From the very first issue of Thunderbirds the Comic in 1991 to the premature end of the Thunderbirds are Go! comic several years later I was an avid reader of Fleetway Comics’ various Gerry Anderson titles, and while I don’t have a complete collection I probably own about 75% of them. Unfortunately, as can sometimes happen with comics, the cancellation of Thunderbirds are Go! comic in 1995 meant certain stories were left incomplete. These included reprints of Fireball XL5 and Zero-X stories from TV21, which have since been reprinted in TV21 collections, plus Monsters from Mars, an extremely odd Stingray story that clearly didn’t hail from the same source. After nearly 25 years of not knowing how the penultimate installment’s cliffhanger was finally resolved, since the concluding part of the story has never been reprinted in my lifetime, I recently had the opportunity to finally read the final chapter of Monsters from Mars and…I have to talk about this story. I just have to. It’s so weird.
Monsters from Mars was originally published as The Waters of Hyde in issues 15 to 21 of Countdown, the early 1970s successor to TV21, and the original title perhaps gives you a clue as to how the story might progress. Right from the first panel things are out of the ordinary; Stingray is being sent to Mars to investigate the discovery of a subterranean sea – sorry, submartian sea. The journey to the red planet takes just a few days, and while Stingray is being transported to the drilling site base camp Troy and Phones are filled in on some mysterious goings-on. Following the sea’s discovery four men were sent down in a ‘miniscaphe’ to investigate, but all contact with them was quickly lost. A few days later four ape-like creatures in spacesuits appeared in the camp, caused a bit of a ruckus, then evidently disappeared back into the sea.
Our heroes aren’t the least bit put off by this and Stingray is lowered into the sea, with Troy giving the order to dive while two unidentified men are still standing on Stingray’s hull – I’m sure they appreciated that.
Phones tests the water and notes an unidentifiable element as we end part 1 with the discovery of the ‘miniscaphe’, its hatch conveniently left open. If you’re thinking this might lead to something interesting prepare to be disappointed; Troy’s investigation of the craft takes up the first panel of part 2 and then Stingray continues on her way like nothing happened. A text recap of part 1 now tells us only three men were aboard the mini-sub and that the apemen have been attacking the base camp every night, thus setting up another running theme of this story – whatever happened last week probably didn’t happen quite that way this week.
A sudden rockfall behind them blocks off Stingray’s escape route, and Troy and Phones are surprised when the water is drained away and an Earthlike atmosphere appears around them. A cliff wall opens up revealing a race of rather sweet-looking dome-headed aliens, along with the three missing human explorers, all of whom appear to be harmless enough.
Leaving Stingray Troy and Phones are welcomed into the city of Mer, home of the Mertian civilisation, and are treated to a banquet in their honour. Once they’ve had their fill of food it’s down to a nearby pink lake for a swim, with one of the human explorers being particularly insistent that Troy and Phones join in. The two men do so, but soon realise that they’re all alone in the water – everyone else is standing around the lake as if holding some kind of ceremony.
In another example of the fine writing on display throughout this story, this panel is the first time we’re hearing the names Gordon and Poul.
Yes, Poul, the leader of the aliens, is now turning into a hairy apeman like the ones that may or may not be attacking the base camp every night, and part 2’s cliffhanger ending is that Troy and Phones now are as well!
As part 3 opens Phones has fully transformed into a mindless apeman and Troy realises his only hope is to get back to Stingray to call for help. Stopping between panels to put their uniform trousers and jackets back on (this may be a desperate situation but that’s no excuse for running around in your undies) Phones and his fellow apemen pursue Troy back to Stingray, where a fight breaks out above the entry hatch. After grabbing Phones by the legs and actually using him as a club to beat back the Mertians Troy is able to get them both into Stingray, locking the hatch behind them.
As the two friends fight inside Stingray the Mertians decide to let the sea back into the cavern and the super sub is washed away, with Troy and Phones being knocked unconscious in the process. Because if you’re trying to capture somebody, the best course of action is to restore their vehicle’s freedom to move and let them escape. I think…
The current carries Stingray back towards the base camp where the survey team prepare to cut the sub open, but Troy – whom we were told last week has lost the power of speech – radios in a message to tell them not to open the hatch and instead ship them straight back to Earth. He doesn’t go into any more detail than that – perhaps something like “OMG SERIOUSLY YOU GUYS I’M TOTALLY AN APEMAN RIGHT NOW AND IT’S HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS ARGH, ALSO PHONES IS HERE TOO AND TRYING TO KILL ME” – but his instructions are carried out nevertheless, and several weeks later Stingray arrives back at Marineville.
Stingray is met by Commander Shore, Atlanta, and an unnamed Lieutenant who might be Fisher but probably isn’t. On opening the hatch the Lieutenant is overpowered by Phones, still an apeman but now appearing to have regained something of his former personality. For this one panel, at least.
Phones escapes but the welcoming committee are now distracted by Troy attempting to leave Stingray. Since Troy has proven to be the only person to retain his sanity following his transformation into an apeman you shouldn’t be surprised that he’s now impossible to reason with and attempts to kill everybody. Luckily one of the W.A.S.P. men thought to bring a baseball bat along, giving Troy a blow to the back of the head that knocks him unconscious and instantly turns him back into a human.
Hey, remember when Troy and Phones got knocked out when Stingray was hit by the tidal wave, and yet they didn’t revert to normal? Well, that was soo last week.
So while a search party hunts down Phones, it’s off to the sickbay for Troy. Blood tests reveal a square-shaped chromosome that is likely to be the cause of all this unpleasantness, but the Doctor insists he can’t produce an antidote without also testing Phones. Meanwhile, Ape-Phones overpowers the search party sent to find him, using his might ape-strength to bend their guns before knocking them all out – or possibly even killing them, who knows.
He then heads back towards Marineville and bursts into the sickbay where the doctor, who just eight panels ago said that he needed to run tests on Ape-Phones before coming up with an antidote, is preparing to test a possible antidote on Troy. Phones picks up the table that Troy is strapped to and attempts to make off with it, only to run into a problem…
This bit of slapstick gives the doctor a chance to test his antidote, injecting it into the apeman’s arm straight through his uniform, and soon Phones is back to normal. Also, the recap is now telling us that Troy and Phones are only turning into apemen at night, despite it being broad daylight when Stingray arrived back at Marineville.
This also makes the ‘several weeks’ trip back to Earth thing even more confusing – were Troy and Phones reverting and regressing multiple times throughout the journey? If so, why couldn’t they have radioed out a message explaining exactly what was going on when they were human? Scribbled a quick note or something? What did they do for food and water on that trip anyway?
WHAT IS GOING ON?
Now that they’re back to normal Troy and Phones return to Mars to begin their plan to cure the Mertians of their random were-apery. The first stage – pouring several gallons of this ‘neutraliser’ into the sea to kill off the mutant chromosome – is relatively straightforward, but phase two involves taking a squad of men back to the Mertian city itself on what the text quaintly describes as a ‘mercy battle’. Now back to their former selves the Mertians arrive to welcome their latest visitors and Troy’s men storm the entrance to the city, administering the cure with dart guns.
And this was the cliffhanger that the Thunderbirds Are Go comic was unable to resolve before it was cancelled – so now, let us journey together into the final epic chapter of The Waters of Hyde.
I’m excited. Aren’t you?
Once again the recap is revising the story still further, now naming the mutant chromosome as Factor X34. As their men continue to administer the antidote Troy and Phones stand over Poul’s body, certain that they’ve done the right thing.
As Poul’s skin begins to wither and age before their eyes they finally realise that something might be wrong here, and in perhaps the only moment of competency from anybody in this entire story Troy immediately orders a halt to the treatment program – but not before his men have already sprayed every single one of the aliens.
I’m not entirely sure how I was expecting this story to end, but ‘our heroes commit accidental genocide’ wasn’t it. Usually the Stingray crew only commit genocide on purpose. Also not sure how exactly ten men managed to shoot absolutely everybody in the Mertian city in a matter of seconds but giant leaps in logic seem to be a thing with this story, so whatever. The only ones to escape are the four men (yes, four again) originally sent to explore the alien sea, and Gordon fills Troy in on the history of the Mertians.
Once a surface-dwelling race the Mertians were forced to retreat underground following a two-year meteorite storm that left the surface of Mars devastated. Discovering the submartian sea which “offered the fruits of survival” at the price of occasionally randomly turning into ape-monsters, the Mertians set to work rebuilding their civilisation underground as best they could.
All that happened over a thousand years ago, because the mutant chromosome also granted eternal youth to those it infected. Yes, because all this wasn’t silly enough already, we’ve now got to throw the Fountain of Youth in here too.
On the way back to Stingray Gordon continues to protest Troy’s actions, albeit more because he wanted to share in the whole eternal youth ape man thing rather than the relatively minor issue of accidental genocide. Troy, meanwhile, makes a really feeble effort to defend his own actions.
And then the story just abruptly skids to a halt.
Seriously? That’s the note you’re ending this on? Accidental genocide shrugged off with “Well, we all make mistakes!” Wow. It would seem I’m not the only one to find this a jarring conclusion as when the story was first reprinted as Monsters from Mars in 1983’s Stingray Holiday Special the final panel was revised to end the story on a slightly more positive note. It still doesn’t work, but it’s better than no note at all!
Having grown up on the 1990s Fleetway comics reprints, which mostly focused on the classic TV21 strips and brand new material, I was perhaps unprepared for Countdown’s rather loose interpretation of the Stingray format in this story. The idea of Stingray going to Mars is a promising start, but from there it seems like someone really just wanted to write a werewolf story and poor old Troy and Phones were unlucky enough to be chosen to star in it. The Waters of Hyde/Monsters from Mars is however spectacularly entertaining if you’re in the mood for a strip that completely fails to understand the source material and, even more impressively, fails to be consistent even within itself. Plotting and character motivations are all over the place, with past events being retconned with every new chapter, culminating in a jaw-droppingly strange final installment that ends so jarringly someone actually tried to fix it ten years later. Despite its multiple flaws the horror element is a nice change of pace and some of the artwork can be a little atmospheric at times, and it really is a shame that the final complete story feels so disjointed. There’s the beginnings of something potentially great here that only became more and more muddled with each new chapter – but after waiting 25 years to find out how exactly this crazy comic ended, am I satisfied? Absolutely. It’s just too nuts to hate.
Now, who’s up for a dip in the pool?