Dan Dare on TV: Zenith’s un-broadcast 1994 pilot surfaces, in full, and the story behind it

  • Dan Dare - Zenith Pilot
  • Dan Dare - Zenith Pilot
  • Dan Dare - Zenith Pilot
  • Dan Dare - Zenith Pilot

There have been several attempts to get the Eagle comic star Dan Dare onto TV, perhaps most notably by ATV in the 1980s, but now the full, un-commissioned pilot episode, produced by Zenith, the company behind Inspector Morse, has been posted online courtesy of Ravi Swami who worked on the project back in 1994.

A version of the short pilot has previously surfaced on YouTube, but Ravi has uploaded a digital copy from the VHS dub of the “pilot episode”, a retelling the opening of “Voyage to Venus”, the first Dan Dare Eagle comic story, to his Vimeo channel.

A respected animation director, designer, compositor and storyboard artist, Ravi, who also contributes reviews and features on animation to a wide variety of web sites, he’s kindly taken time out of his schedule to tell downthetubes readers more about the project…

In the mid-1990s I was invited, out of the blue, to work on a proposed pilot for a “Dan Dare” TV series, that eventually resulted in a teaser episode that promised a great deal but for various reasons never went further than the teaser.

I have to confess at this stage that I’ve been a huge fan of Frank Hampson’s creation ever since junior school when old copies of Eagle comic were available to read in the school hall on rainy days when the school playground was off-limits. I expect this to be a very common experience for kids growing up the UK in the 1960s, but in my case it led to a fascination for Hampson’s work and that of his team of artists and for comics in general in a strip that at its height suggested epic and evocative cinematic imagery the like of which had only be seen in films like MGM’s classic, Forbidden Planet.

Dan Dare/Eagle original cover artwork (1957) by Frank Hampson with original comic Volume 8, No 46, pg 1. Dan and his crew are trapped in a pit, dug to trap the dreaded Selektrobots - most dangerous of the Mekon's mechanized monsters. They wait tensely as the clanking din of the giant clockwork killers draw near... Bright gouache colours on board. The Eagle masthead and square text boxes have been added as laser colour copies to complete the look of the artwork. 16 x 13 ins
Dan Dare/Eagle original cover artwork (1957) by Frank Hampson with original comic Volume 8, No 46

So, the idea of “Dan Dare” film was something that I fantasised about throughout school and later as my interest in art drew me toward animation, which became my eventual career.

Working in the animation industry – though it would be more accurate to describe it as a cottage industry in the early 1980s in London – I guess it was inevitable that I would come in close proximity to other artists, some of whom would share an interest in “Dan Dare” and comics, since comics were often a springboard to working in animation even if in my case, I was dissuaded from pursuing comics as a career at art college since it was regarded as an inferior art form.

As I followed my fascination for sci-fi films and “Dan Dare” by reading fanzines it soon became clear that the idea of a “Dan Dare” film or TV series was not a new idea and in fact Hampson himself had anticipated setting up an animation studio to exploit his creation before it was taken out of his hands in various murky copyright / ownership deals that have been well documented elsewhere.

Much of the renewed interest in the idea of adapting “Dan Dare” for the big or small screen was obviously inspired by the massive success of Star Wars and other sci-fi films of the period when the genre had fallen out of favour in Hollywood in the previous decade as it tried to reshape itself in line with lower budget, less risky European cinema.

I’d got wind of a proposed ITV series on which, coincidentally, someone I had known from secondary school, the late Brett Ewins was working on with Brendan McCarthy (a fellow Hanwell-ite friend of Ewins but who I only met for real in the 2000s) and another artist who I‘d met in the small animation studio I was working at, Mike Cosford, whose amazing airbrush artwork was to feature in the series as environment matte paintings.

An "Episode Graphic" by Brett Ewins for the proposed ATV Dan Dare series. Image courtesy Dale Jackson
An “Episode Graphic” by Brett Ewins for the proposed ATV Dan Dare series. Image courtesy Dale Jacksonmore on this project here

But this production foundered, which seems to have been the fate of all subsequent attempts at bringing the character to the screen, big or small, since then.

I’m sure followers of this site are aware of other previous attempts to picturise the strip that suffered a similar fate so I won’t list them here. However, up until the 1990s, I had seen artwork and designs from the various attempts and at college some colleagues and I visited the Science Museum only to bump into Hampson himself, and a short while later I attended an event in his honour where some models for a proposed film / TV series were on display.

And so, it would be safe to say that I’d had more than a brush with the various “Dan Dare” TV series / film adaptations, to which I include seeing the miniature sets in construction for the Mobil adverts at Shepperton Studios.

A screen grab from test work on the Zenith "Dan Dare" show, captured from Granada TV's 50th anniversary documentary.
A screen grab from test work on the Zenith “Dan Dare” show, captured from Granada TV’s 50th anniversary documentary.

To bring the story to the 1990s, where I began – I had sent some work to Ron Thornton of Foundation Imaging in the US, in the hope of getting to work on the show since I was using the same “Lightwave” 3D software that was being used to create the spacecraft and environments for that ground-breaking series and while I didn’t get to work on it eventually, Thornton appeared to have been impressed enough to put my name forward for a new, as yet unannounced “Dan Dare” TV series that would use the same innovative and more cost effective CGI techniques he was using for Babylon 5, and in addition the hope was to keep the design as close as possible in tone to Hampson’s strips, which I found to be an exciting prospect.

By the time I had got involved, however, Thornton had produced all the CGI sequences himself to augment the live action bluescreen work, with my involvement to be on the series itself once it had been commissioned, so I was invited to the final edit in Soho and my only actual input was to add the “coming soon” text at the very end in Quantel Paintbox! – disappointing perhaps, but at least I had been fortunate enough to have an exclusive first-look at the pilot coming together, and it looked very promising.

And then this is where things take a murky turn yet again. From what I gather, the original investor / instigator of the project disappeared to Australia due to some scandal or other involving a police investigation and the whole project fell through even though it was clearly well financed, and so yet another “Dan Dare” film project bit the dust.

I would rank the pilot alongside the Mobil adverts as the best attempt to date to bring the character to the screen in terms of capturing the essence of Hampson’s work even if by the 80’s/90’s the very British tone of the original had become something of an anachronism and subject to satire.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the US CGI series that Ron Thornton eventually worked on and it seems the case that attempts to modernise the character have largely failed, so the conundrum, and it’s a fascinating one, of how to be faithful to Hampson’s strip and yet still be relevant to contemporary audiences remains a tantalising one.

Here’s that Dan Dare pilot, in full, courtesy of Ravi. You can also view it on his Vimeo channel

DAN_DARE from ravi swami on Vimeo.

Made in 1994, Robert Bathurst played Dan Dare in the pilot, directed by John Henderson of Spitting Image fame, co-starring Geoffrey Hughes as Digby. Michael Medwin played Sir Hubert Guest and Serena Scott Thomas, Professor Peabody.

Sadly, the project was not taken any further. Coronation Street and Heartbeat star Geoffrey Hughes was much dismayed.

Writing to comics archivist Ian Wheeler in 2002, he told him “As a fan of the original Eagle, I was very excited about the Dan Dare project. Zenith made a promo with myself as Digby. Although there was great enthusiasm from all the English people involved, a lot of the money was coming from America, and they had never heard of Dan Dare. I think that is what sunk it.”

In a quickfire interview for the Daily Mail in 2017, Cold Feet actor Robert Bathurst revealed he dreamed of playing Dan Dare as a child, but the format of the interview does not let him expand on the comment.

It’s also possible that the incoming animated series, produced by the Dan Dare Corporation, may have also contributed to stifling this version.

Parts of the pilot were broadcast in an ITV documentary Future Perfect.

Ravi Swami‘s numerous credits today include design and storyboards for Highlander, Moominvalley and Watership Down, examples featured on his official web site. He owns the design company, Happy Robot.


Ravi Swami is online at raviswami.com | Vimeo | Instagram | LinkedIn

• Getty Images holds pictures of the late Geoffrey Hughes in costume here and here, and a picture of Michael Medwin in costume here, all taken by Richard Blanshard

British Comic Characters Profiled | Dan Dare

The downthetubes introduction to Dan Dare, by Ian Wheeler, with additional information and links complied by John Freeman with thanks to Jeremy Briggs and Richard Sheaf

The Lost Dan Dare TV Series

A design for Spacefleet HQ by Keith Watson

The Dan Dare Corporation’s 2002 Dan Dare television series (partly released on DVD in 2005) was by no means the first attempt to bring our favourite space hero to the small screen. This article, initiated by Ian Wheeler, with additional material from John Freeman and others, concentrates on the ATV version. We try to piece together the story of the project and why it never ultimately happened, featuring contributions from those who were involved at the time.

Dan Dare: The Venus Campiagn

• The Dan Dare Omnibus
Published by Titan Comics

This omnibus edition of Dan Dare contains his first adventures, beginning with the story that would later be titled “Pilot of the Future: Voyage to Venus”. Dan and his crew set off to explore Venus, hoping to find new resources to feed a starving earth. But the planet is home to the devious, calculating Mekon, who plans to conquer the Earth.

It’s up to Dare and his bat-man Digby to help the enslaved people of Venus to rise up and defeat the massive green headed evil genius.

It’s up to Dare and his bat-man Digby to help the enslaved people of Venus to rise up and defeat the massive green headed evil genius.

The Collection also includes “The Red Moon Mystery“, in which Dan and his trusty crew head once more into the dangerous, icy depths of space to uncover the secrets of a strange red moon that has entered the Solar System and threatens Earth with destruction!

Do note that for some reason, this bumper compendium, in print as Dan Dare: The Venus Campaign, is marketed as the Dan Dare Omnibus (Bumper Compendium) print edition comprising his first Venus adventure and “Red Moon Mystery” a different title for the digital edition: Dan Dare: The Complete Collection Volume 1: The Venus Campaign – but  although two covers and titles are in circulation, the content is the same.

• Buy the Dan Dare: The Omnibus Edition – print – from amazon.co.uk

• Dan Dare collections and related books on AmazonUK (downthetubes Affiliate Link)

Dan Dare: Voyage to Venus Audio Adventure (Amazon UK Affiliate Link)

New art for the Dan Dare Audio Adventure "Voyage to Venus", created to coincide with the Radio 4 Extra release. Designed by Mark Plastow with art by Brian Williamson.

B7 Media’s acclaimed audio drama, inspired by the original Dan Dare. Brilliant test pilot Dan Dare is chosen to fly the Anastasia – a new experimental spacecraft – on its maiden voyage to Venus. This isn’t exploration – it is to make first contact with a mysterious civilisation that has sent technological secrets as a goodwill gesture. 

However, what Dan, Digby and Professor Peabody find on Venus isn’t goodwill but a terrifyingly intelligent, cold-hearted ruler, the Mekon. A creature destined to become Dan Dare’s nemesis – and Earth’s greatest threat…

Dan Dare © Dan Dare Corporation

Categories: Animation, British Comics, Comics, Digital Media, downthetubes News, Other Worlds, Science Fiction, Television

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4 replies

  1. I never new about this and quite enjoyed watching that. I thought it was pretty successful, all except for the treen mask which really doesn’t work at all.

  2. “…attempts to modernise the character have largely failed, so the conundrum, and it’s a fascinating one, of how to be faithful to Hampson’s strip and yet still be relevant to contemporary audiences remains a tantalising one.”

    This is clearly a case for a parallel world, as in steampunk stories such as Moorcock’s “The Warlord of the Air”. By tweaking history we can get an alternative universe which fits the Dan Dare canon (admittedly, explaining how there are life forms on other solar planets now known to be almost certainly barren is a big ask, but I’m sure creative types can use some handwavium to get around that).

    • When I updated the Dan Dare solar system for, initially, an unrealised reboot in STRIP Magazine, later reworked as background for the writers of B7 Media’s Dan Dare audio adventures, the aliens on different planets in the solar system were on the run from a greater menace, outside our system.


  1. Dan Dare: What Might Have Been – Martin Crookall – Author For Sale

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