“AND now, a new drama series set in the sometimes seedy online world of the Internet.”
Thus Lynda La Plante's latest and much-publicised drama arrived on Channel 4. The titles tell you exactly what you're in for. There's no messing about here, just the 3-D chromium virtual words “Killer Net” dripping with digitised blood. If you are one of the vast majority which has passively witnessed the Internet demonized in the press and on television, then Killer Net will confirm your worst fears and give you a few new ones into the bargain. Not only does the Internet remain a world wide web of sicko pornography rings, it's also luring our children into murderous games where reality and fantasy become blurred. As they assuredly do in Lynda's script.
Net hysteria seemed to have peaked by 1996, when the usually meticulous Time magazine ran its “Cyberporn” cover story, breathlessly proclaiming that the Internet consisted of little else. Traditionally sober British newspapers were no more restrained. London's Evening Standard fulminated against unwanted lessons in gun-running, bomb-making and recipes for human flesh. The Observer recklessly and libellously “exposed” Internet service providers as traffickers in child pornography. Even a willing government could not have conceded to The Independent's repeated demand that it curb the Net's excesses. The Internet was designed by NASA and the Pentagon to be indestructible and unmappable. It's hard to censor something when you have no idea where to find it.
EVEN a brief trawl of the Internet will suggest that those braving its “sometimes seedy online world” for wholesome, decent and frankly boring purposes far outnumber the dedicated and even occasional perverts. The online world of is certainly seedy at times. Equally, it may be dull (see alt.methodist.sunday.golfing), informative (http://www.parliament.the stationery-office.co.uk) and wonderfully innovative and entertaining (the excellent South Park site at http://mrhat.simplenet.com).
Lynda La Plante's online world is beyond seedy. Beyond pornographic. Beyond, in fact, credibility - for the very real reason that most of what she portrays is unlikely to ever occur outside the seething and largely inaccurate imagination of the cyber-novelist William Gibson.
Gibson, referred to in the first episode as a current touchstone of all things virtual, is widely considered passť by those net users who've heard of him at all. La Plante, on the other hand, is regarded as a writer who does her research and does it well. It is essential to her that her work be based on a believable premise. The Prime Suspect series on which she built her reputation pointed out, plausibly enough, that male-dominated police forces are sexist. Civvies revealed that ex-members of the parachute regiment, men trained solely to drop out of planes at low altitude and kill the people they land on, find it difficult to get a job afterwards. Now Killer Net discloses - and this is just for starters - that the Internet is populated by people seeking sex. Much, in fact, like the rest of the world. It's safe to assume that handsome, well-muscled young men with red MGs, and biceps in their cheeks, are the last to require help in that quarter. But not in Lynda La Plante's online world.
La Plante's Brighton students are unlike any I have ever met, or indeed am likely to. And I've met plenty. Her scholars have overcome the customary financial distress and scrofulous appearance of their kind to achieve the beauty of young gods and the lifestyle of Lord Irvine. Their vast modernist abode seems to have been personally designed for them by Sir Terence Conran. These sybarites socialise in places with names like “Techno Bar ”, “The Chamber” and “Club 2001”, giving Killer Net the wacky old-time feel of cautionary tales like Reefer Madness or Beat Girl, where the kids are hip to it, daddy-o, but doomed on their own crazy highway to hell. Soon, no doubt, leading man Scott and company
will visit the Future Vibe Jungle Disco. There they will all inject themselves with powdered ecstacy and jump off the roof while squealing modems pump hardcore filth onto the giant screens that surround them. That's if Scott hasn't barricaded himself in his luxurious bedroom and lined the walls with tinfoil while he feverishly trawls the Net for digitised muck. One thing's for sure: the Young Folk are Up To Something.
If La Plante has got her young people so fabulously wrong - and presumably she's met the odd young person - then imagine how skewed her perception of the Net must be. Only a month ago she admitted in an interview on Radio 5 that she had no interest in computers before she started researching Killer Net. No wonder the show is chock full of technical errors and obsolete terminology. Charlie, a large Goth girl of the kind phased out in the mid-Eighties, fits an anachronistic MPeg card to Scott's computer, announcing that she'll have to “Get inside the processor.” Scott, who is as bright as his meaty jawbone suggests, readily agrees, despite the fact Charlie clearly has no idea what the hell she's talking about. True, nor will most of the audience. But doubtless they rely on Lynda to be accurate. If her notion of the nuts and bolts is so utterly misguided, how can they trust her on what the Internet actually has to offer?
WHAT the Internet has to offer Scott turns out to be a fat stripper in hot pants. Sexy Sadie immediately offers to send Scott the grisly, murder-obsessed game of the title. La Plante's theme is that the Internet invariably corrupts unsupervised youth. One scene, revisited for emphasis, shows a computer room full of students playing violent games or accessing scurrilous websites, only to instantly return to their graphs and databases when a tutor walks in. This scenario sums up the basic fears of any middle-aged mum - or, in La Plante's case, auntie. The Internet represents the world beyond parental control. The thought that they don't know how it works but their children do makes it terrifying. Most middle-aged mums don't get an hour a week after the watershed to fret about it on national TV.
There are great thrillers to be written around the Net. The eponymous film starring Sandra Bullock was Kafkaesque but technically plausible, accurate in its portrayal of what could and could not happen. Copycat, a brilliant suspense drama with Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter, made chilling use of e-mail in the way Dial M For Murder once did with the telephone. A much better, and genuinely scary drama could be set in the truly seedy online world of the newsgroups, through which murderers, paedophiles and all manner of human detritus are far more likely to make contact or exchange information.
Until the success of Playboy effectively ended them, the United States had strict postal laws which prevented “obscene” material from being carried in the mail. Any such constraint upon the Net would be equally pointless and far harder to enforce. It would involve bugging every net user's phone line and prosecuting companies like British Telecom. You might as well enact legislation to stop ships falling off the end of the earth.
The Internet is not a broadcaster, like Channel 4, which willingly transmits La Plante's gore-spattered shag-fest. It is a carrier. The Law Of Carrier states that the conveyor of private information cannot be held responsible for the content. We are no more and no less at risk from the Internet than from the postal service or the phone network. Killer Net makes about as much sense as pointing at the occupant of a call box and screaming, “MY GOD! THEY COULD BE SAYING ANYTHING IN THERE! THEY COULD BE PLOTTING TO KILL SOMEBODY! THIS HAS GOT TO STOP!” It won't.