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?

Recent TV

So what’s the current feeling about Battlestar Galactica? I’ve been lagging behind real-time in my viewing, so I haven’t really read any commentary on the show since they left New Caprica. I thought “Torn”/”A Measure of Salvation” did good work on the Cylons, but cheated on the humans horribly, and that “Hero” and “The Passage” were about on a level with the second half of season two, with some nice moments and some less nice. (From “The Passage”, aka the Jane Espenson episode, I’m keeping the moment where Adama and Tigh collapse in hysterics as one of the absurdities of their ration situation hits home, and I’m trying to forget the frantic handwaving necessary to make the A-plot work.) And then there was “Unfinished Business”, aka The Boxing Episode, which was just a bit of a mess, really. From the teaser — a montage of stark, semi-related images, set to a soundtrack of slow, cold strings is fast becoming one of the show’s cliches — to the resolution, there was very little in the way of surprise, which is more of a shame than it would normally be, given that this was probably our one chance to see some of what happened in the missing year on New Caprica. Compared to, say, Diane Ruggiero’s use of flashbacks in Veronica Mars‘ “A Trip to the Dentist”, or Tim Minear’s use of them in Firefly‘s “Out of Gas” — both episodes designed to provide backstory that’s been informing the present story — Michael Taylor’s structuring of this episode looks distinctly amateur-hour. Too much material is repeated to no good effect. Starbuck and Apollo remember the same events, and the meaningful glances become very old, very fast, which is probably why the single biggest structural problem I’d point to is that the episode has the wrong emotional climax. Even if you’re particularly invested in the concept of Starbuck/Apollo (and I’m not), I think you have to concede that it’s not the Epic Romance that the last few minutes of “Unfinished Business” try to sell us. On the other hand, while the Adama flashbacks are arguably just as unsatisfying as the Starbuck/Apollo ones (cute though it is to see the fleet’s leaders giggling like schoolkids), some of them do set up Adama’s fight against the Chief, which is utterly riveting. It’s not clear whether Adama was looking for an excuse to get himself beaten up, or whether he felt it was necessary to give the crew the closure they needed, or both, or something else: either way, the long beat after his defeat, before his speech, is the single most powerful moment Galactica has generated this season.

One of the things that’s marked out Galactica all along is its tendency to include episodes, like “Unfinished Business”, that have absolutely no need to be sf, and could be transplanted wholesale to a more contemporary setting. That’s not an accusation you could ever level at Heroes, to which I now freely admit I’m addicted. Of course, the foregrounding of speculative elements in Heroes isn’t why the show works, per se, although it sure doesn’t hurt; the secret of its success is largely in its plotting. The decompressed, immaculately-woven tapestry of story threads feels, at least to me, like one of the things the show has most successfully ported from its source medium (although it’s worth noting that Galactica at its best, and in particular at the start of season two, has also used such techniques, so it’s not exactly a pure comics tradition). In that and many other ways, it’s fair to say that Heroes has become exactly what I hoped it would be when I first wrote about it, and fittingly the “fall finale”, Joe Pokaski’s “Fallout”, is the strongest episode of the season to date. Somewhere on livejournal I saw someone say that “Fallout” was made up of nothing but moments that would have been the centrepiece of an entire episode on another show, and that’s not much of an overstatement There’s an utterly gobsmacking amount going on, almost all of clever and effective, and if you asked me to pick a favourite moment from, say, Eden, the closing vision, Isaac’s painting, Peter and Claire, and the Haitian, I don’t think I could do it (and could probably name another three or four contenders if I took longer to think about it). The flipside, the show’s critics will say — and I have a running debate with Abigail about this — is that the show doesn’t do dialogue, doesn’t do character, doesn’t really do depth of any kind. The first two criticisms had some merit to start with, but it seems to me the writers have come on in leaps and bounds; with the possible exception of Niki, I don’t think there’s a single character on the show I’m not interested in, which is not a small accomplishment. The lack of depth is perhaps a more serious criticism, but even there I think a lot of people underrate Heroes — and anyway, it’s an attack that shifts the goalposts. First and foremost Heroes is more consistently fun than anything else on TV, and that’s not a small accomplishment, either.

And, not before time, Heroes even appears to have lost the voiceovers. I wish I could say the same of Torchwood, since whatever his other virtues John Barrowman just cannot sell that “the 21st century is when everything changes, and you gotta be ready” line to save his life, and it’s painful to hear him try at the start of each episode. The only reason I’m still watching the show, if I’m honest, is that I lack willpower: every Sunday evening I have something better to do (most of the time, I forget about Torchwood entirely), and every Monday, or at the latest Tuesday, I’ll see a comment somewhere about how this episode wasn’t bad, or started to show promise, and I’ll think, well, I’ve come this far … Paul Tomalin and Dan McCulloch’s arc-initiating “They Keep Killing Suzie” is the most recent episode I’ve watched, and while it was far from being the most horrible episode of the season so far (that honour still goes to CYBERWOMAN VS PTERODACTYL), anyone who seriously compares it to Heroes, or even to sub-par Galactica, has got to be on something pretty strong. Where Heroes gives its viewers cool stuff rooted in character, Torchwood tries to give its viewers shocking stuff not rooted in anything. Where Galactica is always, always beautiful, the cinematography and soundtrack on Torchwood make me want to cry. “They Keep Killing Suzie” had an interesting premise — the dead hand of the rogue Torchwood member who killed herself in the show’s pilot enacts a complicated vengeance — and one scene with actual emotional impact — the one with Gwen and Suzie in the car, after the hospital, talking about death, where Suzie says that humans are “just animals howling in the night, because it’s better than silence” — but it was all rather spoilt by the engagement of the, as Tony put it, TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE towards the end of the episode. (There’s something about this show that just inspires the use of ALL CAPS. I can’t help myself.) So … what was this week’s episode like?

That one emotionally involving scene did have a second good line, now I come to think of it, which was the one about all these aliens only washing up on Earth because there’s life here, because they’re drawn to it like moths to a flame. It strikes me that if Torchwood ever built on moments like that, and if it was ever any good, it could potentially (don’t laugh) start telling the stories about sex and death that a 21st-century James Tiptree, Jr might have told. Admittedly, they couldn’t go as far as “The Screwfly Solution” and actually end the world, but I think there’s room for a series working in that territory — Angel gave us “Billy”, for instance, which in retrospect looks not unlike a reconfigured version of “The Screwfly Solution”. I was somewhat amused, in a despairing kind of way, to come across comments like these about the Masters of Horror adaptation of Tiptree’s story, which insist that it’s not really horror but science fiction (as though it could only be one or the other), because to me it seemed to be full of the visual grammar of horror (from lashings of blood to dark woods), and because “The Screwfly Solution” is one of the two or three scariest stories I’ve ever read. It doesn’t really matter whether the premise (aliens who want our land corrupt the linkage between human male sexuality and violence; men start killing women) is an actual biological possibility. The thought that it might be — or to go back to “Billy”, the idea that it might be something in men, rather than solely something done to them — is utterly terrifying on its own. Here I suspect I’m disagreeing with Abigail, again (I already know I’m against her and with Matt Cheney on the story’s last line), but arguably the scariest thing about Hamm’s adaptation is how little updating it needed to retain that air of possibility. The rhetoric about bioterrorism and fundamentalist religion fits in more than comfortably, as does the suggestion of chemical castration, and between them Sam Hamm and Joe Dante almost entirely preserve the conviction and unarguable raw force of the original story. If I had Hugo nomination rights this year, for that feat alone “The Screwfly Solution” would be on my ballot.

One More Quote

Saxon Bullock on Torchwood, Russell T. Davies and sf:

It may say science fiction on the tin, but Torchwood so far has only been as much sci-fi as the new relaunch of Doctor Who has been — i.e., not very much. RTD may love the paraphenalia of sci-fi, but he’s got absolutely no interest in it as a mode of storytelling, and most of the sci-fi devices in Torchwood could be shifted into the realm of ‘magic’ with very little effort. More than anything else, this mode of storytelling is all about avoiding the kind of dislocation that’s at the heart of normal sci-fi — instead, it’s all about emotionalism, wish-fulfilment, and confronting the issue-of-the-week. This has manifested itself in a number of dodgy ways (the supposedly hilarious sequence where the character Owen uses an alien spray that essentially magnifies the ‘Lynx Effect’ up to levels where the phrase ‘date rape’ wouldn’t be completely inappropriate), but it’s also showing up that, at heart, there’s not very much so far that seperates out Torchwood from its influences. With Doctor Who, RTD was performing a relaunch — and as a result he had a history he could play with, things he could react against, and a whole public perception that he could manipulate to his own ends. Now, whether or not I agree with what he did, I think the main trouble with Torchwood is that he’s starting from scratch, and his magpie habits are showing through too strongly.

In Brief

Here’s the terrible secret about this blog: the posts don’t just happen. They are planned. I don’t usually read a story, or a book, or watch a film or a tv show, and think, “hey, I want to write about this”. Sometimes that happens — it did with Children of Men, for instance — but those are the exceptions. More often, I’m on the lookout for things I want to write about. Recently, though, my plans have all come to nothing, or at least not very much. What follows are some fragments of aborted posts on some not-as-interesting-as-I’d-hoped failures: some stories, a film, and a tv show. (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?)

“Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” by Rudy Rucker

Inspiration is a tricky thing, especially when publicly acknowledged. When, a few years ago, Paul di Filippo wrote Fuzzy Dice, a novel inspired by and intended as a tribute to Rudy Rucker’s tremdous, barmy, transreal exploration of transfinite mathematics, White Light, it seemed somewhat miraculous that he pulled it off: his novel was just as tremendous as, and arguably even barmier than, Rucker’s. More recently, Rucker has in turn been inspired, as he acknowledges in the headnotes to the Asimov’s appearances of these two stories, and in a more-or-less loveletter to the book in question published in the November 2005 NYRSF. But while you can see how di Filippo got from White Light to Fuzzy Dice, if I didn’t know Rucker’s inspiration was Charles Stross’s Accelerando, I don’t think I’d have guessed the lineage. The two writers tell their stories in very different ways.

So far, whatever it is that Rucker’s up to is not very exciting. “Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” (note that both links are to excerpts, not complete stories) are set in the same future history. The former is backstory to a forthcoming novel, Postsingular, and explains how a nanotech singularity gets reversed by a clumsy plot gimmmick; the latter is part of the novel, and dramatises a rather more novel singularity, involving the overlay of a digital realm onto the physical, thanks to what amount to smart nanotech tags, which are the sort of thing I’m sure I’ve read Bruce Sterling enthusing about at some time or other.

Rucker’s plainspoken, laid-back style is almost the polar opposite of Stross’s data-dense lingo; if anything, these stories feel more like the work of Cory Doctorow, or like descendants of Vinge’s “True Names”. Which is fine, except when plainspoken becomes simply flat, and it too often does: the explanatory digressions are thinly veiled, and most of the characters are just thin. Ond, the (anti)-hero engineer at the centre of both stories, has motivations that are simplistic at best, and simply embarrassing at worst (his big realisation that bringing on the singularity might not have been a great idea comes when his wife starts electronically cheating on him); and most of the female characters are shrill, except when they’re being stupid. Neither story has the energy or the charm of White Light, and the ideas in them feel tame and familiar, even when they’re not. Probably the most interesting thing about the stories (aside from the use, or possibly invention of, increasingly improbable SI prefixes) is their embrace of the “postsingularity = magic” idea: in “Chu” a computer program is described, with very little irony, as a magic spell, while “Postsingular” features more spells, heaven, and some angels. But the whole enterprise has the sort of curiously weightless feeling that Accelerando was (mostly) notable for avoiding, and doesn’t inspire great confidence in the novel.

Death of a President

Death of a President is the second speculative docudrama about the US that I’ve seen this year, the first being the lower-budget, but more ambitious and more successful, C.S.A.. Writer-director Gabriel Range spins a tale that does exactly what it says on the tin: relates the circumstances surrounding, and the fallout from, the assassination of President George W. Bush in Chicago (which city is lovingly captured in a series of sweeping establishing shots) on October 19, 2007.

The first part of the film, which portrays a Presidential visit that meets with widespread protest, is good. It perhaps tends somewhat towards the hysterical, but arguably that’s necessary to set up a situation in which it’s plausible that the secret service would lose control. The second part of the film, which focuses on the fallout, is much less good, because the only part of the fallout it focuses on is the investigation into whodunit, and because that investigation is about the most predictable and politically heavy-handed you can imagine. A series of archetypal suspects — in particular, the shifty, pasty white man; the black man who may or may not have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and, of course, the Syrian — are wheeled out in turn, and I suspect it’s not spoiling anything if I tell you that the last of those three is subjected to a hasty, shoddy trial and a conviction that subsequently turns out to be a mistake. (The identity of the actual assassin is about as big a cop-out as I can imagine.) In the background, Cheney ascends to the Presidency, rattles some sabres, and gets PATRIOT 3 passed, but otherwise seems to do remarkably little. Range is entitled to tell the story he wants to tell, of course, but I can’t help thinking that a slightly broader perspective would have made for a much more interesting film.


What struck me most about Torchwood was how normal the normal bits are. For all the fuss made about the incorporation of Rose’s family into the Russell T. Davies incarnation of Doctor Who, the Tylers and their friends always felt to me like a tv family. By contrast, Gwen, her colleagues and her boyfriend seemed a bit more grounded. Admittedly, part of this perception is probably due to the fact that some of Gwen’s mannerisms and dialogue reminded me alarmingly of someone I knew at university; but even allowing for that, the scene (for example) where Captain Jack takes Gwen for a drink had a sort of incongruous meeting-of-worlds feel to it that recent Who only managed once or twice in two seasons.

As I’m sure most people reading this are more than well aware by now, I haven’t been overly impressed by new Who. It’s had its moments — mostly involving scripts by Steven Moffatt — but not many of them, and they’ve been almost lost in the general mediocrity and occasional outright amateurishness. But I’ve liked much of RTD’s other work (particularly The Second Coming), and wondered whether he might do better starting a show off from scratch. The other notable thing about Torchwood, though, is how much it doesn’t start from scratch. Its genetic makeup seems to be (even leaving aside the elements taken from a certain well-known show) about 10% Doctor Who, 5% Spooks (mostly the soundtrack), 30% Men in Black, 10% Generic British Drama, 5% Buffy, and 40% Angel.

The second episode (the Chris Chibnall-scripted “Day One”), in particular, had an Angel vibe about it — not, as some have said, for the loose similarities the plot bore to “Lonely Hearts” (the similarities were there, but they were very loose), and not particularly in the tone, but rather in the general structure of the show, and the sense of what it was trying to do. Captain Jack has been reinvented, consciously or not, as a more Angel-esque figure: invulnerable, somewhat more brooding, prone to standing on high buildings staring out over “his” city, and power-walking through the opening credits in a long flowing coat. The story took a fantastic element and used it as a metaphor for an aspect of human experience (Modern Life Is Sex); and Jack’s sidekick Gwen, while more of a viewpoint character than Cordelia ever was, offers the same sort of connection-with-common-humanity that the Queen of Sunnydale High provided for Angel. At one point in “Day One”, Jack asks Gwen to tell him “what it means to be human in the 21st century”, which as mission statements for tv shows go is surely ambitious enough for anyone.

The problem for me is not so much that Torchwood‘s influences are so obvious, but that they have been followed in their flaws as well as their virtues, without any real thinking-through. For one thing, the writers seem to be of the “sf doesn’t need consistent plotting” school; and to continue with the theme, Joss Whedon isn’t the strongest plotter in the world, either, but he tends to be much, much better at papering over his holes than RTD or most of his team. Nor do these writers have Whedon’s skill at fleshing out secondary characters: Toshiko and Owen remain cutouts. And the whole of the UK seems to indulge in the sort of mass-denial of alien existence that would put Sunnydale to shame — and as Martin Wisse notes, that kind of denial doesn’t really play in a science-fiction world, particularly on the sort of scale it’s used here. Torchwood may yet develop its own identity — it took Angel almost a season, after all — but at the moment it’s not even close to being a must-watch.

EDIT: Discussion of this post seems to be happening on the lj feed. Which, of course, means it’ll vanish into the ether in about three weeks. Sigh.