Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century

Chris Bentley (editor), Frank Bellamy, Ron Embleton & others
Century 21: Adventures in the 21st Century (2009)

We were in one of those massive clearance sales, table after table of books in a warehouse the size of an aircraft hanger. Everything was a dollar, and anything left unsold would be pulped, and so I picked this up because it seemed a shame to let it get smushed.

I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works back before my voice broke, and I was massively into it because I loved those weird futuristic vehicles; so when I say I was massively into Gerry Anderson and all his works, I actually mean I was into the Dinky Toys and maybe the occasional annual because they contained photographs of those weird futuristic vehicles. I liked the television shows too up to a point, but often felt that the characters got in the way of the story. It's therefore possibly ironic that the traditional pubescent surge of testosterone more or less cured me of these Jeremy Clarkson-esque preferences, and it's why I'm inclined to suspicion when I encounter adults waxing lyrically about the worlds of Gerry Anderson. The models were beautiful, but I'm not convinced there's anything much to get excited over beyond the models, certainly nothing which works without the benefit of arguably unhealthy levels of nostalgia.

TV21 had been cancelled by the time I was old enough to read it, so this is really the first I've seen of this body of work - strips based on Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and others. The art is lavish and unusually beautiful as you might anticipate given the credentials of those involved, and is exactly what is required to communicate the magic of those weird futuristic vehicles. However, even the most gorgeous art is undermined by what I guess must have been editorial insistence on readers being able to recognise the individual faces of their favourite string puppets, not to mention stilted narratives which may as well be variations on Timmy having fallen down the well. The stories are about the same standard as what you saw on the telly, being mostly excuses to get Troy Tempest, Mike Mercury, or Scott Tracy back into the cockpit. The more satisfying efforts are those which stretch the envelope a little - the one in which Captain Scarlet joins a football team, for example; or where artists like Mike Noble or Brian Lewis capture some required resemblance to whoever we saw on the box without invoking Charlie McCarthy or Lord Charles; and then there's Planet of Bones in which the crew of the Zero X - a weird futuristic space vehicle featured in one of the Thunderbirds film - experience peril on a world where all the dinosaur skeletons have come to life due to evolution having taken a bit of a funny turn. Chris Bentley's introduction hails it as being ludicrously brilliant, but erm...

Yes, I know it was for kids, but then so was Dan Dare and I can still read those without wincing because Eagle at least aspired to elevate its young audience without talking down to them. For all its aesthetic appeal, TV21 mostly just wanted you to tune in next week, aspiring mainly to remind you of something you saw on the television - which isn't necessarily a terrible thing, but makes it tough work qualifying this stuff as genuinely classic, unless it's as kitsch.

I really wanted to like Adventures in the 21st Century, and whilst it's harmless, I just can't quite bring myself to love it as some might. The funny thing is that I recall plenty of those TV21 Dalek strips from their reprints, and unless I'm remembering wrongly, there was a plenty imagination at work in that material, as the esteemed Sarah Hadley noted on facebook:

What I think is amazing is that it essentially makes the Daleks protagonists. They're "villainous," yes, and there are occasional characters out to stop them - but this isn't Terry Nation's Dalek series (which would've had Space Security agents Sara Kingdom and Marc Seven in the leads). Almost every single strip, you're implicitly being called to side with the Daleks and hope they win.

Of course The Daleks featured monodimensional supporting characters from Doctor Who placed centre stage by the TV21 strip and obliged to do something a bit more interesting than we'd seen on the box. Accordingly, the better material in this collection is that which either screws with the formula by having Captain Scarlet pull on the old football boots, or which expands some subsidiary element of a show into a thing in its own right, as with the Lady Penelope strip - nothing earth shattering but still preferable to the Stingray crew wobbling around a spooky haunted castle just like on Scooby Doo.

As a point of lesser interest, considering how lyrically Stephen Baxter waxes about Fireball XL5 in the opening chapters of Coalescent, the resemblance of the somewhat blobby Astrans from The Astran Assassination to Baxter's Silver Ghosts - as described in his Xeelee novels - is difficult to miss.

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