Shadow Unit


Sanding the Oyster: the Origins of Shadow Unit

by Emma Bull

When I was a kid, I was a huge Man from U.N.C.L.E. fan.

Yes, that was back when it was first broadcast, and yes, I am that old. Shut up.

Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode titles were all in the form of "The [fill in the blank] Affair," and each act--the sections of episodes between commercial breaks--also had a title, in the form of a line of dialogue from the act. One of my favorite recreations was making up new episodes, complete with titles and act titles. I didn't know I was writing fan fiction.

I've been in love with TV episodic drama ever since. I've imagined the stories I'd write for my favorite shows, if I got a chance. I did write one with Will Shetterly: a sample X-Files script that was our calling card when we were looking for film and television work.

So when Elizabeth Bear encouraged the professional writers of her acquaintance to write fan fiction to reconnect with writing for pleasure, I wrote a Criminal Minds novella. She was right. It was fun.

But it also made me think about another show I'd like to write fan fiction for. A show no one had ever seen. It would share DNA with Criminal Minds, with The X-Files and Millennium, with Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the old paramedic show Emergency, with The Avengers and a British paranormal series I barely remember called The Champions and a short-lived U.S. series called The Sixth Sense.

The show I was imagining had never aired. But why couldn't I write episodes for it? Why couldn't I write fan fiction for a show that didn't exist?

The setting and stories began to take shape in my head. Chaz Villette, already named and with much of his character baggage hanging from his long, skinny arms, showed up on my mental doorstep. I told Will about my foolish notion.

"Got a title?" he asked.

"It's called Shadow Unit," I said. It had never occurred to me that it was called anything else; it was as if I'd already seen it on the TV schedule and was ready to program it into the TiVo I don't have.

Will pitched in to help, as he always does. On a long book-signing road trip in the summer of 2007, we collaborated on creating the first draft of the series bible, the document that establishes the characters, themes, storylines, and universe of a show. A mystery/suspense show, a cop show, a profiler show--but with a science-fictional problem at its heart. An ensemble cast of smart, witty, capable people, each with a vulnerable place at his or her core. A single, unified what-if, that was only a little outside the laws of physics as we know them.

I thought maybe I'd write a series of short stories. Except this wasn't a short story collection. It was a TV show. It felt as if it needed more dimensions than just print on paper to tell it properly.

"It's a website," Will said. He was right.

He was also right when he pointed out that TV shows have a writing staff. I'd been thinking that, too. These characters needed more people to tell their stories. They needed perspectives outside my own, and a wider range of writing styles and narrative obsessions than I could manage. If they had that, the whole project would seem bigger, richer...more real.

I asked Elizabeth Bear to join Will and me in the writing room. She suggested we recruit Sarah Monette to the writing staff, and I was delighted. Bear also ventured out and came back with Amanda Downum to be the show's Art Director, designing, maintaining, and updating the website and creating the portraits of the characters. Stephen Shipman's our Technical Director, as site host and internet troubleshooter.

That was the oyster: a team of creators who were up for an experiment, possibly the best television writing staff that never wrote television. We added to the bible, to the world behind the stories, to the physics of the Anomaly and the complexity of the characters. Bear and Sarah each spotted holes in the Shadow Unit cast, and filled them with new characters who added even more depth to the history and mythology of the show. We expanded the storytelling into new forms. And my concept, the non-existent show I wanted to write for, became the pointy grain of sand around which those creators built a pearl.

It's a bigger and shinier pearl than I could ever have imagined. And it's still growing.