Dan Dare radio station Looking back it’s so bizarre, it runs in the family. My mother’s brothers grew up in the 50s and when I was growing up I received some hand me down books and toys. Were they ever into space stuff! A Dan Dare radio station toy, an early Top Trumps style card deck of satellites, all sadly lost now. (Imagine what they would have got on eBay). But sitting for ages on a shelf I found a copy of Capt. W E Johns “Quest for the Perfect Planet”, which I recently decided to read through for the first time.

This spurred me to find out more about 50s kids scifi, and to look up the Capt.’s Biggles books. He flies North, South, East and indeed West. Nice and complete there. (Biggles Takes it Rough!)

I found an excellent resource in the site Dreams of Space which puts down the publication of The Conquest of Space in 1949 (US, UK?) as the springboard for the craze for kid’s books that were based on the dream of space travel, and of course Dan Dare first appeared in 1950 (To orientate yourself, Sputnik came in 1957 and Telstar was 1962). All very laudable in their educational intent, mixing factual with (then) fantasy of people dealing with the alien environment of space. I remember an early Dan Dare strip dealing with the mundane issue of acceleration and deceleration in interplanetary flight.

Quest for the Perfect Planet Of course with Dan Dare proving so popular, I can see Capt Johns, perhaps seeing a slump in the sales of the more pedestrian adventures of an airpilot (air! how old fashioned), and thinking “I can do that”. So in 1954 he did just that with “Kings of Space”. The first in a series of what were effectively Biggles in space books. And here I am now reading “Quest”, the 8th in the series, written at the start of the 60s. A much more mature specimen…

Sadly no. This is still adventures of someone flying around, landing and shooting stuff with rifles. In space. It’s really bad and unexciting. It’s not just the differential from a modern sensibility a contemporary review of an earlier book in the seriesreached much the same conclusions. The action is pedestrian and there is no sense of actual story here at all, merely disconnected incidents on wild and unfamiliar planets. Except they’re not even unfamiliar, just a BIT different. Oo, look, elephants! With multiple trunks! (And “let’s shoot it” as a bonus.) Oo, look, really tall people. Oo, look, large deer/cow/chickens. Etc.

Of course this general mode of story isn’t new or out of date. The earlier pulp scifi serials of Flash Gordon were adapted cowboy/zorro flicks, and later Star Wars was a kung-fu lord of the rings. Dressing old favourites up in the unknown world of space is an old and perfectly valuable trick.

A label on the inside cover copy of my book explains that it was a sunday school prize, and this suggested to me that the book was seen in some way as more edifying than Dan Dare comic-book nonsense. The main “sagredo” teacher-in-the-text character is a proto-Dr Who character called Professor Brane. A dotty, crazy haired avuncular man who hands out a bag of toffees from time to time. A nice stereotype – I think we can work with that. But it turns out that the Prof’s wise council is insanely muddled. A planet with dinosaur-like creatures is an excuse to not only confuse the planet with a past Earth, but also to intimate that humans were contemporary with dinosaurs. There are too many blunders to catalogue, but here’s a sample of pearls from the Prof:

“But if all life had dies how could it return?” queried Rex.
“In the same way that life began on Earth, and on other planets. Given the correct conditions life could begin all over again. Seeds deep in the ground may have retained their vitality … animal life, in its lowest form of course, could follow”

“As the planet draw nearer to the main constellation, and the magnetic influence increases, as it is bound to, the forward momentum will also increase … When it is close and the pull on it is exerted more from one side that another, it may start to spin again. It might then take up an orbit of its own within the galaxy”

There is constant confusion of ‘galaxy’, ‘constellation’ and solar system. It doesn’t matter in the end. The good Capt was just pushing out a potboiler every year, what did he care that his ‘research dumps’ were nonsense on stilts? There’s always a place for poor quality publishing on the coat-tails of what’s happening now.

Earth-shattering conclusion: Capt Johns – scientific illiterate. Bless.