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An Annual Treat

For almost two centuries, and particularly since the mid-twentieth century, children in the United Kingdom have opened a traditional christmas gift. Annuals are hard-bound, A4- or Foolscap-sized illustrated books which usually mingle picture comic strips with prose stories, games, puzzles, quizzes, activities and factual information articles. They are often published as tie-in materials providing extra content on popular comics, television series, feature films, or even celebrity personalities or toy lines. Such books traditionally carry the following year’s date, looking forward to the year ahead and providing an entertaining distraction in the quiet days between Christmas and the New Year.

For the many young people who thrilled to the adventures of characters such as Dan Dare or Doctor Who, the factual information in such gift books may well have provided their first insights into the genuine science and sweeping discoveries which lay behind their idols. In particular, annuals track the rise of the Cold War space race and interest in human space flight, as it was represented to children of the time.

The Space Race

Although annuals had been associated with periodicals (such as the Boy's Own Paper) since the mid nineteenth century, arguably the first to prominently feature science fiction were the Eagle Annuals of the 1950s. Eagle was a comic and magazine aimed at young boys, which featured adventure stories such as Riders of the Range or various wartime tales, accounts of historical or biblical figures including Road of Courage, information on pastimes and sports, technical articles and graphics showing how things worked, and - most famously - comic strips featuring the science fiction character Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future.

Information article from Eagle Annual Number 8 (1958)The early Eagle Annuals were hefty volumes, weighing in at over 170 pages each, much of it densely-printed text, and probably providing days of entertainment. Perhaps surprisingly, given the prominence of Dan Dare amongst the fiction content, the factual elements of the annual put relatively little emphasis on space or astronomy, instead focussing on hobbies, vehicles and historical articles on heroes or adventurers of the past. While the occasional space-related entry did appear, notably a visit to the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux in 1953’s Eagle Annual, and seven richly illustrated pages of space-race speculation in 1958 (see image), these constituted a small minority of the topics covered.

[Images: Feature "Next - the Moon!" from Eagle Annual number 8 (1958) and the frontispiece of the clearly Dan Dare-Dare inspired annual "The Adventures of Captain Space Kingsley" (c. 1952).]

Frontispiece of Nonetheless, a couple of Dan Dare-specific books were released: notably the Dan Dare Spacebook of 1953 and the Dan Dare Space Annual of 1963. These did indeed carry a heavy space-related content, and speak to the interest in the topic at the time. We should also mention here The Adventures of Space Kingsley. This series was released entirely in the form of three annual-format books, without any other canonical material for them to tie into, with the titular hero fulfilling much the same role as Dan Dare in providing the focus for tales of adventure, and without adding any factual information.

Through the 1960s and into the 70s, Eagle Annuals were joined by tie-in Annuals to the AP Films (and later Supermarionation/TV Century 21) children’s television series associated with producer Gerry Anderson, including Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Doctor Who Annuals followed from 1965 onwards, and Star Trek and Star Wars annuals were released in the UK in the 1970s and thereafter. There were (and still are), of course, many additional annuals, such as those associated with Look In magazine and a number of comics, which occasionally touched on science fiction but had a different primary focus. The balance between factual information and fiction in all of these books varied significantly. Eagle and Dan Dare Annuals aimed as much to inform as entertain. By contrast, Star Trek and Star Wars annuals made very little attempt to present anything beyond prose stories and comics. The Century 21/Anderson annuals did contain factual information, but were usually written in an In-Universe style; in other words, information was presented as if from the perspective of characters or historians in future generations, blurring the boundary between fact and fiction [1].

The fraction of space content in selected science fiction annuals from the 1950s to the 1980s.It’s interesting to chart the amount of space-related content in annuals over time, as a fraction of the total amount of factual information presented in these books. I had a look through my own collection of classic science fiction annuals published between 1950 and 1990 (this is by no means complete, but includes fairly extensive Dan Dare, Doctor Who and Anderson-related collections). I counted the number of pages discussing human spaceflight, space sciences such as astronomy, or space habitability (e.g. speculations about future space settlements), as well as the number of pages dedicated to factual information overall (including historical, technical, celebrity, sports, hobby-related and similar information). The image to the right shows how this fraction has evolved over time, with a big point showing the average in every five year period. This tracks the steady rise of interest in space amongst children of the 1960s and 70s, who were engaged by the Moon landings and the first probes to reach our neighbouring planets. It also charts the fall off in that interest through the 1980s and 1990s. With the cancellation of the Apollo programme and the retreat of human spaceflight into low Earth orbit, the rise of home computing and new Earth-based technologies, space exploration was no longer being held up as an exciting imminent prospect for the majority of children.

 Over time the length, original fiction content and factual content of annuals have all decreased. Instead many annuals have refocused their factual information sections on the celebrity personalities involved with their subject matter, on special effects and television production issues, and on more every-day topics related to their readers’ lives. Others have opted to focus entirely on a storybook format, summarising a recent television series or film, or on other in-universe material from recently-released films, television episodes or other media releases from the source franchise.

Looking to the Future

Nonetheless, one of the interesting aspects of the science factual content of science fiction annuals is the way it has provided a platform for both writers and readers to speculate about the future. The forward-looking nature of annuals, dated for the year ahead and aimed at children, seems to have encouraged a focus on what to look forward to, rather than the past, and on the prospects of new technology.

An article about the Anglo-Australian Telescope from the Doctor Who Annual 1978Article on the space telescope project from Doctor Who Annual 1978

Thus the 1978 Doctor Who children’s annual provides detailed early accounts of large telescope projects for both ground and space, including the then-new Anglo-Australian Telescope and the space mission which would later become the Hubble Space Telescope (not launched until 1990!) as shown in the images. This and similar annuals discuss contemporary concept designs for aircraft and other vehicles. And they look at the possible lifestyles and habitats of humanity in the future, giving an insight into changing conceptions of habitability, resource utilisation and human priorities.

It’s worth noting though that this trait has somewhat diminished over time, and twenty-first century annuals are far less likely to make confident predictions than the annuals of the mid twentieth century. It is perhaps natural that the failure of early science fiction to accurately predict many aspects of the technologies and lifestyles of the present has led to wariness on the part of writers to speculate about future possibilities. There is also something of an increasing emphasis on the importance of contemporary, rather than future, lifestyle choices which reflects the growing recognition of the climate crisis.

 In-Universe or Out of It?

If annuals of the past have sought to connect young science fiction fans with (contemporary, plausible or speculative) science fact, an important question becomes how easy it is to tell the two apart? As mentioned above, many annuals over the years have been written from an In-Universe viewpoint. Characters are discussed as if entirely real, the dateline is decades or centuries in the future, and technologies and premises of the fiction are presented in technical detail. This has long been true of annuals in some franchises (for example Star Wars, or the Dalek Annuals of the 1960s and 70s) and has become increasingly so in others. In the 2012 Doctor Who annual, for example, information on the real Apollo missions to the Moon and information on the Doctor’s fictional incursion into that historical event are given on consecutive pages and (apart from the factual article title) with exactly the same degree of apparent authority and historicity. Surely factual information sits uncomfortably amidst this blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality?

Pages on the Real Apollo Missions from Doctor Who annual 2012

Information on The Impossible Astronaut from Doctor Who annual 2012

[Images: consecutive pages from the Doctor Who Official Annual 2012. Real world historical information and in-Universe information are provided in very similar formats and with similar authority.]

Perhaps the most difficult question to answer is to what extent young children are able to recognise that invisible boundary. Extensive studies have shown that children as young as three or four are able to correctly match fantasy or science fiction story beginnings with the appropriate endings, suggesting that they accurately recognise these fictional genres. There is also clear evidence that children can distinguish between reality and fiction as presented on television. However I’m not aware of any such studies that look at paratexts like annuals which sit on the boundary between science fiction and factual content (that doesn’t mean such studies don’t exist, of course!).

An article from the Project SWORD annual, looking back on early spaceflightSome In-Universe science fiction is so wildly at odds with the experience of readers that there is no ambiguity - an example here is the 1968 Century-21/Anderson annual Project:S.W.O.R.D. which posits a remarkably grim 2030s post-apocalyptic world in which the titular organisation is striving to save a remnant of humanity, while having to beat off attacks from the desperate millions doomed to extinction. There was little chance of any child of the period looking from the fiction to their (relatively) comfortable reality and not recognising the difference, although some articles seem to be blurring history and fiction in disquieting ways.

[Image: an article from the Project SWORD annual (1968). Mind-blowingly, this is a feature written as if from the 3030s, looking back on an article published in TV21 magazine with an in-Universe dateline of 2068, which in turn looked back on the early space flight efforts of 1968. Factual information about contemporary ongoing research is mixed in with speculations about inventions dated to the 1990s.]

But other science fiction is deliberately ambiguous. Doctor Who, for example, is a series in which many of the characters are contemporary British people, and many adventures take place on contemporary Earth. The Doctor is presented as an authority figure, with knowledge of the future and higher technologies. Given the contemporary or near-contemporary setting, it is far less clear that in-Universe assertions from the Doctor would not be taken as factual by readers, particularly when they appear alongside factual accounts, such as discussion of the historical Apollo moon landings.

So do such annuals risk confusing children regarding the boundaries between fact and fiction? I would argue not. Such books are a minor luxury which do not exist in isolation but instead must be placed in the context of school science syllabuses, parental and peer instruction, and access to an internet which provides enormously more information than was ever accessible to children of earlier generations. Even relatively young children have proven capable of distinguishing between types of knowledge based on its context, even if they choose a willing suspension of disbelief regarding their favourite topics. Many adults do the same. Furthermore, interest in those topics can inspire conscious investigation into the factual truth. So perhaps the risk of confusion is lower than some commentators may fear, and the role of annuals in inspiring an interest in the factual framework underlying science fiction is one which might be an interesting (if difficult) topic for further investigation.

Annuals then provide children entertainment and distraction during the long winter days. If they can also add a little science education along the way, or even pique the curiosity which provides a fertile bed for the future seeds of science education, they play an important and welcome role.

“An Annual Treat”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 26th December 2021.


[1] “In-Universe” is a commonly used term amongst fan communities, but has synonyms in particular fandoms. For example, followers of the detective stories of Sherlock Holmes will refer to playing “the Game” - a deliberate suspension of disbelief which allows them to discuss and analyse the canon material as if real. The technical term for in-Universe material is “intradiegetic” - this material forms part of the storytelling structure, and is accepted as true in the context of the canon material, but may be at odds with empirical reality. [Back to text]