Dan Dare: The Reign of the Robots Review

One of the classic Dan Dare strips, this marked the final part of the Man From Nowhere Trilogy and featured the Mekon finally conquering the planet earth. Widely considered to be on the best Dan Dare stories, this adventure would go on to have an influence on many subsequent invasion earth stories.

Synopsis

Dan, Digby, Lex and Flamer return to earth after a 10 year absence. They had travelled half way across the universe to battle the evil Phants. After foiling their plan they are forced to go back into suspended animation for the long journey home. They take along a small alien animal named stripey who flamer had grown fond of back as a pet

When they awake back in London 10 years later they discover that it is deserted. As they explore the city they are soon ambushed by robots who take them to their master, the evil Mekon. The Mekon reveals that in the years they were away he managed to conquer the earth with the aid of his new robotic servants which he has called his Elektrobots which can also fly.

The Mekon ruthlessly orders Stripey whom he views as useless put to death much to the horror of Dan and the others.

The Mekon then shows Dan that he has shipped many people off to work in labour camps on other planets in order to expand his empire beyond the solar system.

The conditions in these camps  are horrifying and many people are dying from being worked to death, starvation and the brutal treatment at the hands of the Treen guards. The Mekon is also carrying out experiments to see if his human slaves can survive the conditions on other planets many of which have resulted in the humans deaths.

Finally he is also using human beings to learn about their past. He feels that there are too many gaps in human history due to early myths and legends so he wants to find out how human’s survived in prehistoric times and how they did things like build ancient cities. Thus he forces a group of enslaved humans to rebuild the entire city of nineveh under the same conditions as years ago and drugs several humans in a way that causes them to lose all of their memories and regress to the level of cavemen and then places them in jungles that resemble prehistoric earth, complete with cloned specimens of ancient animals to see how they would survived.

The Mekon then takes Dan to one of main labour camps where Dan sees several of his friends from Spacefleet HQ. Dan manages to briefly escape the Mekon and discovers that there is a small resistance group hiding in the camp made up of ex Spacefleet men. Unfortunately Dan is forced to return to the Mekon who threatens to kill his captive friends unless he comes back. 

The Mekon takes Dan and his friends back to Venus where he reveals that he has kept his old friends, Sir Hubert, Hank, Pierre, and Professor Peabody in suspended animation for 10 years.

The Mekon reveals that he has captured them in an effort to force Dan to obey his will. The Mekon wants Dan and his friends to serve him. He believes that if he kills them they will be martyrs, but if they who are seen as great heroes serve him then it will crush the last bit of hope and resistance left in humanity.

Digby, Lex and Flamer meanwhile are soon visited by the benevolent Treen Sondar who aided them in previous battles against the Mekon. It is revealed Sondar managed to infiltrate the Mekon’s army and that he was the Treen the Mekon ordered to murder Stripey. Sondar of course hid Stripey instead and now returns him unharmed to Flamer, Digby and Lex inside an old food cannister.

Dan refuses to help the Mekon with all of his friends saying they would rather die than help a monster. The Mekon then attempts to torture Sir Hubert in order to break Dan by experimenting on him to remove his positive qualities from his brain.  Dan and the others manage to attack the Mekon however, catching him off guard and rescues Sir Hubert before the Mekon can experiment on his brain.

Dan comes close to capturing the Mekon but unfortunately the Mekon is able to summon his special guard the Selektrobots, larger, more powerful yellow robots. Dan is still able to make a deal with the Mekon to take him back to earth and though the Mekon agrees he promises Dan he will rue the day he ever asked to return home.

Digby meanwhile seemingly driven mad by hunger agrees to serve the Mekon. Digby is of course lying and plans to turn on the Mekon as soon as possible. Only Dan however is aware that Digby is acting and the others think he has turned traitor.

The Mekon subjects Digby to a mind test to see if he is being genuine. Digby manages to pass the test by focusing his thoughts entirely on food. The Mekon thus believes he is easy to control as he cares about nothing but food.

Digby later reveals to the others when they are alone that he is tricking the Mekon and is still loyal to humanity.

Flamer figures out that the Mekon is controlling the robots through a single speaker on his flying chair and plans to gain control of the speaker so he can turn the Mekons own robotic servants against him.

Stripey is sent to the resistance movement by Flamer. Meanwhile Digby finds it difficult to keep pretending that he is working for the Mekon as he is forced to work his friends including Dan in the labour camp mercillesly.

Flamer later manages to sneak out to the resistance movement where he reveals to them his plan to overthrow the Mekon. With their aid he manages to escape back to the camp with equipment. Unfortunately Stripey follows him and in order to prevent him being noticed by the Mekon, Digby (who had earlier tricked the Mekon into taking the prisoners back to Venus) is forced to drop his ruse and attack the Mekon. The Mekon decides to take him back to Venus in order to find out why he tricked him.

On the way there Dan uses Rockets given to Flamer by the resistance movement to escape from the Mekon in one of his own ships. He along with Stripey who stows away on board his vessel stumble upon The Sargasso Sea of Space, an area of space where every lost space ship eventually drifts to.  

Dan discovers two castaways on board one of the ships, Bob King and Angus McFarlane.  Their ship was damaged during the Treen invasion of earth and though they managed to escape from the monsters their ship eventually drifted to the sea of dead ships where they have been forced to survive on food from all the other derelicts. The two men help Dan repair his original space craft the Anastasia which drifted here before the invasion. Once she is repaired the three men set off for Venus to bring down the Mekon.

The Mekon contacts Dan and tells him to to surrender or else he will execute all of his friends. As Dan tries to trick the Mekon, Stripey ends up jumping in front of the camera. As soon as the Mekon sees him he realizes that the Treen he ordered to kill Stripey betrayed him. Fortunately Sondar is able to rescue, Peapody, Hank, and Sir Hubert from being executed and together they escape to the Southern Hemisphere of Venus the former land of the Therons. Though the Mekon has conquered the Therons just like on earth there are still resistance movements and Sondar plans to find one of them.

Dan meanwhile manages to trick the Mekon with Bob and Angus’s help. Bob and Angus fly the ship Dan stole from the Mekon and the Mekon being unaware of the Anastasia captures it thinking it is Dan whilst Dan really flies into the southern Hemisphere where he reunites with his friends. Later when the Mekon attempts to interrogate Digby, Angus, Bob, Flamer and Lex they manage to overpower him and Flamer takes control of the Mekon’s mike in his chair and uses it to give the Elektrobots orders that cannot be countermanded to turn on and destroy each other. 

On earth the Elektrobots begin to massacre each other. Without the aid of their robotic servants the Treens are overpowered by their human servants and many of them are captured whilst others flee.

Whist the Elektrobots are finished the Mekon summons his back up army the Selektrobots who are able to capture Digby, Flamer, Lex, Bob and Angus. The Mekon then sends an army of them to earth, planning to reconquer the planet.

Dan meanwhile has made contact with a group of Theron rebels, led by his old friend Volstar who have located the second communicator that the Mekon uses to control the Selektrobots.

Unfortunately the rocket they have built is not capable of releasing the war head from a safe distance and returning to land, as they lack the resources. Thus it is a suicide mission. Dan nevertheless accepts and goes to destroy the Mekon’s second control device. Dare is successful in destroying it just as the Selektrobots arrive on the earth. The Mekon’s army is completely defeated and he is captured once again. Dan meanwhile is rescued from certain death by Sir Hubert in the Anastasia. Unfortunately the ship is almost destroyed by the Treens who on the last order of the Mekon try and kill Dan.

Dan is able to land the Anastasia in the lava belt of Venus where a gigantic monster known as the Silicon Mass that dwells. Dan is able to escape with the aid of his friends and the Therons. He is also able to rescue his ship from being devoured by the Silicon mass using technology gleaned from the Treens. 

The Mekon however quickly manages to escape, though in his attempt he is seemingly consumed by the Silicon Mass. Dan believes he has seen the last of the monster, but Digby has a feeling he has escaped.

Following this earth begins to rebuild, with the Selektrobots now being reprogrammed to serve humanity. Dan and his friends are hailed as heroes and Spacefleet is re established.

Review

To modern readers The Reign of the Robots probably seems like just a straight forward, albeit extremely fun action adventure story. In truth its actually a very bold and ground breaking story.

The Treens in this story are clearly meant to represent the Nazi’s. Much like Terry Nation would later do with the Daleks Frank Hampson is not subtle in the comparison’s he draws between the villains and the Third Reich.

We see the villains round people up into concentration camps and perform horrific experiments on them, treating them no better than animals. There is also a disturbing scene where a Treen tells Dan that all of the weak and infirm of their own species were not allowed to live.

The Mekon and the Treens were always used as a metaphor for the Nazi regime but never quite as strongly as in this story.

The idea of basing a villain so heavily on the Nazi’s probably seems quite mundane and unoriginal nowadays, but back in the 1950’s barely a decade after the war had ended this would have seemed quite daring, especially in a comic aimed at children.

Much like The Dalek Invasion of Earth would do almost ten years later this story plays on the paranoia people had during the war of a German invasion of England with the Treens much like the later Daleks even marching by familiar London landmarks.

However what’s great about the story is whilst it does present us with a horrifying what if the Nazi’s had won scenario it also manages to be upbeat at the same time by showing us all the people of earth remain united against the Mekon. There are no Quizlings or backstabbers here. In contrast to other end of the world stories like say Day of the Dead that show us the last humans fighting amongst themselves this is very much an optimistic story that shows us how the spirit of man will never be broken.

Whilst some of the World War 2 imagery may be lost on contemporary readers the story still holds up almost 6 decades later as it is still above else a gripping page turner.

It’s just wall to wall action and there really isn’t a dull moment. It also moves through so many different exciting locations and set pieces, from a deserted London to the Treens concentration camp to the Mekons base on Venus to the Sargasso sea of space to the jungles of the Therons. I think these different and exotic set pieces give Hampson a chance to really spread his wings as an artist as unlike other Dan Dare stories such as Marooned on Mercury or the preceding story Rogue Planet its not set on the one planet.

The villains even without the Nazi parallels are still effective. The Mekon is a fascinating character the way he claims to have removed all of his emotions yet paradoxically is still shown to be consumed with hatred for Dare. His reasons for keeping Dan alive, that he wants his help to rule the universe are lame, and I love the way we later find out that its actually just so he can prolong his agony and break his spirit, when he spits it out to his minions that he wants to crush Dan’s will and prove his superiority.

My favourite moment though is when the Mekon is being held prisoner and they tell him to call off the last of his Treens and he instantly orders them to kill Dare no matter what. Its a brilliant twist that the Mekon who views himself as entirely logical is just so spiteful and petty.

Of all of the supporting characters Digby gets the best moments such as when we see him trick the Mekon. I love the way that he is able to trick the Mekon the greatest mind in the galaxy simply because he is such a simpleton as he doesn’t have any deep thoughts for the Mekon to scan.

The Mekon and Digby’s interactions are lots of fun because you couldn’t get two more different characters. Digby is so sweet and lovable whilst the Mekon is just so vile, cowardly and sadistic. The Mekon probably calls Digby fat fool about 17 times in this story.

The only character who really doesn’t get anything to do in this adventure sadly is Professor Peabody. Its not so surprising that a female character wouldn’t be given much to do in something from the 50’s but still its a bit of a shame as normally Peabody was a more progressive character who was often given an important role in the story such as in Marooned on Mercury. In fact in just about every Dan Dare story I have read so far Peabody plays a crucial role in the story, but here she really just stands at the side which is a bit of a shame.

Still overall this is an excellent adventure that really is impossible to put down. I cant imagine how hard it would have been to have gone a week between strips back in the 50’s.

The Treen Invasion of Earth vs The Dalek Invasion of Earth

This story was a big influence on the Doctor Who serial the Dalek Invasion of Earth.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth sees the four main characters, the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara arrive back on earth after a long absence only to discover London deserted. They later find out that in their absence the Daleks have invaded and conquered the earth and are ruling it with the aid of robotized human servants called the Robomen. The Daleks also have set up massive work camps across the world too.

Our heroes are able to defeat the Daleks by taking control of the speaker that they use to control the robomen and give them new orders to turn on the Daleks.

The story also uses the Daleks as a metaphor for the Nazi’s in very strong ways

As you can see there are quite a lot of strong similarities between the two stories. It could also be argued that the Selektrobots look somewhat similar to the Daleks too.

Rise of the Pepperpots!

Again I am not accusing the Dalek Invasion of Earth of being a rip off of The Reign of the Robots, I just personally find it interesting seeing how stories can influence others. It was reading about Dan Dare’s influence on Doctor Who that got me interested in Dan Dare in the first place.

I think where the Dalek Invasion of Earth differs from Reign of the Robots is that it is much darker and less epic. The limited budget of Doctor Who meant that it couldn’t possibly compete with Dan Dare and thus the Dalek Invasion of Earth doesn’t span many exotic locations across the entire solar system like The Reign of the Robots does.

However it does present us with a somewhat grimmer picture of life under an alien invasion. We see the full extent of the Daleks horrific experiments with the Robomen. The Robomen are people whose brains the Daleks have experimented on, and turned into living dead men. They are still awake underneath but they can’t control their own bodies. Eventually after a few weeks the Robomen have a complete breakdown and kill themselves.

The Robomen are a much more frightening concept than the Selektrobots and there are many disturbing moments with them such as when we see a Roboman kill himself after he breaks down or when one Roboman murders his own brother.

The human characters in the Dalek Invasion of Earth are also somewhat more morally grey. Many of them give up on the resistance and others even betray their fellow humans and work for the Daleks. There are plenty of Quislings and back stabbers in the Dalek Invasion of Earth in contrast to the Reign of the Robots which features all of humanity remaining united against their oppressors.

Of course I am not saying this makes either story better or worse, but I think its interesting to see the differences between Frank Hampson and Terry Nation’s style of writing. Terry Nation was a far darker writer who was more willing to push the boundaries in terms of what was acceptable.

It was this aspect of his writing that arguably made him one of television’s most celebrated writers as he did things that shocked audiences such as the Daleks themselves who were seen by many people as too terrifying to be allowed on television and then of course his later series Blake’s 7 which featured unsympathetic, even villainous lead characters, main characters being framed for being pedophile’s and main characters regularly dying too.

Hampson on the other hand was obviously a much more optimistic writer. His work generally tended to have a happier ending and tended to show us characters who were above all decent, kind hearted people. Whilst some might say this made his work less adult than Nation’s personally I think it allowed it to be just as groundbreaking. After all it was Hampsons optimism and hope for the future that made him do things like give strong and prominent roles to women and ethnic minorities in a time when virtually no one else was.

I feel that Reign of the Robots and the Dalek Invasion of Earth two fairly similar stories, both in many ways sum up all that was great about both Hampson and Nation, two pioneering science fiction writers as well as what was ultimately different in their approach even when exploring similar ideas and concepts.

Notes/Trivia

  • This story ran from 22 February 1957 to 18 April 1958. Though that’s including the mini story “The Ship that Lived” which followed on directly from it. The Ship that lived has often simply been reprinted as a part of The Reign of the Robots.
  • This is the Mekon’s 4th appearance in Dan Dare.
  • The 3rd and final part of The Man From Nowhere Trilogy.

 

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