Dan Dare: The Platinum Planet


                                                                                      The first page

Whilst Mission of the Earthmen and The Solid-space Mystery had been decent, if not inspired efforts at maintaining the standard of Dan Dare stories, The Platinum Planet was where things started to fall apart, a process accelerated in the closing weeks of the story, when a front page re-design cramped up the page area in which Harley and Cornwell had to work, with effects we will go on to discuss.
At the beginning, the set-up offered almost unlimited potential: one of the Mekon’s adherents, escaping Venus Rehabilitation Camp, has stolen a spaceship and aimed for Spacefleet HQ to cause havoc. His target was the Control Tower, and it was not a good auger for things that he missed it completely, for no reason, and instead crashed into an unimportant hanger. Nevertheless, Dan and Digby decided to use the Zylbat’s VTO engines to control the resultant fire with their downdraft, only for the fuel stored under the hangar to go off. The Zylbat’s controls were damaged, and the ship took off at maximum speed, its navigation locked. Worse was to come: though our heroes repaired most of the physical damage, they were not aware that the hibernation gas pipes had been cracked and as soon as they take off their helmets…
In between episodes, the two were knocked out for as long as it took for the gas chambers to run dry. When they woke up, they were in an unknown area of space, having travelled for ‘years’. They were hopelessly lost.
But, as better writers than Eric Eden have found, it is one thing to set up an interesting situation by sending your characters on a journey, but the story stands and falls by what you have for them to find and do at journey’s end.
At this journey’s end is the Platinum Planet of the title. Dan and Digby first discover a green planet, which they narrowly avoid, after which they use their remaining fuel to follow a transporter that seems oblivious to their presence to a planet which appears to be made of platinum, with a few random rock formations. It’s actually a planet-wide artificial construction sealing off the surface from the outside.
(Can you imagine what that would entail? The labour? The time, the engineering achievement? Even if we assume this planet has platinum in abundance, it’s horrendously unbelievable.)
This is a planet with a platinum roof, beneath which, of all the things you could find on a world advanced enough to do something incredible like this, our heroes find a primitive, hypno-controlled absolute dictatorship.
Yes, the entire population lives, works, eats, sleeps, breathes with hypnotic helmets on their heads that continually control their every movement.
Scientifically, it’s perfectly plausible that the technology to build a planet-sized platinum sheath could also create this kind of absolute control but a moment’s thought is enough to tell you that the idea is insane beyond belief. Even accepting that someone capable of this level of scientific advancement should actually have the mentality of a crummy gang-boss, how can you control and direct the movements of an entire planet (‘three trillion thought-controlled serfs’) and interlock their vasty and various actions?
It’s the question that blows all credibility out of the water, and it’s not made any more plausible by the fact that, by the close, Eden has produced a single person to run the entire system as a power-crazed, self-indulgent tyrant, named Astorat (a Catalan word meaning astonished, which suggests to me that either Eden made it up as a variant of Ashtoreth, a Syrian deity, or else he was making an extraordinarily perceptive metafictional comment on his own story: I’d go with the former, personally).
However, we’ve a ways to go before Master Astorat – who is as petty, vainglorious and childish as you can imagine, a walking cliché that makes this set-up even less plausible, since there’s no way he could have put this set-up together – appears on the scene. In the meantime, Dan and Digby are thrown off-planet, to the green planet, where they are expected to work for the Platinums.

                                                                               Dan and Dig meet General Zeb
Hmm, paired planets, one technically advanced, the other primitive. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a direct rip-off from Mission of the Earthmen. This time round, the green planet is a fiefdom of the Platinum one, populated only by the malcontents, misfits and rebels from Platinum society, or would be invaders from other planets in the system. Dan and Digby meet former General Zeb, a purple-skinned humanoid with two tremendous walrus-moustaches, one on his lip, the other on his forehead, where it sweeps round to the back of his head. Zeb explains that ‘to colonise is death’, meaning that as soon as the green planet has been properly civilised, with roads and cultivation etc., the Platinums will take that over and kill the slaves who’ve done the hard work.
Zeb, being a war leader, has not been idle. He’s built a missile to rocket a picked band of colonists back to the Platinum planet, to retrieve all their spaceships and escape. Dan decides to go one better: they’ll overthrow the dictatorship first (shades of Trip to Trouble and the Grandax of Gan).
It’s at this point, when the colonists have escaped back to the sealed-in planet, that an indignity occurs. I don’t know what lay behind the decision but, with six weeks remaining in the story, Odhams made the editorial decision to cramp and weaken Dan Dare by forcing the series to share the cover with a new feature, Men of Action. This feature was a text and art mini-account of the lives of famous people – racing drivers, motorbike riders, skiers, speed record holders, mountain climbers – placed as a strip down the left hand side of the front page, below a truncated Eagle logo box, with Dan Dare squeezed into the right hand side, it’s width approximately three-fifths that of the cover.
It was a shock, and an attack on Dan Dare’s prominence, and to make matters worse, in order to keep the episode length consistent, Harley and Cornwell had to cram the rest of the story into five narrower tiers of panels on page 2, an impossible strait-jacket. There was no room for their art to breathe, no space for anything other than the perfunctory account of what was going on.
It was a demoralising attack on the primacy of Dan Dare within Eagle. Worse would follow in the not-too-distant future, in the form of changes that all Dan’s fans have interpreted as a deliberate attempt to kill the series, and this would naturally appear to be a precursor to that move, were it not for the fact that this was still Odhams in charge, and not the soon-to-be-incoming Longacre.
What momentum remained in The Platinum Planet was killed off. The rebels win. Astorat tries to pull of a you’ll-never-take-me-alive defiant suicide but makes himself look a fool when his leap out of a high window ends in a safety net ten feet down. Once again, Dan and Dig have saved the day.
Of course, they’re still an unknown distance from Earth, having flown on for years, with no way home even if they knew the way home, but not to worry. This insoluble trap unsurprisingly proves to be only too soluble, as Zeb has a limitless number of starcharts and a few details about Earth will soon reveal it’s whereabouts (oh yes? And when exactly did he go a-roving so incredibly far from his home system and not be noticed snooping around by Spacefleet?).
And Dan and Digby can have unlimited amounts of fuel, supplies and presumably the local equivalent of hibernation gas, not that anyone thinks to mention this, to enable them to get home, years later, no doubt. I bet that doesn’t cause any problems!
No, all round, The Platinum Planet is not merely a weak story, unable to create interest in a mixture of former Dan adventures and full of clichés, it’s a dumb story that has thrown in ideas without the slightest notion as to how plausible they are. In that sense, it’s the complete antithesis of Hampson, and from three men trained by him, that’s a disaster.

Dan Dare: The Solid-space Mystery


So: we’re back in the Solar System, where all seems peaceful and normal, except that the freighter ship Martian Queen (looking nothing like the Martian Queen menaced in Project Nimbus) starts panicking over a little red spaceship rushing around at a frantic speed, apparently far too fast. At great risk to itself, the Martian Queen cranks up its own speed, desperately hailing the runaway.
Which is, of course, the Zylbat, with Dan and Digby just waking up from their hibernation chambers and, once they pick up the signal, stopping on a sixpence. Which is more than the Martian Queen  can do as, before it can decelerate to a safe speed, it crashes into something that isn’t there and is destroyed.
After a brief interlude during which they’re almost shot as space-looters, Dan and Digby learn that the Solar System is menaced by invisible and undetectable pockets of ‘Solid Space’, ionised or magnetised pockets of space gases. If a spaceship hits one of these, it will crash, unless it is travelling below a maximum speed of 1.3 Atmospheric (?). But Earth’s economy is still utterly dependent upon freighting of food and raw materials and if this is the maximum allowable speed, that economy (and starving population) will collapse.
After another brief interlude during which the Zylbat (now decorated with the SF logo) escorts a test flight undertaken by the hitherto and latterly unseen Captain ‘Shorty’ Long, Dan and Digby discover that the Zylbat is a super-spaceship, proofed against magnetic resonance, and able to detect and dodge at ultra-high speed the Solid-space pockets.
In order to pass on these bounties to the rest of Spacefleet, our heroes need to find a supply of Indium. This is found in abundance on Mars’ moon, Deimos, but purely by chance, Dan and Dig discover a vital clue, flying through a mysterious beam whose source lies somewhere between Venus and Mercury. There’s also a Treen-designed ship flying parallel to the beam, though Governor Sondar denies any knowledge of such a craft.
Which ought to clue us in that we will shortly be seeing the return of a very familiar character who’s been missing from the series for an unprecedented whole six stories.

                                                                                Recognise him?
Dan and Digby track the beam to discover a satellite shaped like a light bulb. This is the source of the magnetic rays that are creating the Solid-space pockets and it is by now no surprise to the reader, though a complete shock to Dan and Digby, to discover that this is all the work of the Mekon, last seen being swallowed up by the equatorial Silicon Mass during The Ship That Lived (though the readers knew better).
There is no explanation here of the Mekon’s escape, no further reference to the ‘Last Three’, just his latest murderous plan, for which our heroes are to be left to die in space, to prevent them spilling any beans. This is no challenge to Dan Dare, who gets the pair of them back onto the satellite and succeeds in using the beam to attract Spacefleet’s attention with an S.O.S. Signal.
Sir Hubert sends out a ship to investigate, turning one last time to the stalwart Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette. Hank will enjoy a nostalgic reappearance many years later, but for Pierre, like Flamer and Professor Peabody before him, this is the end of the line. Thankfully, and puzzlingly, these are the real Hank and Pierre, not the superbly drawn puppets of Project Nimbus, which comes as something of a surprise since Eric Eden was the writer of both stories, but it’s a delight to share their company for a final adventure.
Whilst Digby is sent back to Earth for reinforcements, Dan, Hank and Pierre allow themselves to be captured and brought to the Mekon’s spacebase, where they recover and escape in the Zylbat. Digby’s rescue mission succeeds and the base is taken in a firefight, whilst the Mekon’s attempt to escape in his flagship is thwarted by the Zylbat blowing it to buggery.
Everyone is convinced the Mekon is dead again, though we, the readers, get to see him being loaded into an escape capsule. There may not be any evidence of the capsule escaping, but we know better than that…
So it’s old home week for the latest Dan Dare story, with the Mekon coming out of mothballs, and Hank and Pierre, plus Sir Hubert Guest almost reuniting the original Venus team. And Messrs Eden, Harley and Cornwell are certainly setting out their stall to be as much like Frank Hampson as is possible when you’re restricted to a story less than a third the length of the original Venus adventure. I’d like to herald The Solid-space Mystery as a success, but I can’t do so. Because as stories go, it’s bland, and bland almost to the point of dullness.


It’s not that there are defects in the story (other than one to which I’ll come, momentarily), but it’s a repeat of the main criticisms I had about Mission of the Earthmen: that it’s the work of three perfectly competent craftsman, each of whom have a good understanding of what goes to make up a Dan Dare story, in word, plot and art but who lack the creative spark.
It’s not a criticism of them, at least not a fair criticism. It’s just that they weren’t Frank Hampson and they didn’t know how to go that further degree. Take those interludes I mentioned earlier, the ‘looting’ incident, and ‘Shorty’ Long’s flight. The first is insignificant, undeveloped, and whilst the second does play into the story by showing that the Zylbat isn’t affected by the magnetic waves, the peril surrounding this is wholly artificial and has no bearing on the story.
And once the Mekon comes onto the scene, his plans are broken far too quickly and far too easily, despite the fact he’s two steps ahead of Dan at all times. If the Mekon had been this easy to overcome at the start, he’d never have been brought back for a second outing.
Nor do I like the idea of the Zylbat as the all-purpose, do-everything-you-want craft it is painted here. Can travel billions of miles of interstellar space, offers unlimited suspended animation for its crew, zig-zags around undetectable dangers at full speed and even travels on water like a hovercraft: what is this? Supercar? (Which turned up later the same year).
As far as the art was concerned, Harley/Cornwell continued to turn in very respectable work, though the preponderence of the story took place in space, and in artificial light, making the overall impression of the story darker.
There is one substantial issue to go into, especially as this issue will take on a certain prominence over the next two stories. Remember that Mission of the Earthmen took place in a vastly distant galaxy, only brought in reach by the Nimbus drive. Dan and Digby ended that story abandoned in that galaxy, Earth’s fleet having been called home to deal with a menace that we now learn to be the Solid-space pockets. Dan and Dig follow by Zylbat, which cannot hope to match the speed of the Nimbus drive but which offers another version of the Crypt ‘suspacells’, enabling Dan and Digby to survive the long journey.
But just how long is this journey? How much time does it take for the Colonel to get back where he belongs? The answer is that we don’t know and we have not a single factor upon which to make a calculation worth any more than a random guess. We only know that it takes a long time. Earth to Cryptos is ten years, there and back. Just how much slippage of age have Dan and Digby experienced in comparison to their old friends?
More importantly, just how long has the Mekon’s menace been at work, and if it’s as disastrous as it’s painted, why hasn’t Earth collapsed already? These are all questions that the creative team show no signs of having even discovered, let alone considered or resolved.
Of course, there is an easy solution. What if the menace that required the Fleet to head home had nothing to do with Solid-space? It might have been some completely different problem that Earth dealt with without needing Dan Dare for once. Then the Mekon puts his plan into effect, not that long before the Zylbat arrives.
It would provide an explanation, but it would be a cheap excuse that no-one would wear for an instant.
No, Messrs Eden/Harley/Cornwell have gotten themselves into a tangle by not thinking this through. And the same issue will cause even greater problems in the next story, only two weeks later.

Dan Dare: Mission of the Earthmen


With Frank Hampson’s chief lieutenant, and another of his senior and highly experienced assistants, in charge of the art, would Dan Dare once again become the brilliant, clear, well-lit and above all intelligent series it had been for so long?
Before we answer that question, there’s another thing to clear up. Much of what I know of Frank Hampson’s life and career derives from Alastair Crompton’s The Man Who Drew Tomorrow, which was published in 1985. Though written during Hampson’s lifetime, the book was still in preparation when Hampson passed away, denying the artist the chance to see proper credit for his works being given.
The book was re-published in 2011 as Tomorrow Revisited, heavily revised by Crompton to take account of new information available, altered perceptions and material that, out of respect for Hampson, that Crompton had chosen not to incorporate in the original book.
One change that puzzles me is that, where in The Man Who Drew Tomorrow Crompton had been unequivocal about stating that Hampson’s departure from Dan Dare was intended to be permanent – twice he refers to Hampson “cut(ting) himself free” – in the revised edition Crompton now has Hampson claiming that he had only ever intended to step away for a year, to refresh himself, devise new stories and ideas. Indeed, Hampson goes so far as to suggest that this was agreed with Odhams as part of the arrangements for him to step down in the first place.
These claims come from interviews with Hampson that were available for the first book, and I see no reason for suppressing these in 1985.
We know that Hampson didn’t return, and Crompton, neither in his conversations with Hampson, nor in his accounts from other sources, makes any attempt to address why this apparent sabbatical didn’t see Hampson resume control. It’s supposed twelve-month duration fits in with Frank Bellamy only being contracted for a year, but nothing in any work I’ve read has intimated that there was ever an attempt, or an intention to bring Hampson back to his creation.
Nor, given that Odhams had broken up the Hampson studio, gotten production of the series under control on their terms, had been more than willing to dispense with Hampson entirely – and given the way in which Frank Hampson would shortly be treated, which is not overdramatised by being called ‘cruel’ and ‘spiteful’ –  nor does it seem in the least bit likely that they would entertain the idea of Hampson’s return to Dan Dare for an instant.
What we did get, both pictorially and narratively, was the most Hampson-esque story of the period. True, Harley and Cornwell had to conform to the new Spacefleet designs introduced by Frank Bellamy, which looked no more natural than they had before. But they were no longer under an obligation to try to draw like Frank Bellamy, and the relief and the release shows in what is probably their best art for the series.
Eden’s story also makes a substantial effort to live up to the Master, and its essence is certainly something that it’s surprising to find Odhams approving, given their attitude to the past. Dan and Digby are part of an Earth expedition to a distant galaxy, billions of light-years from Earth. Whilst the bulk of the expedition explores the outer planets of the system, Dan and Dig have been detached in a two-seater scout ship to survey the Inner Planets.
They are forced down upon the plant Zyl and put through a series of attacks by the ruling Council, a people scientifically advanced. But these are merely tests, not merely of the Earthmen’s capabilities in the face of danger but of their moral capabilities, their willingness to aid what they believe is an enemy.
For Zyl has a sister planet, Vort, home to barbaric races, that it wishes to civilise, but is not qualified to do so. Zyl is too far advanced, too soft: it needs a race that, on an evolutionary scale, is somewhere between those two levels. Their tests have proved that Earthmen are ideal, and Dan and Digby are only too eager to take on what is, essentially, a kind of two-fisted missionary role.
There is a fly in the ointment, however, in that one Council member, Senat, objects, believing the job too much for two strangers to the Zyl system (the man might well have a point, but then he doesn’t know about this pair, plus two others, one a kid, defeating the entire planet of Phantos, not to mention the overthrow of Gan with only one helper: the steadily reducing number of people needed to overcome regimes here reaches its ultimate expression). Without unanimity, the Council cannot proceed, so they hand over a spaceship to enable our heroes to reach the fleet, at the other end of the system.

                                                                                 A modern day cut-away
Dan and Digby have other ideas, however, like losing their way heading back and accidentally arriving on Primitive Planet Vort anyway. Except that Senat isn’t as stupid as you normally expect and stows away with a gun to ensure the boys don’t get off course. Nevertheless, he is so advanced, civilisation-wise, that he isn’t familiar enough with guns to be not be taken in by a routine bluff, and we’re off to Vort anyway. Where Senat’s fears over being on such a dangerous planet lead him to fly off the moment Dan and Digby leave the ship to reconnoitre.
This action at least has a positive outcome. The Zylans immediately crank up to locate and assist the Earthmen, whilst Dan and Digby use their wits to firstly survive among true barbarians, and secondly escape with a more civilised version, who is a raider from more sophisticated tribes.
These higher-level barbarians are still stuck at the raiding party stage: war is fun, plunder is profit and the gods rule their lives. The technology of the Zylans is advanced magic, the ships are Dragons, and its a relatively easy task for Dan and Digby to organise a situation where the two warring peoples (the real barbarians don’t get a look in on this) are led to believe that the Earthmen are gods who derive their magical powers from the war, and who can be defeated by peace.
This results in a treaty, after which Dan and Dig hand the situation back to the Zylans to monitor, with the occasional poke-and-prod to make sure things stay on the right track.
Mission of the Earthmen was Eric Eden’s third complete story for Dan Dare and the first in which he was writing for artists who he would, presumably, have thought of as friends and colleagues. This reunion of Hampson Studio alumni has the feel of people suddenly relaxing, eager to flex their muscles in a manner with which they are intimately familiar, freed from the obligation to be something that, by instinct, they are not. It’s this, I think, that makes the story into something that reads like a success, when in reality it’s no more than a workable shadow of what was so good about the series to begin with.
Because by ‘doing’ Hampson without Hampson, Mission of the Earthmen does little more than demonstrate the qualities of imagination, inspiration and sheer bloody-minded invention Hampson brought to Dan Dare. Yes, Eden’s story uses a Hampson-esque notion, and it is four-square with the great purpose of the leading character that it should be about peace, and the nobility of helping to bring that about, from no greater obligation that one’s own conscience (in Morris’s day, they would have been a slightly more overt statement of mission in the story, as opposed to the title).
But to be honest, what Eden writes is little more than the middle third of a Hampson story.
Take the beginning. Eden starts in media res. Hampson would have started on Earth, with a purpose for the expedition, a team defined, a specific link to the Nimbus Drive, the clear identification of the target galaxy/system. Things would have a place. And he would not have been able to resist defining the Outer Planets before allowing Dan and Digby to progress to the Inner Planets, with some logical explanation for why Spacefleet’s Chief Pilot, Earth’s many-times-over saviour, is being sent on a glorified scouting expedition, of the kind usually given to extras. Hampson would probably have had signals from the Inner Planets detected and Dan volunteering to check these out, such signals having been a decoy, the Zylans having detected the presence of intruders in their system.
Instead, Eden drops Dan and Dig into a story already many weeks along, with no more than a blurred fog behind them, leaving the ground wobbly for the first few weeks as these strangers pile up the pressure.
And then there’s the end, or rather there isn’t. Looked at objectively, Dan and Digby haven’t completed their mission. At best, they’ve disturbed the couple of pebbles that, with careful direction, will turn into the avalanche. Indeed, it’s nothing but a con. The Vortans have been tricked into peace, a very dangerous tactic, given that it will, inevitably be uncovered some day, and even the most settled of civilisations, deep and rich in peace, can react badly on finding that its prosperity has been forced upon it against its will. The Phants didn’t have their pacificity forced on them planet-wide: they opted for it.
Eden’s been criticised for setting up strong stories but only having perfunctory, unsatisfying endings for them, as if he didn’t know how to build up to a climax. Some people just don’t have that in them. Mission is a perfect example: it ends abruptly, with so little done, that it can’t help but be unsatisfying.
I’m in two minds about the art. In places, particularly in mid-story, when Dan and Digby escape from the truly primitive Vorts, in the wake of the pirate Arkrut (Arkwright?), with half an eye closed it could pass for Hampson himself, with its exuberance and its light and colour. But open the other eye. The landscapes are attractive, but ordinary. There is the absence of line and detail, of shade and hatching. It’s not the dichotomy between line and dot of Hampson vs Bellamy but the absence of both, the reliance on outline, on shape to form faces and figures, with colour too often too flat to do more than fill in spaces. And smoother, rounded spaces at that, lacking sharp edges, clear definition.
Don Harley was indeed the second best Dan Dare artist in the world, and he drew Dan better than anyone not Frank Hampson himself. But he lacked the inspiration, the spark of genius. For this omission, he had a longer, happier life than Frank Hampson, is still alive and drawing today. Who is to say which was better?
But this was not quite the end of Mission of the Earthmen. By now, even Dan and Digby were aware that it was strange no-one from the main expedition had come looking forward, given how long they had been out of contact (in a Hampson story, they would have turned up, just in time for Dan to enfold them into a bigger, more definitive plan to bring guaranteed, recognised peace). The Zylans have given Dan his own personal spacecraft, the Zylbat, but when Dan pilots it back to Expedition base, the Expedition has packed up and gone home, abandoned them.
To be sure, there’s a good reason, one that Eden will use to parlay this story into the next one: a message from Earth the day the scouts were declared missing, great danger, sudden recall, no alternative, have left you twenty years food and will try to get back to you before it runs out… A sticky situation, and one that would have been hopeless if our heroes had been relying on Anastasia, but the Zylbat has hibernation tanks…
Earth, here we come!