Science Fiction

Pipe & Rocket

In the years following the end of World War II, British children were introduced to a new kind of hero; the courageous rocket pilot. The most famous of these is Colonel Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, but there he has many imitators. Space Ace, Jet-Ace Logan, Captain Condor and Rick Random were all cut from the same cloth, to a greater or lesser extent. The template for all of these characters was one that the British were already very familiar with and idolised – the World War II fighter ace.

Of them all, the first – Dan Dare – shows it’s roots most clearly. Dan may be a space pilot for the Interplanet Space Fleet in the (then far away and exotic) 1990’s, but his dress, manner, sense of personal honour and decency all hark back to war-time cinema and literature. He’s even seen smoking a pipe on occasion!

Dare has been described as “Biggles in Space” – referring to the iconic creation of Captain W.E. Johns, himself cast in the mould of British fighter pilots of the first World War – and showcases those values and qualities held in high regard by the British at the time. Dare is courageous, respectful to those who have earned it, true to his friends, decent and fair-minded, calm in adversity, confident and competent, with a sense of humour. He is an uncompromising and uncompromised hero, free from the angst and introspection that plagued many heroes in the 1970’s onward. He is an optimist, a man who refuses to believe in the “no-win scenario”, who holds that if you expect the best from everyone they will rarely disappoint. He believes that there is right and wrong, and that it’s not very hard to tell the difference. Interestingly for the time, though Dare is very much a man of his age, he shows none of the common prejudices of the British people. While he is a living example of British exceptionalism (and white privilege), he embraces everyone as an equal, no matter their colour, creed, species or planet of origin. Not because he’s being “politically correct” either. He does it because it simply doesn’t occur to him that there is any other way to be.

For a character with no character flaws, Dare is far from boring. While an officer and a gentleman, he is good humoured and well-regarded by his comrades. His relationship with his “batman” (an airman assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal aide, rather than a black-clad avenger of the night) is one of friendship, rather than that of an officer to an underling. In adversity Dare displays some of the “stiff-upper lip” so often parodied these days, but was in all other ways a man of action and heart. When confronted with injustice or tyranny he can be stirred to anger (but never vengefulness), and while rare he has also been seen to display fear or alarm. Most often though, Dare embodies the spirit of discovery, of yearning to voyage far and make friends with new nations and worlds. In many ways, Dare is the British as we would most like to be, even though we know we aren’t and never will be.

Dan Dare is uniquely a creation of his time, a fact most aptly demonstrated by the many failed attempts to revive the character in the years since his comic strip appearances in the legendary Eagle comic (running from 1950 to 1969) ended. In 1977, the weekly 2000AD comic launched with Dan Dare strip as it’s flagship character (Judge Dredd didn’t appear until issue #2). In keeping with the tone of the comic, this version of Dan Dare was all action hero, with none of the charm or morality of the original. Grotesque and horrible deaths were the main feature of the strip, with Dare himself a passionate and vengeful hero with a habit of blasting everything in sight. This isn’t to say the strip is bad; first illustrated by Massimo Bellardinelli and later by Dave Gibbons, the strip was a first-class post-punk space action comic. It just wasn’t really Dan Dare.

After the demise of the 2000AD comic strip in 1979 (ending on a cliff-hanger with the dreaded Mekon triumphant and Dare a wanted man), a second attempt to revive Dare appeared in the re-launched Eagle, running from 1984 to 1992. Initially this version of Dare was the great-grandson of the original (who was unnecessarily retconned to be a WWII fighter ace who’d been transported through time, in a bid to explain the presence of such an old-fashioned hero in the bright and shiny future). In 1989 the strip brought back the “original” Dan Dare, with artwork by one of the original’s art team – Keith Watson. Again, much of the heroic decency of the character was missing, and this incarnation has now faded into obscurity.

Later revivals have sought to portray Dan as a man out of time, even in his own era. The serial Dare, presented in Revolver magazine, was a bleak satire of 1980’s British politics, with Treens confined to ghettos on Earth and subject to racists abuse, spacefleet privatised, and Britain in the hands of a barely-concealed fascist government, secretly in league with the Mekon. Written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Rian Hughes, it’s a great (if very depressing) story. But again, it’s not Dan Dare.

In 2002 a short-lived CGI animated series came out, which stream-lined much of the mythology and once again turned Dare into a devil-may-care space pilot with a ready fist and a blaster. The series wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t very good either, and the voice casting for Dare himself left much to be desired.

In 2007 Virgin Comics published a Dan Dare mini-series, written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Gary Erskine. This again portrays Dan as a bastion of old-fashioned values, considered an anachronism by those around him, but still noble, courageous and determined to do the right thing. Controversially the series suggests that the original stories were propaganda stories for children, the reality being somewhat more complex. This version of Dare takes the stiff-upper lip to an extreme, yet simultaneously makes Dare more human than other revivals. The story is darkly heroic, an epic final battle between Dare and his arch-nemesis, the Mekon. The artwork is fittingly superb, with the same kind of thought and detail given to the technical aspects of Dare’s world as in the original comic strips. Of all the comic strip revivals, perhaps this one comes closest to capturing some of what made the original so good, but even this is tainted by post-modern cynicism.

Most recently, B7 Media produced Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future as a series of audio dramas, available on-line through Big Finish Productions. Of all the revivals in various forms, this one comes closest to capturing the essence of the character. While the setting has been updated, and the character’s biography tweaked, the essential decency and uncompromised nature of the man remain. Other character’s have been similarly tweaked to make them more accessible for a modern audience, with the effect that they become more rounded human beings. Dare’s sidekick Digby, for example, has been reimagined from a light-hearted comic relief character into an initially dour and cynical old-soldier, who is gradually transformed by Dare’s nobility and optimism into a far warmer character. While the mythology and the stories themselves have been slimmed down to fit the format, Dare’s universe has been translated with remarkable faith – though not slavish adherence – to the spirit of the original stories. This then, after many false starts, is truly a Dan Dare for the new millennium.

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