Zero X: TV21 - 1968
1968, or 2068 if you fancy, saw the first major changes for TV Century 21. The most notable were on the cover itself, with the dropping of 'century' from the title to be replaced by a Spectrum symbol, and the dropping of newspaper style front covers, in favour of making this the first page of the Captain Scarlet strip.
Change was also immediately evident for the second year of Zero X. Having pretty much exhausted the solar system of interesting places to explore, the eponymous spacecraft was upgraded to a starship, and given free reign over the galactic spaceways vacated - in strip form at least - by Fireball XL5. In many ways it was familiar territory plot-wise, as the gallant foursome took Zero X to some distant world, to be mystified by a unusual event, which would be explained through gut wrenching adventures over the coming weeks. In that respect, Zero X was an unmissable strip, as readers waited with edge-of-seat anticipation at what terror would unfold before their heroes. This was pretty much the old Flash Gordon style serials updated to the 21st Century - a roller-coaster of spectacular happenings, as good attempted to thwart nefarious evils on a cosmic scale.
The new adventures saw a change of artist as well. Gone were Mike Noble's crystal clear depictions, and in came Jim Watson. Watson was no stranger to Zero X, as he had illustrated the Thunderbirds Are Go! novelisation back in 1966 (see below). While Watson's artwork was action-packed and dynamic, it was a significant departure from the rigidly crafted styles of most of the other TV21 artists. It would be unfair to say it was a downturn for the publication, but it was a marked difference when Watson's enthuiastic but looser style muddled what was happening in some frames. That said, Watson did shine particularly in some of the stories, especially when it came to alien lifeforms. The Linktans introduced his penchant for saucer-headed robotoids, which would appear in his self-scripted Colony Earth strip for 2000AD comic in the late 1970s, and somehow Watson evokes a more emotional depiction. Perhaps it is the large, all-too-human eyes set deep in the saucer slit, but the sympathies lie whole-heartedly with them in the apocalyptic storyline.
The other story to benefit from Watson's style concerns animals taken to a planet for tests as a prelude to colonisation as a 'production farm'. Whether the writer, or artist Watson himself, had issues with animal experimentation is not clear, but the atmosphere of planet Trojax gives the test animals - led by chimp Bimbo - a hateful intelligence. In a quite frightening 'well how would you like it' tale, the rebellion is nightmarish - literally so in the case of Captain Paul Travers, injected with a hallucinogenic serum. Watson's forte is Bimbo and he captures the almost Jekyll to Hyde transformation. as the chimp mutates from peaceful simian to monkey with a cause in bold artistic strokes. It is a pity the conclusion to the potential message is not as thoughtful, as all the animals finally succumb to weapons to stop them, but perhaps that just adds the full stop to an idea underlining that what mankind cannot control, he usually destroys.
Mind you, the Zero X crew are put through an awful lot of experimentation this year, and it is easy to see why they might be inclined to destroy in the face of not understanding. The writer seems to take an almost gleeful pleasure in subjecting them to all manner of scientific horror, from 'plaxton solidification' to nearly becoming unwilling forerunners for a whole new aquatic race. One has to ponder why, if given the chance, they did not just join sides with Bimbo.
Zero X strip guide - part two
The New Zero X! (Story Eight)
Writer: Scott Goodall (?). Artist: Jim Watson. 2 pages, colour.
Part 1 - Issue 155, dateline 06 January 2068
Glenn Field Spaceport... and for the crew of the mighty exploration craft Zero X, it is a proud exciting day...
Greg and the others have heard the news - Zero X is no longer confined to exploration within the solar system, and Paul Travers informs them their first new mission is to explore the Boroshone galaxy. After a journey of weeks, they detect something approaching from planetary complex One-Nine. What appears to be a fast moving collection of meteoric dust particles nears, but then forms into a spaceship. Paul takes no chances, and fires interceptor missiles, but thy pass through the ship like it was mist. A line of glittering particles grasps Zero X, and pulls it towards the alin ship, docking with it. Exploring, they find the ship apparently deserted, but then a cloud of particles takes the form of a humanoid...
Part 2 - Issue 156, dateline 13 January 2068
Stop Press - Zero X Deep Space Mission!
The strange alien paralyses them and disappears into silver dust. Unable to move, the crew are held in clamps and watch helplessly as Zero X is set adrift, then enveloped in a shimmering beam of light from the alien ship. Before their eyes, Zero X is seemingly blasted into nothing, and a sinister voice laughs. The alien ship moves off and lands somewhere in planetary complex One-Nine. With the Zero X crew aboard, the ship changes into an overland transporter and heads into a domed city. Another ethereal dust humanoid appears but Brad has had enough, and attacks it - only to be disintegrated into dust himself...
Part 3 - Issue 157, dateline 20 January 2068
The alien demonstrates control over atoms and body cells, and recreates Brad. They are led to a control centre, where the aliens take on humanoid forms for convenience, calling themselves Polgroms. They need two of the crew - Paul Travers and Ray Pierce - to take part in an experiment, while the other two are held as hostages. Travers and Pierce undergo 'plaxton solidification', and must survive for four days on the plain of Ranos. If they succeed, they are free, and if they fail they will all die. Travers has no option but to agree, and a shimmering space-ship takes them into orbit, where Zero X is reforming. They are taken to another planet in Complex One-Nine, and jettisioned in the escape capsule to the Plain of Ranos...
Part 4 - Issue 158, dateline 27 January 2068
The capsule lands in a swamp, and Travers and Pierce wade to firmer ground. In a primeval forest, a huge winged creature strikes at them, and they take cover in a cave. Pauls arm has been mauled, but it regenerates itself, and he realises the Polgroms have spent centuries working on a permanent body structure. If they survive, the bodies will have proven themselves. Travers goes outside and allows himself to be clubbed down by a fearsome horned cyclops - only to survive unharmed. With nothing to fear, they decide to settle down for the four days and await a pick up. But that night a cold mist envelops them, and Paul realises it is a cloud of insects. Pierce suddenly seems struck by a fever, and it seems the bodies may have a weakness to disease...
Part 5 - Issue 159, dateline 03 February 2068
With Pierce fading fast, a weakening Paul tries to carry him to a nearby cave. But as he summons up a last effort to reach it, Paul undergoes a change... and reverts back to his human form. The Polgroms may have control over molecular structure but not human brains - to combat the disease, Paul's will has changed him back. He tries to revive Pierce so he can do the same but tendrils pull him into an alien web. A giant Ranosian insect closes in, and Paul cries out for help. The Doc slowly responds, and spears the insect, freeing Paul. Paul is forced to hit Pierce to get him to 'fight back', and he reverts. But then they hear the Excursion Vehicle overhead, four days early, and wonder if the Polgrams have decided they have failed...
Part 6 - Issue 160, dateline 10 February 2068
As the MEV comes into land, Paul has an idea. Showing himself, he runs off wih Pierce in the direction of the virus-spreading insects. Now immune, they are not affected, but the two pusuing Polgroms are, and they collapse - dead. Using the suction inlet on their emergency oxygen sacs, Paul and Pierce trap swarms of the insects, and take them back to the Polgrom headquarters. No longer receiving a molecular signal, the Polgroms realise they have failed, and Brad and Greg are taken outside to be killed. Paul uses the thrusters on the MEV to put the guards off-balance, then releases the insects. Within an hour, all the Polgroms are dead, and the crew of Zero X return to Earth.
The regular Stop Press page in issue 161 reports the press officer for Glenn Field, Sard Fraser, had no news on the refitted Zero X, now presumed lost in the Boroshone galaxy.
Curiously, the Polgroms wear pointed hats - again similar to artist Jim Watson's own aliens in the self-scripted Colony Earth strip for 2000AD in the late 1970s.
Story Nine (aka The End of the World?)
Writer: Angus Allan (?).
Artist: Jim Watson. 2 pages, colour.
Part 1 - Issue 161, dateline 17 February 2068
England 2068... a grey, over-populated jungle of concrete and steel...
Zero X arrives at London Spaceport to see two hundred spaceships, crammed with twenty thousand people, being prepared for lift-off. These are emigrants, disenchanted with life on Earth, and who plan to settle on another planet in Galaxy Nine. But as they watch, a car breaks through the barrier, and a man tries to run for the ships. Travers tell the suards not to fire, as they may hit the fuel tanks, and the man reaches the safety of the ships. This is Karl Viner, President of the Space Emigration Society which organised the move to Galaxy Nine - but he has been refused permission to join it as he is also the top research scientist for Earth's security network. The ships blast off, and Viner transmits a video message - he and his chosen few alone will survive the legacy he has left. For Earth is doomed to explode into a million fragments in two weeks...
Part 2 - Issue 162, dateline 24 February 2068
Stop Press - Zero X in Emergency Landing.
Greg thinks Viner an insane lunatic but Paul is not so sure. Viner's last work was at the Saharan Core-Tapping Scheme, so Travers and Greg investigate. A shaft has been sunk to within a mile of the Earth's centre, and Viner has booby-trapped the door to his laboratory, killing a scientist. Within, a hydromic reactor is triggered to detonate the core in two weeks - which will blow the planet apart. Viner has also booby-trapped the protective sheath, and an explosion cracks the roof, letting molten lava fill the lab. Paul and Greg barely get out alive, but now there is no way of defusing the device in the sealed, lava filled room...
Part 3 - Issue 163, dateline 02 March 2068
Paul realises they have to bring Viner back but by now the emigration fleet is clear of the solar system. It may be possible to catch them in Sector 7 but it means travelling through the Pelikano Asteroid Belt. The stakes are too high not to risk it, and Zero X plunges through the curtain of asteroids. With heat-shield pressure rising and an oil leak in number two sub shaft, it seems they are not going to make it. But Paul keeps the throttle wide, and despite a last glancing blow from a large asteroid, the hull body seals work and they fly clear. Greg suits up to check the damage from outside, then sees a bizarre sight - hundreds of dead cattle adrift in space...
Part 4 - Issue 164, dateline 09 March 2068
Paul suits up to join Greg, and they examine the brand on a nearby cow - Space Emigration Society. These came from Viner's ships, and Paul fears the worst. Repairs are quickly made, and Zero X moves on to encounter an increasing trail of wreckage, ending at fifty of the destroyed emigration ships. if Viner is dead, Earth is doomed. But as they suit up and examine the debris, Brad picks up a radarscope blip - something big is heading their way fast. It is a strange alien ship, and it heads straight for Zero X, unfolding into a trident form. Brad tries desperate evasive manoevres but the ship impales the main body...
Part 5 - Issue 165, dateline 16 March 2068
Stop Press - Viner Found. World Tension Eases.
Travers tries to call Brad, who seems doomed - but before their eyes, the trident ship withdraws its prongs leaving the Zero X intact using an advanced form of laser welding. An airlock opens and two strange robotic humanoids bid them to enter - or die! The attack on Zero X was a demonstration of power, but the alien Linktans from the Asvo galaxy need help badly. They have Viner, sole survivor of the emigrants, and had destroyed the others in retaliation because Viner refused their request for advice repairing their artificial sun, and attacked them instead. Travers is furious - Viner's selfish act signed the death warrant of twenty thousand people - but he agrees to try and help the Linktans in return for taking Viner back to Earth. But Viner refuses to return to Earth, and hurls himself out of an airlock..
Part 6 - Issue 166, dateline 23 March 2068
Stop Press - Zero X Returns. Viner Dead.
ith Viner's suicide, Zero X's mission - as well as Earth - seems doomed. Travers thinks the only option is to return and try and stop the reactor themselves, but leader Linktan One reminds them they have a bargain. The near argument is ended when the visio-screen shows the alien planet already ablaze as a prelude to interstellar destruction. Travers gives his regrets, and the now homeless Linktans offer assistance as their feroxlobe bodies evolved in intense heat, and they may be able to travel to the Earth's core. The two ships return to Earth with only two days left, and Paul meets them in the Saharan desert. But as the Linktans assess the situation, one staggers and falls to pieces...
Part 7 - Issue 167, dateline 30 March 2068
The Linktan leader also sways and weakens, begging to be bathed in flames. Paul tells Greg to fetch the portable heat unit, and a searing jet of fiery fuel turns the Linktan white hot. Partly revived, the two aliens explain of 'fexoxlobe fatigue', cased by dampness in the atmosphere, which can rot their joints within minutes. The humid desert air is to blame, and the only way to get the Linktans to the shaft is to bathe them in fire. Forty thousand feet down, Paul, Greg and the Linktans face the door behind which is the reactor. But a burst water supply pipe now blocks the approach, and if the Linktans pass through the water it will kill them. Greg has an idea for stopping the water long enough for this, but to do it either he or Paul must die...
Part 8 - Issue 168, dateline 06 April 2068
If one of them were to stop the leak with their jacket and hold it, the Linktans could pass through. But whoever did this would be burnt to a cinder when the door is opened. Greg wants to flip a coin but Paul is in command and knocks him out - he will make the sacrifice. But Linktan One has other ideas, deciding Paul is too brave to die, and knocks him out - taking his jacket and placing him safely with Greg. The Linktan is makes the ultimate sacrifice, and allows his comrade to enter and defuse the reactor. Earth is saved as the Linktan leader dies in pieces. An hour later, the few surviving Linktans face paul and greg in their ship. Their race doomed to extinction, they can only wander through space until they die. As they depart, the Zero X crew are left to ponder the cruel and savage place the universe can be.
One can see the seeds of Angus Allan's reinterpretation of the Project SWORD format being sown here - people leaving a doomed Earth because of the Earth's core being triggered.
The regular Stop Press page in issue 169 features a comment by Professor Karl Viner's wife, not blaming Captain Travers for his death. Interestingly, Mrs Viner knew nothing of his plans to emigrate, nor his work - and would have been quite oblivious to the fact she was about to be blown up with the rest of the world. Grounds for divorce if he had survived, don't you think?
Writer: Scott Goodall (?). Artist: Jim Watson. 2 pages, colour.
Part 1 - Issue 169, dateline 13 April 2068
Station 127... a lonely refuelling post on the space highway, more than twenty thousand miles beyond the Earth's atmosphere...
A fast approaching contact refuses to identify itself, and the ship glances the station, damaging secondary struts. The ship is on fire and a runaway, so the station puts out an emergency call is put out on all channels. On a routine training flight in Sector Eight, Zero X is close enough to respond. The runaway ship's code number is X-97, the planetary survey ship 'Astran', which left six months ago for planetary complex Lentauri 9. The Excursion Vehicle blasts free of Zero X and docks with it, the crew taking fire-fighting gear with them. But searching for survivors, Greg finds a body in a tank of water and tries to pull him clear. The 'man' has webbed, scaled hands and feet...
Part 2 - Issue 170, dateline 20 April 2068
The 'man' tries desperately to reach the water, while Greg fights to help him to the airlock, but the main fuel tanks blow, and the survivor is lost in the flames. Fighting a losing battle, the Zero X crew are forced to retreat back to the MEV and break free, just as the Astran is consumed by fire. Greg tries to explain what he saw, and believes the man was human, not alien. According to International Space Data, the Astran was carrying out a survey of planet Lentauri 9, so Zero X sets a course there to investigate. Leaving Brad in the main body, Travers and the others take the MEV down to the smooth featureless green surface. But as it prepares to land, they notice the surface is heaving, like some sort of crust - and the MEV splashes through it...
Part 3 - Issue 171, dateline 27 April 2068
Stop Press - Zero X Finds Fish-Man.
It is an ocean, and Travers only just fires the emergency boosters in time to get the MEV airborne again before the ignition chambers were flooded. There seems to be no land on which to settle, but then they spy a tower protruding from the ocean crust. Not knowing if it was built by the survey team or aliens, they take a chance and land on the disc pad on top. A spiral staircase within leads to an empty chamber, but then the tower telescopes down so the pad is on the surface. Water starts to fill the chamber, and the Zero X crew are trapped by jelloid sprays which trap them in large air filled bubbles. Alien fish-men enter the chamber, and carry them out into the sea...
Part 4 - Issue 172, dateline 04 May 2068
The trapped crew can only guess at the fish-men's purpose as they are taken deep underwater to the outskirts of an alien city. Hundreds of jelloid spheres in a bizarre warehouse contain life from all over the galaxy - Martians, Venusians, Uranians, and other humans - and all have scaled bodies like fish. A transformed human taps out a simple message in morse - NURSERY - and Pierce realises the horrible truth. This is evolution in reverse - an alien scheme to turn land-living animals into fish...
Part 5 - Issue 173, dateline 11 May 2068
Stop Press - Zero X Silence.
A gaseous mist is sprayed into the jelloid spheres of the Zero X crew - but then Greg notices the survey team are escaping theirs. Pierce corrects him... not escaping but hatching! The strange new fish creatures swim away, leaving Greg to panic as he notices his skin changing. If they try and cut themselves free at this depth, it would kill them, but there is a current towards the cavern door. They move the spheres free, and float towards the surface. Escape seems certain in what may be the undersea night, but then they are spotted. Fish-men open fire, and Greg tires to cut his sphere open to swim for it. But then Travers and Pierce are hit...
Part 6 - Issue 174, dateline 18 May 2068
Greg swims down and pulls the unconscious Travers and Pierce to the surface and through a hole in the thin green crust. Travers revives, and helps Pierce while Greg holds off the fish-men. They make their way to the MEV but the tower is sinking, and the engines are flooded. Contacting the main body, they call on Brad to launch a missile strike around the tower. The underwater city is destroyed, and the tower stops sinking. Drying out the engines, the MEV rejoins the main body to return to Earth.
The regular Stop Press page in issue 170 reported Travers Honoured by a special dinner to celebrate the recent triumph in averting a world disaster.
Paul Travers Sensation! (Story Eleven)
Writer: Angus P. Allan. Artist: Jim Watson. 2 pages, colour.
Part 1 - Issue 175, dateline 25 May 2068
In the recreational area of Glenn Field, Paul Travers, Captain of Zero X, enjoys a few moments of relaxation. With him is co-pilot Greg Martin...
Paul drives his golfball into the trees with his power-assisted club, and goes into the woods to find it. But he is found by a ragged man who he recognises with a shock. When Paul has not returned after ten minutes, Greg goes to find him, and sees the other man leaving. Paul dismisses the meeting but is clearly shaken by it. Back on Zero X, the ship is launched to perform some low-level flight tests through the Grand Canyon. Paul seems unusually bad-tempered, and goes aft to check the impulse indicators. But as Greg and Brad wonder what is wrong with him, the escape capsule ejects with Paul on board. In the empty abort chamber, they find a folded piece of paper - a letter of resignation...
Part 2 - Issue 176, dateline 01 June 2068
Greg tells Brad the note is an official letter of resignation from the service. Jettisoning the nose cone, Greg goes after Paul in the MEV, landing on the floor of the canyon. Finding the capsule, Greg sees Paul getting into a car, but is warned off by a ragged wild-faced man with a gun, and the two drive off. Unable to follow, Greg rejoins Brad on the Zero X, and tells him he had seen the man before, talking to Paul while they were playing golf. Returning to Glenn Field, Greg tells his story to the duty controller Colonel Price. He takes them to see Major North in security, but when they get there, Greg is certain North - now clean shaven and in uniform - is the tramp Paul drove off with...
Part 3 - Issue 177, dateline 08 June 2068
Stop Press - Zero X Man Assaults Security Chief.
Greg is told by Brad the man is Sam North, chief of security, and angrily confronts him. North has both Greg and Brad taken to Complex Five to hear an explanantion, and tells them he has a dozen witnesses to swear he was in his office when Travers vanished. Locked in a hospital ward that night to calm down, Greg hears a transporter and sees North heading for the launch apron. Climbing out of the window, he is forced to knock out a security guard and follows in a strike plane. North leads him to the Grand Canyon and, landing on top of a ridge, Greg is shocked to see an exact copy of Zero X being built in a hidden construction pen...
Part 4 - Issue 178, dateline 15 June 2068
Greg then spots North, putting on a disguise - of the tramp! Baffled, Greg follows North into the caves where Travers is working in a cage, and calls him Wilson. As dawn breaks, Greg knocks out the guard but his presense has been detected and impulse charges stun him when he touches the cage. 'Wilson' arrives, and decides to deal with Greg, against Travers' pleas. They take him to the top of the Grand Canyon, and Greg recovers to find himself dangling over a sheer drop into oblivion...
Part 5 - Issue 179, dateline 22 June 2068
Stop Press - Second Zero X Man Disappears.
Greg calls to Travers to save him, and the captain is torn but eventually grabs North and threatens to push him over too. Greg is brought back to the edge and released, and Travers joins him as a renegade from the others. It transpires Travers' father was with Wilson on a survey of the dark side of the Moon ten years ago, and in a fit of panic had left him to die. Only he did not, and has now returned to blackmail Travers. Greg tells him the truth, and that the plan seems to get Travers to reveal the structural secrets of Zero X - the question now is why? But as they make their way to the pen, they hear engines, and see the other Zero X lift off...
Part 6 - Issue 180, dateline 29 June 2068
Greg and Paul race back to the strike plane stolen from glenn Field, but even this is not fast enough as the duplicate ship heads into space. They return to Glenn Field, and launch the real Zero X in pursuit. Course One-Nine-Eight takes them to Asteroid Belt Four, where Paul's father's headquarters - the Institute of Interstellar Technology - is located. By using a replica of Zero X, North can get close enough to penetrate the security screen and destroy it. A grim battle in space between the two great starships ends with the replica Zero X crippled, to crash on the asteroid. A dying North reveals himself as Richard Wilson, brother of the man Paul's father left to die.
The Stop Press page in issue 176 shows a picture of the Glenn Field controller from the film Thunderbirds Are Go!, indicating this is Colonel Price (who in the strip has gained a moustache).
Monkey Business! (Story Twelve)
Writer: Scott Goodall (?). Artist: Jim Watson. 2 pages, colour.
Part 1 - Issue 181, dateline 06 July 2068
Stop Press - Trojax for Animal Farm. Zero X Investigates.
Greg Martin and Brad Newman are somewhat bemused when Paul Travers and Doc Pierce aproach the waiting Zero X with a small menagerie: Bimbo the monkey, Buttercup the cow, Bertie the dog and two ducks. They are to be taken to the planet Trojax, for initial study before a vast animal production farm is to be built. Weeks later, Zero X enters orbit around the planet on the edge of Galaxy Four, and the animals are jetted down to the compound to be joined later by the MEV. But that night, Bimbo undergoes a strange change, and takes leadership of the animals. Using a pistol, he blasts the fence lock and frees them...
Part 2 - Issue 182, dateline 13 July 2068
Stop Press - Zero X Scare.
With hate in their eyes, Bimbo leads the animals to the quarters where the Zero x crew sleep. Greg stirs, and sees Bimbo aiming the gun at them. he barely saves a still slumbering Travers before returning fire. As the others wake, Greg can only explain what he saw, which the others take as a nightmare before seeing the gun damage. The only explanations the others have is aliens on the planet, so with the animals missing they start a search. In the wilderness, Greg is suddenly attacked by Buttercup, but as Travers goes to help, Bimbo appears and levels a gun at him...
Part 3 - Issue 183, dateline 20 July 2068
Doc Pierce races to help but is attacked by the dog and two ducks, and all three men are trapped and helpless. They can only surmise something in the atmosphere has given the animals super intelligence, coupled with hatred. With no choice but to be bound by creepers at Bimbo's gunpoint, they are herded back to the compound. Bimbo writes a message on paper - Radio Brad Newman To Break Orbit And Descend To Three Thousand Feet - but Paul refuses to comply. It is obvious the animals will kill them if he does not obey, and Paul is forced to contact Brad. The main body of Zero X enters the atmosphere, but then paul notices Bimbo is aiming the Excursion Vehicle rockets at it, and fires...
Part 4 - Issue 184, dateline 27 July 2068
The crew can only watch as Zero X is hit and veers in for a crash landing, but as they move to get Brad, Bimbo herds them back into the compound at gunpoint. Brad is brought to them and told the startling truth, but with them all captured there is no hope of contacting Earth - and rescue. Bimbo's shrill laugh warns them of further terror, as the monkey has found Pierce's equipment. Filling a syringe with serum P20, Bimbo plans to experiment on them! Paul is injected, and begins a nightmarish hallucination trip...
Part 5 - Issue 185, dateline 03 August 2068
Cowering from hallucinations of giant-sized animals, Paul is enslaved to mindlessness and dragged away by Bimbo. The same fate seemingly awaits the others, but Pierce has an idea, and at nightfall Brad frees them from their ropes. Using a knockout drug XG in the animals' grain and meat, they are able to take care of the dog and ducks. Buttercup is alerted when Greg trips over an abandoned rocket casing, and the three men fight to throw her to the ground. Then they see Bimbo leading Paul to the Excursion vehicle...
Part 6 - Issue 186, dateline 10 August 2068
Stop Press - Zero X Returns. Crew Safe and Well.
The MEV lifts off, and the others make back for the precariously balanced main body. The thunder of hooves warns them the other animals are approaching, and they are forced to use the lateral cannons to blast them. Using the intact port engines at full power, the main body is tipped over the precipice to build up speed and fly after the MEV. There is only one desperate course of action, and the main body forces the MEV back down to a crash-land. Greg flies down to save Travers, who mutters a warning. Bimbo has a gun but Greg is quicker - and the terror ends with a single shot. Their report, when they return to Earth, is that the planet stay uncharted and uninhabited.
Nightmarish almost beyond comparison. While the concept of alien creatures doing experimentation is a staple of science-fiction pulp, having familiar animals do the same makes this more terrifying.
Death Dust! (Story Thirteen)
Writer: Angus P. Allan. Artist: Jim Watson. 2 pages, colour.
Part 1 - Issue 187, dateline 17 August 2068
Stop Press - Mystery Pacific Plague. Zero X investigates 'Black Soot' reports.
The crew of Zero X are having a well-earned rest while engine inspections are carried out at Glenn Field. While the forecast is for a month of uninterrupted sunshine, the distant sky over the Gulf of Mexico looks black. At sea, the fishing vessel Santa Cruz is heading home, and the dark fog turns out to be a soot like dust falling from the sky. Vast amounts settle on the boat, sinking it, and the soot-like plague hits the coast. Zero X is called to investigate, and previous thoughts of a freak weather condition disappear as it climbs to fifty thousand feet. The dust seems to be coming from space, but as the craft climbs higher, Greg sees the metal on the lifting body is corroding...
Part 2 - Issue 188, dateline 24 August 2068
Paul orders a ninety degree turn at full boost to get clear but Lifting Body 2 breaks up. They radio Glenn Field and an emergency crash landing is made. Video reports show the dust corroding metal all across the continent, and the Glenn Field commander orders Paul and greg to take a P-20 space cruiser up to try and investigate again. Launching in a southern orbit, away from the falling dust, they keep clear of the cloud and once in space, see it drifting across the entire northern hemisphere. Greg spots unidentified objects in Sector Five, and they find large canisters with built-in time circuits adrift in space. Then the time mechanism stops, and they start to break up...
Part 3 - Issue 189, dateline 31 August 2068
The disintegrating canister spreads the black dust into space. This is no freak cosmic storm but a deliberately man-made incident. The limited propulsion of the canisters means they could only have come from the Moon, and they return to Glenn Field to report. Zero X is now repaired, and with the news that Houston and Baton Rouge have been wiped out, they lift off. Not wanting to announce their presense to Moonbase, the starship searches over the lunar surfac, and they spot a patch of black dust in Mare Frigoris. Investigating, they find a dome hidden under a rock overhang. Inside the seemingly deserted structure, Paul, Greg and Pierce find the floor is laid out in a large grid of black dust plots, almost like a garden. In one such plot, the shape of a body has been left, and behind them, a strange silhouette rises...
Part 4 - Issue 190, dateline 07 September 2068
As the shape swipes at them, Greg opens fire and blasts it back to dust. Only it is not dust but living black molecules. A man appears, holding them at gunpoint, and identifies himself as Thomas Roker, who was exiled seven years ago for illegal germ warfare experiments. Five thousand people died when one experiment contaminated a water supply, and Roker has been on the Moon plotting revenge since. The incubation period of the dust into crude humanoid forms is about three days, and they will march across North America corroding all metal in their path. Travers overpowers Roker, and he is taken back to the MEV. Returning to Earth, they see they are too late as the black shapes are already marching inland...
Part 5 - Issue 191, dateline 14 September 2068
Roker tells them that America is doomed, and will crumble within days as the molecules breed and multiply. Returning to Glenn Field, Travers explains to the spacport commander they have Roker, and Zero X leads an air strike that may slow down the molecules until a means of killing them can be found. The attack proves futile, and with weather conditions deteriorating, Zero X watches helpless as the molecules multiply. But then, it starts to rain - and the molecules start to turn white, and the bodies break down. With a scream of horror, Roker realises they are drowning, and tears at the airlock - falling to his death. With no atmosphere on the Moon, Roker could not check the molecules reaction to normal conditions - and now he never will, as the molecules are defeated by simple rainwater.
The regular Stop Press page in issue 187 likens the reports of 'black soot' to the 1968 incident where 'red dust' fell on London - the result of freak weather blowing sand from the Sahara Desert high into the atmosphere.
Authorship of the scripts has recently become the subject of some debate. While it was generally acknowledged that Angus Allan was the main writer, in a recent interview it has come to light Scott Goodall also contributed. While determining which was by who, every other story carries the hallmarks of Goodall's style - a prediliction with alien speech in death ('Vuuuuuxxx-uuh!' cry the dying Polgroms), and animal hybridism, as witnessed in his own comic creations Fishboy and Kid Chameleon. It is possible he wrote more, but these seem the likeliest candidates.
The crew were spared further bodily indignities in two of the stories though, possibly those written by Angus Allan. Blackmail leading to resignation in order to steal the design secrets of Zero X almost seems small feed to the crew, although the personal cost to Paul Travers seems quite high. But dramatically, it is nice to have a largely earthbound and alien free adventure, even if the plot - and cost of building a whole new Zero X in secret - seems massively complicated for such a simple mission of revenge. As is the threat in Death Dust.
With Captain Scarlet hogging the first four pages of TV21, there was no newspaper style promotion of the strip on any of the covers during this period. What peripheral stories there were now appeared on the Stop Press page, offering the odd additional snippet.
Occasionally, a Shade reader would send their own Zero X-orientated correspondence, such as Keith McNeill (Area Blue) who created his own cutaway of the MEV (right) in the absence of any for Zero X appearing in the comic or annuals.
That honour would eventually go to the Project SWORD annual, which appeared this autumn as TV21 once again underwent a change. Although The Saint and Tarzan had already been running for a couple of weeks, from issue 192 the masthead bore the name TV21 and TV Tornado.
The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History would like to thank:
and Alan Notton
- for their help with this feature.
Version 1.2 - 01.09.05
Any comments or notes about any of the strips, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
All text © The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History, and its respective writers, and may not be reproduced without permission.
All images © their respective copyright holders