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Dan Dare's Saturnia

A header image from a Dan Dare edition in Operation Saturn, published 2nd April 1954

Originally appearing as a comic strip, and later in books, radio, television and audio drama formats, Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future presents a vision of space exploration that influenced generations of audiences. The characters permeate British culture, with an enduring popularity that reflected in the way the name of Dan Dare (or his villainous enemy the Mekon) is invoked to suggest both modernity and how our expectations of the modern world have changed. Unusually, the series provides a seven-decade-long baseline across which representations of the habitability of Solar System planets can be compared to contemporary scientific understanding. 

Through comparison of specific Dan Dare stories, depicted first in comic form in the 1950s and later as audio dramatizations in the late 2010s, I recently assessed the importance placed on accurate representation of the terrestrial planets - Mercury, Venus and Mars - by the writers, and compared these to our current understanding of Earth’s sister planets in an article for the journal Foundation (Stanway 2021). However, I didn’t have space and time to talk about the outer Solar System - a different but equally fascinating range of environments on which life might exist.


‘Operation Saturn’ was the fourth storyline explored in the original comic strips, appearing over 15 months in 1953-1954. It was also the fifth story to be adapted by B7 media as an audio drama in 2017 (which was later broadcast on BBC radio). The story, in both versions, features a rebel scientist and the internal politics of Saturnia - a confederation of diverse species inhabiting the system’s moons rather than the gas giant planet itself [1]. ‘Operation Saturn’ takes Dan Dare and Digby on a tour through the nine moons of Saturn known at the time (a total which now stand at above 80, including seven large enough to be spherical), and one panel depicts their orbital sequence and relative sizes schematically (although not to scale), although it has to be said that in other places attention is not paid to this. In the original story these moons were portrayed as a group of near-independent worlds, each with its own atmosphere and native life, collectively known as Saturnia and under the sway of a chlorine-breathing alien known as the Vora, whose capital was on the largest moon, Titan.

A view of the Saturnian System seen in a panel from 1953

(Image: The Saturnian system seen in a comic panel from Eagle, 1953)

By contrast, the 2017 B7 media audio drama based on the same story reflects the diminishing room for speculation permitted after a number of probe missions, notably the Cassini mission which reached Saturn in 2004 (Spilker, 2019). The Saturnian inhabitants are no longer described as native, and instead occupy domed and enclosed settlements. Indeed the treacherous character Blasco make a point of noting that ‘everyone here comes from somewhere else’ - suggesting an extrasolar origin for most non-human life in the Solar System.

The moons - and perhaps even more so the rings - of Saturn have held sway over human imagination since the first telescope images resolved them. Titan in particular has attracted interest, and features in other science fiction over time (for example: “How Beautiful with Banners”, Blish 1966; The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut 1959; “Saturn Rising”, Clarke 1961; all the way up to The Titan, film 2018). This alien world is substantially larger not only than our own Moon but also the planet Mercury. The existence of a Titanian atmosphere rich in ammonia and methane was discovered in the 1940s (Kuiper, 1944) and a full page illustration of the view of astronauts from the surface of Titan can be found in the ‘Dan Dare Space Annual 1963’ (Eagle, 1962, p. 107), which fairly accurately describes the atmosphere as “swamp gas”.

Even now, Titan and its fellows in the Saturnian system are a key target for contemporary scientists studying potentially habitable environments. The larger icy moons, and in particular Enceladus, may support ice-capped water oceans, heated by tidal forces, while Titan is believed to host hydrocarbon sludges and even seas. Discussion of the potential for life on Titan continues to date (Martin, et al., 2020; Spilker, 2019), and contributed to the science case for the Huygens probe which briefly transmitted from the surface of the moon in 2005. However it is undeniable that an abundance of complex, intelligent life on Saturn’s moons remains unlikely (as it was already known to be in the 1950s). Most of the moon and ring system consists of bodies far too small to retain an atmosphere, and the Solar irradiance is extremely weak, leading to very low temperatures and a requirement for chemically-based energy metabolisms (such as are found around Earth’s deep ocean black smokers) rather than photosynthetic biospheres (like that of Earth).

Dan Dare and Digby discuss the liquid atmosphere on PhoebeWhile the precise details of this environment were largely unknown in the early 1950s (Fitzgerald, 1954), the bulk properties including its low temperatures and the energy limits at this distance from the Sun were already well understood. The 1950s comic story acknowledges these issues even as it dismisses them, noting that scientists didn’t believe atmospheres likely on the smaller moons, and positing a never-explained dense fluid atmosphere, which could be breathed by humans, on the outer moon, Phoebe.

Sondar explains the properties of Saturn's ringsIn this respect and others, the story took obvious scientific liberties in the interest of narrative, also suggesting that the rings might be comprised of golden particles (unknown to human science) that radiated heat and light. This is clearly rooted more in creative imagination than scientific knowledge, although it should be noted that the precise composition of the rings was indeed something of a mystery at the time; the ring system was understood to be made of particles but believed to be mostly rocky fragments rather ice (e.g. Payne-Gaposchkin, 1956, p. 221) significantly reducing its potential for habitability relative to our current understanding.

The surface of Titan, as seen from the Huygens probe in 2005.With most aspects of the system fairly well known early on, perhaps the most significant shifts in scientific understanding of Saturnian habitability over recent decades - the possibility that both Titan and Enceladus could host forms of microbial, extremophile life - is not reflected in either the original comics or the contemporary Dare audio dramas.

Nonetheless, the update in the 2017 audio dramatisation of 'Operation Saturn' does reflect the improved general awareness in the population of Saturn’s properties. Pictures of the Saturnian satellites have now been sent back by probe missions - from flybys by Pioneer and Voyager to the detailed study made by Cassini and its Titan lander Huygens. These images, together with the increase in solar system information in the school syllabus and in popular science communication such as television documentaries, would make it difficult for a modern audience to suspend disbelief in the way that might be expected of a 1950s child audience who knew of the Saturnian moons only as specks of light too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Indeed the characters in the audio version of ‘Operation Saturn’ address this very point:

“I don’t understand. Our probes surveyed all the planets! We found no life out here.”

“That’s because your equipment is just, well, a bit thick. Or is it our shielding? Of course there’s no life on Saturn. Everywhere else though, life is teeming on all the Saturnian moons, thriving in engineered biodomes shielded from your probes.”

-- Peabody and Blasco, 'Operation Saturn' (Chapman, 2017)

In the case of such artificial environments, and for small populations, Saturn’s moon system may indeed appear attractive. The magnetosphere of Saturn provides some shielding from solar radiation (unlike, for example, those of Mars or Mercury) while its rings provide a nearby source of water ice, a combination which could make it an attractive location for colonisation - albeit with a low local energy density and a high risk of micrometeorite impact, requiring technology well beyond our current level. Hence the need for the Vora’s technology in the audio script.

The Outer Solar System

Perhaps surprisingly, Jupiter and its satellites, in particular the ice-moon Europa, do not feature as the location of a major Dan Dare story, either in the 1950s Eagle strips or in the audio drama series. The omission in the latter is a direct consequence of the former: Europa’s genuine potential for life (Marion, et al., 2003), like that of Titan and Enceladus. was largely unknown in the 1950s and the audio series to date has focused on reimagining the earlier stories.

Similarly, Uranus and Neptune are largely ignored in the series. The dwarf planet Pluto does appear in the 1950s comic strip and other Dan Dare versions (memorably in the 2002 animated adventure series) as the location for a Space Fleet outpost, as do other minor bodies including asteroids. However in each case this is in the form of human-constructed habitations in Dan Dare rather than a reflection of their intrinsic habitability.

In science fiction, the science must almost always give way to the requirements of the fiction. However, it’s interesting to see how the 1950s writers of Dan Dare (primarily Frank Hampson and his studio) attempted to fit their story into the then-known details of the Saturnian system - or to explain the deviations where necessary. It’s also intriguing to see the ways in which the modern dramatists (writer Patrick Chapman, with script editor Colin Brake) have chosen to adapt the classic story for a modern audience - in particular the different way they envisage the habitability and origin of life in the Saturnian System. And who knows? Perhaps in another 65 years, a new adaptation of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future will reflect both a new understanding of Saturn’s family of moons and the enduring attraction of the Dan Dare premise.

“Dan Dare’s Saturnia”, Elizabeth Stanway. Cosmic Stories blog, 12th June 2022.

[1] It’s worth noting that the 2002 animated Dan Dare television series is the only version I know of to actually visit the atmosphere of Saturn itself, imagining a giant, manta ray-like intelligent life form surfing its outer cloud layers, together with jellyfish and shark analogues. The animated series places rather less emphasis on scientific accuracy than other versions, and seems to ignore the low temperatures and lack of a human-breathable atmosphere, but this is still an interesting glimpse at a possible gas-giant ecosphere. The relevant two-part story can be found on YouTube. Another story was apparently set on Titan although details of this are not publicly available for reference. [Return to text]


All views expressed herein are my own and not those of the University of Warwick.