading biologist Professor Grainger, who has to be rescued from a seaweed draped liner in the Atlantic. They quickly diagnose the issue as being radiation reflected from the new satellite, but are unable to launch to reach it when two gigantic grasshoppers jump on their ship and over-balance it.
The solution comes when the trio are inadvertently drawn into a bell-like spaceship that is gathering deposits of organic material piled up on Earth (they are not aware that they share the craft with a nuclear warhead). This ship takes them to a distant planet whose dominant life-form is intelligent and mobile plants, using cowed human slaves to attend to them.
Dan and Digby succeed in fomenting rebellion against the plants, by their example, and are packed off back to Earth, leaving the revolution to proceed without them. No radiation, plants go back to normal.
It’s well-written, and not without sufficient character-differentiation in the dialogue, whilst Motton introduces a new, more descriptive element, sometimes expressed in florid similes and metaphors, into the narration, but it’s without frills, and it’s pacy and punchy. It’s just that it could have been more with little effort.
As for Keith Watson, his art was superb. The black & white format allowed him to concentrate on clear, distinct, rounded images and his use of grey wash to indicate shade is also excellent. Later in his term, when I began reading Eagle as a boy, I would look at his B&W work and naively assume that he had worked in colour, only for it to be printed and black and white.
The biggest flaw in this initial effort is how frequently, and melodramatically, the story harps on the utter devastation being caused by the overgrowing vegetation, to the point where it would take more than just stopping the damage to enable Earth to recover: the clean-up would have to take forever, and the planet couldn’t recover at all quickly. This has to be the new reality for future stories. But you know that’s not going to be. And it isn’t.
At only twelve weeks, The Ship That Lived is the shortest Dan Dare story (excluding annuals) ever to be produced by Frank Hampson, and only a handful of stories, during the year that Odhams spent trying to kill the series would occupy less time than this.
It’s the true end of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, a coda upon personal lines that sits, a little awkwardly, at the end. When Reign of the Robots was first reprinted, by Dragon’s Dream, it was excluded, leaving the Trilogy essentially incomplete, and me wondering what came next, an answer I didn’t get until a long series of Saturday afternoons, a decade later, in Manchester’s Central Ref, studying bound volumes of Eagle‘s first ten years.
To be honest, I don’t really agree with splitting off The Ship That Lived as a separate story. It’s an interlude in the wrapping up process, whose concern is about getting Dan Dare and, of course, the restored Anastasia back safe and alive.
So: Sir Hubert pilots ‘Old Annie’ back with the seriously injured Dan aboard. How serious? Without immediate medical attention he’ll die. As they near Venus, they are attacked by Treen Spacesharks, and Anastasia is damaged. But the cavalry, in the shape of Digby and Flamer, Crusoe and Friday in two Treen ships, drives off the attack, Leaving ‘Annie’ on a crash-landing course, Sir Hubert pinned by wreckage and Dan doomed.
Until orders from his Controller sink into Dan’s subconscious, waking him to pilot Anastasia to a safe landing, albeit in the flamebelt, at risk of both sinking and the Silicon Mass.
Seriously injured? Short of saying “’Tis but a scratch”, Dan’s near-instant recovery to full fitness is absolutely miraculous.
The story then concentrates upon freeing ‘Old Annie’ from destruction, with the aid of lifting machinery from Mekonta. The Ship indeed Lives!
Throughout all this, cooperation is secured from Treen-dominated Venus by the simple expedient of leaving Lex O’Malley behind to dangle the Mekon off a crane, under threat of dropping him on his head (I would really not rather have the image that has just come into my head at that point).
But Stranks and Hampson recognise an imperative. The Mekon cannot be captured, not after this. There will be no Venus Rehabilitation Centre this time, if the Authorities get hold of him, and good villains cannot be allowed to die. Amidst the celebrations at rescuing Anastasia, the overlooked, physically helpless Mekon gets hold of a flying chariot and runs. To Dan and Co, it looks like suicide, sacrificing himself to the Silicon Mass.
Only Digby, and the reader, realise that some strange craft, sent by ‘The Last Three’, has taken the Mekon aboard. It would be three years before the Mekon reappeared, and far longer than that before a different writer, in a different era, would bring The Last Three to us. Frank Hampson would not draw another story with his iconic villain again.
Anyway, now we can go back and conclude Reign of the Robots properly, which is why I think this fragment in a larger tale should not have been separated into a story of its own. Everyone regathers. The Therons resume charge of their hemisphere. Sondar stays to help mop up Treenland, and restore peace. Dan and his extended Co. return to an Earth in which Spacefleet at least is getting itself back to normal, under the likes of Valiant and Straight, with muscle supplied by Selektrobots now under local control. Digby even has one to make his Colonel’s tea in the morning.
Until the next call to action.
As this is such a short story, and therefore such a short post, I’m going to move on to a fairly substantial point. Though it’s the lesser part of the Man from Nowhere Trilogy, Reign of the Robots is by far and away the biggest thing to happen in the entire series. The whole planet Earth is invaded and, for a decade, subjugated, with incalculable loss of life, and an unbelievably traumatic effect on the lives that survive it to see ‘normality’ restored. In his work on both Dan Dare Chronologies and subsequent fictions, Denis Steeper refers to this period as the Treen Holocaust, and whilst it may seem inappropriate, even tasteless, to apply that word to a children’s fiction, there can be no doubt that it is apt.
Nothing of that appears again in the Dan Dare series. ‘Crusoe’ and ‘Friday’ appear in the first episode of the next story, The Phantom Fleet, but then disappear forever. Stripey is still Digby’s pet in that story. Dan continues to fly Anastasia until the very end of the series. But in every other respect, the invasion of Earth is wiped clean. The Crypt ‘suspacells’ might as well not have existed. The Sargasso Sea of Space, an obviously fertile source for future stories, is referenced in a letter page, when it is promised that a future story will deal with a prominent alien ship. But the Sargasso will only return in ‘fan fiction’, where it will, after many years and indirections, become the raison d’etre for Spaceship Away.
In a series that operates with a certain continuity, it is a terrible, unbridgeable hole.
But how could it have been otherwise? The longer we think seriously and rationally about the ‘Treen Holocaust’ and the effect it would have on Earth, the more we understand how impossible it would be to depict even a fraction of that in a comic paper. But it’s not beyond the wit of either Stranks or Hampson to have included some cursory references to rebuilding Spacefleet, in men or resources. Even the three grown-up Astral heroes, Valiant, Albright and Straight disappear without trace, just when they could have been useful additions to the cast.
Perhaps the creators realised that, in using planetary conquest as a big story, they had gone far further than could be remotely handled by a series aimed at boys aged 7 to 14. That they had bitten off more than they could chew. That heroic fights might best be reserved for saving civilisations on other planets, from which you could come home without having to see what really was meant by reconstruction.
But it was all too late by then, and all that could be done was to turn exceedingly blind eyes, and look elsewhere. After all, it was only for kids, wasn’t it?