BBC Books
Dark Progeny

Author Steve Emmerson Cover image
ISBN 0 563 53837 6
Published 2001

Synopsis: Strange babies are being born with telekinetic powers as a terraforming project goes wrong. The clues lead to an infiltrator from a rival corporation, known only as the Doctor.


A Review by Finn Clark 11/10/01

This review will contain no spoilers and you can all read it safely, whether or not you've read the book in question. Mummy.

I adored Steve Emmerson's debut novel, Casualties of War. It was a lovely piece of writing with characters I cared about, an invaluable talent for a novelist. This is his second novel and I thought it was... quite nice.

In some ways it's just another formulaic 8DA. Nasty people running around in the future, dirty politics, hard SF and environmental catastrophe. We've seen that a lot. You can just imagine Sam Jones running around in here - she'd be masochistically having the time of her miserable life and Steve Emmerson would be sticking a shotgun in his mouth. Weird horror-tinged stuff is going on (as usual) with a reasonable but not astonishing SF explanation (again as usual). For me, what lifts this above the routine dark 'n' dingy runarounds is the characters.

They're good. They're human. Even the plot's bastards are more interesting than the expected one-dimensional sadists in black hats. It took me a while to get everyone's identities straight, but what are a few forgettable names between friends? One normally expects this kind of book to involve the detached placement of victims-to-be, but instead it's about the traumas and tragedies of a cast you can believe in. In my opinion there's something very, very Whoish about the humanism of Dark Progeny. I appreciated that.

The cover is vaguely Gigeresque, which isn't entirely inappropriate. I suppose it gives you a place to hang your mental hat.

I do have a niggle however - the pacing. Both the beginning and the end have much urgency, but it's much better realised in the former. The TARDIS crew are in terrible danger and the situation is critical. The last sixty pages, however, are frankly choppy with lots of very fast cuts between scenes. It's distracting, especially when one starts to wonder whether you've missed an important bit of plot development.

I might be wrong, but I think Anji goes from being being on the loose to being captured without any scene in between to show us how this happened. I stopped. I flicked back. I'm still not certain whether I blinked and missed it.

Oh, and there's a big revelation at the end between two original characters that's a bit "so what?". It's thematically relevant, yes, but it still had me going, "Yes, and...?".

Overall I liked this book. I had a few niggles and it was a bumpy ride towards the end, but it's SF with a heart and a theme. You could do worse.

Just about enough plot to fill a short story, but a whole book full of charm by Robert Smith? 16/1/02

There's something refreshing about Dark Progeny. Not a whole lot happens to further it's incredibly light plot, but somehow that doesn't seem to matter terribly much. Far too many DW books go all-out in terms of plotting, trying to cram in as many events as possible and often crashing and burning somewhere near the end. Dark Progeny has a much quieter approach, coasting along on simple charm and some nice writing.

Indeed, you could have said much the same about Emmerson's previous novel, Casualties of War. Except for the nice writing bit. My major complaint with Emmerson's debut was that it contained a lot of clunky phrases and poorly written sections. Here, these things have been ironed out to produce a book that's taken the strengths of that novel - a stately pace and interesting characters - and given us something along the same lines, yet markedly improved.

Indeed, it's a bit of a shame that Dark Progeny even bothers with a futuristic setting, as the gentle English countryside of Casualties suits Emmerson's style much more, but it's probably for the best or else all his novels would end up taking place in some pastoral setting.

The opening scenes from Anji's POV are quite effective. I was almost sorry that all her scenes weren't presented from this half-conscious POV, but I suppose that could have quickly become irritating. The Doctor gets to impersonate an Earth examiner (or whatever), in a hoary old cliche dating all the way back to Power of the Daleks. Except this cliche keeps inverting itself. Not only does the narrative voice keep referring to the Doctor as "Dr Domecq", but the real Dr Domecq turns up midway through the action and proceeds to interfere with everything - so much so that Tyran actually prefers the Doctor. This is a really nice twist on a familiar theme that we haven't really seen before.

I really liked Dr Pryce, which made it a shame that he kills himself halfway through the novel. And speaking of which, the 'cliffhanger' to Part 2 involves Pryce sitting deep in thought - and that's it. Shortly afterwards, we discover he's committed suicide, which makes it bizarre that Part 2 didn't end with Pryce either in the act or about to be. However, somehow this works and fits in with the novel's gentle pace. We don't need big action set pieces, because we get everything we need from Pryce's internal thoughts. That's really quite impressive.

Tyran is okay as a villain, but I think he'd probably be a lot more effective if he wasn't so trigger happy. He kills off interesting characters like Carly just to show that he's actually evil, instead of having to fuss around with shades of grey or anything like that. Which is a shame, because there's a potentially interesting debate at the core of the book, but it doesn't really want to address it and instead goes for the easy way out.

Josef and Veta look like they're going to be Atta and Erak from Vengeance on Varos, but against all expectations they actually join up with the Doctor and co late in the novel. Which is a bit of a shame, because they're a lot more effective on their own. Their computer fraud stuff having impacts all through the city was great, especially the way it kept inadvertently helping our heroes. I think I'd have preferred this running joke to have kept going.

I quite liked Bains, especially his bumbling attempts to escape the authorities... but dear, sweet Rassilon is he lumbered with the dumbest Big Revelation I've ever seen [(c) every book on how to write a novel ever perpetrated, ever]. It's not that the revelation itself is all that bad... but it comes right at the very end of his second last scene in the book, it comes precisely one scene after the person it concerns dies (both of which mean that it has absolutely no consequences whatsoever) and, most stupidly of all, it doesn't arise out of interaction between the two characters in question, but comes out of the convenient alien consciousness deciding it was about time the entire story ground to a halt so it could explain a few inconsistencies from about 200 pages ago. I kid you not, it actually uses the words "He knew, as if in a flash of divine inspiration". Er, thanks for that Steve, but could you try again, please?

Aside from that moment of outright stupidity, Dark Progeny holds together pretty well. It's extremely light on plot, leading to a lot of running around, but it's a nicely written page-turner with some interesting characters and the inversion of a cliche so well-worn that no one else has ever thought to overturn it. Oh, and it has no continuity references at all, which is thoroughly refreshing. Recommended, for that alone.

Four out of Five by Jamas Enright 20/1/02

Steve Emmerson is not one for involved plots. Indeed, I was a hundred pages into Dark Progeny when someone asked me what had happened so far that I realised that not a lot had. However, the strength of this book, and of Steve Emmerson's writing, is that this doesn't matter in the slightest. His previous offering, Casualties of War, is similar, little plot but, oh, what a wealth of characters.

Steve Emmerson imbues his characters with a real depth, able to describe in a few paragraphs enough to bring even the most minor of characters to life. The only characters I couldn't get a real feeling for were the children. This might be because they were alien, but also maybe because we never see through their eyes, as it is when viewing through a character's perspective that they are truly brought out.

All this isn't to say that nothing happens at all. There is indeed a plot, but one that is slight. I had come up with a possible explanation for the cause of events, although it didn't turn out that way (although I have to admit I think it might have been more interesting if it had). Then again, I also thought the rats had more to do with the computer problems, whereas they had nothing to do with it whatsoever (no chewed wires at all?). The story was predictable in many ways, but there were a few twists that took me by surprise. Moreso for the character twists.

One, I think positive, aspect is that when I was reading Dark Progeny, I was also watching old British series like Moonbase 3 and Star Cops, and I couldn't help but imagine Dark Progeny being made the same way. And it would have worked so well.

What of the characters? Gaskill Tyran certainly stands out, not only as the villain of the piece, but because he is, not sympathetic, but understandable. There is a revelation at the end concerning him and other characters which I definitely did not see, but I was left with extreme dissatisfaction that nothing came of it. Clearly Steve Emmerson saw what happened to be clear cut enough, but I would have liked the repercussions spelt out a little more.

Veta and Josef took some getting used to, but I finally warmed to them. Pyrce and Péron were well done, and Ayla was immediately likeable, which she was intended to be. Foley took a personality shift that I had trouble accepting, but it may have been a gradual shift I missed.

The Doctor here seemed more like that of the earlier novels, complete with 'No no no no no,' and 'Fitz Fitz Fitz Fitz Fitz.' A step backwards considering Steve Emmerson's portrayal of him in Casualties of War. Fitz was fairly typical, and Anji suffered Possessed Companion syndrome, as if Steve Emmerson wanted some way not to have to write her. In all, capable but not outstanding.

Another great work from Steve Emmerson, an author I'd put down for being able to do a lot more after spending time on Doctor Who. But in the mean time, I'm more than happy that he's writing books for this range, and Dark Progeny, despite a few flaws, remains one of the better novels out there.

A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 5/2/02

Dark Progeny could have turned out to be much worse than it actually ending up being. Despite it being quite well written, it has one major factor working against it; the plot is wafer thin, and stretched to its breaking point. This severely upsets the pacing, leaving a rushed conclusion where the threads from the first two hundred pages or so are slapped together inside about thirty. Dark Progeny ends up being as enjoyable as it is solely on Steve Emmerson's strength in writing realistic characters.

There is a larger cast of characters in this story than we're probably used to seeing in the average Doctor Who story. In other books, this would have resulted in several people becoming faceless plot ciphers with little to do but run around and discover clues at exactly the right moment. Here, however, every character is extremely well created. One can tell that a lot of time and effort went into producing characters that are believable and interesting. Their lives, motives and thought processes are all realistic and engaging. We keep reading because we want to see how the plot affects these people, not necessarily because we want to see how the plot unfolds. Despite the flaws in storytelling, the characters make the book marginally recommendable.

The society that the Doctor and crew have landed in is also portrayed very well. The larger cast helps Emmerson show off the different parts of the world without any individual location left underdeveloped. The action feels like it's taking place in a city rather than a collection of sets. Emmerson is a deceptively good author. In only a few pages he manages to convey a coherent culture of the future. In a handful of cases, we can see where he fell back on pre-existing continuity, yet everything ends up feeling fresh. A few minor Doctor Who cliches are revisited, but they're given new life and don't drag the story down at all.

With a great setting and an interesting group of people, one would expect the regulars to benefit from their current environment. Alas, this is not the case. Unfortunately neither one of the companions is terribly active for much of this adventure. Anji ends up being a key player at the beginning and at the end, but for much of the middle she has very little to do other than passing out and requiring medical attention. Her passages have the advantage of being well written enough that I was almost distracted from the fact that she spent most of the book doing absolutely nothing at all. Yet it still felt rather unsatisfying.

Fitz also spends a lot of time in various states of health, but he is even farther away from the action. Thematically, it makes sense for the Doctor to believe that Fitz has died; many of the characters are forced to deal with the pain of loss followed by the shock of reunion (or at least the tantalizing hope that their loved one may not be gone forever). But in this case the thread is a complete dead end. It doesn't affect the plot, it doesn't really tell us anything about the setting that we didn't already know, and it doesn't give us any new insight to any other of the characters. Fitz's sections end up dragging flatter and flatter as one realizes that whatever happens to him isn't going to make a blind bit of difference to anything else. This sort of thing has happened to Fitz before in previous books, but here his subplot just isn't interesting enough.

Overall, this book ended up being quite average. Steve Emmerson is quite good at writing of actual prose, and he creates great characters that stand beside the best that the range has invented. The Eighth Doctor has rarely been better than the portrayal that he receives here. But the weakness in this story was the lack of a coherent and sustained plot. The pacing was way off and the manner in which the ending wrapped itself up so quickly really draws attention the flaws. However, despite the problems with this one, it's just about worth reading to see the setting and the characters that Emmerson created. I'll be looking forward to his next book and hopefully it will be better plotted.

The Twilight Zone by Joe Ford 1911/02

I cannot think why I never wrote a review for Dark Progeny. It's one of the first Doctor Who books I ever bought. But I've finally got around to reviewing all those EDAs I never did as I have just started re-reading all of the EDAs since Earthworld up to Time Zero to try and figure out if they are as good second time around. Already I've had some startling results. Earthworld came across better, although I did notice how much the book meandered somewhat. The humour and excellent characterisation were still in abundence though. Vanishing Point wasn't quite as useless as I first thought either, despite a whisper of an ending, Cole's prose and characters proves quite magical. The Year of Intelligent Tigers actually came DOWN a notch, knowing what is going to happen leaves only the vivid prose and sedate pace. It's still has many striking moments (and a helluva ending!) but I was a little bored in places. Eater of Wasps I've always enjoyed and always will. It's a cracker of a horror story, well written and superbly paced. So what of Dark Progeny, that often forgotten ecological thriller sandwiched between the reviled The Slow Empire and the popular City of the Dead.

Reading this again, its one of the most focussed Doctor Who books around. The plot, revolving around the birth of alien babies and the destruction of an ancient civilisation, never strays. There is a tight focus on what is happening and any wandering off the point is merely to build up a better picture of the world our famous time travellers find themselves in. Having read The Slow Empire before this it is impossible not to compare the two, whereas Empire had no plot and just a silly string of asides to keep you entertained, Dark Progeny has a rock solid story running through it with a brilliant, must finish second half. I know which I prefer.

Everyone has said this so I have to say it too... Steve Emmerson has a marvellous grip on characterisation, he proved his worth with Casualities of War by providing an impressive cast list and he does so again here. Before the book was out I felt I had gotten to know every character in the book, they're jobs, dreams and frailties. Even minor characters like the guard who watches over the Doctor had enough description to paint a vivid image. What is especially skillful is how he doesn't use the Orman/Cornell tactic of over angst-ing his characters to make them stand out. He shows strong people in a tough situation and cracks them down to the barest elements of their personality, showing us what's really inside. Look at Foley, the security guard who starts the story as a tough military bitch. As the story progresses she begins to grow affection for the Doctor to the point where he is tortured and she is anguished at watching. Or Tyran (who thinks up these names?) who appears calm, controlled and confident until his entire operation starts falling apart around his ears until he finally loses it. Even the short lived Pryce, wrestling with his conscience at his treatment of the children, manage to worm his way into my heart until I realy cared when he finally killed himself. This is just what you need to create a gripping original novel, smypathetic, interesting characters who the reader is desperate to find out what happens to.

He paints a picture of the future that is not as optimistic as some. There is talk of prolonging lives, loads of body surgery, pills for food, over population of the earth, a corrupt militarty system... it's all very engrossing and never at all preachy. When never see half of these things, merely hear characters thinking about them but it's small details like this that help create a better, more rounded book.

It's another top book for the Doctor who, without Fitz and Anji to deal with, takes on the role of Doctor Domecq and infiltrates the system. I love his first conversation with Tyran, so dry and full of tension and when Bains holds them all hostage and he switches sides I found myself whooping for joy. Even better are his gentle scenes with the alien children, a sure sign that this post COE (thats caught on Earth) Doctor hasn't lost his compassion. Lots of writers seems to have the freedom these days to write a much more interesting, less caught up in the past Doctor and it really is to the benefit of the books.

Fitz is kind of sidelined for a lot of the book and doesn't contribute much. I was a little diapointed by this as it is Anji who appears at first to be doing a Nyssa from Kinda but she develops a much stronger role later in the book. Fitz is character who has proved his worth in later books (especially History 101 and Time Zero) and its a real pity to see him so underused. It's not a fault of the story which is great and a lot of things would be left out to allow Fitz greater book-time but I do like to see a little Fitz action as he brings a very human element to the books.

Emmerson's urgent, action filled prose is a delight and his breathless opening and climatic finish are quite excellent. Yes things do slow down in the middle but there's always plenty going on to keep you peeled. I read this in two days and it was only moving house which stopped reading through in one go. I wanted to return to the book as soon as possible every time I put it down. Steve always has a fine talent for leaving a particular strand for each character at a gripping point and making you wait a while to find out what has happened. When the real Dr Domecq turns up and exposes the Doctor I was desperate to know how he would talk his way out of that one.

I really like the cover, it gives me a chill every time I look at it.

The alien baby plot is written so well, and brought out so intimately through the eyes of Veta and Josef, my two favourite original characters in the book. Their plight is so recognisable and so tragic I was caught up immediately in their troubles. Veta I loved, her desperation (bodering on insanity) was page turning stuff.

So another delight then, and extra points for remaining so gripping the second time around. It's not a perfect Doctor Who book, it doesn't have the kind of impact Adventuress or Camera Obscura or The Crooked World has but in its own quiet, skillful way Dark Progeny is a forgotten classic that deserves a re-evaluation soon.