Christmas was enthusiastically celebrated by Eagle. In the fifties the editor would always refer to the Christian significance of the feast. Harris Tweed, Chicko and Tommy Walls always acknowledged the occasion and the continuing serials included references to it whenever possible. There was a Christmas party at the Boys’ Club in two PC 49 adventures and even Riders of the Range incorporated Christmas into the opening instalment of The Arizona Kid, featuring an incident in a saloon decorated with Christmas trimmings. The front page of Eagle was invariably decorated in some way for the Christmas issue. In most years the words of the Eagle logo were shown covered in ‘snow’ and several times the eagle itself was depicted against a background of the night sky, with the star of Bethlehem featured prominently. Throughout the fifties, Eagle Carol Services would be held at churches and cathedrals around the country, often led by the Rev. Marcus Morris, the editor, and Christmas parties were held for Eagle Club members at several venues. Sadly, the sixties marked an end of the Eagle Club and the range of activities that the paper organised, including the Carol Services. No longer edited by a clergyman, the religious aspects of the feast were not emphasised. Nevertheless within the comic itself the shorter lengths of the serials enabled The Iron Man, Sergeant Bruce, The Guinea Pig and Blackbow the Cheyenne to include scenes set at Christmas and Eagle continued the tradition established in the fifties, of informing readers of Christmas traditions in a variety of articles or short factual strips.
In the first Christmas issue in December 1950, the frames of the Dan Dare strip were separated by a holly pattern instead of the usual white borders. As the lead strip and also on the front page, Dan Dare managed to mention the event on a remarkable number of occasions - remarkable because the stories involved long continuing adventures on other planets where Christmas was obviously not celebrated by the native populations. In 1950 Dan and his friends were in the middle of their first adventure on Venus and the episode begins by revisiting the Ranger spaceship orbiting the planet, where the crew are reflecting on the joys of Christmas back on Earth. Then follows a frame showing Aunt Anastasia and Mrs Digby preparing for Christmas and thinking how the celebrations won’t be the same without Albert. The next frame shows a television newsreader announcing that the price of turkey has reached an all time high and another shows the officers at Spacefleet Headquarters eating their Christmas dinner and drinking a toast to their absent colleagues. The story now moves back to the main events on Venus, but Christmas is not forgotten as Sir Hubert, Digby and Professor Peabody, all prisoners of the Mekon, imagine what they would be doing to celebrate the feast if they had been back on Earth. Digby would have dressed as Father Christmas to give presents to his children; the Professor would have gone on a skiing holiday and Sir Hubert would have dozed in front of the fire. This would have resonated with many readers and their parents, who only five years previously were at war. Many fathers would have spent Christmases away from their families, thinking of home, while their families feared for their safety.
But in Dan Dare’s world this was 1996 and by 1997 the Mekon’s tyranny would be temporarily ended. Eagle Annual No. 5 features a story set at Christmas 1997 and I will examine this later, but in the weekly comic the action moved to 1999 after the Venus story ended and the Christmas issue for 1951 found Dan and Digby at the Martian North Pole in The Red Moon Mystery. Trudging through water and ice with a rescued dog protected inside his spacesuit, Digby comments “I feel …like Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. Talk about a white Christmas!” This was a clever touch on the writer’s part – either Frank Hampson or George Beardmore. Digby was able to reference Christmas in the Christmas issue without it actually being Christmas in the story.
Another year, another planet and this time Dan and Digby were on Mercury. Captured by the Mekon again, as an evil Treen scientist outlines the latest plan for world domination, Dan says “And to think that back home now it’s Christmastime,” to which Digby replies “These green monsters don’t know what Christmas means - and don’t care.” This was the only reference to the feast in the story, but it gently reminded readers that Christmas is about peace and goodwill. A year later at Christmas 1953, Dan and co. were on Titan, Saturn’s moon and Digby explained what Christmas means to a Saturnian boy. He tells him about peace, goodwill and presents and even about people going to church or chapel before returning home to Christmas dinner. The scene then shifts to Earth where Sir Hubert is dressed as Santa for the Spacefleet Christmas meal and once again a toast is drunk to Dan and the other members of his expedition. Despite the mention of religious worship, Digby does not mention that the feast celebrates the birth of Jesus. Although the Nativity was always referred to in Marcus Morris’ editorial and sometimes on the back page ‘true life’ adventure strip, reference to Christ was avoided in the fictional strips. While Eagle in the 1950s was a Christian publication, it was never produced exclusively for Christians.
Christmas 1953 was the last mention of the feast in the weekly Dan Dare strip for many years. In the following three years, circumstances in the stories prevented them from taking place at Christmas and the tradition was dropped in later adventures. In 1954, Dan was facing the Mekon on Space Station XQY in Prisoners of Space; a story where a lot of the action took place in a short period of time and the early episodes on Earth show that it clearly wasn’t Christmas time. However Dan and Digby did manage to celebrate Christmas in a humorous single page strip by Frank Hampson, called The Editor’s Christmas Nightmare in which all the Eagle characters appeared. Given the frivolous nature of this strip, it is safe to say that it does not relate to a ‘real’ incident in Dan’s life.
In both December 1955 and 1956 Dan was outside the solar system on Cryptos and Phantos respectively. Believing that they had travelled faster than light but actually having spent time in suspended animation, Dan and his friends could not have known what the date might be on Earth, so again Christmas was not alluded to in the strip. However in Eagle Annuals No. 5 and No. 6, published in 1955 and ’56 respectively, both Dan Dare adventures took place at Christmas. The first, Operation Plum Pudding, had a strong Christmas theme as the title suggests. Necessarily set several years in Dan’s past (1997) because he was currently involved in the epic Rogue Planet story several light years from Earth, it opens with a frame showing Digby and Flamer Spry carrying armfuls of presents across a snowy Spacefleet Headquarters. The presence of Junior Cadet Spry in 1997 has raised objections from several Dan Dare enthusiasts as his first appearance in the weekly was at the start of Prisoners of Space which must have been set late in 2000 at the very earliest and more likely 2001. Given that Flamer was still a Junior Cadet in that story, he must have been Primary school age in Operation Plum Pudding.
Flamer comments on the peace and goodwill that now exists between Treens, Therons and Earthmen, emphasising the message of Christmas as Digby plans for a big feast. But even in this story, the most Christmas orientated of all Dan’s adventures, our heroes are called upon to take over the Christmas delivery run to the crews of space stations because the scheduled pilots – Hank and Pierre have injured themselves tobogganing in Switzerland. Dan volunteers himself and Digby to allow those with families to enjoy Christmas with them. Digby’s wife and family in Wigan, with the exception of Aunt Anastasia, having been conveniently forgotten after the first Venus adventure. Digby decides to smuggle Christmas dinner and Flamer aboard the delivery ship so that they can enjoy the feast in space. Unfortunately two escaped prisoners, Starbuck and Vulcani have stowed aboard the ship in order to escape to Venus and after it is spaceborne they shoot Digby with a paralyzing pistol and force Dan to fly them to Venus. However Flamer, who has been sleeping in a gyrobunk, unknown to Dan and the villains, awakens and throws Digby’s Christmas pudding in Vulcani’s face. Dan reacts by punching Starbuck on the chin. Both convicts are quickly trussed up and Dan completes the deliveries, before returning to Earth in time for an evening banquet at Spacefleet Headquarters. He leaves Digby paralysed until they return to Earth so that he can be revived just as the meal is about to begin. Incredibly he is hailed as the hero for making the pudding that Flamer threw at Vulcani! Everyone, including Flamer, an eleven year old boy, who bravely threw the pudding at a dangerous criminal, enabling Dan to overcome both villains, sings “For he’s a jolly good fellow” to Digby who has slept through it all!
There are some other interesting elements of this story which are worthy of mention. Dan comments that both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Big Ben would be rubble “if the boffins hadn’t dreamed up that Tungstal – Maximite spray.” While remedial work has admittedly been carried out on both buildings in our reality and more is regularly necessary, it is now twenty years after the adventure was supposed to have taken place and both are still standing and functioning without so much as a squirt of Tungstal - Maximite spray. Another interesting element is a celebration on television of the long career of Gilbert Harding, described in the strip as “TV’s grand old man.” Harding was a panelist on a range of programmes in the real 1950s and while it was conceivable that he could have lived till 1997, when he would have been ninety, he sadly died in 1960.
The next Eagle Annual also had a Dan Dare story set at Christmas. This was Operation Silence and was a sequel to the previous year’s story. However it could not have been set just a year after Plum Pudding because it features the Mekon as a prisoner at Venus Rehabilitation Centre. This fact means that this story must take place between the weekly adventures Prisoners of Space and The Man from Nowhere, because this was the only time that the Mekon was a prisoner there. Unfortunately there was little or no time between the two stories to fit Operation Silence in. At the end of Prisoners of Space, Sir Hubert tells Dan and his friends that they have a date at the Venusian Embassy and The Man from Nowhere begins with a Ball at the Embassy. In order to accommodate Operation Silence we have to assume that Dan and co. had two dates at the Embassy and the Ball was some weeks later.
While Operation Silence begins with Digby looking forward to Christmas leave in two days’ time, a news flash announcing that the Mekon and a number of other villains including Starbuck and Vulcani from the previous year’s annual have escaped, ends all thoughts of the festive season as far as this story is concerned. Dan and Digby discover that the convicts have captured the Presidents of Earth, Saturn and the Therons as well as Sir Hubert and are holding them for ransom in the ruins of old Mekonta. They fly immediately to Venus to the rescue. Under cover of darkness Dan enters the old city from above using a Second World War barrage balloon, appropriated from Mekonta’s Museum of Earth Science, to surprise the criminals. However he too is captured, but in the absence of Junior Cadet Spry, Digby also enters the ruins using a barrage balloon and he has the good sense to bring a paralyzing grenade and to wear a spacesuit. He simply drops the grenade among the villainous throng, paralyzing everyone except himself. Then he sneaks around the guards and lookouts posted at the entrances to the ruins and fires a paralyzing pistol at each of them in turn. For his trouble he is awarded the Solar Star by a grateful World President. The Christmas setting is superfluous to this story, except insofar as many readers probably read it on Christmas Day when they received the annual as a present. However the story has several merits. The idea of entering the ruins from above using a silent ‘vehicle’ is clever and the presence of barrage balloons on Venus is also sound, as it was established in the very first Venus story in Eagle in 1950 that Mekonta had a Museum of Earth Science full of working replicas of Earth technology. Digby may not have been the real hero of Operation Plum Pudding, but he is certainly the hero here, saving Dan’s life, not for the first time or the last. Ironically the Planetary leaders had gathered on Venus to discuss security and given that they all finished up being kidnapped by a group of convicts, it was not before time! Clearly they were completely inept without Dan Dare and his friends to protect them as they would soon prove in spectacular style in the pages of Eagle, when during Dan’s long absence on Cryptos they managed to allow the Mekon not merely to escape again, but to conquer and enslave both Earth and Venus!
The next mention of Christmas in Dan Dare came in the weekly, but not until 1960 and the final episode of Mission of the Earthmen in that year’s Christmas issue. Dan and Digby return to their expedition’s deep space base after their adventure with the Zylons to find it deserted. Dan notices the date on the clock which tells Earth time and realises that it is Christmas Day. Digby then sees a microtape addressed to Dan and says “What’s this sir? A present from Santa Claus?” There is no further mention of Christmas in the episode or indeed in the Dan Dare saga until 1967, when a four part ‘filler’ story was slipped in between repeats of Prisoners of Space and The Man from Nowhere. This was to allow The Man from Nowhere to begin in a special ‘free gift’ issue in the new year to attract new readers when all Eagle’s regular characters began new stories. Again Christmas features in just one frame, but at least this shows Dan and his friends at a party – only the second Christmas party ever attended by Dan and Digby in the strip. Christmas also provides the opportunity for the pair to go on leave to the Greek Islands where the rest of this short story takes place. Here they mistake divers in experimental new underwater breathing apparatus for alien invaders! This was arguably the weakest ever Dan Dare story, but it was the last new one to appear in the original Eagle weekly. However it was not the last mention of Christmas in a Dan Dare strip! Eagle Annuals continued to be published until 1974 and each carried a new Dan Dare story. The final annual (dated 1975) also provided our final strip set at Christmas. Dan and Digby are travelling through space to investigate ‘unusual activity’ in ‘Sector 4000’ and it is Christmas. Once again Digby is complaining about having to work at Christmas and once again as in Operation Plum Pudding, he has smuggled a Christmas pudding aboard ship! The pudding also provides the resolution of the problem presented in the strip, but here the similarities end. Although Dan and Digby are recognisable, their spaceship and spacesuits are unlike any ever seen previously in the strip. The ship’s red nosecone is identical to that on Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbird One while the rest of the ship echoes Thunderbird Three without looking as credible as either craft. Wide below the nosecone and tapering towards a ball shaped base, it looks ungainly and cartoonlike. The strip refers to ‘Space Control’ not ‘Spacefleet’ and while Dan communicates with an officer on Earth in Spacefleet uniform, he is referred to as ‘General’!
Dan and Digby discover that two planets are about to go to war over a huge chunk of a rare and valuable mineral which has broken off from a distant planet. Their ship suffers slight damage in the crossfire between ships of the opposing planets and is forced to land on the rock containing the mineral. Here, Dan devises a plan to stop the conflict. He sets explosive charges to destroy the rock entirely. However the timer on the explosives was damaged when his ship was hit, so he wraps it in Digby’s pudding, which will slowly melt in the heat emanated from the rock and when it has done so, the charges will explode. This gives them time to escape safely. The plan works and the conflict ends immediately as there is nothing to fight over. Dan promises Digby the biggest Christmas pudding he has ever seen when they return to base. And so ends the last Christmas related Dan Dare story and indeed the last Dan Dare story before the very different 2000 A.D. version just over two years later.
The original Dan was revived for the new version of Eagle in 1989 and Keith Watson drew a Christmas related cover featuring Dan and Digby that year. It shows Dan piloting a ‘rocket sled’ with Digby dressed as Santa on the back with a sackful of presents. The strip inside was unrelated to the picture, which was effectively a Christmas greeting to readers. The new Eagle became a monthly in 1991 and finally closed with the January edition in 1994, but even this didn’t end the Dan Dare saga. Our own Rod Barzilay created Spaceship Away! Magazine to tell new stories and the Autumn editions have included short Christmas related strips on several occasions, notably in 2011 which featured a cover by Don Harley showing Dan and Digby carrying presents across a snowy Spacefleet Headquarters, strongly recalling the opening frame of Operation Plum Pudding, although the picture actually relates to a short frivolous strip in the magazine called Missiles and Mistletoe drawn by Don and written by Sydney Jordan, in which Dan thwarts an attempt by the Mekon to destroy Spacefleet Headquarters. Two years later, it was Xel who needed thwarting at Christmas, in a strip by David Motton and drawn by Don Harley, where Dan destroys a missile with artificial snow.
So even now Dan Dare and Christmas continue their association, although Dan himself must approach the Feast with some trepidation. Even when he isn’t millions of miles away in the middle of some desperate mission, something always seems to crop up to threaten the festivities for him.