The Big Game
Story Number: 36
Writer: Peter O’Donnell
Artist: Steve Dowling/ John Allard
Published: 18th August 1959 – 15th March 1960 (S196 – T64)
Number of Episodes: 179
The title panel shows Garth confronting a caveman carrying an unconscious girl; both men are holding clubs. The second panel depicts a closed metal cage on the sea bed off the Dorset coast, “shaped in a metal unknown to man.” Half a mile away, Garth is relaxing on a sandy beach. O’Donnell was now really hitting his stride. Anyone reading this opening strip would be intrigued as to how the three disparate panels would link up.
Garth telephones Lumiere, whom he invites to join him at his holiday caravan. Lumiere declines, citing that he is too busy, and moreover, he knows that Garth will soon become bored and restless “… a most irritating companion.”
Lumiere is right. Garth does get quickly bored, so he decides to swim out to sea and do some spear-fishing. Beneath the waves he sees the odd metal construction on the sea bed. A panel box informs the reader that “…the strange metal dome… has waited since the days before man walked the Earth…” Garth swims down to examine the object – which has the appearance of a metal sentry-box – and is attracted by the fact that the metal is not corroded. On touching the bars he senses a slight electric shock. Swimming inside to examine it, he is disconcerted when the opening suddenly shuts, and Garth is trapped inside.
The scene shifts across thousands of light years to the inside of a spaceship. The crew are of human appearance, and we are told they converse “in the tongue of the central galactic empire.” A signal light flashes on a control panel and a crewman remarks that “there hasn’t been a buzz from that part of space since the first star-ships!”
Consultation with the ‘galactic handbook’ identifies the FTL signal as coming from a solar system “out in the wilds!” We learn that the ‘sentry box’ is an alien trap, and a FTL matter transmitter. It had been set up on Earth millennia ago, but had become submerged following geological changes. Hints are dropped that the crew are interstellar crooks, operating these ancient portals to bring through alien mammals for some unspecified purpose – one that is illegal, and they are “dodging the galactic police.”
The ‘Chief’ of the vessel views Garth’s struggles on his telescreen, and is impressed by his appearance – immensely strong, humanoid, and judging by his aqua-lung breathing apparatus, from a manufacturing culture. He gives the order for the matter transmitter to be activated, and Garth materialises in a hold on the spaceship. As he lies unconscious, he has the galactic tongue of intertlingua “Hypno-taped” into his mind, and is dressed in the standard alien costume.
When Garth recovers, he is interviewed by Kal, the Chief’s second in command.Garth learns that he is a aboard a huge spaceship, a ‘Mini-World’, which is fitted with a faster-than-light “Vorgan Drive”. They are involved in ‘The Big Game’, the actual details of which are not revealed. Garth is escorted through the ship, and passes other ‘receiving’ rooms, one of which is receiving cave men from a planet with a stone-age culture.
Garth is brought into a large room before the ‘Chief’, seated at a large desk fitted with scientific instruments. He tells Garth that his name is Tybor, and that his arrival has been an accident. His civilization had long ago set up matter transmitters as ‘traps’ on a lot of primitive worlds to bring fauna for study at the Galactic Centre. They are no longer used, but Tybor’s outfit are galactic crooks who are illegally planting their own transmitters on primitive worlds. The creatures they bring through are then vetted to see if they are suitable to take part in his ‘Big Game’. Garth snaps that he is not interested in taking part, whereupon Tybor abruptly orders Kal to kill him. As Kal obediently brings his handgun to bear, Garth reacts with lightning speed, knocking Kal to the floor and snatching his gun, with which he threatens Tybor.
Tybor remains calm and unfazed. He informs Garth that the gun is “a personal weapon… sensitized so that it only fires with Kal’s hand on the butt.” Additionally, he is protected by a force field. Tybor smugly admits that he had been “testing” Garth, who would have died if he had not reacted so quickly to defend himself. He has passed the audition and is to be given the star part in the next episode of the Big Game, which is broadcast to “our hop-head audience on a hundred different worlds!”
Switching off his force field, Tybor fires his own stun-ray at Garth, who is then removed to a surgery, where the ship’s doctor inserts a small high-tech transmitter device into Garth’s head. This will cause him to involuntarily transmit everything he hears, sees and feels. Millions of Tybor’s clients will then pay to be put into a comatose condition for several days – so long as the ‘Big Game’ lasts – and to be fed intravenously whilst they “become” Garth and experience everything he sees and does.
Sometime later Garth recovers consciousness under an alien sun, finding himself lying in open countryside. Looking about him, he surmises that “country’s pretty wild… vegetation’s a bit alien but not very…” Seeing a matter transmitter nearby, he realises that Tybor’s men have brought him here, and then dumped him outside. He is evidently playing a part in the ‘Big Game’ – whatever that might be.
From his vantage point on a hillside, Garth sees a fleeing girl being pursued by a horde of cavemen. On board the Mini-World, Tybor checks with Kal, who is watching on a monitor screen, which is connected to a hop-head. Kal reports that Garth has spotted the cavemen, who are part of their ‘script’ but he and Tybor are surprised by the appearance of the girl, who is not. She must have landed on the planetoid after his ‘production team’ had left.
Tybor is not displeased, as monitoring instruments tell him that she is providing “a big kick for our clients.” He orders Kal to try and find out who the girl is and why she is there.
Garth helps the girl to elude the cavemen and safely escorts her down the cliff face, and deep into a forest. She tells him that her name is Nubyl from “Tsorna Three” and claims she was returning to her home world when she “slipped up on navigation… ran out of fuel and had to crash-land my space-hopper. Then… those cavemen came!”
Garth tells his own story, and they visit Nubyl’s crashed ship. Although there is nothing in the way of weapons, Garth acquires a can of ‘welding fluid’, which he adjudges may come in useful, together with other items, including a ‘magni-lens’ (binoculars). Using the latter, they are able to spy on the cavemen, whilst keeping a safe distance.
At length, having failed to find the girl, the cavemen turn on their leader, whom they blame for their situation, and prepare to sacrifice him instead.
Garth has meanwhile soaked their natural altar with the volatile welding fluid, and with a bow he has made, he shoots a fired arrow at it, from a distance. The altar bursts into flame, sending the cavemen running, dropping and leaving their bound leader on the ground near the altar. As the flames dwindle Garth and Nubyl climb up on the altar to make a dramatic appearance to the returning cavemen. Knowing they have been given a limited vocabulary, Garth addresses them, claiming that he has been sent by ‘the Nameless One’ to be their leader, and guide them to overcome the perils to come on the world in which they now find themselves.
He upbraids them for attacking Nubyl, who had been sent to tell them of his coming, and for intending to kill their leader. He warns them that there is to be no more blood-spilling or sacrifices.
This doctrine of non-violence goes against the cavemen’s traditions and Garth is denounced and challenged by their new leader, Gyr, as an emissary of the ‘Black Shape’. Garth then invokes the ‘law of combat’: he will fight Gyr, and the great foe of their own God. The outcome will show who is speaking the truth.
Garth defeats Gyr, and in sparing his life, impresses the cavemen that it is now the word of the Nameless One that no more blood is to be spilt. The cavemen acquiesce, and Garth directs them in building an encampment protected by a wooden stockade.
The watching Kal then lines up Garth’s next opponents, the mysterious “Driths” saying that “his army of ape-boys won’t help him against them!”
Using a tractor beam, Tybor’s ship then causes the asteroid on which Garth has been set down to slowly rotate. Nubyl tells Garth that they must get on the move, remaining in the daylight. She has noticed that the asteroid is covered with a brown lichen “…a freak thing from Kariba Five! I’ve seen it before in a museum. Deprived of sunlight. It gives out large quantities of carbon dioxide… enough to make night on this asteroid lethal!”
They are being herded to where Tybor wants them to go, to face their next ordeal – the Driths.
A caveman runner sent ahead with Gyr reports back to Garth who is leading thecolumn of cavemen. In the great valley that lies ahead are small white spheres, floating in the air like thistledown. Alert to potential danger, they see that the entire valley floor is covering by the drifting ‘Driths’. Garth wants to go ahead alone, to test if it is safe to pass through them, but Nubyl protests that as leader he should not take the risk, and offers to go herself. As Garth hesitates, a cavemen, Zar, volunteers and moves down the slope into the valley.
The Driths begin to cluster around him, in a thickening cloud. Nubyl suddenly remembers that she has heard of the organisms before – they are Driths, a life form with a hive mind, who will smother and suffocate him. Garth runs down to rescue the fallen caveman, carefully covering his face with one hand. Slinging Zar over his shoulders, Garth struggles back up the slope to the safety of the higher, wind-swept levels.
The valley stretches for miles, so they have no alternative but to cross the deadly valley before the night-side catches up with them. But the wily Garth has discovered a pool of natural oil, and instructs his party to fashion reed torches and dip them in oil. When lit, they form an umbrella of rising hot air, which keeps them free of the smothering Driths. They are also able to cross a river in the valley by constructing fire rafts.
Emerging safely onto higher land, Nubyl and Garth exchange confidences. Garth tells her of his lost love, Astra, and Nubyl reveals that she has lost her husband. But with the myriad hop heads listening in and watching her through Garth’s senses, she refuses to give details. Garth realises she is deliberately holding back some deep secret. He muses on the fact that she knows so much of the workings of the Big Game.
The next ordeal they face is an expanse of slimy marsh bog, where beneath the viscous mud surface lurk monstrous reptilian creatures, the ‘Hrakas’. Garth discovers their existence when, ever cautious, he throws a chunk of meat far out into the swamp. The Hrakasthen reveal themselves as they come to the surface and rend the meat with their huge jaws.
Beside the bog are patches of vegetation bearing large melon-like fruit. Garth orders the cavemen to hollow out the fruits, two to each person, to form crude swamp-shoes, which will enable them to walk across the swamp, armed with bows and arrows. They move in two rings, the men on the edge facing outwards, and the inner ring facing inwards. As the monsters surface they are shot in the head, the arrows aimed at, and penetrating, their huge eyes. It only needs one creature to be killed for all the others to turn on it in a frenzy of cannibalism, and so Garth’s party is able to cross the swamp safely.
Tybor and his men watch Garth’s progress with reluctant admiration, but Tybor is confident that – like all previous protagonists – he will eventually be defeated.
Throughout these ingenious outdoor action sequences, Dowling and Allard’s artwork had risen to new heights of artistic accomplishment – the strip had truly reached its peak of excellence.
Garth confounds Tybor by overcoming all of his next three obstacles – a party of lizard-men armed warriors, a pack of super-wolves – some of which are tamed, and then employed to help overcome huge cave spiders.
Nubyl has worked out that they have now travelled right around the planetoid and so must now be facing their final challenge – and nobody has ever come through the Big Game alive.
Garth’s party is finally guided along a ravine which ends in a narrow cleft that opens on to a flat plain beyond it. Looking out, Garth remarks that “Tybor’s certainly saved up a startler for the last act” – the entrance is guarded by a gigantic dinosaur! Nubyl identifies it as “a tyroglon, from the planet Tau… and the fiercest carnivore in the galaxy!”
When one of the cavemen suggests shooting the huge armoured beast with his bow and arrow, Garth remarks that “You would need an arrow as great as a tree… and a bow to shoot it!” This gives him a sudden inspiration. He sets the cavemen to work felling trees, using as tools the metal weapons captured from the lizard men. They fashion hollowed out split tree trunks, rubbing the hollowed out channel smooth, set atop an inclined wooden ramp. The smooth channel is oiled to facilitate the passage of a huge sharpened tree trunk ‘arrow’. A great wooden bow is set atop the channelled ramp, and its rope string is drawn tight and secured to tree trunk capstans.
The watching Tybor admires the bow as “mechanically sound” but opines that the wooden arrow it will fire will simply shatter against the dinosaur’s armoured hide. But Garth has worked out a cunning and daring strategy. Venturing out of the cleft he marks on the ground a line, telling Nubyl to give the order for the ropes holding the gigantic bow to be cut with a single swift blow of an axe when the tyroglon reaches the line.
Garth then runs far out onto the plain, and the monster gives chase. Garth then heads back to the cleft, the lumbering beast now moving at a considerable speed, its head bent forward with its vast jaws wide open to chomp down on the fleeing Garth.
The bow is fired at Nubyl’s cry, and the tree trunk arrow slams neatly right down its gaping throat with tremendous force, killing the tyroglon; the earth trembles as it falls down dead!
Despite astronomical odds, Garth has won the Big Game!
Garth’s party move out across the valley and come back to a matter transmitter. There they make camp, and at length Tybor’s voice sounds from a speaker inside it. He instructs Garth to enter alone. He is assured that the cavemen will be returned to their own world as will the girl – when she tells her story, it can only generate valuable publicity for the Big Game. The cavemen will be kept under observation to see the result of their learning from Garth: they could be used in a future session.
As Garth takes his leave of Nubyl, she passes to him what she says was her husband’s ring, and begs him to wear it as a keepsake.
Garth materialises back in the Mini-World, and witnesses the hop-head monitor coming out of his drugged coma. On learning of the sensory capsule implanted at the base of his skull, he demands that Tybor remove it. But Tybor refuses, informing Garth that he will be put back into the next session of the Big Game, when they have devised and set it up. This will take considerable time, so in the meantime Garth is told to simply enjoy his limited freedom. The sheer number of crewmen on the Mini-World means that he cannot hope to overcome them – and even if he could, he could not operate the spaceship.
In a discussion between Kal and the ship’s Doctor, who is suffering recriminations from his conscience, O’Donnell reveals to the reader that Garth has reminded them of an earlier participant, Voltan from Tsorna Three, a valorous man who got through more ordeals than anyone else before eventually meeting his death. Astute readers would realise that Voltan must have been Nubyl’s husband.
The Doctor seeks out Garth and confesses his remorse, but tells him that they can never escape from Tybor’s entrapment. The Galaxy Police can never find them. They cannot trace the hop-head broadcasts because the FTL beams are ‘bounced’ around the galaxy from relays on myriad asteroids all over space.
Suddenly emergency alarm bells sound all through the Mini-World! On the control deck Tybor is shocked when their screens reveal that their vessel is surrounded by three galactic patrol craft, who have materialised from hyper space. Before his crew can engage the Vorgan drive to escape, the Mini-World is bathed in neutralising beams from the three police craft, paralysing its controls and power supply.
A space launch, loaded with galactic police jets from one of the patrol ships, and clamps itself to the Mini-World’s main airlock. On the control deck, Tybor draws a gun and exhorts his men to fight to the death, but Garth, entering with the doctor, sneaks up behind him and clamps an arm around his throat. He warns that if anyone attacks the police, he will break Tybor’s neck. Consequently the galactic police capture the ship without bloodshed.
Garth is amazed (though astute readers following the clues would not be!) to see Nubyl with the police. Garth learns that the ring Nubyl gave him holds a Ruum crystal that emits a signal the police were able to pick up.
Nubyl had been sent to the planetoid as part of an undercover police operation. They had gained a lucky break when a space scout had spotted Tybor’s men terraforming the planetoid – obviously as a venue for a future Big Game. Instead of arresting the production team they had waited, hoping that Nubyl would be pulled out by Tybor and taken aboard his ship — then they could move in. But things had not worked out: Tybor left Nubyl in the game. So the police didn’t move in, because there was a thousand-to-one chance that Garth would win through. Nubyl had not been able to tell Garth – even a written message would have shown on Tybor’s screen when Garth read it.
Garth learns what the astute reader already knew: that Voltan had been Nubyl’s husband – she had volunteered for the mission to avenge him. After the sensory capsule is removed, Nubyl invites Garth to return with her to Tsorna Three, but Garth declines the offer: “… somehow I know that’s not how the trail runs for me… I must go back.” Garth asks if he may keep the ring as a true keepsake, and Nubyl agrees: “… it will be good to know that I can always find you.”
Garth’s brain is cleared of the alien language and his own language restored before he enters the transmission cabinet and is beamed back to Earth, materializing under the sea – but the police technician has made sure the door of the receiver is open. He swims up to the surface, and returns to the shore. He is surprised to find that his caravan is still there. Inside, he finds a letter from Lumiere, inviting him to join him in New York, where he is attending a convention. He has added a P.S.:-
“They tell me that you went swimming and were drowned – in a calm sea! How absurd! I know you better than that, Garth! What little game have you been up to?”
Little game! Delicious O’Donnell irony.
Some 25 years ago, I sought and received permission for my Cosmos literary agency client, writer E.C. Tubb, to novelise Garth stories, beginning with “The Last Goddess” followed by “The Big Game”. There were very strong resonances between ‘Garth’ and Tubb’s own famous book hero ‘Dumarest’.
Tubb would have produced stunning novelizations of those classic Garth strips: he was “up” for it, and at that time still writing at the peak of his powers. So I was all set to seek commissions for Garth novels from prospective publishers, when the Daily Mirror broke my heart.
They had commissioned from me – and accepted – a new Garth script in which Garth met Sherlock Holmes in a parallel world… only to subsequently not publish it, or to pay for it either. My query letters were ignored, and it was not until sometime later that I learned from John Allard that all Garth’s former scripters had in effect been “sacked” and the strip taken over by the artist. At which point, I stopped trying to find a publisher and told Tubb that the novelisation proposal was cancelled.
In retrospect, it was a good thing, in that Ted Tubb went on to write his own wonderful stories instead, including a final Dumarest novel. But I do sadly reflect on what might-have-been.
The fact that “The Big Game”, a masterly-written and illustrated story, has never been reprinted is an absolute scandal, and a shocking indictment of the myopia of English publishers and the Mirror’s syndication department.
Previous: The Crystals of Camelot | Next: The Living Mountain
Synopsis 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