After recently seeing that lovely piece of unsigned ‘Saturn Probe’ artwork on display at the Special Assignment event I thought I’d reacquaint myself with some of the original articles.
For those unfamiliar with this fun little feature, it was a series of fictional articles that ran in TV21 between issues 212 to 233 about a manned mission to Saturn, and introduced during the decline in TV21’s popularity.
The rot seemed to have already set in when TV Tornado merged with the comic and brought with it strips like The Saint and Tarzan. The newspaper look of the comic was dropped much to most readers’ annoyance, and the cosy Anderson universe with its uneasy continuity that had existed from the beginning of the comic began to crumble.
The editors must have realised their mistake and following a minor revamp, the newspaper look of the comic returned along with an occasional new series - Saturn Probe.
While it must be said that there was absolutely no attempt at accuracy, the series started off with promise featuring a full back page spread showing the Saturn Probe - the Outer Terrestrial Contact craft, ’Shindig 1’, taking off from Lincoln Space Port. The actual photo used was the rocket featured in the Joe 90 episode ‘Most Special Astronaut’. The Capsule and Space Station from that same episode would again feature in the following instalments as Shindig 1 made its way to Saturn.
It would seem the article proved popular with readers at which point issue 215 devoted the entire front cover to Saturn Probe proclaiming ‘Bull’s Eye - Bang on target for Saturn’.
An original piece of artwork of the Shindig 1 spacecraft, now looking very much like a Zero X MEV, passing through Saturn’s rings filled the entire back page of issue 217.
The comic went through a major revamp in issue 218 with a free gift - a Strato Streak space plane. Department S was added to the mix, but the new look which seemed to owe a lot to the past didn’t hide the fact that TV21 was beginning to lose its originality. However, the Saturn Probe series continued unabated with an original painting of the planet Saturn showing huge craters!
Issue 219 had a special report on the men who were on the mission with a header written by Agent 21. The report had a picture of a robot called George working with the team. However, readers weren’t fooled by the editors’ attempts to use stock photos. On the letters page in issue 226, Reader Norman Dunford of Market Weighton pointed out that the robot was in fact used by the Argonne National Library in Illinois, USA to handle radio-active material. He went on to say that the information was given in TV21 issue 179!
Issue 220 dumped the stock photos in favour of another fine piece of artwork. It once again covered the back page and showed the Shindig 1 establishing a base camp. A Spacex -like MEV could be seen trundling out of the cargo bay. This was the last issue to carry the Tarzan strip for a while.
Issue 221 and another full page spread with two pieces of monotone artwork. A Jungle of Rocks and a Flower Monster, although I have to say, it might have looked better in colour.
The next full page spread in issue 222 was titled ’Exploring the Atmosphere!’, and the first to use stills from 2001 - A Space Odyssey. A photo showing Shindig 1 landing on Saturn was actually the 2001 Moonbus.
The next issue 223, Saturn Probe appeared on only a half-page. Titled, ’Sea of Fire’, it did have another nice piece of original artwork showing some kind of hydrofoil.
On the letters page two readers commented on Saturn Probe. Eddie Winters of Bath wrote “I think Saturn Probe is terribly exciting and the best article in the comic”, while James Ray from Ayr raised a continuity question, so important to TV21 readers, that dealt with an earlier story. He wrote, ”I thought Zero X had landed on Saturn some time ago. Why are the Saturn Probe team going there to reveal the secrets when Zero X has already been?” - Col White tactfully replied, “There is a logical answer to this, but I’d like Shades to suggest an answer!”
Another letter from a Robert Towney from Widnes asked why Tarzan was dropped. The reply from Col. White explained that due to reader demand more room was needed for a space page.
However, another reader, Gillian Thomas of Glamorgan referred to a letter printed in issue 213. This was a portent of things to come and speculated on the idea of incorporating sport, in particular, football into TV21.
The next issue, 224 was a turning point for the comic. Saturn Probe was again just a half page and yet another group of stills from 2001, and frankly not very inspired. The big news that week was the announcement that from the next week TV21 was going football. The comic had not just lost its originality it had become totally schizophrenic. I would imagine for most readers, myself included, TV21 was a sanctuary from all things sport including the dreaded football. It was a haven for the imagination and all things spacey. Now the evil was within and end was nigh!
The front cover of issue 225 sported a football front cover and inside an all-action pin up of West Ham’s, Martin Peters. The Space Info page, the space page dealing with all things space had a monotone picture of a Saturn V launch, and the Saturn Probe article reported on several expeditions across the planet. More stock photos, including one of the Sidewinder illustrated the piece.
Thunderbird 3 launching from the Round House graced the front cover of issue 226. The Saturn Probe article at the back, was another half-page report from Shindigville, the first city on Saturn ! Comprising of six pre-fabricated buildings it would help pave the way for the first wave of colonisation. Another image from 2001 was used to illustrate the piece.
No Saturn Probe article appeared in issue 227, The front cover had UNITED written under TV21’s masthead and a picture of George Best. It heralded the start of a two part feature on Manchester United. I just couldn’t wait for next week!
The Saturn Probe article in issue 228 was simply a half page showing a black and white photo of a Titan Booster rocket. This was supposed to be a second probe ship, ‘Rendezvous 1’ blasting off to join the first expedition.
In the absence of an original illustration and considering that most TV21 readers would have known more about the space race that the editors it does beg the question why use well used stock photos rather than AP film or Century 21 stills which would have, at least been more appealing.
A little more thought went into the article in issue 229. The logo was back and the title proclaimed, ‘There’s Gold In Them Thar Hills - Gold Strike On Saturn’. The short piece drew vague parallels with the Klondyke gold strikes during the early American pioneer days. The only let down was again the use of stock photos of an oil rig and a prototype Nasa ‘Moonbus’.
The letters page was still full of comments about TV21 and sport. Reader Michael Maguire from Wishaw wrote, ‘It seems many readers are requesting a sports feature in TV21. I think that if the W.A.S.P.’s played the World Navy at under water events, or Spectrum took on the World Space Patrol at hover-bike polo this would be a great idea. This way TV21 would still keep its 21st Century appearance’.
Col. White replied,’ I have had thousands of letters asking for a football story based in the 21st Century. Starting in the next few weeks TV21 is doing just that. From your letters, readers are almost one hundred percent agreed that Football United is one of the best features in TV21. Sounds absolutely right to me and totally not made up!!! As if to push the point Leeds United filled the front cover of that edition.
The front cover of issue 230 was a large picture of Captain Blue, much to the delight of any Century 21 fans still reading the comic. Saturn Probe was back to the half- page format. The header was ‘Colonies To Be Set Up’, and reported that World Space Patrol troop ships had blasted off from Space City taking two hundred robots to Saturn.
The mighty Zero X filled the front cover of issue 231 - things were looking up. On the back page below an advert for Lyons Maid, Orbit was Saturn Probe. A picture of a Saturn 1B and what looked the third stage of a Saturn V rocket illustrated that week’s instalment. These ‘exclusive’ pictures were meant to show the second Saturn Probe, Rendezvous 1 arriving on Saturn.
This edition did have the start of the Super League strip , drawn by artist, Malcolm Stokes. This was of course the football story hinted at by Col. White in issue 229.
Another half -page spread for the penultimate Saturn Probe article in issue 232. The black and white illustration showed a Hovertransporter carrying a prefabricated oil rig across sand dunes following the discovery of oil on the planet.
The picture was a still from the Captain Scarlet episode, Lunarville 7.
So, in conclusion, although this feature is probably hardly remembered today and fairly insignificant in the scheme of things, I believe that the Saturn Probe articles were an attempt by the editors to capture the original concepts found in the early TV Century 21, and would try to create a shared experience for readers. It was chance to rekindle the comic’s continuity which had struggled following the inclusion of stories and strips incongruous to the Anderson universe. But maybe it was just a simple case of things had moved on. The Anderson puppet TV series were coming to an end and the comic was just becoming stale.
TV21 in its original form continued for only another nine editions before merging with Joe 90 Top Secret comic. A totally new comic was formed, a soulless and bland shadow of it’s former self. However, in spite of this TV21 continued until the end of September, 1971 at which point it was swallowed up by Valiant comic.