Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Through a Glass Darely: Ministry of Space

I contributed a couple of articles to online magazine Journey Planet, for their Dan Dare issue - #22 - in May 2015. Note the pretentious yet clumsy title, as I strive for genuine comics-bore authenticity.

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“MINISTRY OF SPACE is a fantasy - but I don’t think it’s an exclusively British fantasy. It wasn’t important to me that Britain went to the moon. It was important that people went to the moon. I don’t care what accent they speak or what colour they are. Making the world of Dan Dare real was my way into the story. But I think the story itself has universal currency. We’re all stuck down here together. But the way out has costs. Was it worth destroying the great human enterprise of exploration just to score political points? That’s what happened. What cost could be borne? Freezing Britain’s social condition in to an eternal 1953? Killing allies? Taking gold stolen from the mouths of corpses?”

Warren Ellis’ Afterword in the Ministry of Space collected volume (Image, 2005)

If you were browsing a comic shop around May 2001, your eye might have been caught by a striking cover of three aeroplanes soaring above the clouds; two were WWII-era Spitfires whilst the third was a larger 1950s-ish aircraft which had more than a hint of Chuck Yeager’s sound barrier-breaking Bell X-1, only this particular bird was decked out with the red, white and blue insignia of something called the Royal Space Force. The cover was of Image comics’ Ministry of Space issue #1, by writer Warren Ellis, artist Chris Weston and colourist Laura Depuy.

Ministry of Space (MoS) is a beautifully conceived and lovingly executed alternate-history of space travel. The ‘what if’ in question being ‘What if the British, and not the Americans, claimed the Nazi rocket scientists after the Word War Two, and went on to dominate space?” In three issues (the first two published in 2001, the last an agonising 3 years later in 2004), MoS crafts a plausible timeline of events, starting in the dying days of the war with an act of bravado and brutality that sets the underlying tone for the entire story of a British space programme that could have been.

At its heart is the fictional John Dashwood, an aptly-named former Hurricane pilot and Battle of Britain veteran. Dashwood is a magnificent bastard, a visionary monster who drives his country’s space programme forward at breakneck speed with relentless determination and self-belief. There are elements of real-life RAF ace Douglas Bader to him (and not just because of his ‘tin legs’) as well as Colonel Dare of course (Ellis was inspired to create MoS when he came across an old copy of the Dan Dare collection The Man From Nowhere in his attic).

But Dashwood is much more than Dare with a Robert Donat moustache, or in his later years Sir Hubert Guest with spectacles. Nor is he simply the Evil Spock version of Dan. For the fifty-plus years that the story covers, he is the heart (if not the soul) of the Ministry of Space, a programme that not only puts Britain head and shoulders above both the Americans and Russians in the race to the Moon and beyond, but affects the country itself in numerous other political and social arenas, from rationing to the Suez crisis to the extended life expectancy of the British Empire. He does terrible things in his pursuit of his dream, but also performs magnificent acts of personal bravery along the way. Like a lot of real-life pioneers he is a monstrous hero, and in MoS a compelling protagonist.

Here then, is a brief timeline of Ministry of Space, somewhat redacted to avoid a major plot spoiler.

  • 1945 - History takes a left turn when the American Operation Paperclip is gazumped by the RAF’s Air Commodore John Dashwood. Dr Wernher von Braun and his German rocket science team are spirited away to Britain from under the noses of the Americans. The US Army extraction troops are killed when the Peenemunde rocket science base is flattened by Bomber Command.
  • 1946 - Britain breaks the sound barrier.
  • 1948 - Victory, the world’s first artificial satellite is shot into orbit. It broadcasts ‘God save the King’ in Morse Code.
  • 1950 - Britain pioneers manned spaceflight with the rocketplane Britannia. Rather than a space capsule, Britannia has a reinforced, pressurized cabin and a leather seat. Dashwood, wearing his old pilot’s jacket, becomes the first man in space, but he loses his legs when Britannia crashlands. Dashwood is knighted for his services to the Empire.
  • 1953-56 - The Churchill space station is constructed.
  • 1957 - The National Service Act 1948 is not abolished, and instead now includes service in the ‘The Royal Space Force’.
  • 1960 - The Union flag is planted on the Moon. It is claimed in the name of Queen Elizabeth II and the British Empire.
  • 1969 - An RSF fleet of nuclear-engine rockets establishes a colonial base on Mars.
  • 1969-2001 - Britain’s space stations and colonies on the Moon and Mars thrive, with mining operations in the Asteroid Belt. Certain irregularities concerning the original source of the budget for Sir John Dashwood’s ambitious space programme come to light.

So that’s the bones of the story; what of the look and feel? For my money, a series like this stands and falls on its art. It needs a certain sort of artist to bring the real-life aircraft and fictional space vehicles to life with equal authenticity. In his afterword, Ellis says that British artist Chris Weston was his only choice for MoS. Weston had already made his name for 2000AD and DC comics, and was a former apprentice to the legendary Don Lawrence of Trigan Empire fame. From Spitfires and Hurricanes to the experimental rocketplane Britannia, the Arthur C Clarke-inspired Churchill space station and massed might of the Martian exploratory fleet, Weston’s renditions of the ministry’s spacecraft are beautifully plausible-looking products of an alternate 20th century technology, like 1950s and 60s diagrams from Eagle comic itself or Look and Learn. Only in a single splash page in issue #3, a shot of young boys in shorts wearing heli-packs hovering over an alternate 1960s London, do the visuals of MoS stray into whimsy (this page looking a little of place, as if it has sneaked in from an issue of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong).

Laura Depuy’s sterling work as colourist is awash with bright sky blues, intense golden white rocket blasts, RAF serge deep blues, star-speckled spacescapes, grey lunar terrain and eerie Martian reds and oranges. Everything has a clean, bright feel, like paintings from an old Ladybird book.

Ellis himself, a self-confessed space nut, demonstrates that he has the write stuff when it comes to space race stories, peppering MoS with dialogue between Dashwood and (the never named) Dr Wernher von Braun that drips with aeronautic authenticity, as they argue over the pros and cons of three-stage launches, chemical engines, nuclear motors and space station construction. Ellis’ dialogue sparkles in this story, with the ever-quotable Dashwood - putting himself in the pilot’s seat for Britain’s maiden manned flight into orbit - getting all the best lines:

“Orbital-1 will go up in 1950. It will be a plane that can be flown. We’re not in the business of catapulting potatoes over the horizon. And I will be flying her.
And I want the bloody cabin reinforced and pressurised! I am not going to space wrapped in tinfoil! I’m an English airman and I want to wear my bloody jacket and sit in a decent leather chair!”

MoS, issue #1

The series isn’t perfect. The overall plot itself is fairly light, using an ageing Dashwood in 2001 confronting his past as the skeleton for the flashbacks from 1945 to the present day. The individual episodes from each year are in themselves excellent vignettes, but the over-arching plot such as it is, is a little bland: old Dashwood gets into a spaceship, ponders the past, then argues with some people in a space station, the end. 

And there is a somewhat heavy-handed final panel which unsubtly hits the reader in the face with one of the book’s underlying themes, that being that the price Britain paid for its space supremacy was social stagnation and discrimination. Likewise, the shock revelation regarding the funding for Dashwood’s ‘black budget’ seems to have been added to the story only to further confirm him as a terrible monster. Both storytelling elements feel like leftovers from overly-earnest, politically critical comics of the 80s and 90s and might have been better served with a lighter touch.

Enough of the literary criticism. What’s cool about Ministry of Space? Here’s a personal list:

  • All of the craft, but especially the Martian fleet - if they did a comic of the classic 1950s Journey Into Space radio series, it would look like this.
  • The Lowlands University shout-out to BBC comedy-drama A Very Peculiar Practice.
  • A V-3 rocket launching from Essex.
  • “…where the bloody hell are my legs?”
  • Spaceships launching to a casual “Chocks away.”
  • The union flag on the Moon.
  • Engineering product placement, from the Rolls Royce orbital shuttle to the lunar Shackleton Rover (complete with Rover badge on the bonnet).
  • Every single page splash.
  • Jodrell Bank and Woomera.
  • The 5-page sequence of the Martian fleet.
  • The Royal Space Force roundel.
  • “You made us monsters.” “I made you great.”

For a three-issue comic series that came out with very little fanfare, MoS punches above its weight when it comes to its legacy, efficiently encapsulating the visuals and themes of an alt-history that fuses 1950s Dan Dare derring-do with The Right Stuff’s rich grounding in science and politics. Its impact on the wider sci-fi/comics/gaming community can be measured by the fact that the oh-so useful term ‘Ministry of Space’ is now used to neatly sum up a certain sort of genre and setting, as if it has been with us as long as British sci-fi mainstays like Quatermass or Journey Into Space.

There is much to love in Ministry of Space, which for all its dark secrets and bloodied hands feels like part love letter to Dan Dare’s stiff upper-lipped pluck, part wish-fulfilment for those who never wanted the sun to go down on the British Empire and part good old-fashioned space fiction.

Tally ho!

Further reading

Planetary (Wildstorm comics), also by Warren Ellis, which also uses an alternate space program (this time a secret US Ares project, with an evil Fantastic Four).
Journey Into Space, by Charles Chilton. The British radio serial from 1953-58. Operation Luna (series 1) and The Red Planet (series2) in particular have a marvellously authentic feel of space exploration, and are wonderfully atmospheric. 
Rockets, Rayguns and Really Nice Tea. British-based live action roleplaying system inspired by Dan Dare, Quatermass and Ministry of Space.

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