Welcome to Shadow Unit

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit hunts humanity’s nightmares. But there are nightmares humanity doesn’t dream are real.
The Behavioral Analysis Unit sends those cases down the hall.

Welcome to Shadow Unit.

This is the premise of Shadow Unit, whose first season ended last week. It’s an unusual, possibly unique idea: a TV show told on a website, or fanfiction for a show that doesn’t exist, and either way a quarter of a million words of original fiction from five leading SF writers given away on the internet for free. (Although they would like it if you gave them some money for it.)

As Emma Bull explains in her introduction, it’s a show which wears its influences quite openly – a pinch of Criminal Minds, a bit of The Man from UNCLE, quite a lot of The X-Files. It’s a crime procedural drama, following a team of eight FBI agents who investigate crimes committed by the most horrible monsters you can imagine – human beings, albeit under the control of the mysterious “anomaly”, and not responsible for their actions. It’s a setup which lends itself well to an episodic drama, with a new investigation every week by a few members of the team, while the range of supernatural powers displayed by the literal monster of the week allows for variety. The episodes on the website stick pretty firmly to an episodic, 5-act structure as well, and at first I couldn’t understand why they would do that. Surely one of the strengths of fanfiction is that it can use structures and storytelling methods which are not tied into the necessities of television, it can cover timespans you can’t show on screen, it can even have bibliographies and graphs if you want them. Still, after reading a few episodes I changed my mind – I think the structure works, and even though I know I’m coming up to an act break I still get surprised by whatever plot revelation they have in store, plus there is enough variation to prevent it turning into a formulaic, “take the basic template and swap out the villains” show. And with a liberal fanfiction policy, it’s easy for the fans to play around in the universe themselves, but you can’t rebel against the episodic structure if there isn’t one on the show in the first place.

There are disadvantages to telling a TV story as prose, and the one big one I came up against is that telling apart your cast of eight people with similar occupations is much much easier when they’re all on screen. I read the first three novella-length episodes as a block, and it wasn’t until the third that I got the hang of who was who in the team. The first three also suffer slightly in that they do a lot of work building up the characters of Daphne, Chaz, and Hafidha, who form a strong friendship within the unit, and when I came back to episode four several months later I could remember the three of them but had to start from scratch with everyone else. As to why there was such a gap in my reading, while I enjoyed the first three episodes, and planned to read some more, when there was no more to read for a fortnight I drifted away and didn’t come back until last week.

It’s a good thing I did, because episode five, “Ballistic”, is where the first season kicks into high gear and pulled me in. Co-written by four of the show’s writers, it’s one of the episodes which rejects a whodunit and lets us know from the start that this week’s monster is a child, and that it’s not going to end well. Focusing on the perviously underused team of Brady and Lau, investigating murders in a small-town filled with servicemen and their families, it seems to deliver more of an emotional kick than the revious episodes, and a growing horrific realisation of where the pieces of a medical report scattered through the episode are going to lead.

While the next two episodes, “Endgames” and “Overkill”, are good solid installments with memorable and horrific moments, it’s all buildup for the multi-part season finale, Refining Fire. A whole novel penned by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull (not that I could tell who wrote individual episodes anyway- it’s pretty seamless), it’s also the episode where it gets personal for one of the team, and does not shy away from having really nasty stuff happen. It’s also a fine example of really well done hurt/comfort angsty fanfic, without the tendency for everything to be fixed by the magical healing power of hugs. I will admit that I found it to be a gripping, emotional end to the season, and I will be sticking with it next year.

And if I get bored during the hiatus, there’s always the in-character Livejournals for me to read. I haven’t had time to keep up with them all year, because I like to eat and sleep, but the mixing of reality and fiction, watching real people comment on fictional journals as though it’s just another member of their friends list, and seeing fictional journals interact back with them in-character even when it’s all being done by real people who know each other, I find it slightly mindbending. Even if it does make the uncertainty of the ending to Refining Fire a little less uncertain, because if there’s a Livejournal post from a character it seems unlikely they are dead.

I’m assuming there is a second season planned, of course. Can you campaign against the cancellation of a show that never aired?

9 thoughts on “Welcome to Shadow Unit

  1. I take it you didn’t find the easter egg for Refining Fire? *g*

    (We already knew he wasn’t dead).

  2. I haven’t seen any of the Easter Eggs, although I have read the DVD extras. Link to the Refining Fire easter egg, please? :)

  3. K: To be fair, we don’t necessarily *know* that he’ll make it, though Bear did say nobody will die between seasons. Or, I guess, that he’ll come out of it okay.

  4. Glad to see someone I know has been reading Shadow Unit; I haven’t, but I’ve been intrigued by the bold idea of going back to serial fiction, and I’m in the process of interviewing Emma Bull about it for Futurismic. I may have to quiz you on some points, Liz.

  5. I can’t quite overcome my scepticism of Shadow Unit, and yet, if it actually existed as a TV show, I would probably at least have given it a go. The thing is that I wouldn’t have given it a go because the concept sounds interesting — it sounds incredibly formulaic, but I tend to put up with formula in TV sf/fantasy shows because formula is usually all that’s available. In the absence of the compensating strengths of TV (acting, visual effects, immediacy of experience), I can’t quite bring myself to be interested. The recreation of a TV structure in prose seems rather pointless, too; an example of just because you can do something not being a good reason to actually do it. And yet, I like the work of several of the writers involved, and I haven’t seen anyone who’s actually read it say less than positive things about it. (On the other hand, maybe the people who would say less than positive things about it are all apathetic about it to start with.) So … I don’t know. I feel I should try it at some point, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to give it a fair go.

  6. I thought from the way it ends just as we get to the hospital they were doing it as a deliberate cliffhanger, but I’m glad to see it is not. I didn’t think they’d kill people offscreen, but they might have started the second season exactly where the first one left off, like The West Wing did. Although now I think about it, that would really cause problems with the timelines on Livejournal.

    Niall: I was sceptical at first as well, because I couldn’t see why you’d want to recreate television as prose, when you get all the disadvantages and not many of the advantages. I think it works because the writing’s really good, but you can also tell even without reading the associated forums that all the writers are really having fun. And I think you can fit in more character development in prose than you can in a 42-minute TV show.

    Ironically if this were a TV show I’d probably not have bothered, because I’m not a big crime procedural fan.

  7. I’ve not read any of Shadow Unit but I’m very interested in the idea. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

    The recreation of a TV structure in prose seems rather pointless

    I agree that slavishingly following TV structure is pointless; for example, I’m not sure about having actual seasons. However, I like the idea of producing a many hands, individual stories, long arc in prose. It is basically just a structured sharedworld which raises many interesting opportunities.

  8. Going back to it was worth it – Ballistic is certainly the best of the first part (haven’t read the end yet, but really liked ‘Overkill’, too).

    I am inclined to like this sort of story – although if it was tv, it might get butchered into Painkiller Jane.

    Like Liz, though, American cop shows = not particularly interested.

    Different story if they are hunting superhumans I suppose. :)

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