Looking back at Killer Net
James argues that Lynda La Plante's 1998 cyber-crime thriller, Killer Net, deserves recognition as a unique, iconic 90s drama...
This feature contains spoilers.
1998. The flames of the Britpop inferno were beginning to die down and the country was still under the assumption that things really could only get better under the new Labour government. At the movies, James Cameron was reeling in big money with his sinking boat sob-fest Titanic and the slasher genre was finding a new lease of life as a slew of Scream imitators came in thick and fast.
There was also this menacing thing bubbling its way into public consciousness. It was called The Internet. Now 1998 was long before the advent of sites like Facebook and Twitter. Most people were starting to come around to the idea of using email but in general, the internet was thought of as a bit of a nerds hangout. Consequently, there were few TV dramas that had used the internet as a plot device. Today, they’re ten a penny but one of the first was Lynda La Plante’s Killer Net.
La Plante is still widely regarded as one of the UK’s greatest TV script writers, most famously known for creating the Helen Mirren crime phenomenon that was Prime Suspect. Killer Net marked something of a departure from her usual output to a more youth-orientated crime thriller. The hallmarks of the police procedural drama were all still in place, but not presented in the same way.
Set in Brighton and told over four hour-long episodes, Killer Net revolved around unlucky-in-love psychology student Scott Miller, played by the didn't-really-go-on-to-do-much-else Tam Williams. As the story begins, Scott is your typical on-screen student. He lives in a house that is much fancier than any student accommodation has a right to be, even in trendy Brighton. He sleeps through his alarm and showers with his socks on, neglecting his household chores to the fury of his housemates Suzie and Joe Hunter – Emily Woof and the did-go-on-to-do-quite-a-lot-of-things, Paul Bettany.
For much of episode one, Killer Net is light on the crime and heavy on the Hollyoaks-style drama. Joe wants to set Scott up with the wholesome sounding Randy Mandy during a night out at dance club The Chamber. Scott’s not really into the idea so heads to internet café Techno Cafe. There he engages in an online chat conversation with a person known as Rich Bitch.
Killer Net shows its age with the scenes involving computers. This was before the days of broadband in every home so the bloke at the Techno Café enthuses to Scott about having just installed a T-1 line. The monitors on the PCs look like you’d have to take the door off its hinges to get them through, while the online graphics are in the realms of basic html. It’s a nice nostalgia trip to a time when the net wasn’t all singing and dancing.
Back to the plot, and Scott is persuaded to meet up with Rich Bitch after a spot of cringeworthy cyber-flirting. Charlotte, or Charlie as she prefers to be known, is a bit of an oddball. But she knows her stuff about computers, advising Scott of what he needs to upgrade his system so he can see and talk to people live online, and Scott soon falls for her. It also seems she knows Joe too. Curious as to who is making the loud panting noises in the next room, Joe sneaks out for a quick peak while Charlie is preening herself in the bathroom, topless naturally. He isn’t best pleased to see her.
Despite Joe’s shady warnings, Scott continues to be besotted with Charlie even after she dumps him and goes back to white vest-wearing hard man D.J. Brent Moyer, played by the intimidating erm, Jason Orange. Yes, that Jason Orange. Meanwhile, it seems there’s a murky past between Charlie and Joe that’s only tantalisingly teased. To get over his heartbreak Scott immerses himself in the world of getting stoned and online interactive pornography. It’s amusing to see the characters taking apart the PC just to install a microphone card with the aid of a special screwdriver in another flashback to the way we used to live.
In desperate need of someone to talk to, Scott finds himself baring his soul to a lady known online as Sexy Sadie. She asks him if he likes “big thrills” before telling him she is going to send him a CD-rom game. The game’s name is Killer Net. As episode one has played out like an eighteen-rated soap opera, it’s dying moments are a preview of what awaits Scott in Killer Net – an orgy of voyeurism, blood and brutal murder. The show was about to take a very dark turn.
Episode two was the episode centred on the playing of Killer Net. Although PC games weren’t rare in 1998 and some looked a good deal more polished than Killer Net with its crude Photoshop graphics, the complexity of the game was undeniable. Scott chooses to play in Brighton where he picks Tracey as his victim in the game. The aim of Killer Net is to stalk, kill and then dispose of a victim before outwitting the police investigation. What Killer Net the game seemed to lack in its ZX Spectrum style graphics it made up for in its interactive character scenes. There have been a number of similar games to purchase in real life since but at the time, Killer Net was a pretty unique concept. Along the way it is narrated by the bald-headed, deep-voiced figure known only as Dome.
Scott, and in turn Joe and Suzie are drawn further into the world of Killer Net, with each of them contributing to the success of the murder and allowing Scott to unlock the game function known as Libra, which allows you to insert your own victim. Celebrating their success in a manner befitting any would-be psychopath, the trio heads to laser quest where Scott is reunited with Charlie. The night takes a turn for the worst when he discovers that she has flamed him online. Remember flaming? The act of slagging someone off in online chatrooms and forums was a bit of a big deal in 1998. These days it happens with such frequency, we just call it commenting.
Scott is devastated, and in a state of inebriation inputs Charlie’s details to Killer Net as a Libra candidate. The next day a family out for a pleasant afternoon walk discover a body in a disused railway tunnel. Coincidence?
Episode two of Killer Net had a bit more going on. Having taken a slow burn, soap opera approach with the opener, Lynda La Plante had allowed her viewers to become invested in her characters. During episode two they began to do things that were a bit more interesting. The game of Killer Net was an engrossing experience and as Scott patrolled the streets of Brighton presented in the game and possible body disposal sites, including a disused railway tunnel, there was a growing sense that something bad was just on the horizon.
Tam Williams, who portrayed Scott as a bit of a simpering twit who was difficult to like during episode one, was much more watchable as the gamer geek obsessed with creating the perfect murder scenario. Kathy Brolly’s Charlie was at this point the emerging villain of the story, the character that in most crime dramas everyone seems to have some sort of grudge against. It was no surprise when it turns out to be her body in the tunnel at the beginning of episode three. Brolly’s character and performance were an evil mystery. On the one hand, she was knowledgeable about sci-fi and computers making her alluring to Scott, but on the other it was difficult to really see why Scott got so hung up on someone who treated him so badly. But as for setting up a range of motives with different characters, Brolly was spot on.
Charlie’s body was easily identifiable by the gigantic tattoo on her back (not of a dragon). The second half of Killer Net saw the show evolve into proper crime drama territory while revealing the real villain of the piece – the creator of Killer Net. The investigation into the murder is led by Richard McCabe’s DI Colby. Scott can’t take him seriously at first as Colby actually appeared in episode two of Killer Net as a character in the game. It seems that Killer Net uses real life police officer pictures grafted on to a video recording.
Moving along now at a rocket pace, the show spent its third episode cross examining the main suspects in Charlie’s murder, which led to rather suspect acting from the aforementioned Jason Orange. When Killer Net was first shown on Channel 4, its main marketing ploy wasn’t that it was a tightly crafted cyber-thriller from one of the country’s leading script writers but rather that it starred a former member of Take That (and not even one of the good ones) in his acting debut. Orange is meant to play something of a hard case DJ who crumbles when he’s put under Police interrogation. He’s a bit too difficult to accept as the tough nut and his line delivery when being questioned during episode three is a bit high school drama club.
One actor who did impress in this episode was Paul Bettany. This was some time before he became Russell Crowe’s bezza mate, and his performance as the gangly but shifty Joe was better than his villain in Harrison Ford movie Firewall. Throughout episodes one and two, we’d seen law student Joe have something of a temper and an increasingly loose set of morals. In episode three as he calmly waives his right to have an attorney with him while being questioned because of his chosen line of study, Bettany was a cool and calculating snake. Calm, deadly, and ready to drop his mate Scott in it if the opportunity should arise. Bettany made Joe a mesmerising character.
Episode three spent some of its time poking fun at the police with the use of the Killer Net game. Seizing the game as it leads to some confusion during Scott’s interrogation, Scott then has to demonstrate to the police computer expert how the game works. This sequence introduces Raquel Cassidy in an early role as PC Pam Boxer and the idea that Killer Net the game can send data over the internet to someone else. Just who that is was introduced in a spooky sequence where a bespectacled man sweeps a big white sheet off one of those large banks of monitors that you never see anywhere other than on TV and logs on to see what data he has received.
As our new character searches for Charlie (remember, Scott entered her details into the game as Libra victim), he becomes rather bemused when he finds out that Charlie has been murdered. Cue Scott and the police receiving a mysterious e-mail that tells them they have cheated and that “the Libra kill is always mine.” At this point the audience is one step ahead of the cops. It becomes obvious that this man is using the game to get away with murder. Using the meticulously laid out murder design that the player of Killer Net goes through, he copies this for a real life person.
This is a nice twist to Killer Net as it introduces a secondary strand to the whodunit mystery. We still have the ongoing puzzle as to who killed Charlie but now there’s a possibly even more dangerous individual prowling around.
In fact, it’s a good job that this added element came to the fore in the closing part of Killer Net as the whole 'who murdered Charlie?' storyline is resolved in a rather pedestrian fashion. After a decently crafted set up throughout episode three, Charlie’s killer simply confesses after a bunch of information is dug out of an old University database. It turns out that Joe shared a house with Charlotte in Dublin, which was busted as part of a student drug ring. Charlie went down for it and Joe walked away. She’d turned up in Brighton to find him and he’d silenced her when he saw the opportunity, using the method Scott had used in Killer Net, effectively framing Scott for the murder. With his back against the wall, a tearful Joe confesses.
If that was it then Killer Net would have stumbled to a rather uninspiring and flat conclusion. Fortunately, the dim-witted police have put PC Pam Boxer’s details into Killer Net after Scott completes the game for them as part of the investigation, for no other reason than to see what happens. Our man with the big spectacles has now taken this as something of a challenge and commenced stage one of his own real life Killer Net – stalking. He breaks into her flat, records her while showering, in what seems an all-too-easy fashion. Bear in mind that this was 1998, long before web cams and such were readily available. If this could have been done then, the realms of what might be available to such a perpetrator now are quite scary.
Naturally DI Colby works all this out just as scary glasses man is luring Pam to a disused pier. Killer Net ends with Colby racing down the pier to save the day and apprehend the man behind the murderous game. Alas, he is too late as PC Boxer hangs bloody and battered with the creator of Killer Net nowhere to be found.
It’s a very bleak finish to the drama. No character has a happy ending. Scott throws his computer monitor off the roof. Suzie fails her exams (it’s worth mentioning that actress Emily Woof does fine with the role of Suzie but she’s not the most memorable of characters and more or less only there to show up how evil Joe is). Joe, we presume, ends up in prison while Colby loses a colleague he was beginning to grow fond of. No one is exactly strolling off into the sunset but it seems fitting for the tone of the show.
There was something wonderfully 90s about Killer Net. The fashions and culture of the decade were played up through the characters – Scott’s baggy clothed wardrobe and floppy hair cut scream Britpop rather than emo. Its soundtrack was littered with music that bothered Mercury Music prize lists back when anyone cared which album actually won. Rewatching this was the first time I’d heard a Finlay Quaye song in at least ten years.
Killer Net finds itself entrenched in that decade primarily through its use of technology. Almost no character has a mobile phone, something unthinkable for any student drama now. The police not having any real clue about cyber crime and how to solve it wouldn’t happen in a show like this that was made today. The action of sending game data across the internet is done by almost anyone with a playstation now. The show throws back to a time when all this seemed shiny and new.
Script and performance-wise, Killer Net was a tight ship. Jason Orange aside, the main actors were all well chosen and La Plante’s script, while seeming a little slow during the first episode, was a complex mix of student life celebration and murder mystery.
It’s hard to envisage a similar kind of show being made now with the internet having evolved into what it is, which is why Killer Net remains such a unique drama. Dated but fascinating. This deserves to be ranked alongside the likes of This Life as one of the 1990s iconic drama serials.
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