Tony’s off to see the Solar System.
Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, is a British cultural icon you may well have missed before these new audio adventures, made by B7 Productions and released by Big Finish.
Think Biggles, but with spaceships, or the Original Star Trek, but terribly British. Dan Dare was a comic-strip hero, originally in the Fifties and then in rebooted versions in both the Seventies and the Eighties, with his faithful, slightly chubby sidekick Digby. At first, Dare embodied all the perceived virtues of the British Airman in World War II, stiff upper lip and all, later evolving into an avatar of service, professionalism and all-out decency to which young Brits could aspire, even in the age of Yuppies.
The ethos of Dan Dare is square-jawed, freedom-loving epic space adventure in a Fifties B-movie style and without a cynical bone in its body.
Importantly then, this new audio version preserves that sense of what’s crucial to Dare, without resorting to sly digs at the idea of such fly-boy heroism, and without undercutting it with postmodernism either. The tone of the three audio stories in this first volume is faithful and loving towards the Fifties original, without ever straying into the jingoism which to some extent was part of its post-war mindset.
B7 has updated ‘the future’ that Dare comes from, so there are references here to GPS, to downloading audio onto mobiles and so on, but the core of the character, (played here by Ed Stoppard with a lightness of both touch and voice that takes some getting used to but makes for a more nimble Dare than the writing of days gone by ever did), is still good and true and morally upright. That said, Dare’s had something of a 21st century spruce-up, so he now comes with both a backstory - a famous pilot father who was disgraced ‘for doing nothing wrong,’ and whom he feels he must vindicate by making the Dare name bright and shiny again – and an arc of emotional growth.
The other two crewmembers on board Dare’s ship, the Anastasia, have had a bit of a modern make-over too, which only really matters if you have strict ideas about what can and can’t be changed in a franchise that’s over sixty years old. The writing of Digby in these audios, matched with the peerless casting of Geoffrey ‘the original Ford Prefect from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide’ McGivern, allows for subtle outside assessments of Dare’s antics without ever losing the friendly, respectful tone or slowing down the belting pace. You’ll love McGivern’s bluff Lancastrian who supports, but can comment on, Dare’s heroics, and you’ll want more of him in future adventures. Digby’s also become a longstanding military man, but a real one, who knows when to leg it and when to blow the ever-living daylights out of something. He’s the voice of reasoned self-interest in the dynamic, but that never turns into any form of cowardice, so you can still admire him.
And Professor Peabody, originally included in the Fifties comic strips to ‘be the girl who could be rescued,’ to add an element of personal stake to Dare’s adventures, has been re-imagined as the voice of capitalism in space exploration. She’s a company woman, working for the Eagle Corporation (a nice touch, that, harking back to the comic in which Dare first made his appearance, and in which he made one of his more successful comebacks), the somewhat shadowy business organisation that actually pays for their trips into the solar system, and expects something in return. As played by Heida Reed, she’s ‘the brains of the outfit’ and avoids the cliché of being ‘the penny-pinching bureaucrat’ just as effectively as she does being ‘the girl,’ by being instrumental in getting them out of the problems into which Dare’s occasional recklessness and his runaway mouth sometimes lead them. In fact, it’s Peabody, of the three, that the Mekon most respects for her scientific rigour.
The Mekon? But of course – a launch series of Dan Dare adventures wouldn’t feel like it was a launch series of Dan Dare adventures without the Mekon, Dare’s arch-nemesis, in the same way Doctor Who wouldn’t really be Doctor Who without the Daleks, and he appears in two of the three stories here, played with a clipped authority by Raad Rawi.
For those unfamiliar with the long geeky heritage of Dan Dare, the Mekon’s a Venusian dictator with an enormous brain and a flying chair. Think the twisted smarts of Dr Mengele, the political absolutism of Hitler, and the scientific brain of Stephen Hawking, all united in a giant green head that rules Venus (and its people, the generally docile Treen) with a rod of iron and calls it perfection. That’s the Mekon, and as a representative of repressive regimes everywhere, he’s still worth opposing in the 21st century.
For all the updating means that Dan Dare’s lost that slightly jingoistic touch with which he originally began, there are elements that still smack of cultural imperialism in Dare’s hard-headed refusal to see any positives in the authoritarian regime in place on Venus, and it wouldn’t be a 21st century audio adventure if the line between ‘bold and fearless space adventurer’ and ‘reckless and stupid fly-boy’ wasn’t explored. Digby and Peabody both offer useful counterpoints to Dare in this series, Peabody the scientific and commercial pragmatist tempering his boyish, puppydog enthusiasm to get out there and see the universe, Digby the older, fought-his-way-out-of-scrapes Northerner who’s been led by idiot posh commanders before, to whom Dare has to prove he’s not another in the line.
The Mekon also makes the point that Dare comes to Venus in the first story and causes nothing but chaos, leaving a trail of death in his wake. It’s a theme that runs through the three stories here, the taming of Dare’s occasionally dangerous recklessness and, on a broader theme, Man’s willingness to shoot first and act questions later. While in the first adventure, Dare takes against the Mekon’s absolutism and is prepared to smash it in the name of ‘freedom,’ whatever the cost to innocent civilians, the second story, free of the Mekon, brings Dare face to face with Mankind’s reputation, and he determines to be a better ambassador for his species. By the third story, Marooned on Mercury, Dare’s leading more with his intellect than his gun-arm, and Digby and Peabody fall more in line, having understood that he could be really good at this with just a little prodding, and a little restraint now and again. While Marooned on Mercury is technically a companion piece to the first story, Voyage To Venus, there’s a distinct thread running through all the episodes, and it’s in the second instalment, The Red Moon Mystery, that Dare learns most, and we as listeners get an idea of what the original comic-book stories were like between Mekon comebacks.
The joy about this release it that while there are gracenotes for people who are fans of either the Fifties or the Eighties Dare, this set is free of any need to bring that geeky baggage with you. It assumes you know none of what’s come before and starts Dan Dare fresh from a 21st century perspective, determined to make new fans for the Pilot of the Future. These new adventures stand on their own merits as a breath of absolutely fresh air, especially coming as they do in 2016 – this series is bright, it’s optimistic, it’s heroic and pacey, and it still manages to say that tyranny is worth opposing, wherever you find it. What’s more, it maintains the lack of cynicism from previous versions of the Dare legend and presents it as something laudable, even in a year when cynicism would be the easier, arguably more audience-friendly route to take.
Dan Dare Volume 1 offers run-around space adventure without the complicated socio-politics – very much Original Star Trek, rather than Next Generation. It’s a ripping adventure yarn updated for the 21st century, and after a year like 2016, it’ll make a very welcome addition to your collection.
Buckle up, space adventurers, Colonel Dan Dare is back, and ready for action.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk