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?

Jenny-Sue comes to town

I have a strange love-hate relationship with Doctor Who. When it is good, it is very very good, and when it is bad it is torchwood. The Doctor’s Daughter doesn’t leave much doubt as to which category it falls into, and works as an example of the traps new Who falls into and why it so alternates so easily between excellent character-driven SF and utter bobbins.

Much internet speculation abounded before the episode as to why and how the Doctor had a daughter. Are we harking bad to the Hartnell era when the Doctor travelled with his granddaughter, or has that been retconned out of existence forever? It takes about half a minute for the answer to become clear – the Doctor, upon arrival at a mysterious planet, sticks his hand into a machine and faster than you can say “rearranging of haploid DNA to form a new diploid offspring” out springs his clone, already an adult. Bonus points for not using scientific words in a completely nonsensical way, minus several points for growing an entire human in less than ten second.

On this mysterious planet, the human colonists are at war with the Hath. The Hath are one of those ideas which sound really cool on paper, but when you put them onscreen on a TV budget they are comedy fish-people with bongs attached to their faces. Martha is trapped with the Hath, while the Doctor and Donna stay with the humans, and all sides end up following a hidden map to The Source, supposedly the breath of their creator and a potential superweapon. There is running around, the Doctor bonds with his clone daughter Jenny who is perky and does backflips, Donna works out the war has only lasted for seven days and the Doctor saves everything by terraforming the planet. Except Jenny, who gets shot. Except she comes back to life again at the end and flies off into the sunset to save the universe just like her old dad.

The first problem I have with the episode is that it’s so impressed it’s got a proper science fictional idea going on, it doesn’t stop to sit down for a minute and think it all through properly. A war that seems to last forever where the duration is really much shorter and myths propagate faster is a cool idea, but the timescales and logistics don’t quite work for me. What happened to the original colonists? Supposedly the mission commander died and they were plunged into war, but did they all die? Surely one of them must still be alive to put their hand in the magic person-making machine, or does it start running by itself and churning out new soldiers? How many generations and battles and complete annihilations do you need to forget everything about the original mission? Why do they need the Doctor to stick his hand in the machine? Is Time Lord DNA similar enough to human that the machine will work? And for that matter, the Hath and human colonists can’t understand each other, nor do we see any means of translation even at the end where they’re working together, so how did a joint mission work? How can you terraform a whole planet with a fishbowl full of amino acids and gases?

Sometimes, the lack of thought put into the cool idea of the week is not enough of a problem to derail the episode. Setting fire to the atmosphere in The Poison Sky I can live with, but the ridiculous motorway setup in Gridlock , or the crazy DNA-transmitting gamma radiation in Evolution of the Daleks stretch it too far. You can argue that if I want proper SF, I shouldn’t be looking at Doctor Who which has never cared that much about the plausibility of its setup. I might buy that if it were consistently terrible, but it gets it right on so many occasions that I can’t forgive it when they muck it up. I find myself hoping they’re not going to try doing anything too exciting, because I’d rather have them aim for mediocrity and hit it than go for ambition and end up with a mess.

The second problem is that they want to do a really moving, emotional, heartfelt episode about the Doctor coming to terms with fatherhood, and by crushing it all into 42 minutes with the rest of the plot. (Including a seemingly pointless subplot for Freema Agyeman in which she befriends a fish-man who dies to save her in a quarry, which my cold-hearted self found to be really badly acted and hence very funny indeed.) The Doctor starts off hostile to Jenny, as well he might when his DNA has been stolen to make a super-soldier after he’s spent several episodes complaining about the military, but half an hour later he’s discovered she has two hearts and can do some backflips and has a complete change of heart, and it never feel earned. Tennant has rarely been better than when he’s talking to Donna about the family he had in the past, but his relationship with Jenny feels like half a dozen episodes worth of plot sped up to fit the episode. Was it really necessary that it be his daughter? Wouldn’t he have felt the same for any of the soldiers, born as adults with no knowledge but how to fight and no experience but war? Apparently only if we have Murray Gold’s overbearing soundtrack telling us how important it is she has two hearts.

And the frustrating part is again I know they can do this right. Just see everything written by Steven Moffatt, for starters, but Family of Blood last year gave us a similar theme with John Smith realising everything he must give up to become the Doctor again, the life he cannot have, and did it much much better. Even the Russell T Davies-penned three-parter at the end of last year brought more emotional wallop even if they both go on to a cop-out ending where the dead aren’t or might not be dead after all. I’m hoping the tail-end of the season will follow the pattern of last year and prove what the show can do, but right now I’ll be happy if we don’t have anything as bad as The Doctor’s Daughter for the rest of the year.

The Last Enemy Redux

The last episode aired a couple of weeks ago, but what with one thing and another I’ve only just got around to watching it. When the series started, I said

What’s good about The Last Enemy as a drama is the direction, which manages to make any amount of staring at computer screens interesting, and the acting, particularly from Benedict Cumerbatch as Ezard — he’s convincing as a man distinctly uncomfortable with much social interaction, yet nuanced enough to avoid cliche. And what’s good about The Last Enemy as science fiction is that it doesn’t try to do too much, that it follows the implications of its idea through quite thoroughly but (for the most part) doesn’t try to sensationalise them. Whether this will last is an open question: the producer has described the series as a “cautionary tale”, which rather suggests the ending will be exactly what you expect it to be, ie that the introduction of TIA is thwarted at the last moment, while recognising the irony that it’s helped to stop whatever dastardly plot is afoot. We shall see.

To update these points in order:

  • The direction and the acting, particularly from Benedict Cumerbatch, did remain pretty good throughout, although the focus shifted to more dramatic subjects than computer screens, such as running around and explosions.
  • Probably the biggest plus in the series’ favour is that it seemed to be trying to show how a suite of present-day concerns — immigration, terrorism, security, underregulated pharmaceutical industry — might interrelate, without suggesting that any one of them was The Problem Of Our Times. Unfortunately, the ending they came up with was very much from the Giant Conspiracy school, which was rather too neat.
  • Which is to say that in the end, it did try to do much, not specifically because the science it described was (and the methods used to approach that science were) complete bobbins, but because it introduced a genie too big to be stuffed back into a bottle.
  • Which in turn is to say I was sort of half-right in my prediction for the ending. What is actually thwarted is the introduction of TIA: The Next Generation; TIA itself (unless I missed something) heads steadily towards implementation and is used by various characters throughout the series to find the next plot coupon.
  • To be fair to the ending, it did have characters recognise that they were trying to stuff a genie back into a bottle, and it was by no means kind to its protagonists; one Ezard ends up dead, while the other is utterly trapped by the existing surveillance technology; the girl ends up wandering free but alone.
  • Moreover, if it weren’t for the tub-thumping lectures about personal liberties in the last fifteen minutes — which most of the rest of the series managed to do without, trusting that it was showing the relevant points — I could have lived with it, even, particularly given the irony that the lectures were being delivered to the one government character who (unbeknown to the lecturer) might agree with some of them. As it is, my overwhelming sense was that the actual science fiction story, and the more interesting story, would be the one about what happens five years later, when the genie actually does get out into the world.
  • Summary: B for effort, C- for execution.

One to Watch

Tomorrow night, BBC4, 9pm: first in a three-part series called Worlds of Fantasy, which looks like it’s the fantasy equivalent of The Martians and Us. Maybe it’ll even pop up on iPlayer. Anyway, there’s a bit more detail about the first episode, “The Child Within”, in the press release:

In the last 10 years, fantasy writing has become one of the biggest-selling genres in publishing, spearheaded by the huge success of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.

In the first of a three-part series, this film explores the role of child heroes and heroines and asks why they have such an enduring appeal to writers of fiction for all ages.

The child hero goes hand in hand with fantasy writing, from Peter Pan to Harry Potter. In Victorian Britain, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies – part updated fairy story, part polemic on the use of child labour – centres on the imaginary life of the book’s 10-year-old sweep hero, Tom. In its wake came a number of novels that defined fantasy writing, including classics such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice adventures and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

But as childhood changed through the 20th century, so did the child hero. After the Second World War, CS Lewis created the Narnia books as children’s fables, which also incorporated strong Christian themes. In the Sixties, writers such as Alan Garner and Roald Dahl brought a darker kind of fantasy for children, both psychological and bleakly humorous, while in the present day, Philip Pullman’s Lyra has become one of the defining child heroes of our age – naughty, playful, inquisitive, but with the fate of the world in her hands.

With contributions from Pullman, Garner, novelists Will Self and Alasdair Gray and critics (and obsessive Harry Potter fans), The Worlds Of Fantasy examines how the child hero grew up, and how fantasy grew with it to become the massive success it is today.

I wonder if they’ll get through the whole thing without saying “young adult”.

The Last Enemy

Well, I thought the first episode of The Last Enemy wasn’t bad at all. A near-future political thriller, the first episode sees mathematician Stephen Ezard returning to the UK for his brother’s funeral, after several years working in China, where as far as possible he lived the life of a recluse. This is of course conveniently creates plenty of opportunities for other characters to explain to him the developments in the UK political landscape that he’s missed — although pleasingly it’s assumed that some events, such as the “Victoria bomb” that killed 200-odd people and seems to have been a motivating factor behind the rapid introduction of ID cards, penetrated even Ezard’s veil of seclusion.

On his return, Ezard is recruited as a spokesperson for a private firm developing a system (known as TIA) that links up all the existing population databases to allow total surveillance. We’re told that the legislation needed to introduce TIA is pretty much a sure thing, and that Ezard is just wanted to smooth things over; after initial reluctance, he’s persuaded to help out, not so much because he thinks TIA is a good thing, or even because he’s mercenary enough to do it for the three years’ funding he’s offered in exchange, but because he wants to use TIA to do some searching himself. Specifically, he needs to find his brother’s wife, who’s vanished in mysterious circumstances; she may be connected to the appearance of a deadly (possibly weaponised) virus in Afghanistan.

That’s an extremely top-level summary of a rather twistily-plotted ninety minutes of television, and it’s fairly obvious we don’t yet know where all the connections being set up are really leading. What’s good about The Last Enemy as a drama is the direction, which manages to make any amount of staring at computer screens interesting, and the acting, particularly from Benedict Cumerbatch as Ezard — he’s convincing as a man distinctly uncomfortable with much social interaction, yet nuanced enough to avoid cliche. And what’s good about The Last Enemy as science fiction is that it doesn’t try to do too much, that it follows the implications of its idea through quite thoroughly but (for the most part) doesn’t try to sensationalise them. Whether this will last is an open question: the producer has described the series as a “cautionary tale”, which rather suggests the ending will be exactly what you expect it to be, ie that the introduction of TIA is thwarted at the last moment, while recognising the irony that it’s helped to stop whatever dastardly plot is afoot. We shall see.

Tangentially, in the same press release I linked above, writer Peter Berry says that The Last Enemy is “predictive, rather than science fiction”. This is clearly rubbish, but I’m not noting it in an as others see us way per se. What interests me is that (I assume) Berry said it because he felt the potential audience for his show was those who watched State of Play, not those who watch Doctor Who, and the question of whether or not that justifies his comment. I want to compare it to something John Jarrold said elsewhere, regarding publicity materials that pushed a debut sf novel (by one of his authors) as worthy of attention because the author is a woman (which is apparently rare and sure to see the book appear on sf award shortlists). What Jarrold said is:

most of these proofs will go to people who do not know the genre and its history as well as you and I do; they are largely meant for the general bookshops and mainstream reviewers. And I can tell you from my own experience that if you have ANYTHING that can be used as a hook to interest the Head Buyer of SF at W H Smiths, who purchases every SF and Fantasy title that appears in WHS across the UK, and can also gain interest in the world outside the SF coterie, you use it. Both those points — Jaine’s gender and the possibility of awards — are exactly that.

To me, what this attitude says, in both cases, is that it’s ok to say dumb, or misleading, or outright insulting things about a work if they result in attention being paid to the work itself. It also says that the people who are annoyed or insulted don’t matter, because they’re not the target of the remarks in question, and they’ll watch or read the work anyway. I can believe this is true — after all, I’ve just watched The Last Enemy, and I plan to read Principles of Angels — but I can’t help finding it a bit depressing.

Ooh

Guillermo del Toro will be directing The Hobbit.

Guillermo del Toro has officially signed up to direct The Hobbit, according to reports leaking out from a film premiere in France. The Pan’s Labyrinth creator will oversee a double-bill of films based on JRR Tolkien’s fantasy adventure, which paved the way for The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, director of the Oscar-winning Rings trilogy, will serve as executive producer.

Interesting choice. I can actually see this being better than if Jackson was directing, in some ways.

P.S. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles — best new show of the 07/08 tv season? I love me some Pushing Daisies, but Sarah Connor is actual science fiction, so I am biased towards it. Particularly when they have John Connor mention the singularity.

Torchwood

Gareth David-Lloyd the only person involved with any discernible talent? Check.

Still wants to be Angel? So very badly.

Total Bollocks Overdrive? Present and correct. Or rather, as Nic points out, present and very very wrong.

Ah, welcome back Torchwood. It’s like you’ve never been away, but not in a good way. Also, I’m not entirely certain that responding to criticisms that everyone in Torchwood is an idiot by writing a plot that depends on the fact that everyone in Torchwood is an idiot was the right choice for the episode that relaunches the show. But hey, at least it had Spike in it. If you like Spike. Which I don’t.

Save Heroes

Here:

We need to write a detailed critique of the plot, character, race and gender elements of Heroes. We need to have one place where the producers and writers of Heroes can come and find what fandom has to say on these issues.

That’s the purpose of this website. We don’t need to Save Heroes from cancellation or network misuse, we need to Save Heroes from itself. Because it’s not a lost cause. It’s still capable of being the amazing show it was in season one. No, it’s capable of being even better.

[…]

Timeline

Week of November 19 – 25
Putting together the first draft – accepting comments/links/contributions from all fans

November 26 – 28
Creating the first draft, soliciting input from contributors.

December 3rd
Final draft ready.

Catching Up

Or, well, not really catching up at all. But at least putting something up here, so that you don’t all think I’ve dropped off the edge of the world. So what have I been doing?


Reading: Mostly Clarke Award submissions, of course, about which I cannot speak. (The pile is now down to just over knee-height, or about 66cm, which means I’ve got to read about 8mm of book a day, or near-as-dammit 100 pages.) However, I have managed to fit in a few other things. Notably, like a few others of this parish, at the end of last week I received a proof copy of the new Iain M. Banks novel, Matter, and immediately put all else aside. (Well, I had to get it read before the BSFA meeting interview a week on Wednesday, didn’t I?) Having just finished it, I can say that (1) I will have more to say about it later, and (2) it’s good, possibly very good, and (at least compared to The Algebraist, of which I was not particularly fond) a real return to form. I’ve also, in my lunch hours, been making my way through Jonathan Strahan’s new anthology, Eclipse, about which I may well say more later this week; and I finally got around to reading Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, which is as beautiful and moving as everyone has said it is.


Planning: Once again this has already been reported elsewhere, but the 2008 SFRA conference, which was going to take place in Dublin, has been relocated to Lawrence, Kansas, where it will be held jointly with the 2008 Campbell Conference. This is disappointing, since I’d been looking forward to going, and there’s no way I’m going to get to Kansas at that time of year; it also means that the second SF Foundation Masterclass in criticism is being relocated, although in that case to London, which is actually somewhat more convenient for me than the usual venue (Liverpool). So I still plan to apply for the Masterclass, even if I haven’t got around to it yet.

Somewhat more imminently, I’m moving house! On the 8th of December, to be precise, if all goes according to plan. So at the moment, on top of two hours’ commute a day and those 100 Clarke pages and Strange Horizons work and Vector work, I’m attempting to organise removals and boxes and all the other logistics of moving. So it’s entirely probable that things will stay quiet around here until the New Year — although I have big plans for when I’ve freed up a bit more time, don’t worry.


Watching: Not a huge amount of this going on at the moment. I’m still enjoying Pushing Daisies, which is interesting given that I wasn’t a huge fan of either of Bryan Fuller’s last two series, Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls. The difference that makes Daisies, I think, is the extreme and conscious artificiality of the whole enterprise. The most fantastical thing about it, in many ways, is not Ned’s magical ability, but the technicolour world in which Ned lives. I’m still enjoying Heroes, more than not, anyway; I’m a little bit concerned by the interview Kring gave, because while I agree with some of the things he identifies as flaws, I don’t agree with all of them, I don’t agree with the fixes when I do agree they’re flaws, and there are issues with the portrayal of various characters that he doesn’t touch on at all. This last is understandable, perhaps — saying to Entertainment Weekly, “yeah, we know [plot point or character] came over as [racist|sexist], but we’re going to fix that” strikes me as a good way to commit commercial suicide. But the rest seems to assume that the root problem is not giving the audience what it wants, rather than executing the writers’ vision badly. Case in point: saying that Monica, Maya and Alejandro “shouldn’t have been introduced in separate storylines that felt unnattached to the show”. Yes, they should have been; that’s one of the things that will help to differentiate Heroes, to give it scope and a sense that there’s more to the world than just New York. The flaw is not introducing separate storylines, but introducing separate storylines that the audience didn’t connect with. (Although personally speaking, I thought they were strong.) The same goes for Kring’s comments about pacing: I don’t care whether Heroes tells stories about people discovering their powers or whether it sticks with the people we know. I’d be happy if they dumped the whole cast at the end of a season and started with a clean slate the following year — as long as the stories being told are interesting. (In point of fact, I think Peter and Sylar have both outstayed their welcome; they were both so intimately tied to the season one story arc that they can’t help feeling like spare wheels now.) I do agree with Kring about one thing — no romance — but that’s only because so many shows do revolve around romance that it’s refreshing when one doesn’t.


And some links to finish:

And that’s your lot.