Flashback: Dan Dare

With this year marking the 70th anniversary of Dan Dare’s first appearance, we discuss the UK’s finest fictional space pilot and talk to the people keeping his legacy alive today…

Dan Dare, ‘Pilot of the Future’ first took wing in 1950. Beautifully drawn and initially written by Frank Hampson, Colonel Dan Dare was a member of the Interplanetary Space Fleet – essentially the RAF with rockets. He appeared in the seminal British comic Eagle for 17 years, as well as being dramatised for five years on Radio Luxembourg.

Along with brilliant scientist Professor Jocelyn Peabody and his heroic batman (think butler) Digby, Colonel Dare explored the solar system and fought countless menaces. None of those villains were dastardlier than the Mekon; the super intelligent tyrant head of a subjugated alien species called the Treen. Based on Venus, the Mekon was a constant threat, with Dan at the forefront of humanity’s clashes with him. Rockets were flown, swashes were buckled, and days were saved, all with Dan’s customary bravery and warmth.

Dan was initially presented as very much an authority figure. In the immediate wake of World War II, it made perfect sense to make that choice, especially given the heroism of British pilots during the Battle of Britain. Viewed with a modern eye the authoritarian aspects of his character can be alarming. But what quickly reassures you, even in his earliest appearances, is Dan’s fundamental decency and compassion. While he’s a soldier by training, he’s an explorer in spirit, and there’s some lovely grace notes scattered through the earliest material which speak to that. Not the least of which is Dan naming his spaceship, the Anastasia, after Digby’s great aunt. Let’s see Captain Kirk get away with that. Although speaking of Starfleet, it’s also worth noting that Space Fleet was a multinational military and exploratory organisation that predated its American counterpart. Dan’s adventures regularly featured colleagues and crews from other countries. While it wasn’t quite the United Federation of Planets with added tea, it was close.

But it’s Dan’s grounded, calm approach to his fantastical life that would end up being the backbone of the character throughout the decades. Peter Milligan, writer of the most recent Dare comic puts it well, that Dan has “a kind of decency, tinged with just a little naivety”. Colin Brake, series script editor and writer for B7 Media’s Dan Dare audio dramas feels similarly: “For me there’s something very British about Dan Dare – as I’ve said before, he’s Biggles in Space. In three words – he’s honest, decent, intrepid… Dare is a completely different kind of hero. A comic character that is as likely to solve a problem with his brain rather than violence.”

Dan Dare writer Peter Milligan says that Dan has “a kind of decency, tinged with just a little naivety” (credit: Titan Comics)

Colleagues Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle, lead writers on the B7 Media adaptation of the classic story ‘Voyage To Venus’ agree: “His core values are what keep us alive! Optimism, determination, courage, a desire to explore the unknown, a refusal to be broken by failure…”

These qualities also connect Dan to fellow UK science fiction stalwarts: Professor Bernard Quatermass and The Doctor. All of them are brilliant outsiders who are desperately concerned with protecting those less fortunate than themselves and approach that concern in wildly different ways: The Doctor’s fierce joy at life, Quatermass’ endless and often unfounded hope in science, and Dan’s deep-seated belief in the fundamental decency of people.

That being said, given that Quatermass is three years younger than Dare, and The Doctor arrived a decade after Quatermass, it’s tempting to see all three characters as points on an evolving line. It shows British science fiction shifting from a militaristic post-war view, to one intended to educate and entertain, and then gleefully mutating into something far richer and stranger. Regardless, the three characters are all fundamentally optimistic, even though it’s arguable that only The Doctor and Colonel Dare ever have that optimism borne out.

Although as producer Andrew Mark Sewell points out, now is the perfect time for Dan Dare to fly again: “Well, space is back! After years languishing in the backwaters, the romance of space has ignited the public imagination again. From Chris Hadfield’s rendition of Space Oddity in the space station, which clocked up 26 million hits on YouTube, to the 200,000 volunteers for a one-way ticket to Mars, people now see space exploration as something daring and romantic.” After all, what could be more optimistic than volunteering to go to Mars, one-way?

That optimism, as expressed in Dan Dare, can often be mistaken for being out-of-date. Milligan notes this as Dan’s weakness, especially in modern times: “When he first appeared, it was shortly after the war and his type – the brave pilot – was a very contemporary, recognisable hero type. He represented something current and real. I think the danger has been that as those times fade he has become a kind of nostalgic figure, a personification of John Major’s imaginary Britain… long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, and invincible green suburbs.”

The fundamental conservatism Milligan points out also means the characters were not just of their time, but were remembered in a very specific way, with all the challenges and expectations that entails. “I think growing up in the UK you’re always kind of aware of Dan Dare,” Milligan points out. “In part it’s a challenge to be tackling this iconic figure. Also, he always seemed to me to be a pretty remote and ‘posh’ kind of character, representing a Britain that had already vanished by the time I was growing up and was aware of him. Maybe that means he’s a bit of a blank slate, a shell that you can try to breathe new life into and make relevant to the modern world.”

That ‘blank slate’ approach has paid dividends, both in Milligan’s take on the character and in the earlier approach from Garth Ennis. In both cases, Dan is a point of calm but not stillness in a changing world. He’s completely secure in who he is and accepting of the changes around him. That enables the character to stay relevant and true to his roots, while at the same time providing a gentle but absolute moral compass other characters navigate by. It also allows writers to update what is arguably the least relevant part of Dan’s world: the depictions of his friends. Peabody especially is originally little more than an exposition machine, and Digby is just comic relief. The challenge of making them relevant, and fun, and still recognisably themselves was one that the B7 writers met head on, as Kurti and Doyle explain: “The trick was to preserve the core values, while repackaging them for modern sensibilities. So we had to modernise the role of women in the adventures, we had to acknowledge the vast amount that is now known about space exploration and our solar system [and] we had to build in the real politik of what drives space travel in the modern world – money!”

Kindness. Friendship. Adventure. These three elements are always at the core of Dan Dare and it’s no surprise that, in the seven decades since he first took off, Dan Dare has never really come back into land. He’s been referenced in songs from artists like Elton John, Syd Barrett and Charlotte Hatherley. He’s been the star of an animated series, almost played by Sam Worthington in a big screen movie, and written by three of the acknowledged all-time greats of modern comics: Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Peter Milligan. Milligan’s witty 21st century take is just as clearly Dan Dare as Frank Hampson’s, just as you can draw a straight line between the Radio Caroline original radio serial and the current B7 Media series. That begs the question, why? Why does he have such enduring appeal? We leave the final word here to Peter Milligan, when we asked him what Dan’s most important quality is: “Decency. Times might change but at heart Dan Dare remains a good bloke.”

Happy 70th birthday, Colonel Dare. You keep flying.

The original Dan Dare comics are available in hardback editions from Titan. The Peter Milligan/Alberto Foche series, He Who Dares, is available in print and digitally now. The first two seasons of B7 Media’s take on Dan are available now from www.DanDareAudio.com. The third is currently crowdfunding.