He who dares

William Cook looks back to when Britannia ruled the waves and Dan Dare ruled the galaxies

Britain's greatest astronaut celebrates his 50th birthday this month, alongside the pioneering publication that made his name. Dan Dare may have been a fictional character in a children's periodical but, for a while, he personified a very British set of values. Britannia still ruled the waves, and if there were any great unwashed colonies out there in space, we were the ones to civilise them.

Now we're not so sure. Doctor Who flew the flag for a while, but he was scarcely more than an intergalactic private eye. Judge Dredd is always far too busy keeping the peace to fly away and explore anywhere else. Star Wars is an Arthurian legend set in a foreign galaxy. Star Trek was supposed to be international, but the Yanks called all the shots - no wonder its working title was Wagon Train to the Stars.

Dan Dare has become the icon of a Great British space race that never was, but back in the Fifties he epitomised the can-do confidence of the New Elizabethans. Dad had won the war. Now his kids would win the peace. The route to victory, then as now, was via new technology. Yet there was nothing virtual about the inventions of that age. Unlike today's cybersurfing nerds, the youth of the Fifties rolled up their sleeves in the great outdoors. And their inspiration was Dan Dare's Eagle.

The Eagle was founded by the Reverend Marcus Morris, a Southport vicar, to promote Christian values. Dare's initial job description was spacefleet padre. "No creed of violence is preached," promised an advert in Picture Post. "No tawdry morality or cheap sensationalism, or worship of the superman ever appears, for Eagle is edited by a clergyman." Can you imagine a new lads' magazine being launched with this sales pitch today?

Dare was created by Frank Hampson, a war veteran whose imagination was fired by seeing V2s flying over Antwerp en route to London. That trademark kink in Dare's eyebrow matched a war wound his creator had picked up in Normandy. Dare's favourite adversaries, the Treens, bore some resemblance to the Nazis, but the Eagle was far more keen on the shape of things to come. It covered current innovations such as Gatwick ("the new wonder airport"), the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain, even atomic structure. Free gifts included the Dan Dare Book of Jet Planes. Arthur C Clarke was its scientific adviser. If new Labour wants to be the party of New Technology, it should revive the Eagle, and spawn a new generation of wannabe Dan Dares. Egged on by the Eagle's high-tech fun and games, a generation of British boys grew up dreaming of becoming spacemen, and even if that final frontier was a boyhood dream too far, they were still delighted to settle for careers as engineers. "The daring space pilot of 14 grows into the man of courage and enterprise and success," declared the Picture Post ad.

Several of Dare's prophecies, from space shuttles to satellite television, have since become scientific fact. "The idea has such an appeal to the imagination, that it is by no means dead," declared the Eagle, in a speculative feature about that futuristic fantasy, the Channel Tunnel. For once, this cosmological almanac was wide of the mark. It predicted a double-decker road and rail link.

Our proud tradition of amateur rocket science is the Eagle's most heroic legacy. "There was an awful lot of copying on from what happened in the Eagle," says the graphic designer Howard Smith at the Dan Dare exhibition he has assembled in Whitstable. "We had books of models and everybody would make them. And you'd have competitions for flying the various models. There was an activity involved. It was very industrious." The Eagle captured the technological optimism of that era. "People were looking forward to the future." Unlike Star Trek, cautiously set way ahead in the 23rd century, Dare's prophetic yarns were pitched less than half a century hence, in the 1990s.

The Eagle's pilot of the future has become the pilot of our past. Here, in the brave new world he foresaw, the stars that fascinate us have nothing to do with astronomy, and everything to do with celebrity. "If you ask a City financier - or a diplomat, or a journalist, or a writer or a student - what he is reading just now," wrote A S Byatt in these pages a few weeks ago, "the answer is likely to be books about science." Well, I can't speak for any financiers or diplomats, but most hacks and layabouts I know are far more likely to read showbiz interviews or newspaper horoscopes. As Alan Judd wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "if all that remained of our civilisation were today's papers, visiting Martians might well conclude that astrology was our dominant belief."

Unlike astrology, the Eagle's appeal didn't endure. Its nemesis was TV. The Eagle welcomed television with typical technophile enthusiasm, but the small screen proved a far more deadly enemy than Hampson's Mekon. "From that moment on, every comic started to go into decline," says Smith. "The imagination and the activeness that people had to build things, create go-karts or make spacecraft, all completely collapsed. You got absorbed by television. Television really killed initiative." TV made some super science fiction; but, unlike readers, viewers are never active participants in the creative process, merely passive recipients. Britain's budding cosmonauts had been relegated to ground control.

Yet, one series did preserve some of Dan Dare's values. Like Dan Dare, Thunderbirds had a sound moral code. Like Dan Dare, it put space-age machinery centre stage, unlike so many contemporary interplanetary soap operas. Like Dan Dare, it used a far more versatile medium than proper people. And even though International Rescue's puppet pilots were American, at least Lady Penelope and Parker were both every bit as British as Dan Dare. This autumn, half a lifetime after they were first broadcast on ITV, Gerry Anderson's masterpiece, digitally remastered by Carlton, will be on BBC2. Meanwhile, Anderson is giving a lecture. Aptly, it's called "Why I Never Grew Up". "Girls grow up to be women," says Smith. "Boys grow up to be big boys." If you were lucky enough to be born when Britain was still the sci-fi workshop of the world, why on earth would you want to grow into anything else?

"Dan Dare at Fifty" is at the Whitstable Museum in Kent (01227 276 998) until 16 May. Admission is free. Gerry Anderson gives the British Design & Art Direction President's Lecture at the UCI Plaza, Lower Regent Street, London SW1 (0870 010 2030), 7.15pm on Tuesday 9 May

William Cook is writing a book about the Comedy Store for Little, Brown