The Coming of the Sub-Mariner – and the birth of the Marvel Universe (Mike Reads the Marvels: Fantastic Four #4)

They had done monsters; they had done aliens; they had done illusions. Still struggling for story ideas, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby struck gold: they revived an old character from when Marvel was called Timely Comics – and created the shared Marvel Universe we all know today.

It was a stroke of genius – more so because the character they brought into play had – has – so much, well, character. Prince Namor (pronounced Nay-more for the benefit of those like me who were never sure) has plenty of reason to take issue with the human race that is only half of his heritage, and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards and Sue Storm were soon to have plenty of reason to take issue with him.

But the start of this issue follows on immediately from #3’s cliffhanger, with the team’s most volatile member, the Human Torch, missing after he literally flew off in a rage because the Thing didn’t want him to take credit for defeating the so-called Miracle Man.

Reed and Sue are concerned; Ben (still in bad-tempered mode this early in the run) couldn’t care less. So Reed browbeats him into joining the search: “You were jealous of the Torch’s achievement, and so you picked an argument with him — an argument which made him want to desert ALL of us! Well, we’re not going to let it END that way!! We’re going to FIND that boy!! And that means YOU TOO, Thing!!”

Revolutionary stuff, at the time. Characters actually behaving like human beings. Especially Ben’s reaction when he realises he’s not going to be let off the hook: “You BET it means me! And when I DO find ‘im, I’ll teach him to run off on us that way!”

Wotta blowhard!

He’s toeing the line soon enough, taking off in the (gadget alert!) Fantasticar with the rest of them. Modern readers may have a giggle at Sue’s comment: “This is the first time – sob – that the TORCH’s section was left behind!” He’s run off in a huff, not dead! I don’t think for a moment that a woman of the 1960s, even, would react that way, unless she’s wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume – and we were being asked to believe that Sue was a woman of action. So it’s a sexist sign of the times when the piece was written.

The trio split the Fantasticar into sections and head for different parts of town, to carry out their search more quickly, providing Stan and Jack a narrative opportunity to remind us that the floating bathtub is designed to split into four independent parts, and to remind us off the team members’ powers.

So we see Sue drinking a milkshake while invisible, freaking the delights out of the punter sitting next to her, while Reed demonstrates apparent super-strength by using his stretching power to reach across a road and yank a biker off his hog while he’s driving it. That would require a heck of a lot of strength, you know! Plus, the guy would have legitimate reason to be furious, because his bike would undoubtedly suffer damage; either it would fall onto its side and skid down the tarmac (bad for the metal- and paintwork!) or it would carry on rolling until it hit something – possibly causing a road traffic collision in the process. And Reed is supposed to be the brains of this group?

Of course, narrative necessity means it has to be the Thing who finds the absentee Torch – using his flame power to fix a car at his friends’ garage. In story terms it has to happen, because the animosity between them meant there was bound to be a fight.

Chapter Two begins with the Thing threatening the Torch by lifting the hotrod he was fixing and threatening to flatten him with it. Johnny can’t do anything in any case, because the place is covered in flammable fuel, so it’s looking like he’s going to get a nasty beating…

But then – isn’t this about the perfect moment for another ongoing plot device to make an unexpected appearance? As if by magic, the Thing metamorphoses back from the rocky orange monster he has become into his human alter-ego. He’s so surprised and delighted that Johnny takes the opportunity to run out, flame on, and escape into the skies.

The incident doesn’t end well for Ben, though. Within moments the change reverses and he collapses to the ground, overcome with a grief with which the reader might justifiably sympathise.

So far, this has been scripting-by-numbers: arguments, demonstrations of super-powers and the appearance of what we might reasonably expect to be regular plot devices.

But now we – and Johnny – move into uncharted new territory, and I don’t just mean the bowery flophouse he checks into as a means of escaping his erstwhile team-mates! Settling down on a bed among the bums, he idly flicks through an old comic book starring “the Sub-Mariner”. That’s no surprise, as Namor’s featured on the cover (running into the sea with Sue Storm in his arms).

The next bit may have come as a bit of a shock to 1960s readers, though. One of the other residents spots Johnny’s reading matter and boasts that another inmate is “as strong as that joker was suppose to be!” But exhortations for this bearded bedmate to rip a phone directory in half only provoke the stranger into violence, throwing men around like matchsticks before sagging into a chair, muttering, “If only I could remember who I am! WHAT I am!”

Hearing this, Johnny steps in to stop the others ganging up on him again: “Can’t you see he’s ILL? He’s got AMNESIA!” And let’s be honest – we really needed to see this act of humanity from Johnny, who had been acting like a proper little git until this point.

To stop the others from attacking again – they claim they’ll beat the memories back into the strong stranger, Johnny ignites one of his own fingers and, claiming there’s a better way, gives the man an impromptu shave.

Of course, the removal of all that facial hair reveals what we readers have suspected since Johnny picked up the comic: “It IS! IT IS! He — he’s the SUB-MARINER!”

And so he is. We see the triangular head that was familiar to readers of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and the pointed ears that, in future, would provoke many comparisons with a TV character who was still a glint in Gene Roddenberry’s eyes at this time.

Judging (correctly) that this would be exactly the sort of moment when a reader would want to know what happens next, Stan and Jack flip the story back to the other members of the FF, who are blissfully ignorant of developments and still looking for Johnny. Cue more examples of Reed and Sue using their powers – including, in a good display of narrative irony, a moment when Sue – invisible – walks past Johnny’s flophouse just as he emerges from it with Namor; she doesn’t see him and he can’t see her.

Instead, Johnny checks the coast is clear (no groaning at the back because of the sea-going figure of speech, please!) then flames on and whisks Subby into the air – and then into the sea. Immediately on being submerged – as Johnny suspected – the waters revive the Sub-Mariner’s memory and restore his full strength (the latter would become a common plot point in future Namor stories).

With memory comes realisation, and Namor races off through the waters in search of “my undersea kingdom” – which he had abandoned years before, due to the loss of his memory.

Of course, there wouldn’t be a story if he could be instantly and happily reunited with his people, so Namor finds an undersea kingdom that has been reduced to rubble. He concludes: “The HUMANS did it, unthinkingly, with their accursed atomic tests!”

In these few panels, Stan and Jack set up the Sub-Mariner’s conflicts with humanity for many years to come – and introduced environmental activism into their comics, years before it became a burning political issue.

Namor lives (habitually) in the sea – and the sea is humanity’s dumping ground for all the rubbish and pollutants that we can’t be bothered to tidy up. We really don’t care if the inhabitants are harmed, so Subby is well within his rights to be incandescent with rage at our irresponsibility.

That’s why he returns to the spot where he left Johnny. Rising from the ocean his statement of intent is clear to all – and a warning to Johnny that the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions: “You young FOOL!! Do not feel PROUD of what you have done!! For by returning my memory, you have signed the DEATH WARRANT of the human race!!”

Announcing that he is “the mightiest living mortal on Earth” (an accolade he would enjoy for around a month, until the first issue of The Incredible Hulk hit the stands), he vows revenge on mankind.

It’s another exciting moment, so it’s time to change scene again – again, to the other members of the FF. Johnny has fired an emergency flare into the sky and they’ve spotted it. They arrive to find Johnny alone, so of course it takes him a while to explain that he didn’t let off the flare frivolously, that the Sub-Mariner really has returned and that there really is deadly danger.

Meanwhile, Subby himself has had plenty of time to find a way of wreaking his revenge – and here, Stan and Jack let themselves down a bit: it’s a giant monster. Well, the sea is supposed to be full of them, if you believe grizzled old sailors in bad pirate stories.

Get ready to groan because even the creature’s name is a cliche: GIGANTO!

Oh, and he could only be roused by a (gadget alert!) “trumpet-horn” that Namor pulls out of his fundament (well, where do you think he gets it from? His “undersea kingdom” has been destroyed, remember?) ready-to-use.

I know. After nearly 15 pages of quality stuff, it looked like Stan and Jack were losing it at the last hurdle.

It gets worse. We get a few pages of mayhem, with Subby directing… Giganto… to battle human beings and beat them before the beast climbs onto the land and (improbably) takes a nap.

Then – get this – the Thing, in a moment of insane heroics, gets the troops to strap a nuclear bomb to his back. His plan? Walk into the belly of the beast, like Jonah into his whale, drop the bomb and get out before it goes off.


It starts well… “He’s RESTIN’ now! Good thing he breathes through his mouth!! Well, here goes nothing!!” And with those words, Ben strolls in.

Chapter Five begins with his odyssey inside… Giganto. It’s a sequence that – dare I suggest it? – may have inspired John Byrne when he sent Ben searching for the brain of Ego, the Living Planet in his fourth issue writing and drawing this comic, nearly 20 years later.

It is a sequence that deserved to be fleshed out much more than the couple of pages it received, even with the addition of a monster living in… Giganto…’s stomach for Ben to fight while the timer on the bomb starts ticking, meaning he has to run to get out.

A few panels later and: “He DID it!! The monster is DEAD!!” Oh great, because the image makes it look like he’s still sleeping. I would have hoped to see the landscape spattered with whalemeat. But then any Geiger counters in New York would have been chattering like typewriters and the city would have been rendered uninhabitable – so it seems… Giganto… flesh is immune to nuclear apocalypse.

And the threat isn’t over! Namor’s still there, still brandishing his horn (sorry). As long as he’s got the horn he can summon countless other sea monsters (he says).

How do you sort out the man with the horn? Send in a good woman, apparently. Sue invisibly nips in and grabs said horn, then does a runner. But of course, while she can’t be seen, the horn still can, so Namor gives chase and catches her. And when she becomes visible…

“Well! HERE is a prize worth catching!” Yup. Loss of actual horn triggers rise of euphemistic horn. If you don’t understand what that means, ask your dad. “If you will be my bride, I might show mercy to the rest of your pitiful race!”

There’s a bit of dispute about this. Reed has his own plans for Sue, after all. Seeing the way the wind’s blowing, Namor gets properly batey and decides he’s going to have the girl and his revenge. So Sue interjects: “I-I’ll do anything — I’ll become your bride! One life such as MINE doesn’t matter — but HUMANITY must be spared!!”

Even that’s not good enough for our subsea royalty! “You speak as though you are SACRIFICING yourself!”

There’s no satisfying these haughty royal types. Fortunately, before Namor can do anything, the Torch steps up in a display of filial loyalty. He’s just worked out that he can use his flame to create an artificial tornado and whisk Namor and his… Giganto… out to sea.

In the process, he loses the horn. It’s happened to a lot of us in such circumstances (I’m told). And the device is “lost in the depths of the murky sea… forever!” Or indeed, until a future Sub-Mariner writer (like Roy Thomas?) feels the need to dig it out.

Weaponless (for the time being) and temporarily lost at sea, Namor is left with nothing to do but vow to return. It is a threat that would be fulfilled sooner than readers may have expected…

So what’s the verdict?

Of course it’s a classic – albeit a flawed one. The ideas run out around 10 pages before the story does and there is an over-reliance on monsters, still. That may have been remedied by the very next issue…

Everything else is a solid step forward, and the creation of the Marvel Universe with the crossover/revival inclusion of Namor was seismic.

‘The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!’ (Mike reads the Marvels: Fantastic Four #3)

Who says this isn’t the Marvel Age of Insane Imagery? The Miracle Man appears to menace Mr Fantastic and the Thing with a giant key.

They had done monsters; they had done aliens. What could Stan Lee and Jack Kirby offer in the third issue of their smash-hit new superhero comic?

Not a lot, as it turns out. This issue features a pedestrian villain called the Miracle Man (not Miracleman as we know him today – the former Marvelman of legendary lawsuit infamy who is now owned by Marvel anyway). He’s just an ordinary guy with fabulous powers of hypnosis, who convinces the world (it seems) that he has brought a giant model of a movie monster to life in order to wage war upon the entire human race.

Phew, what a loonie!

It seems clear that both creators knew their main story element wasn’t particularly strong (the Miracle Man never returned for a rematch) – so this issue included a whole bunch of features to distract readers from this perceived failing.

First was the cover strapline. Fantastic Four was now “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!” according to a banner above the logo. This would be adapted into “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”, and would appear on the cover of almost every future edition of the title.

Next: gadgets! This issue introduced a load of ’em, starting with the Fantasticar – an airborne bathtub, capable of dividing into four separate sections to provide the team’s members with a way of carrying out swift reconnaissance (while, presumably, having a wash at the same time).

Also introduced were the Pogo Plane and the Fantasticopter, with more to follow. In the future we shall see whether any of them ever took flight.

All were housed in the third innovation in this ground-breaking issue – the FF’s “secret” headquarters. Secret? The identity of the Baxter Building as the team’s home and hideout was blown pretty quickly, but for this issue, at least, it was hidden from other tenants toiling below the top five floors of the tower.

Next came the FF’s brand-new uniforms: team seamstress Sue Storm stitches up a series of blue overalls with the number “4” emblazoned boldly on their chests – and the Thing rips his to shreds on its first outing, saying he needs to be able to move. He reappears later in what must be a duplicate, but the shirt, long trousers and helmet were not long for the comics world and he was set to spend the following half-century in nothing but a pair of blue shorts. Chilly!

Finally, this issue saw the arrival of the techno-jargon that would become a hallmark of 1960s Marvel. It seemed as though every title would introduce a new, bizarrely-named item. The “atomic tank” mentioned here is a remarkably low-key example – but was just a taste of what was to come.

The story begins at a theatre where the FF are singled out for attention by a stage illusionist calling himself “The Miracle Man”. He subjects them to ridicule – particularly the Thing, whose strength is mocked to the point where Ben’s temper snaps and he almost starts a fight.

Public humiliation of heroes as the starting-point for a story is a quite well-established plot device, used here for the first time in the Marvel Age – but certainly not for the last!

On the way home (in, yes, the airborne bathtub), Reed states that “It is fortunate for us, and for the world, that the Miracle Man is not a criminal! For if he were… he might be the one foe we could not defeat!”

Of course, Miracles is a criminal – although no motivation is given for his desire to conquer the world. Perhaps he was bullied as a kid… anyway, the next we see of him is on the televised premiere of a new movie, The Monster From Mars, at which he appears to bring a giant statue of the movies eponymous monster to life – and then magically teleport it away. He leaves a note: “I, the Miracle Man, declare war on the whole human race! I intend to conquer the Earth!” We’re talking serious psychosis here. He needs medical help!

There follow a series of encounters with the monster that end with the Torch melting him down into his component parts – plaster and wood – leaving Johnny asking: “How did the Miracle Man make him move? How?” It’s a good question – and one to which we don’t get an answer. Miracles appears to have tricked everybody, including TV audiences, into believing that the dummy could move, in order to distract them while he stole the atomic tank.

But its location does change, and the FF do interact with it. No explanation is given for this huge hole in the plot – we just scoot on at breakneck pace to the next problem: the tank.

Tracked to his hiding place by the Invisible Girl, Miracles hypnotises her into summoning the other team members so he can “defeat them forever – here and now!” There’s a fight (of course), and Miracles is defeated – by accident, when the Torch emits a blinding flash of light, erasing the villain’s hypnotic powers.

Reed delivers an explanation: “He is no miracle man! He has no magic powers! He is merely a clever hypnotist, a master of mass illusion!” But if that’s true, how did that monster statue move? And how did he convince everybody that he had brought it to life?

The story fails because it doesn’t make sense; it doesn’t provide an explanation for the events we are shown. It’s amazing that Stan and Jack got away with it! Perhaps readers in the 1960s were more forgiving than nowadays.

Or perhaps they were more interested in the story’s final revelation – an argument between the Torch and the Thing that results in Johnny quitting the team and flying off – another story element likely to become common in Marvel Comics.

As he flies away, Reed displays evidence that the Miracle Man isn’t the only basket case in this issue. Having prophetically displayed concern that Miracles might be a wrong ‘un earlier on, he closes out the issue by saying about the Torch: “What can we do if… if he should turn against us?!!”

Was Reed turning paranoid? Had he started seeing enemies in every dark corner?

That would have been a worthwhile line to pursue – but possibly a bit too heavy for Marvel’s audience of the time.

What would happen next? Would the Torch become the team’s next enemy? Would the Thing take control of his temper? Would Reed end up in a padded cell? And would Sue break out of the sexist pigeonhole she seemed to have been dropped into?

All of those questions would be answered in the next issue, along with one more: Whatever happened to the Sub-Mariner?

Here come the Skrulls! (Mike Reads The Marvels: Fantastic Four #2)

The Skrulls: slime-coloured shape-changing schemers with striated chins. They developed into far more three-dimensional – and sympathetic – creations later.

Having been told for so many years that the dawn of the Marvel Age of Comics was a renaissance of creativity in the comic industry, it came as a bit of a disappointment to see that Fantastic Four #1 was really just another monster comic, albeit with characters who were at least starting to behave like real human beings.

We see that writer/editor Stan Lee was still playing it safe with the second issue of his new toy. Having started out with monsters controlled by a human being, he moved on to aliens pretending to be human! Not much of a change, is it?

Still, baby steps can lead to great strides.

The story opens with a series of crimes apparently committed by the FF themselves. The Thing is seen attacking an oil rig; the Invisible Girl (as she was then known – those were sexist times) steals jewellery; the Human Torch melts a priceless statue and Mister Fantastic causes a citywide power cut.

Of course we quickly learn that the FF are being set up by a race of shape-changing alien goblins with deformed chins called the Skrulls. We know they’re aliens because their skin colour is a sickly pea-green. And they speak in pure exposition! Even though each of this group of alien infiltrators must know exactly how the others tricked the human population into believing they were members of the FF, using their powers to commit crime, they all go over it for the benefit of the reader. In terms of storytelling technique, these were still primitive times.

What of the Fantastics themselves? We catch up with them in a hunting lodge miles from anywhere, only able to find out about the impersonations from a radio news report. Typically, Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic) and Sue Storm (Invisible Girl) set about analysing the problem while Johnny Storm (Human Torch) says he’s not worried because Reed will figure out what to do.

Ben Grimm (the Thing) has a temper tantrum and breaks a window. That’s another count of criminal damage to go with all the similar felonies the FF caused in their premier issue.

It’s easy to see why Ben became the most popular character. He’s the liveliest of them – storming out to get some action while the others carry on talking. It gives Stan an opportunity to run a recap of the team’s origin from the previous issue (for latecomers) and to harp on about his guilt at being the cause of what they all consider to be Ben’s deformity.

Having set up the story so the authorities believe the FF responsible for the Skrulls’ crimes, story logic means there must be a confrontation with the police or army before the real villains are found – so Part Two: Prisoner of the Skrulls starts in formulaic fashion – with exactly that.

Except, there’s no actual fight. The FF (including Ben, who seems not to have gone very far) give themselves up and allow themselves to be imprisoned in cells specially designed to counteract their powers. Considering Ben’s short temper, this seems out-of-character for him; wouldn’t he be more likely to smash up a few tanks and run off into the woods to cause further havoc? It’s possible that this thought occurred to Stan, either at this point in the writing process or later, as he was soon to unveil a new character who would behave in exactly that way…

Of course, no cell is completely escape-proof and all four use their special powers to break out and escape. Of course they do – it wouldn’t be a superhero story if they didn’t.

Next we see more evidence that the FF must be rolling in money, because they make their way to one of their “many secret apartment hideouts”. How much does it cost them to keep these places up and running? The rent must be enormous!

Pausing only for another argument, the gang see a newspaper headline saying a new rocket is about to be launched (they were launching rockets willy-nilly in the early Marvel Universe so this should be no surprise) and conclude that their imitators must be planning to sabotage it. The Torch volunteers to head them off at the pass, pretending to attack it himself in the hope that he’ll attract the villains to him and away from the launch.

The plan succeeds, but – here’s a twist – instead of attacking him, two of the Skrulls pick him up in a car and drive him back to their base, thinking he’s their friend, the imposter. In a rare (for the early days) moment of realism, Stan throws a sense of suspicion into the dialogue: Johnny says, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were Susan Storm and Reed Richards, two of the Fantastic Four!” which is pretty dumb, considering he already knows these people are impersonating the FF. No wonder he gets the retort, “Well, that’s who we’re supposed to be, isn’t it?”

The gaff is well and truly blown in the very next panel – at Skrull HQ – when the boss takes just one look and explodes: “You fools! Why did you bring him? He is the real Human Torch!” It seems they don’t breed aliens to be clever.

There’s a good bit of action now: Johnny get to a window and sets off a flare gun, sending the “4” signal into the skies above the city (yet another crime? Or have they applied for a licence to set these things off?) to summon his friends. The Skrulls attack him but he seems to have them licked on his own – until his counterpart turns up and turns the tables.

The situation starts to look bad for Johnny – but at that moment, the Thing bursts through (characteristically) the wall. There’s another fight, but this one’s over pretty quick, as the Skrulls’ fake powers are no match for the FF’s genuine talents.

And that’s it, right? The aliens are vanquished and all’s well with the world? No! We’re only up to page 16!

It turns out the slime-coloured sneaks have been softening us up for a full-scale planetary invasion! That’s right! By concentrating on four (admittedly unique) individuals in a single city in the United States, and impersonating them in order to steal jewellery and destroy objets d’art, they were preparing to bring in the flying saucers, definite-kill cannons and u-bombs… Wait a minute! That makes no sense at all!

If they’ve got a whole space fleet out there, full of shape-changers, why not just infiltrate the whole planet, take over key political positions by stealth and then reveal themselves once they’re unassailable? Wouldn’t that be more logical?

Oh – they wanted to make sure the FF could not fight them “… for we know of your dread powers!” Hmm, not sure about that!

Even if the premise of the whole story hasn’t just been destroyed for you, the rest of the narrative becomes pure comedy anyway. The FF decide that turnaround is fair play – if the Skrulls thought they could impersonate the FF, the FF could flippin’ well impersonate the Skrulls.

They nip into the Skrulls’ handy space-hopper (disguised as a water tower atop the building they were using – Doctor Who‘s Tardis was not an original idea, it seems) and pop back up into outer space (what about all those nasty cosmic rays that nearly wiped them out just one issue ago? Oh, the Skrulls have better shielding? Okay, I’ll buy that) to confront the Skrull war chief…

… with images clipped from sister Marvel comics Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery!

Let’s be honest, this is a moment of self-reflexive, post-modern genius.

“Here are actual photos of what we would face if we invade Earth!” spouts Reed, showing him an image of some classic Kirby creatures. “These are some of Earth’s most powerful warriors!” He adds: “Earth has thousands of those hidden space mines which would destroy any invading army!” And the coup de grace: “Not to mention an army of giant monstrous insects ready to crush any alien invasion!”

“Incredible!” exclaims the war leader. “Unbelievable!” You said it, brother.

“We’ve got to leave this galaxy at once, before these terrifying creatures discover us!” he decides. That’s not good for Reed who, it seems, quite enjoys life on Earth. So he comes up with a quick plan: “We must stay behind and remove all evidence of our presence on Earth!”

For this “sacrifice”, the war leader gives him a medal!

The FF take their leave of the gullible Skrulls, and then – oh hey, remember those cosmic rays that didn’t seem to be working on the way up? Well, it seems they’ve switched right back on again for the way back – but they only affect the Thing, turning him back into boring ol’ human Ben Grimm.

There’s a good story reason for this: the team is still believed responsible for multiple acts of sabotage. The instant they land, the army surrounds them. Now, if Ben was still the Thing, there might be a massive fight in which innocent people were likely to be hurt. That possibility is negated by his reduction to human form.

It can’t last, of course. Reason prevails and the FF surrender again – although Reed demands that they return to captivity via his apartment because “it will explain everything that has happened”. With there being no narrative reason for him to remain in human form, Ben mutates back into the Thing. A future version of the character might greet this with the catchphrase, “Whatta revoltin’ development THIS is!” but that lovable blue-eyed boy was still a way in the future. This Ben was more prone to depression, as we see here.

Arriving at the apartment, the police open the door to be met by the Skrulls – in the form of monsters. This (again) makes no sense. Were they imprisoned in this place? How? As shape-changers, they could have slipped any bonds with ease, and there’s no reason to believe they couldn’t operate a door handle. Logically, they could have escaped and blended into the population at any time.

Still, it’s an opportunity for another conflict, and it’s not long before the FF overpower the greeny-meanies again. But now there’s a new question: what’s to be done with them?

Reed’s answer seems like genius – but is it? He decides they should shape change into cows – completely, which means they would lose their identity as Skrulls.

Problem solved, right? But what happens when someone drinks their milk?

That’s a question that would not be answered for more than 20 years.

Mike Reads The Marvels: Fantastic Four #1

Smashing: it’s hard to tell who’s the biggest danger to society in Fantastic Four #1. The Thing (above) is supposed to be one of the heroes!

I came late to the Marvel Universe. I couldn’t help it – the whole phenomenon began eight years before I was born, when Stanley Martin Leiber, then writing under the pen name Stan Lee, turned around to his wife and said he was bored with writing hokey horror/monster stories for Atlas Comics and wanted to change career. She told him to try writing something he really wanted to, and the rest is history.

I was also held up by an embargo imposed by my parents, who told me that they didn’t want me reading Marvels. This, of course, only made me curious about why they would want to ban them.

Eventually I had my way, but I had to come to it by a devious route; like many kids of the time, I came to the Marvel Universe via Star Wars. In early 1978, unable to get into the local Odeon to see the film itself, I spotted a copy of “The Marvel Comics Illustrated Version” in, I think, Woolworths. This was a paperback published by Sphere Books, presenting all six issues of the Marvel adaptation. I read it in a single afternoon and LOVED it.

This led me to persuade my long-suffering folks that Marvel UK’s Star Wars Weekly was a good investment if they wanted to keep me quiet. For anyone not native to the UK or old enough to know, SWW was an anthology comic, so not only did it feature the movie adaptation (followed by the first-ever attempt to continue the story by Marvel writers and artists) but reprints of other science fiction-oriented comics that had been published by Marvel.

So my eight-and-nine-year-old mind was soon filled with Star-Lord by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Guardians of the GalaxyWarlock by Jim Starlin, Deathlok by Rich Buckler and Killraven by P. Craig Russell, among other offerings. This led me, in late 1978, to defy my folks and pick up a copy of Super Spider-Man, which was then printing stories of Marvel’s most famous hero alongside The Avengers, Thor and Captain America. I was hooked.

But as a latecomer to the party, I have never read the Marvel stories in chronological order. Now, with the Covid-19 lockdown leaving me with a little spare time, I thought I’d have a go. Admittedly, I’m coming to them with the perspective of a man in his 50s rather than a boy whose years could be counted in single figures. But hopefully I’ll be able to find something to say that hasn’t been mentioned before.

The first impression of any comic book is provided by its cover – and the cover of Fantastic Four #1 (dated November 1961 – but actually released in August of that year) suggests that despite Mrs Lee’s advice, Stan hedged his bets.

It shows a street scene in which members of the general public are running away while our eponymous heroes defend them against a giant green monster that’s rising from beneath the pavement. Barring the fact that the soon-to-be-nicknamed FF are all displaying their superheroic abilities, it could be the cover of an Atlas monster comic with an improbably title like “Nause! He was green and deadly!”

Still, it heralded the arrival of new superheroes under the banner “Marvel Comics”, after years in which the publisher had considered them to be commercial death.

But what about the story?

Flip the page and the first thing you learn about the Fantastic Four is that they have a penchant for criminal damage that makes them more of a danger to society than any villain or monster.

The splash image shows a flare being released from the upper floor of a skyscraper, spelling out “The Fantastic Four” somewhat improbably in the air.

It’s really dangerous to fire any kind of flare gun in a built-up area! The materials used become very hot and are likely to start fires where they land. One would expect that a doctor, as Reed Richards is billed, would have known that!

What happens next? Susan Storm, having tea with “a society friend” (ooh, how posh!) turns invisible and walks out, shocking her friend with her sudden disappearance. She rushes out to the street and pushes everybody in front of her onto the ground – that’s physical assault. Then she climbs into a taxi, unnoticed by the driver and takes a free ride to her destination – that’s fare-dodging.

The scene shifts to a men’s clothing store, where the shopkeeper is telling Ben Grimm, “I just don’t carry anything big enough to fit a man your size!” The reason becomes instantly apparent when the retailer sees the flare and Ben doffs his coat to reveal a thick orange carapace. Unfortunately – and contradictorily, considering he must have managed to get inside okay – Ben decides to leave through the wall, grumbling, “Why must they build doorways so narrow?” That’s criminal damage.

Nearby officers of New York’s Central City’s finest, in what can’t be their finest hour, open fire on Ben at the sight of him – so he rips up the tarmac beneath him and drops into the sewer – more criminal damage. Then, after travelling some distance underground, he decides he has gone far enough – and, as there’s no manhole above to let him out, he rips another hole in the tarmac and bursts through, crumpling the front of a car that hurtles into him before it can stop. That’s even more criminal damage – and an echo of the cover. By this point, the FF have done more harm to public property than any monster!

Again the scene shifts, to teenager Johnny Storm, who has just completed work on the engine of his car. Then, at sight of the airborne flare (which has now magically transformed into “4”), he bursts into flame and melts the entire vehicle into slag as he bursts through its roof and takes to the air.

The authorities leap into action (perhaps alerted by the unauthorised flare?) and launch jet fighters to intercept this “flaming flying object” – but they fly too close and he accidentally melts all the planes. That’s the destruction of millions of dollars worth of government property (in today’s money).

It’s hardly surprising that the authorities launch a Hunter missile, which locks on to Johnny’s heat. “It has a nuclear warhead,” he wails. A what? “If it explodes, I’m a goner!” Yes, along with the entire city beneath him! Talk about using a sledgehammer to swat a fly!

Luckily, Johnny has a friend in a low(er) place. Elongated arms stretch upwards and grab the missile. Wouldn’t it be too hot? Wouldn’t it be too fast? Wouldn’t it do all kinds of horrible things to his bare hands?

The strain turns out to have been too much for Johnny and his flame goes out. No longer lighter than air, Johnny plummets towards the ground – but Reed (for it is he) stops the plunge by stretching between two buildings as a makeshift safety net.

Returning through the window, Reed sees the other three have all assembled. Do they pass comment on the millions of dollars’ worth of damage they have caused in the crime spree recounted on the strip’s first eight pages?

Not a bit of it!

“You all heeded my summons!! Good!!” says Reed. “There is a task that awaits us… A fearful task!” Paying for the damage? Apparently not.

It is a great way to introduce the characters, though.

We’ve been thrust straight into the story with lead characters who already have their super powers and have demonstrated them. It’s a much more dynamic start than presenting the story of how they got those powers, which must logically start relatively slowly. It is to that story that we go now – and it shows that the members of the FF had a penchant for crime even before they became “super”.

It turns out that Reed had created a rocket capable of carrying people into space, and wanted Ben to pilot it. But he hadn’t carried out necessary safety checks regarding cosmic rays (hint, hint). Not only that, but he decided to take his girlfriend (Sue) and her brother (Johnny) along, purely for the ride. On top of all that, he couldn’t be bothered to wait for an official all-clear to launch, but broke into the “spaceport” and launched the rocket (I think it was later dubbed “Marvel 1” for ironic reasons) – dodging the guards.

These creeps are habitual. Who can stop their campaign of terror?

As it happens, at first it seems that nobody should have needed to. Remember those cosmic rays? They break through the craft’s weak shielding and affect each of the crew in turn, forcing a rough auto-pilot landing. I don’t know who owned the land, but one presumes they weren’t too happy to find it scarred by the arrival of several million dollars’ worth of (damaged) rocket.

The effects of the cosmic rays make themselves known immediately. Sue turns invisible, Ben turns orange, Reed turns stretchy and Johnny bursts into flame – which is odd, because cosmic rays aren’t actually believed to cause any change to human beings at all. They’re more likely to have harmed electronic circuitry on the rocket.

Despite their record so far – and the damage done to the landscape in learning of their new powers – Ben improbably suggests that Reed wants them to “use that power to help mankind, right?”

Well, it would make a refreshing change!

Coming back to the present, Reed shows the others a series of photos showing that atomic power plants across the world are being attacked, apparently leaving holes into the earth. An incident in “French Africa” shows that the attacks are being carried out by – gosh – a giant monster. But! it is being ordered around by a human figure. Villainy!

The FF turn to technology to find the source of the terror campaign, gazing “in astonishment at Dr Reed Richards’ super-sensitive radarscope”… his what? Get used to these wacky names because this is the first of many!

And to what location does this machine track the chaos? Monster Island! I kid you not! Wouldn’t you have thought that might be their first port of call in any event?

On arrival (they have a small, private jet, which indicates this group have a lot of cash behind them), the FF soon learn they’ve come to the right place in an encounter with another – different – giant monster. The clash forces them into a pit where they meet the villain of the piece: The Moleman.

Yup. Don’t laugh. The villain is a human being who has taken on the attributes of a burrowing earth mammal. His backstory reveals that he is a victim of the shallowness of human nature: people rejected him because he wasn’t pretty enough for them. Spurned by his peers, this guy set his sights high – by seeking a legendary land at the centre of the Earth that we’ve never heard of, where he could be king. Why would he be?

Well, it doesn’t matter because it turns out that he found it and, despite having been struck almost blind in the process, mastered the creatures living there, including the enormous monsters. It seems this ugly little guy had more to him than at first appeared!

And his plan? “As soon as I have wrecked every atomic plant, every source of earthly power, my mighty mole creatures will attack and destroy everything that lives above the surface!” Mad. Barking!

And that’s probably the reason the FF manage to polish him off within three pages.

And that’s it! So what have we discovered?

That great power comes with great irresponsibility: the members of the new super-team seem to do just whatever the hell they like.

That people who are unattractive are pushed to unusual lengths by the insensitivity of their peers. What, you thought I’d say they’re naturally predisposed to villainy?

And that superheroism makes you irritable. Yes it does! The FF get on each other’s nerves more than they antagonise the villain of the piece!

And this last is apparently the selling-point that made The Fantastic Four an instant hit. Before this, superheroes were seen to be paragons of virtue who would never, ever show any evidence that they were genuine human beings. Stan was trying to introduce an element of realistic relationships into comics.

This was a tentative step in the right direction but it led to all the storytelling developments that we see in comics – and comics-related films such as the smash-hit Marvel Cinematic Universe – that we see today.

From today’s perspective, it’s hilarious that anybody took it seriously.

But in perspective, it is also historic.

Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 u-turns (Pandemic Journal: June 17)

200520 Johnson killed more brits than the blitz

How can a prime minister with an 80-seat majority be forced to change his mind on anything?

You may well ask. The answer is obvious: public opinion – Boris Johnson knows his politics (his real politics) is right on the edge of what the UK’s general public will accept. But he doesn’t know where the dividing line is; he thinks his ideas are all perfectly acceptable!

He only finds out where the line is when he crosses it. Here are four recent examples, courtesy of The Independent:

Free school meals

The prime minister is well-known for his enthusiasm on the sporting field – if not necessarily his skill. This time Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford beat Mr Johnson at what should be his own game, politics.

The call from the premiership footballer to U-turn on plans to scrap free school meal vouchers over the summer turbocharged a campaign that had already been running for weeks.

Once Tory MPs started to add their voices to calls for a change of heart it was time to drop the policy, but not before Mr Rashford had been dubbed the hero of the hour.

NHS surcharge

Boris Johnson announced in May that the £400 annual fee paid by non-EU migrants to use the NHS would be scrapped for health and care workers, just a day after defending the policy.

As the nation assembled on their doorsteps every Thursday night to clap for carers it had become increasingly untenable for NHS staff to be asked to pay extra, on top of their taxes, to use the health service.

Especially as it was inside that very health service where they were willingly risking their lives in the fight against coronavirus.

Bereavement scheme

There was an outcry when it emerged a new NHS bereavement scheme would apply to doctors and nurses but not to thousands of other critical staff, many of them low paid.

The scheme grants indefinite leave to remain in the UK to relatives of overseas born NHS staff who die fighting Covid-19. Introduced in April, there were almost immediate calls for it to be extended to other workers, including porters and cleaners.

Remote voting

The government was forced to offer concessions to MPs after howls of protests over plans to make them vote in person in the House of Commons.

The system was declared a farce even by normally loyal Tory MPs after politicians were forced to stand in a line more than a kilometre long to queue to vote.

Five reasons the UK death toll is so high (Pandemic Journal: June 14)

200320 coronavirus

This is from a website called The Conversation – you can read the full article here.

1. Lockdown was too late

The UK acted too slowly in imposing its lockdown on March 23, which allowed the initial infection to quickly spread out of control. This was the case with infections within the UK and those coming from abroad.

The first case of COVID-19 in the UK was on January 31 – that is almost two months before the imposition of the lockdown on March 23. Other countries, such as China and Italy, were much quicker to impose their full lockdowns

2. Infections are still out of control

Because the UK let the virus get out of control to begin with, it is taking longer than hoped to come down the other side of the epidemic curve – infections are still in the thousands each week.

The R number varies across the country, and it could be higher than one in some areas. Since deaths lag behind infections by two to three weeks, and R is not consistent, the numbers are not coming down as quickly as hoped.

3. Not all deaths were counted from the start

In the initial stages of the epidemic, the UK did not account for infections and deaths in settings other than hospitals, crucially leaving out those that took place in care homes.

Understanding the roles of hotspots, like care homes, and super spreaders – people who are responsible for infecting an especially large number of others – is crucial at the onset of an epidemic. The UK government should have been taking this into account from the end of January, not from April, when care home deaths began to be added to tallies.

4. Missing symptoms

The UK has been been much slower than other countries in telling people what COVID-19 symptoms to look out for, with a heavy focus on cough and fever.

A loss of taste and smell was added to the UK’s official list of symptoms on May 18, more than a month later than in France and almost a month after a study suggested these as clinical symptoms of infection.

Hence, in the initial stages of the COVID-19 spread, many people could have been unknowingly infected and be infectious and thus carried on with their normal activities, unwillingly passing on the virus and keeping R high.

5. Failure to test, trace and isolate

Another reason the UK is experiencing large number of COVID-19 deaths is that the country was late to instigate a large-scale testing, tracing and isolation strategy. Although some testing has been conducted, the stance in the UK was to encourage symptomatic people to solely isolate in order to prevent onwards transmission.

But in a situation where we do not know the extent of asymptomatic COVID-19 infection, it might have been better to encourage testing of symptomatic people and start the tracing of contacts of positive people sooner. This is how South Korea controlled its epidemic. In the UK, testing was not scaled up and manual contact tracing only launched on May 28.


A checklist of Boris Johnson’s failures to the end of May (Pandemic Journal: June 9)

200520 Johnson killed more brits than the blitz

I’ve had this for a while but have been unable to get to it because of the country (and other parts of the world) going crazy because of racism over the last few weeks.

The list is from Prole Star and it goes like this:

  • 90% of the world’s governments took precautions at airports such as quarantine and testing. The UK government was one of the 10% that did nothing allowing 18 million people to enter the country. Many from countries affected by coronavirus.

  • The UK government delayed the lockdown by 11 days against scientific advice while Boris Johnson dithered. Even when lockdowns were in place across the rest of Europe, the UK hadn’t even ordered cafes, restaurants and pubs to close. A recent report showed that if the lockdown had been implemented one week earlier it would have stopped 75% of deaths, that being around 30,000 lives in the current wave.

  • The UK government controversially abandoned test and contact tracing in March, again against scientific advice and the guidelines set out by the World Health Organisation. The test, trace strategy has allowed some countries to keep their death tolls in the hundreds.

  • The UK government allowed people to be released from hospitals into care homes without being tested for coronavirus leading to 22,000 deaths. They also “chose” not to test anyone in care homes themselves, which one Tory minister has admitted was a “huge mistake”

  • While Boris Johnson was dithering and failed to take any action he went on television claiming one solution could be “herd immunity”. A so-called solution that would have led to half a million deaths. Dommic Cummings the PMs chief advisor, who is seen by many as the man really running the country allegedly said “Protect the economy, and if some pensioners die, too bad” We have always been a nation of profit before people and the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted that.

  • A pandemic drill took place in 2016 which accurately predicted that the NHS would be in crisis in the event of a real pandemic. It showed the NHS unable to cope, with a lack of PPE for doctors and nurses and inadequate numbers of ventilators. The then Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s administration failed to act.

  • The UK government according to independent public health experts, despite anticipating the growth of the coronavirus epidemic, did nothing to prepare NHS Supply Chain capabilities for nearly two months, leading to shortages of PPE. While doctors were buying their own PPE or relying on donations, companies were shipping PPE abroad because they had been completely ignored by the UK government. A nurse from Chelmsford died from coronavirus after trying to buy his own PPE on eBay.

  • According to Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s own Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), the government has undermined efforts to fight the pandemic and “more people are going to die” as a result. This is due to allowing special privileges for Boris Johnson’s advisor. Who travelled to Durham to his mother’s on what just happened to be the day his uncle died when his mother was obviously grieving and to Barnard Castle on what just happened to be his wife’s birthday. Professor West also a member of SPI-B has said it was imperative the public did not abandon social distancing despite the exceptions made for the PM’s chief aide.

  • However the police commissioner says people are now disregarding the lockdown and using Dominic Cummings as an excuse.

It isn’t because there has been an outbreak of an infectious disease that the government is coming under such criticism. It is the way they have responded to it.

Australia thought Johnson was bad BEFORE he eased lockdown (Pandemic Journal, June 1)

200601 London Covid

I haven’t been able to find a place for this on Vox Political so I’m putting it here.

It’s a report from Australia, panning Boris Johnson and the Tory government for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis up to the publication date, which was May 21 – 10 days ago at the time of writing. It says:

A rational person would question why Britain has fared so badly in the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a rich country with the sixth largest economy in the world, a proud history of public health and a National Health Service (NHS) arising from the ashes of World War II. This forms the central pillar of the welfare state, providing universal, comprehensive care to all citizens irrespective of ability to pay.

Despite these advantages, there has been an estimated excess death toll of more than 50,000 people, second only to the United States, with the highest deaths per million, in the world.

Why did it happen? The site goes back to 2008:

Two years after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition government embarked on their austerity program. This was an economically illiterate plan, drawing the false comparison between macroeconomics and household finances, an approach popularised by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

A hoodwinked public accepted their narrative and with it wage stagnation and cuts to public services: a monumental lie transferred the debt burden of bank bailouts onto the shoulders of the weakest. For the NHS, this meant a decade of de-funding and a reduction in the historical average annual increase in spending on health (4%-1%). Simultaneously the NHS was further restructured, a process that started in 1970s but accelerated under the fog of austerity.

A former NHS director-general for commissioning Mark Britnell explained it in 2010 like this: “In [the] future, the NHS will be a state insurance provider not a state deliverer.

“In [the] future ‘any willing provider’ from the private sector will be able to sell goods and services to the system. The NHS will be shown no mercy and the best time to take advantage of this will be in the next couple of years.”

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 ensured that advantage was taken, creating a fully marketised NHS. The Secretary of State’s legal “duty to provide” was removed and replaced with a “duty to promote” health services, abolishing the very premise of the NHS. New funding structures replicating United States private health insurance pools known as Clinical Commissioning Groups were set up to force the outsourcing of medical services.

QUANGOS (quasi non-governmental organisations) were created — NHS England and Public Health England — headed up by government appointees. Well established decentralised public health infrastructure was dismantled and institutional memory and expertise cast aside as part of 10,000 redundancies and a £700 million funding cut over five years.

Brexit is implicated:

The 2016 referendum on Brexit generated a groundswell of anti-establishment feeling. The pain of austerity was soothed with the balm of nationalism and a rejection of European bureaucracy. This returned a Leave vote, which plunged Britain into a political quagmire and bitter division.

A country in the midst of a productivity crisis, due to consecutive governments dismantling industry, casualising employment and financialising the economy, was also removing vital safety nets. Rising inequality, the vogue for zero hours contracts, and escalating living costs created precariousness with 10 million households without any savings.

By 2019, the NHS was on its knees: a decade of funding squeezes resulted in 17,000 bed cuts; 10,000 doctor vacancies; and 40,000 nursing vacancies. Britain now had the fewest number of doctors and hospital beds per capita in Western Europe.

This weakened health service and weakened population have been left to fend off this pandemic, with a misanthropic “Brexit before breathing” government at the helm.

With the groundwork completed, the profitable remnants of the NHS could now be turned over to business. The poor were no longer secure; their plight foretold by 1980s satirist Rick Mayall. “You see, in the good old days, you were poor, you got ill, and you died. And yet, and yet these days people seem to think they have some God given right to be cured!”

The 2019 general election was a crushing defeat for Labour. The Tories’ simple “Get Brexit Done” message, unremitting allegations of Labour anti-Semitism, a right-wing media onslaught and internal party divisions, led an emboldened Boris Johnson back to power with a landslide.

Preoccupied with Churchillian fantasies, securing his legacy, and relishing the prospect of shredding workers’ rights, environmental and public health protections in a trade deal with the US, his hands were full. Then came news from Wuhan of a deadly novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which caused some sufferers to develop serious breathing problems requiring ventilatory life support. Soon after, human-to-human spread was confirmed. Other countries, including South Korea, started reporting cases and on January 30 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a “public health emergency of international concern”.

But we know that Johnson wasn’t interested in Covid-19 at all. The article refers to a piece in the Sunday Times that revealed the extent of Johnson’s failures – but you’d be better-off reading this very blog’s piece about it here. The Aussie site continues:

“Boris Johnson skipped five COBRA [Cabinet briefing] meetings on the virus, calls to order protective gear were ignored and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Failings in February may have cost thousands of lives.”

Johnson had been preoccupied by personal matters and securing his historic Brexit. Emergency government COBRA meetings were led by others, despite growing international concerns. His ministers and scientific advisers gave multiple reassurances about how well prepared the NHS was and downplayed the significance of the pandemic threat.

The policy of herd immunity, as explained by the Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, was to slow transmission to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed as the population built natural immunity by getting infected. Britain was to ignore the fundamental infection control measures of testing, contact tracing and quarantine successfully followed in many countries.

Repeated warnings from the WHO to “test, test, test” fell on deaf ears and the condemned herd immunity policy was summed up by Johnson as: “One of the theories is that, you know, perhaps you could sort of take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population.”

By early March, several European countries including Britain had reported coronavirus deaths. Italy and Greece had closed schools and banned public gatherings. Despite the lack of clear government advice, some British organisations and sporting bodies decided to cancel events, however, Johnson chose to attend a Six Nations rugby match with 82,000 others.

Dramatic video footage from Northern Italy showed how its health system was being overwhelmed, despite having double the number of intensive care beds compared to Britain. Anaesthetist friends who worked in intensive care units (ICU) shared their alarm at the reckless inaction and lack of preparedness given the threat.

A survey published by Doctors Association UK showed a staggering 99% saying they felt the NHS was unprepared for the pandemic, and highlighting staff shortages and lack of protective equipment. Of the 18 million people who entered Britain from January to March, fewer than 300 were quarantined. On March 12, the government stopped mass testing and contact tracing.

Johnson had already set out his priorities in a speech on February 3 that went viral on Twitter: “… and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus would trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then, at that moment, humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing, at least, to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.

“Some country ready to take off its Clarke Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing, as the super-charged champion of the right of populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

“And, here in Greenwich, in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you, in all humility, that the UK is ready for that role.”

Johnson’s commitment to freedom of exchange and his views on the threat of overpopulation tallied with his laissez faire approach to the pandemic. Several right-wing commentators warned against damaging the economy, preferring that the elderly and sick should perish for the greater good.

According to the March 22 Sunday Timesthe PM’s senior aide Dominic Cummings at a private engagement at the end of February, outlined the government’s strategy. “Those present say it was ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’.”

The British government allowed coronavirus to spread to afflict a population already weakened by austerity. Academic analysis estimated an excess 120,000 deaths due to austerity, along with reduced life expectancy and increased infant mortality. Policies intended to replicate the expensive, dysfunctional but highly profitable US health system would inevitably mean many more preventable deaths. The government’s inaction was entirely consistent and deliberate, guided by profit, not the preservation of life.

It gets worse:

Vietnam, with its land border with China and population of 96 million, reported no coronavirus deaths. The Indian state of Kerala, with a population of 34 million had a death toll in the hundreds. Both are testament to the effectiveness of simple, intensive efforts that could drastically reduce the spread of the disease and preserve life.

Britain’s approach of squandering valuable time to prepare, mixed messaging and downplaying of risk was having a very different impact. Hospital ICUs were starting to fill up with sick coronavirus patients, with deaths approaching 1000 a day at the peak. Health and care staff remained without adequate supplies of suitable personal protective equipment (PPE), with reports of some resorting to wearing plastic bin bags and home-made masks.

BBC Panorama documentary exposed how a government decision to re-classify coronavirus from a “high consequence” infectious disease to an infectious disease of lower consequence led to new recommendations that healthcare professionals use only plastic aprons and paper face masks. This was not based on science but on the grossly inadequate stockpiles of PPE.

A pandemic preparedness exercise in 2016 had highlighted the deficient stockpile of ventilators. The report’s recommendations were not implemented. If you fail to prepare, then you prepare to fail. This price was to be paid by more than 220 health and care workers who have so far died from coronavirus.

Multiple tragedies were unfolding. Patients fighting for life in ICUs, community spread unhindered, but perhaps most shocking was the fate of vulnerable, elderly care home residents. Contrary to having a “protective ring” around them, as claimed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, patients were being discharged to nursing homes irrespective of having been diagnosed with coronavirus or being tested, in policy described as a “stiff broom”, to free up capacity in hospitals.

A cardiologist described it like this: “Our policy was to let the virus rip and then ‘cocoon the elderly’. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you contrast that with what we actually did.

“We discharged known, suspected and unknown cases into care homes, which were unprepared, with no formal warning that the patients were infected, no testing available, and no PPE to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable.

“We let these people die without palliation. The official policy was not to visit care homes — and they didn’t (and still don’t).

So, after infecting them with a disease that causes an unpleasant ending, we denied our elders access to a doctor — denied GP visits — and denied admission to hospital. Simple things like fluids, withheld. Effective palliation like syringe drivers, withheld.”

As the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day was being commemorated, the generation that lived through the devastation of World War II was being decimated directly and indirectly, with one estimate of the toll being 22,000.

The lockdown gets a lashing:

Epidemiological modelling from Imperial College presented to government and advisory experts on March 12 now predicted that more than 250,000 people could die if the herd immunity plan was maintained, and recommended urgent action.

Other European countries had closed schools and universities. With mounting public and media pressure, it took a further 11 days before schools were closed and public gatherings prohibited. A piecemeal partial lockdown began, but it was too little, too late.

Construction workers were classified as essential and continued working. Public transport provisions in London were reduced, producing crowded trains and buses. Lockdown is a blunt tool without the necessary measures of testing, contact tracing and effective isolation. Herd immunity was continuing in all but name.

With all routine healthcare suspended, workload for general practitioners and NHS hospital laboratories was dramatically reduced. Public resources were available to set up a nationwide decentralised, integrated testing sites and laboratories using experienced personnel and existing IT systems.

Instead, these were overlooked in favour of setting up three new public-private Lighthouse Labs, which according to their website “are being actively supported by pharmaceutical companies GSK and AstraZeneca, who are providing access to data and resources to further increase our capacity as we scale up at record pace. An extensive supply chain of resources including support from Amazon, Boots and the Royal Mail, alongside the Wellcome Trust has been established to bring further resources to our facilities.”

GP surgeries were bypassed in favour of a network of 50 regional testing sites to be run by facilities management giant Serco and management consultants Deloitte. People with suspected coronavirus were directed to the telephone helpline and website of the outsourced 111 service. Experienced NHS doctors were excluded from managing the unfolding crisis and replaced by unqualified staff guided by a computer based flow chart.

Big Tech companies have been awarded contracts, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon Web Services, Palantir Technology UK and Faculty. A controversial contact tracing app produced by Faculty, has been piloted in the Isle of Wight, despite concerns around privacy and cyber security and potential for mission creep towards mass surveillance.

Every problem had to have a private sector solution, rather than the tried and tested public sector now lying idle. The option to rebuild vital public health infrastructure was ignored as Johnson’s government doubled down on privatisation.

And the Tory media get a mauling:

Daily briefings from Downing Street revealed the media strategy to be deployed. The three line slogan, “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” was clear and effective, as the majority of the public restricted themselves to essential travel, shopping and working from home where possible.

A furlough scheme guaranteed 80% of salaries for millions of people. Worryingly, accident and emergency departments experienced a significant slowdown in activity and there was an 80% reduction in suspected cancer referrals from GPs. The “stay home” message and fear of catching the virus led to an indirect pandemic toll, as journalists, with few exceptions, failed to cross-examine and scrutinise government decisions.

“Led by the science” became a recurring expression that alerted some of us that perhaps this group would be the future scapegoats. When Imperial College epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson was publicly exposed for having ignored social distancing advice by meeting his married lover, it did not come as a complete surprise. It provided an opportunity to undermine his projections that had led to the lockdown.

On VE Day, May 8, the right-wing media were in celebratory mood, fusing the victory over fascism 75 years earlier with victory over the virus and an anticipated easing of lockdown. Two days later, Johnson obliged with a new slogan “Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives” to accompany his address to the nation. It was no longer deemed necessary to stay home.

Despite high daily new cases of about 20,000, disproportionately low levels of testing and minimal contact tracing, the government was encouraging people to return to work and was planning to reopen schools. The next day, those without an alternative or in greatest need of income were again crowded onto public transport.

Independent experts who had been openly critical warned of a second wave of infection. Teachers and their unions demanded clarity around plans to mitigate risk and maintain social distancing — difficult with young children who could be potential carriers of infection back to their families. Some journalists responded by portraying teachers as being neglectful of their duties.

On the back of a decade of austerity, there has been a rapid cull of the sick and elderly. Even a fool has a 50% chance to be correct with a binary choice. Implement pandemic preparedness report: yes or no? Follow test, trace and isolate policy: yes or no? Ensure adequate PPE for all that require it: yes or no? Prevent the spread of infection to the most vulnerable in society: yes or no? Utilise existing spare public capacity to manage the epidemic: yes or no? Award private corporations contracts to provide services for which they have no expertise or experience: yes or no? Introduce untested tracking mobile phone app with significant concerns: yes or no?

The ideologically-driven British government has worsened the social determinants of health and repeatedly chosen courses of action that would increase the death toll.

Herd immunity strategy is still the basis of the government’s approach. The deliberate crafting of a situation in which thousands of preventable deaths are being allowed to occur has been massaged by a complicit media. Those responsible are protected by Crown Indemnity, immune from prosecution for the decisions taken while conducting their public roles.

This perverse injustice has to change. This is the pandemic public health experts have been warning us about. Preparedness and a timely, robust response are our only defences. In this, the government’s failure has been monumental.

The BBC and much of the mainstream media have failed to scrutinise and hold to account the actions of our leaders therefore we must strengthen and support alternative media voices. We can all be agents of change by explaining to others the reality of our current predicament, and becoming more engaged. We need to break the grip of the Big Tech companies who seek to replace real world services with virtual, unproven technologies with obvious potential for mass surveillance and control.

We need a grassroots movement to push back against neoliberalism, increasingly dependent upon authoritarianism to maintain the status quo. More immediate action should support key workers and the teachers, who are demanding clear and safe measures be taken before they return to work. As a matter of urgency, we must amplify the calls for mass testing, tracing and isolation, and support coronavirus-infected people to remain in isolation, thereby breaking the transmission of this virus.

What do you think? Do the Aussies have a point?

The Pandemic, ‘The Plague’ and the government that made it worse (Pandemic Journal, May 24)

200520 Johnson killed more brits than the blitz

For my second article on Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, I intend to focus on the political aspect – and how it relates to the catastrophe that is the way the UK’s Conservative government has handled the Covid-19 crisis.

In The Plague, the “calamity” that befalls the citizens of fictionalised Oran is an allegory for France’s military defeat in 1940 and the subsequent Nazi rule.

The Afterword to my copy, by Tony Judt, states that “Camus’s account of the coming of rats echoed a widespread view of the divided condition of France itself in 1940: ‘It was as though the very soil on which our houses were built was purging itself of an excess of bile, that it was letting boils and abscesses rise to the surface, which up to then had been devouring it inside’.”

It seems, to This Writer, that the same could be said for the run-up to the UK general election of December 2019. Struggling under the minority governments of first Theresa May and then Boris Johnson, the country had reached a political stalemate. The Tories had spent two years doing nothing but push for a departure from the European Union that every other political organisation in the country knew would harm the vast majority of people in the country. That situation was worsened after Johnson became prime minister, with the alleged backing of a shadowy group of hedge fund bosses who intended to make billions of pounds by betting on the collapse of many big-name businesses, if not the economy itself – which was stagnating while this drama drained the energy from all other aspects of politics.

When Johnson demanded an early election, the other parties agreed more out of exhaustion than for any other reason. They hoped that the ineptitude of the May Ministry, and the apparent corruption of the Johnson Ministry (so far) would tip the electorate into voting the Conservatives out.

But they miscalculated. Johnson was swept back into office with a massive 80-seat majority, on the strength of a simple slogan that he would “Get Brexit Done” (and never mind how damaging that departure would be) coupled with the result of an unremitting five-year campaign of hostility toward then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in which he was vilified as a Communist and an anti-Semite (neither claim bore even the remotest resemblance to the facts).

So, when the coronavirus pandemic swept across the UK in a tide that, at first, Johnson made absolutely no effort to control (he advocated a “herd immunity” strategy that suggested we should “take it on the chin”, allow as many people to be infected as possible, and hope thereby to produce enough people immune to the disease that the nation would be able to weather it without suffering much damage to the economy. It was our ability to generate money for the ruling class that was all-important to him, as exemplified by the comment attributed to his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, who asked who cares “if a few old people die”.

In these circumstances, could anybody be blamed for echoing the Jesuit priest Paneloux in his initial reaction: “My brethren, you have deserved it.”

In the first few weeks of Covid-19 penetration, people in the UK did not seem to realise what was happening – because we weren’t told, and because the Tory government had deliberately made itself unable to track the progress of the disease, let alone treat it. Plans had been allowed to fall out-of-date, advice to stock up on protective equipment had been ignored and testing for the disease was abandoned early, due to a shortage of testing kits. None of this was reported to the public in straight terms and the government refused to call the unfolding disaster by its proper name. Borders remained open and people continued in their businesses until it was too late. As in The Plague, “In appearance, nothing had changed”, “The town was inhabited by people asleep on their feet”.

But this could not go on for long. People notice when their friends and relatives start coughing and struggling to breathe, when their relatives are carted off to hospital, never to return. Pubs and shops were closing their doors, days before Johnson announced his limited lockdown, and before the limited death figures provided by UK hospitals alone turned the pandemic into a scandal.

Belatedly, and grudgingly, the Tories acted – imposing a limited lockdown. Even at its harshest, construction workers were still employed every day, along with other “key workers” as defined by the Tory government.

Most of us were told to stay at home and to observe strict guidance that kept us at least two metres away from anybody else (apart from the people who lived with us), and to follow rigid rules on cleanliness. The Conservative government and its servants considered itself to be above these rules, in the way that the Nazi regime imposed curfews and controls on the French (and, in The Plague, the authorities imposed ever-stricter controls on the townspeople): for example, Johnson himself caught Covid-19 by ignoring social distancing rules while, as I write this, Cummings is mired in a scandal over several journeys he took to his parents’ home town of Durham, including one apparently for his mother’s 71st birthday, and an Easter trip to a nearby castle. The outcry over this has been so great that he is unlikely to remain in-post, but this is a Tory government; he is expected to remain behind the scenes until he can be restored to an official position at a later date.

In many ways, the lockdown seems to have allowed the Tories to continue some of their darker business with less hindrance – and with an excuse. So the massively increased number of deaths in care homes went largely unreported in March and April, only coming to our attention after tens of thousands of people had died – representing a huge saving in benefit payments to “useless eaters”, as far as the Conservatives were concerned. Under their policies, people with Covid-19 had been deliberately shipped from hospitals into care homes that did not have the facilities to isolate them, and they provided no guidelines to restrict staff from moving between homes operated by the same employer, meaning that the virus had free movement between these otherwise-closed environments.

The care home deaths represented an increase of 31 per cent on normal levels for the same period of the year. Proportionately worse was the number of deaths among people with learning disabilities – 45 per cent. The Conservative government had actively attempted to suppress reporting of this, and it is not yet clear why ministers attempted to do so. Clearly, somebody has a guilty conscience.

Promises to help people suffering as a result of the lockdown have been broken willy-nilly. Disabled people claiming benefits have been forced to await the end of the lockdown on “assessment phase” pay while Department for Work and Pensions officers handled no less than two million new claims for Universal Credit as businesses laid off their workers. Those appealing against wrong decision have also been left to wait – unpaid. Vulnerable people, isolating in their homes, were promised home delivery of groceries – but the supermarkets’ lists were overloaded immediately, meaning many went without. The government itself promised parcels of essentials to households considered most in danger – but left many people with serious conditions off their lists, while even those who were considered eligible were forced to wait weeks before the unmarked boxes turned up.

Attempts to gain supplies of PPE (personal protective equipment) failed time and time again – often because the Tories ignored offers. Pleas to industrialists to build much-needed ventilators resulted in nothing – or in goods that were unusable. Promises to re-impose mass testing became a bad joke, most notably with the claim to be carrying out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. As I write this, on May 24, it is unlikely that this target has yet been reached. Health Secretary Matt Hancock lied bare-faced to the public about it on April 30 but was caught out. Normally, a falsehood of this magnitude would be a resignation offence, but Tories like him have decided they are above normal demands and simply won’t go.

Contrast this behaviour with that of Neil Ferguson, the advisor who was found to have breached the “no travelling” rule to visit a lover, and resigned immediately the fact became public.

(And contrast that with the behaviour of Dominic Cummings after it was revealed that he had made two – possibly three – 260-mile journeys to Durham.)

All the while, as with the Nazis in World War II, the Tory propaganda machine has been working overtime.

When Johnson emerged from hospital after his (alleged) bout with Covid-19, the media treated it as though it was the Second Coming – ignoring the fact that his own idiocy had put him in intensive care in the first place. He was hailed as a hero, simply for being rich enough to be able to afford the best medical care in the country.

During his hospital stay, and throughout all the weeks thereafter, he has presided over the greatest peacetime slaughter of UK citizens in many generations. More than 62,000 excess deaths have taken place, leading to claims by protesters that has has killed more British people than the Blitz (this is correct, by the way: the death toll of the Blitz was 40,000 people).

But Tory propaganda, pushed by their puppets in the mainstream media, has it that their policies to deal with Covid-19 have been a massive success. The UK has suffered the second-largest number of deaths in the world, beaten only by the United States of America. In proportionate terms, taking into account the sizes of those two countries’ populations, the UK death toll has been the worst in the world.

The Tories continue to pump out the lie that they have done well, in slavish obedience to the “Big Lie” doctrine of the Nazi propagandist Goebbels – that if you repeat a lie often enough, the majority of people will accept it as the truth. They’re currently working to convince us that it will be safe to send our children back to school on June 1, while providing no evidence to support the claim. In fact, information from other countries suggests the exact opposite, and that any such move will lead to a second wave of Covid-19 infections that could be much worse than the first.

The real heroes of the lockdown are, as in The Plague, the ordinary people who have been doing what they can. Faceless, uninspiring perhaps, certainly unheroic: Shopping for neighbours who can’t go out, leaving the goods in their porch to ensure no contact that could transmit the infection; phoning (or using social media to contact) people who would otherwise be completely cut off from the rest of us, to make sure, not only that they have the means to survive, but also that they have the warmth of some human friendship; and alerting the authorities to suspected cases of infection so they can be handled at the earliest opportunity.

In the novel, the point is made again and again: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency”, “not doing it would have been incredible at the time”.

In the UK, in the coronavirus crisis, it goes both ways; we fight the disease with decency, and it’s how we fight the mistakes engendered by political corruption as well. It’s the only way.

Judt states, “Camus was uncomfortable with the smug myth of heroism that had grown up in post-war France, and he abhorred the tone of moral superiority with which self-styled former Resisters… looked down upon those who did nothing.” He says that, like the narrator of The Plague, the author refuses to “become an over-eloquent eulogist of a determination and heroism to which he attaches only a moderate degree of importance”.

This is what the people of the UK should do now. Those who can help, are helping – not because they want to be heroes, or praised as heroes by a government to whom heroism is nothing more than a public relations tool, but because “not doing it would have been incredible”.

But the Big Lie remains, because the Tories have access to our homes every day, via their daily Covid-19 briefing. And while many are watching it with increasing scepticism, if they’re still bothering at all, many more are accepting its messages unquestioningly, blind to the political slant that informs it.

Judt again: “In Camus’s view it was inertia, or ignorance, which accounted for people’s failure to act.” But he adds that “It does not follow from this that the plagues that humankind brings down upon itself are ‘natural’ or unavoidable”. So the effects of Covid-19 could have been much reduced if the UK had enjoyed a more responsible government. But that would have required the electorate to have demanded one. So Judt’s next comment, that “assigning responsibility for them [the plagues – either natural (Covid-19) or man-made (Conservative rule)] – and thus preventing them in the future – may not be an easy matter”, rings disturbingly true. And it leads to an even more disturbing question.

Judt goes on to describe the “‘banality of evil’… the idea that unspeakable crimes can be committed by very unremarkable [people] with clear consciences”. That suggestion seems to have been borne out by the behaviour of the Tories during the Covid-19 crisis.

But how do we stop it? How do we prevent it?

Much has been said of the kind of society we want after the current crisis is over, with claims that the current political status quo cannot be allowed to remain, having proven lacking. The same is said in The Plague. But in the book, “amnesia sets in” as soon as the crisis has passed. Life returns to the old routine and no attempt is made (at least in the pages of that novel) to change the status quo.

Are we afraid?

This is an idea that is not in the book, but is worth raising here: that people are less concerned with creating conditions that would increase their own (and others’) happiness and prosperity than with preventing a possible descent into unhappiness and ruin.

So they stay with the status quo. “Better the devil you know”, as the saying runs. But there is no status quo, in reality. Change happens, whether you want it or not. Consider the huge changes in our lives wrought by the internet and the Information Age, without which you would not be reading this now. Consider the changes to your personal well-being brought about by the financial crisis of 2008 and the Tory-wrought austerity of the following years, that depressed wages, pushed thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of benefit claimants to their deaths and stifled the economy. Unless you are a member of the ruling – Tory – class, you are far worse-off now than you would have been if the financial crisis had happened, but you were not responsible for it. You have simply been made to pay the price.

Current Tory plans mean that you will be made to pay the price of the Covid-19 crisis, too, with raids planned on the pension fund, increased taxes and the cancellation of pay rises for people working in the public sector – including the NHS doctors, nurses and other staff who have worked themselves into exhaustion, trying to save as many lives as possible.

Now is the time, while the lockdown, and the crisis, continues, for us to discuss the changes our society needs to make, to reward those who genuinely deserve it, rather than those who take advantage because they can, and to prevent harm falling on the blameless. What are you willing to do? How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to risk?


Then you will gain nothing.

And in the future, you are likely to lose far more.

Because, as Camus wrote, much as you might want to fall back into the comfort of complacency and forgetfulness, “the plague… never dies or vanishes entirely… it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing… it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and… perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city”.

And you will have no cure – because you didn’t bother to work on it when you had the chance.

Telling stories

200521 Doctor Who blood on his knife

Blood on his knife: the Doctor reveals that Kal is the assassin in a pivotal part of 100,000 BC.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately.

Lockdown seems finally to have given me time to savour some of the world’s better literary endeavours; I’ve already mentioned The Plague, and other recent reads have included The Hunchback of Notre DameRobinson Crusoe, and Sense and Sensibility, along with Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories and the Jeeves series by PG Wodehouse.

Yesterday afternoon I read the novelisation of the first Doctor Who story, An Unearthly Child – and, believe it or not, this was the one that started me thinking about story structure; the kind of story people set out to tell and the devices they use to tell it. It’s not great literature, much as I adore the noveliser, dear old Tewwance Dicks – but it’s straightforward and simple.

I ended up deconstructing the story – the main story about cave-people, subtitled 100,000 BC, not the introductory episode, which set up the premise of the entire series – and came to some surprising conclusions!

It begins with two protagonists who are vying for the position of tribal leader. Za is the son of the old chief, who has recently died. Kal is a newcomer to the tribe who wants to take over. Traditionally, the chief is the one who knows how to make fire, but neither of these two knows how to do it; Za’s father died before handing him the secret and Kal has never had a chance to find out.

(Is this a story about mankind’s discovery of fire, then? No. Fire has clearly been discovered already. But Doctor Who was intended to be at least partly educational, especially in its historic stories, which include this one. What, then?)

We are encouraged to consider Kal as the baddie. I wonder whether it’s because he’s the outsider; that would suggest the original writer, Anthony Coburn, was playing on the viewer’s (remember this was a TV show first) own tribal prejudices. He makes this easy because, when Kal happens upon a man who’s casually making fire, his first instinct is to attack. So he wallops the Doctor over the head while he’s trying to have a sly puff on his pipe, and carries him off to the tribe.

It looks like this is going to be a very simple story: Kal gets the Doc to reveal the secret of fire to him, and becomes tribal chief. But that wouldn’t be very interesting or exciting, and it would mean the bad guy wins – we can’t have that.

So it turns out that, when Kal demands fire, the newly-recovered Doctor discovers that his matches were left behind when he was carried off. And his travelling companions are no more able to help when they turn up, having followed him to the tribe’s caves only to be captured themselves (dummies!). They all end up imprisoned in the ‘Cave of Skulls’, a nasty little hole full of dead people’s heads – all with holes of their own, so we have an intimation of the fate that may befall our heroes.

(Now what? Nobody’s getting anything they want!)

Enter Old Mother. She was the mate of the old chief – the firemaker – and blames his ability to make fire for his death. My opinion? She’s a senile old bat; there’s nothing in the story to indicate that the old chief died because of fire. Still, she waits for a chance to nip out to the ‘Cave of Skulls’ and tries to kill our heroes (fat chance; she’s old and weak) but ends up releasing them instead.

Za also wakes up and realises something’s up. He trots off to the Cave of Skulls too, with his girlfriend Hur (who’s worried her father will give her to Kal if the baddie gets to be tribal leader), and finds the Doctor and the others recently escaped. They pursue. This looks like a set-up for a major development!

In the jungle (yeah, there’s a jungle!) our heroes realise they’re being pursued and hide, in time to see Za turn up. But he’s just realised that he’s being pursued as well – a sabre-toothed tiger does a number on him and leaves him for dead.

Major development ahead: our heroes are all set to run off and leave Hur weeping over Za’s body when Barbara (the compassionate one) decides they can’t leave the cave people like this and drags them back to help out instead. They tend to Za’s injuries and make a stretcher to get him (and them) out of harm’s way – teaching him a new word, “friend”, along the way. (Is this about early humans learning the meaning and value of friendship, then?)

Meanwhile, Kal discovers Old Mother in the cave and she tells him she has released the Doctor’s party – so, enraged, he kills her with his knife. Then he raises the alarm and lies to the other tribespeople that Za has killed her and set our heroes free. So we can see that Old Mother is nothing more than a cipher; she existed only to push the plot along by releasing the Doctor’s party and getting killed to give Kal a chance to show us he’s a wrong ‘un.

Before long, the Doctor’s group, Za and Hur are recaptured and dragged back to the caves (again!), where the Doctor traps Kal into admitting that he murdered Old Mother; it’s simple logic – if Za did the killing, his knife would be covered in blood but it isn’t. The Doctor baits Kal into drawing his own knife, simply by saying that Za’s is the better blade (Kal’s pride won’t accept it) – and of course the old woman’s blood is all over it. Kal does a runner.

(So is this the meaning of the story? That you can get a villain to give the game away by tricking them with logic? Not exactly the most useful message, unless you’re likely to be outsmarting baddies yourself every day. Still, it’s the Doctor who unmasks the villain, and that makes it important.)

(No, the meaning of the story, it seems, is that an individual may be stronger than other individuals, but cannot be stronger than a whole group. It is the tribe that drives Kal away. Communism! Golly. And this was on the BBC!)

All’s well then. right? The baddie’s been seen off and our heroes are free to go, having made friends with Za, who’s now chief. Wrong. The Doctor and the others end up right back in the ‘Cave of Skulls’, as firemakers to the tribe. So much for the value of friendship!

They get on with working out how to make fire the old-fashioned way, and there’s a handy bit of instruction for anyone who doesn’t know. I think somewhere around here, Kal comes back and has the big fight with Za that, let’s be honest, we’ve been expecting since the start. Of course Za ends up the winner.

The Doctor and the scientific companion, Ian, succeed in making fire, and show Za how to make it. He’s delighted, because he’s convinced that it will make him chief – but the Doctor says everyone in the tribe should be shown how to make fire; in his tribe, the firemaker is the least important person because they can all make it.

(Perhaps this is the message of the piece: it takes more to make a leader than being able to do something that anyone else can manage.)

Now the only problem is the fact that our heroes are still stuck in a cave. Fortunately they have one more weapon to use: superstition. They set four skulls on fire and kid the guard that they’ve died and the skulls are their restless spirits, come to do him in. He runs away like a sissy and they escape.

It’s a really simple story, but it shows how particular obstacles are necessary to make the narrative interesting. The Doctor has to lose his matches but even then, the gang could have made fire with the tools to hand. Old Mother has to release them and get killed, not only to create the possibility of an alliance with Za but also to show Kal’s villainy. Kal’s mischief has to be shown up in front of the whole tribe so they learn the value of banding together. And the Doctor’s party has to have made fire in order to escape using the trick they employ.

The story is moved forward by characters acting according to their natures: if Kal wasn’t a git, he wouldn’t have kidnapped the Doctor; if Old Mother didn’t hate fire, the gang wouldn’t have escaped; if Barbara wasn’t compassionate, Za wouldn’t have been brought on-side (as much as it was possible to do so); if the tribe weren’t superstitious primitives, our heroes would not have been able to escape.

It works. It all fits together nicely. But it’s a bit slow. Still, it’s turned up a surprising author’s message (Communism!).

If I get a chance to go into this storytelling malarky any further, I’ll see if I can show up ways to make the story more interesting.