Garth – Story 32 – The Captive

Garth - The Captive

The Captive
Story Number: 32
Writer: Peter O’Donnell
Artist: Steve Dowling/ John Allard
Published: 27th June 1957 – 15th January 1958 (Q152 – R13)
Number of Episodes: 172

Towards the end of the previous story, The Last Goddess (undoubtedly one of the finest Garth stories to date) Dowling and Allard had been moved to improve and redefine their artwork even further. One innovation had been to dispense with the newspaper convention of every panel having a ruled boundary line around it. They began including occasional panels without boundary lines. The effect of this was to make the stories more fluid, faster-moving.

Also, they began to include three-panel daily strips, rather than the previous rigid adherence to four panels. This allowed greater space for artwork, which was now of an increasingly high standard. With The Captive the artists now dispensed with the use of mechanical dot shading, and made ever greater use of hand shading. Not just cross-hatching, but also more intricate shading making use of stippling and scraper-board effects. It gave the strip an exciting new look, and more particularly it complemented the story’s background of an alien planet and advanced technology. The settings really looked as if they were on another planet!

Another striking and classy innovation was that many narrative boxes were rendered with white writing on a black background, something not generally seen in newspaper strips. The Captive also introduced a change to Garth’s hairstyle. For 14 years he had sported a centre parting with two claw-shaped bangs of hair on either side of his broad forehead. Now, however, the centre parting was gone; Garth’s hair was spread across his forehead in several, straighter bangs. The effect was to make Garth look younger.

On returning from a scientific convention, Lumiere is perturbed to find that Garth is not at their home. On checking with his friend Jimmy Trent, he learns that the grieving Garth had told him that “he’d get away from people for a bit, till he was fit to live with.” In fact, Garth is camping by himself in the Welsh hills. One warm night, he is swimming in a lake, and being observed by someone on a tele-screen. Suddenly an enigmatic semi-transparent globe rolls toward him, and when Garth tries to bat it away, it seems to have no substance.

Again we see the gloating watcher on the tele-screen; this time he is accompanied by another odd-looking figure. Garth is enveloped by the globe’s yielding mass, and his mind blanks out.

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When Garth awakes, he gradually learns that he has been snatched by advanced technology and is on a spaceship, speeding away from the Earth. His captor is Harek, a florid-faced dissolute character who is enjoying Garth’s discomfiture as the truth is revealed. The other figure is Klum, emotionless and enigmatic, who appears to be Harek’s servitor, calling him “master.” They are joined by a vacuous young woman, Maila, who looks on Garth admiringly as an ideal acquisition for “their party”.

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Garth cannot believe that he is on a spaceship amongst aliens, because they are all apparently speaking English. Praise be – O’Donnell’s script hits this idiotic bugbear of juvenile science fiction squarely on the head. He had shamefully ignored this anomaly in his earlier story The Golden Sphere, destroying any suspension of disbelief. In this new story, O’Donnell simply reached into the tool-room of science fiction and used a favourite standby device. On being brought aboard the spaceship whilst unconscious, Garth’s brain had been connected to a machine which electronically impressed upon him a full knowledge of their alien language, which he can comprehend and speak whilst thinking himself to be speaking his native tongue. Problem solved!

Herak informs Garth that they are taking him to a party on his home planet, Urgon. Klum, who is apparently flying the spaceship, announces to Herak “we are approaching the co-ordinates for the galaxy jump, master!” Klum explains to Garth that Urgon is in another galaxy, and that to reach it the ship needs to “shift through sub-space to reach our galaxy instantaneously.”  Sub-space (aka hyper-space) is an old trope to allow faster-than-light travel, another handy aid to storytelling from the tool-room of science fiction. Klum adds that Garth and the others “must be protected during the shift”. Herak moves to a tubular booth  ‘protection chamber’ and Maila takes Garth with her into another booth, explaining casually that there is “something in these protection chambers that stops us coming apart at the seams during the galaxy jump.”

These events and illustrations are clearly patterned on scenes from the Hollywood movie This Island Earth (1955) itself based on an earlier pulp science fiction stories by Raymond F. Jones.

On emerging, Garth remarks that Klum had not used the protection chamber, and the mass market readership of the Daily Mirror receive the ‘big reveal’ (which SF buffs would have spotted earlier) that Klum is a robot in human form – an android – and with a ‘positronic brain’ to boot. O’Donnell was here openly stealing the term for robots’ artificial brains from the stories of Isaac Asimov that had been appearing in the American magazine Astounding Science Fiction’ and recently collected in book form as I, Robot.

O’Donnell’s The Captive was taking Garth into his ‘golden age’ by openly borrowing and embracing the bedrock conventions of written science fiction. It was the start of a glorious run of stories building a strong framework for future Garth adventures. It was to endure for many years, until it was either ditched or abused by later writers, leading to the strip’s slow decline and eventual deserved cancellation.

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Garth’s situation gradually clarifies. On Urgon, three centuries earlier, its advanced technology enabled them to retire into a life of total leisure and pleasure, served by robots of all kinds – specialised mechanisms for transport and maintenance, and the androids (known as ‘dolls’) as personal servitors. Garth adjudges that they “have gone to seed.” Nobody works, nobody thinks; the androids and robots do everything. The people are like a bunch of kids at a party…only far more dangerous. This theme was “old hat” in written SF, but would have been fresh and exciting to most of the Mirror’s readership.

There are no cities as such, and people live in large, luxurious villas, some with their own underground spaceship hangars and entertainment facilities. Garth has been randomly caught up in a ‘treasure hunt’ game, wherein Harek and his friends have been tasked to kidnap and bring back people from other planets to participate in party games.

Garth meets his fellow captives: two humans like himself from other planets – Rogan, a diminutive scientist from Cirestes, and Bron, a powerful technician from Lyrga. They are first ordered to take part in a drinking contest: the last one on his feet to be the winner. At this sheer stupidity, Garth’s temper finally snaps and he kicks over the drinks table, knocking Harek to the floor. The furious Harek orders the nearest android to kill Garth, to “break him up!”

Although the android has superior mechanical strength, it has no knowledge of hand to hand fighting. Garth employs judo and other skills to thwart the android’s attack, and after a spectacular throw the android crashes to the ground on its head, and is wrecked. Bron then lands a powerful right hook to Harek’s jaw, flooring him again.  His alarmed friends scatter to fetch other androids to attack their assailants. The quick-thinking Garth picks up Harek and holds him above his head on a high gallery, telling the Urgonites to “Have those androids keep back, or your friend Harek goes over the edge!”

By holding Harek as his hostage, Garth’s plan is that the three of them can try and get down to the spaceship hangars, then force Harek to give the right orders to his androids for their escape. But Maila has pressed an alarm button connecting to a giant positronic brain “Watch-Dog”, which is programmed to protect its human masters in any emergency. From its own laboratory and arsenal it observes Garth’s activities through the eyes of the androids, and analyses the situation.

As Garth’s party nears the elevator, it projects three balls of electronic force resembling Roman Candles, and these strike Garth and his companions on their heads. They drop to the ground, and Harek wonders if they are dead. A nearby android explains that the Watch-Dog, lacking a specific instruction, has merely stunned them.

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On coming round, Garth and his companions find themselves in a cell. They are speculating on their plight when a hologram of Harek appears, sneeringly informing them that he has devised a great new game for them. On the morrow, they are to be armed and ordered to fight each other to the death. The one man surviving will be returned to his own planet.

After Harek’s image vanishes, Garth tells the others that the contest may present a chance to escape which they must be ready to take. Rogan tells Garth some of the few facts about Urgon that he has picked up: there is only one central capital, and the human population is relatively small, supported by androids and robotic devices. Harek’s domain is surrounded by wild countryside, which could provide cover if they manage to escape. Rogan conjectures that there may be some form of government in the capital which doesn’t share the reckless attitude of people like Harek and his friends. If they can trek across the country and find them…

Garth spots a small ventilator shaft near the ceiling, and the diminutive Rogan is able to squeeze along it, to seek a way out. However, it only leads to a long-disused storeroom. But it is packed with scientific equipment, which captures the scientist’s interest…

When Rogan finally returns to the cell, he has succeeded in rigging up a small oscillator device. It is capable of transmitting a high frequency signal, which he hopes may help them to escape.

The next day they are transported in a people carrier to the surface, escorted by androids armed with stun pistols. Bron closely studies how the android driver operates the truck. In a large open area, Herak and his friends are gathered behind a transparent, dome-shaped force barrier. It has been constructed by the androids to prevent their being attacked by the prisoners after they are issued with swords and ordered to fight.

Rogan whips out the oscillator he has been concealing and switches it on, aiming its signals at the androids. The high frequency oscillations prevent the androids from hearing Herak’s verbal orders to stop Garth and his companions running to the car. They do nothing to stop them, as they only respond to verbal commands.

Bron drives the truck away. Their escape is successful because Harek and his friends are trapped behind the force field, which only the androids can switch off. Garth tells Bron to head for a valley between mountains, but since the transmitter has a limited range, the androids eventually pick up Herak’s furious commands. Once he is released he orders the androids to “send out a pack of hounds to incinerate them!” The ‘hounds’ are armed drone aircraft with tracking devices.

Garth and Rogan, however, have anticipated an aerial search, and on reaching the fringe of a forest, they abandon the truck (left running on) and take cover. Harek and his friends are watching on a televiewer linked to the drones, and they see them locate the moving truck. Following Harek’s order to destroy on sight, the drones destroy the truck with incinerator beams. The hunt is then called off.

Over several weeks, Garth and his companions trek across the planet towards the distant capital, surviving by risking edible fruit by trial and error, and hunting small fauna. Crossing a swamp, they are attacked by a huge creature that is half animal, half plant. They are facing death when the creature is blasted apart by a ray coming from a giant metal robot, with two stilt-like motorised legs. A section of its ‘body’ opens and a voice commands them to enter. Once they are inside, the tank-like robot seals the door and they set off across the swamp, moving across its bed in places.

After battling and destroying another even bigger monster, they reach firm land – an island in the swamp that seemed to appear from nowhere. Rogan deduces that they have passed through some sort of optical screen, a perfect camouflage which screens the island with imagery of unbroken swamp. The artwork for these other-world sequences is exquisite.

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They disembark from the robot and find themselves amongst buildings peopled by an entire community – robots, androids, men, women, and children. They are welcomed by a young married couple, Solan and Tara. On the island are the ‘outcasts’ of the decadent civilization – ‘The Thinkers’. This breakaway group use robots and an advanced technology, but they do not entirely depend on them. Garth is disappointed to learn that they do not possess space ships, but they lack the greater facilities needed.

Solan and Tara take them to meet their leader, a patriarchal figure named Kyron. He tells them that his island community is the only such group in the world, and that the central capital they had hoped to reach would not help them. They must resign themselves to staying with the Thinkers. Here they can live as humans should live – keeping alive “a little spark of what was once the great flame of our heritage.”

Garth tells him that whilst grateful to have found refuge they cannot agree to spend the rest of their lives here. They intend to escape from Urgon and return to their own worlds.

Days pass and Garth and his companions pass the time as best they can. Rogan, as a scientist, is eager to learn the secrets of Urgon technology. He discovers that every machine on the planet operates by power radiated from a self-maintaining great solar power-house situated in the capital. Realising the implications, he at once tells Garth, and together they formulate a plan which they put to Kyron.

If they could somehow cause the power-house to shut down, every robot and device would only continue to operate for twelve hours on stored power. The whole robot culture of Urgon would run down and stop. This could be the salvation of the race because, by sheer necessity, it would create a world where people had to think and work for themselves once again. Kyron is receptive to the idea, and asks Tara to summon the ruling Council.

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At the Council meeting, the plan is eventually approved after it is made clear that the power plant will merely be sabotaged in such a way that it can be re-activated under the control of the Thinkers. Rogan talks to the scientists to learn about the workings of the power station, and Garth consults Solan about how it may be possible to get inside it, despite its having been designed to be impregnable.

Two weeks later, Garth sets out in a swamp car with Bron and Rogan, together with another scientist, Melchar. Tara asks Kyron if he believes they will ever see them again, and Kyron replies cryptically: “Yes… I think you may see them again… but not I…”

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After a thousand-mile journey across swamp and wild country, they reach the capital city. It is night time, and only robots are about as they make their way to the ‘impregnable’ power station built deep inside a mountain. There are no human staff inside, only robots and an android ‘guardian’. The only entrance is kept locked on a time-control, which only opens once a year to admit a scientist to check on the maintenance robots.

However, there is a railway entrance tunnel. At regular intervals a torpedo shaped truck is remotely activated to drive into the runnel – briefly opened to admit the carriage before closing again. It is programmed to collect and remove by-products from the power house. The tunnel is just big enough to admit the carriage, so anyone attempting to ride in on it must smash into the cliff face, and be knocked off.

The carriage has an immensely heavy closed metal loading hatch. Garth and his companions jump on top of the moving carriage, and Garth has only two minutes to raise open the hatch, whilst Bron inserts a wedge. Thanks to Garth’s immense strength, they are able to jump down inside, pulling the wedge in after them to close the hatch.

Once they are inside the power house, a robot lifts the hatch preparatory to the truck being loaded with by-products, and they quickly scramble out. Then, guided by Melchar, they move through a wilderness of machinery, seeking the central control area. They take care not to get in the way of the maintenance robots who go blindly about their business, ignoring the intruders.

Melchar’s information on the interior layout is incomplete, and their search for the control centre extends into several days. He warns that there is an android known only as ‘The Guardian’ who protects the control systems, but whose powers are unknown.

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As they eventually approach the control room, a panel suddenly opens and they are confronted by the Guardian android, who threatens them with a wicked-looking hand-gun. It informs them that it had been watching the intruders ever since they entered, but had delayed killing them because it had determined that it needed to ascertain their purpose.

Melchar tries to convince the Guardian that it is necessary to shut down the solar power unit for reasons beyond his understanding since they had not been anticipated when he was constructed. His argument cuts no ice with the Guardian who begins to raise his weapon. However the android has been sufficiently distracted for Garth to edge nearer, and he suddenly essays a tremendous dive, bringing the android crashing down. Bron orders the two scientists to get into the control room, whilst he goes to Garth’s assistance.

Grappling with the android, Garth has rolled down a sloping passage and struck his head savagely; he lies stunned and helpless. As Bron attacks, a sweep of the Guardian’s steel-strong arm sends him reeling backwards, and he crashes into a bank of instruments. In struggling to his feet his hand closes on a switch. Suddenly the android glows white-hot and melts, utterly destroyed! Rogan deduces that Bron had switched on a tremendously intense electrical induction field that caused metal to grow white-hot.

After studying the control panels, Melchar succeeds in withdrawing a great core of alien metal he calls ‘scanthium’ from a huge sphere. This causes all power to cease being radiated from the output antennae of the power house. In twelve hours, all stored power will run down and the entire planet will come to a standstill.

The cessation of broadcast power causes a rare meeting of Urgon’s world government to be hastily convened, and the attendees include Harek. Skaldor, the leader, recalls that there is an emergency teleview link with the Guardian of the power house. But on establishing the link he is disconcerted to see Melchar, Garth and the others in the control room. Melchar offers Skaldor his terms: he must yield the reins of government to the Thinkers under Kyron. He will radiate limited amounts of power to certain types of machinery to prevent chaos, but the human populace will have to work and think for themselves again.

An angry Skaldor switches off: he has no intention of capitulating. He orders Harek to stay close to him, to share his knowledge of the aliens. Skaldor cannot order the destruction of the powerhouse with a nuclear weapon, as restoring its operation is vital. Nor can he attack from the air, as the powerhouse is protected by a screen of force beams. But what he can do is to order the androids to feed all the facts of the situation to ‘the Big Brain’, the largest positronic brain on the planet. Since the aliens found a way into the powerhouse, the Brain surely can do the same…and it does. In fact, it quickly presents Skaldor with two solutions. The first is to employ the same method as had Garth. So a group of fighting robots are despatched to get into the powerhouse via the railway tunnel.

Meanwhile, Garth and his companions realise they will be under attack, and that the railway tunnel is their Achilles Heel. Melchar establishes that the tunnel can only be de-activated from a local control panel near the entrance, so Garth and Rogan hasten to it. Unfortunately it is a considerable distance away in the huge scientific labyrinth that is the powerhouse. Accordingly Garth and Rogan take a short-cut by dropping down a gravity shaft. It uses no lift, just electro-magnetic forces to move people through the air, up or down.  Rogan operates the control to de-activate and close the tunnel, but he is just too late. It had still been running automatically on stored power, and robots had been aboard the last carriage which has already arrived. It disgorges a small army of robots that have orders not to kill, but just stun the intruders. They will need to “hypno-probe” Melchar to find out what had been done to cut the power, so it can be put right.

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The robots attack Garth and Rogan with their stun guns. Rogan is hit, and Garth picks him up and runs to the gravity-shaft, locking the door behind him. But the robots burn through the lock, and ascend in pursuit of Garth. As Garth reaches the top of the shaft he snaps over the controlling switch, cutting off the power. The pursuing robots hurtle down the three-hundred foot shaft to destruction. One has managed to reach the top, but Garth is able to smash it.

In Skaldor’s operations room the loss of signal from the robots signifies that they have been destroyed. He orders his second plan to be put into operation: an attack from underground. A giant drilling machine – a ‘mechanical mole’ – digs its way into the powerhouse. It is packed with more warrior robots and also android technicians.

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Melchor switches on several metal-destroying induction coils which block many of their approaches to the control centre, but a large number manage to reach the control centre using the grav-shafts. After a heroic last stand, Garth and his friends are eventually all overcome by the stun-rays. The leader of the android technicians makes a brief survey and reports to Skaldor over the televiewer that there has been no damage – so there is no need to interrogate anyone. They have only to re-activate the cosmic unit to restore the output of power by operating a simple manual control. An exultant Skaldor impatiently orders the leader to “push the damn button or whatever it is you have to do!”

Garth, recovering consciousness but still too stunned to move, watches helplessly as the android reaches out a finger – only to stop dead! The stored power has run out with bare seconds to spare.

In Skaldor’s operations room there is terror and despair amongst Harek and the others, but Skaldor realises that the Thinkers have won, and that only they can save the people. He will have to step aside. Before meeting Garth and the Thinkers, Skaldor advises Harek to clear out before Garth sees him!

Back on the Thinkers’ island, an aircraft had been readied that flies using old fashioned technology, and that night the first group of Thinkers, led by  Solan and Tara, lands near the power house. The Thinkers have made elaborate take-over plans that involve Rogan, Melchar and other scientists re-phasing the broadcast power radiations. When they are switched on again, nothing will pick up the altered power except robots fitted with new receiver units that Solan has brought in. Tara gives Garth the sad news that Kyron has died. She will explain the circumstances later: their immediate task is to set up the new regime.

Every domain will have a special android processed to give orders to the humans that they can follow to ensure their survival. Eventually the people will grow to resent following orders from machines, and once they have learned to fend for themselves, they will do so. The outcome will be a balanced culture with robots in their place.

Tara explains that Kyron had in fact been an android – the last and most perfect machine the ‘Masters’ of Urgon had ever built. Towards the end of their time, the Masters foresaw the possibility of people becoming too dependent on machines, so Kyron had been built to thwart that possible future – to act as teacher and leader to those few who would strive to keep alive the true spirit of mankind. He had told the Thinkers’ Council this history shortly before the power had failed – and he had also instructed them that he was not to be re-animated when power was restored: with Garth’s victory, his work was ended. He could not operate beyond the purpose for which he had been made.

In due course Garth receives the news that Melchar has finalised fitting new receiver units into a number of spaceships. Garth, Rogan and Bron take their leave of each other, and each is returned to their home planet, Solan and Tara flying Garth back to Earth. He is given Earth-type clothing and set down at night from their spaceship using an invisibility screen to remain unobserved, in a lonely spot.

Garth finds a note from Lumiere inviting Garth to join him in his new rented accommodation when he returns. Three days after his return from Urgon, Garth tracks Lumiere to Rylmouth, a small fishing port where he has taken a house. Lumiere tells him that he is working on a new scientific experiment, something entirely new. He had felt the need of new surroundings and a change of air as a tonic.

Lumiere remarks that Garth might have dropped him a line in the weeks he was away. He asks how many miles he had covered on his ‘long walking tour’, and is suitably astonished when Garth replies laconically: “Well, I didn’t walk all the way…but I must have travelled… Oh, a few billion miles or so, I suppose!”

Previous: The Last Goddess | Next: The Sorcerer

Synopsis by Philip Harbottle

• Garth: An Introduction

• Garth – Strip Checklist – Part One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight (Garth Reprints)

A Tribute to Garth Artist and Editor John Allard by Philip Harbottle

In a feature encompassing the entire history of the much-loved strip, Garth writer Philip Harbottle pays tribute to artist and editor John Allard, who worked at the Mirror for over 50 years, outlining his huge contribution to Garth‘s enduring success

Strip dates given are those of their original appearance in the British newspaper the Daily Mirror, first compiled by Geoffrey Wren and Ann Holmes and updated by Ant Jones and Philip Harbottle

Garth © REACH/ Daily Mirror