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Doctor Who: Dark Progeny Mass Market Paperback – 1 Aug 2001
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Ceres Alpha. 2847AD. An inhospitable planet being developed by man. Suddenly a batch of new babies the world over are born with precisely the same defects. They have alien physiology and telepathic powers. The Doctor realises that it is the remnants of the planet's original inhabitants.
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The main problem with Dark Progeny is that it fails to engage on many levels. The first hundred pages or so all pass by with very little of interest happening, and this feeling of detachment continues throughout the novel, even after the story starts to become more developed. It doesn't help that Emmerson pushes both Anji and Fitz out of the plots for the vast majority of the novel, with Fitz's appearance being little more than a cameo.
The premise of the novel is quite fascinating, but it's execution is flawed. Based on this and Casualties of War, Emmerson has great writing ability, and although Dark Progeny is well written in terms of it's actual construction, the prose tends to be lifeless. His characters are generally indistinct, the exception being Gaskill Tyran who is the most well developed character in the book.. Although the Doctor does some unexpected things in this novel, his character lacks the unpredictability that has become part of his character in the recent EDA's seems to be missing, and attempts to bring him into line with the 'darker' Doctor we've seen lately feel forced.
It's not really a bad book, just a rather dull one.
Normally, I just find this kind of thing boring, but I liked this novel. It has an author who can write and a plot that makes sense and a proper ending. And amid all the contrived weirdness lately this is a completely unpretentious novel. So it made a nice change.
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We appear to be in between arcs at this point in the series so we get what I like to call "business as usual" type stories, regular ordinary adventures with the Doctor and friends that involve standard Doctor situations, in this case the military mind and strange babies and maybe telepathy. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, not every story needs to push the boundaries of time and space, or redefine the character and sometimes you just want to see the team go through their paces and save the day. How well this comes across generally comes down to how flashy the author is stylistically, at this point the template is well defined enough that pretty much anyone can tell a run of the mill "Who" story but what separates the "okay" from the "great" is how much flair and spin the author can put on those standard tropes.
Here, you can tell he's gamely trying and the results, while not amazing, generally aren't embarrassing. The Doctor and company crashes onto a planet that is in the process of being terraformed. Anji becomes stricken with a bout of telepathy and Fitz gets separated in all the confusion. And while Anji spends most of her time recovering, the Doctor winds up uncovering the notions of a real mess, the military has replaced most of the hospital staff and are actively studying a rash of strange babies that are being born. Babies with weird, almost telepathic powers.
For fans of the Eighth Doctor, this book will be a page turner. For the first time in a while he takes center stage and a large portion of the action is dictated by his actions or in reaction to what he's doing. And he generally rises to the occasion, acting very much like the Doctor we all know and love, tricking people through lies of omission, barging into scenes and acting like he belongs there and more often than not being one step ahead of everyone else, even when he's not entirely sure what's going on. He's moral and compassionate and unflagging, all the things that you've come to know and expect. To see him taking an active hand in events, investigating and badgering and annoying those in charge with little regard for his own life is one of the defining aspects of the character, no matter what incarnation.
The book does fall short, however, in depicting the rest of the team. They're in the book, yes, but for the most part are sidelined from the Doctor. Which would be okay if they had their own strong plots to flail around in, but that isn't quite the case. The idea of Anji getting infected with telepathy doesn't go anywhere special since she spends most of her time in the infirmary unconscious or recovering or very confused and doesn't start to act until the end (and even then spends most of her time looking for the Doctor so he can tell her the plan). Fitz doesn't make out much, also spending a good portion of the book injured and then later being dragged around by a medic who does most of the action and protects him. His section is mostly marking time and stalling by either getting captured or getting interrogated until he falls back into the main plot.
The rest of the cast actually fares okay. I had trouble telling apart some of the military folks (I was also admittedly reading fast) but nobody felt like a waste of space. Unfortunately, with the Doctor driving the plot most of them have nothing to do except for the husband and wife who are probably even more proactive than the Doctor is. The archeologist spends most of his time getting beat up or wishing he could go explore the site before it gets flattened (which sort of telegraphs what the ultimate resolution is going to be, in the usual "planet defending itself" kind of way) and thus winds up killing time before the Doctor leads the way (and is the subject of a coincidence that stretched my belief to the breaking point (and let's remember that I went into this accepting telepathy as a plot point) and felt shoehorned in). Even the pseudo-alien baby children are strange, but don't make enough of an appearance to make an impression beyond "Aw, pseudo-alien kids". Or they kill people, which always livens things up. Gaskill Tyran, as the main villain, has some flair, although he's not so much clever as rich and sociopathic. And its almost unforgivable that at no point, given several opportunities, nobody got a chance to wheel the old chestnut of "No . . . not the mind probe!" Have a little respect for tradition, guys.
But for what it does, it does fairly well and the author shows enough imagination to keep all the parts of the story moving. Nothing flags, almost nothing stands out as embarrassing and the final product is yet another exciting adventure of the Doctor and his assorted entourage. Its far from groundbreaking and in a month may not even be memorable but sometimes there's a nice comfort in seeing someone set modest goals and then go about heartily achieving them.
"Dark Progeny" itself is a thoughtful action-adventure piece, written in a very visual style. This is to be expected from sophomore author Steve Emmerson, who previously wrote the visually-innovative "Casualties of War". It's often a criticism hurled at DW book writers that they're trying too hard to write for the small screen, but Emmerson writes lush, big-budget SF. Here we have grotesque monsters, fierce storms, lots of holograms, pretty starscapes, and a city-sized Machine.
The plot is something of a mess. The prologue opens with a childbirth gone horribly wrong (and was probably inspired in the delivery room at 4 AM), and is followed by a parade of mean, cynical 30th-century human imperialists and corporate types. The Doctor's two companions are brutalized, both mentally and by rat attack. The 8th Doctor is his manic self, going over the top at a funeral and yet getting some nicely reflective moments when he's alone (and not acting). The final 20 pages are an awful mess, with lots of dangling probabilities. All the book's surviving characters burst into the same room all at once (but it's a big room) and there's one shockingly silly revelation about a villain's paternity. The weird two-page epilogue feels as if it were shot 6 months after producton, on another set, and Anji wearing a different hairstyle.
On the whole, this is the "default" Eighth Doctor novel. It incorporates all the positive and negative aspects of the line, and if DW were still a TV show, this would be that episode that was always on, the rerun you could never get away from -- but watched anyway.