Before watching Girl Number 9, the only online serialised moving images I’d watched were TV spin-offs such as Battlestar Galactica, where additional short episodes of the series were made available over the internet while the parent show was on hiatus between seasons. This is both a strange and familiar experience; it feels like you’re watching an episode of your favourite show, albeit in five-minute chunks a day or a week apart, with actors playing their usual characters. However, these ‘webisodes’ rarely have much of an impact on the ‘canon’ of the show itself, which is particularly frustrating when they often, ironically, give some characters greater depth than when they appear in the series ‘proper’.
The writer of Girl Number 9, James Moran, is obviously aware of this new format. Moran has written film scripts - Severance and the forthcoming Curfew - as well as TV shows - Torchwood and Doctor Who - and the latter has also had webisodes made available over the internet. Rather than penning a spin-off for a franchise though, Moran is tapping into his existing fanbase - I discovered the serial by following him on Twitter, which, appropriately, is a vaguely voyeuristic internet site - and he’s cast actors from Torchwood and Doctor Who while returning to the horror/slasher genre with which he first made his name.
Girl Number 9 doesn’t tread particularly unfamiliar ground: it concerns a killer who leaves victims in death traps viewable on monitors with clues designed to help free them in a way that also endangers the person trying to help - so far so Saw - and it also features this footage being broadcast over the internet, something tackled in such moribund fare as Halloween: Resurrection and FeardotCom. However, Moran turns our familiarity with the subject matter to his advantage - a small cast and tiny instalments mean the audience can fill in the gaps, while the taut script gives the actors a chance to tackle meaty exchanges that bring to mind films such as Swimming with Sharks and Tape, where a claustrophobic room and verbal duelling overcome the budgetary limitations. In addition, while a few risible horror films have dealt with death traps and ‘snuff’ movie footage broadcast over the internet, this is a project that involves the viewer in a similar way to the characters in the plot: you have to visit a website - www.canyousaveher.com - to watch the voyeuristic footage and you only get a small amount to take in before your access is removed.
Although America also has a great tradition of short genre TV entertainment in such series as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, many of these one-off dramas were very reliant on alien encounters and an SF twist. In the UK we have the well-remembered legacy of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected and the occasional Ghost Story at Christmas by MR James and others. These shows relied more on psychological terrors than special effects and even though Girl Number 9 may toy with the iconography of Saw, Moran is very much continuing the tradition of Dahl and James, particularly when the serial is watched as a whole 30-minute episode rather than the six daily instalments. The two actors, Gareth David-Lloyd and Tracy-Ann Oberman, familiar from BBC Wales’ space-faring series - are pretty good as the two cops dealing with the serial killer who has murdered, you guessed it, eight girls before the final instalment. But while less wooden than when confronted with Cyberman on TV, they don’t quite have the necessary gravitas or range when dealing with a more human killer on an even smaller screen. Joe Absolom, on the other hand, is a revelation and the creepiest British serial killer I’ve seen on any screen since the first two Hannibal Lecter films. Having recently caught him in an episode of Ashes to Ashes also playing a disturbed nutter, I fully intend to track down more of his back catalogue.
Girl Number 9 is a brave experiment and one I hope has reaped rewards for everyone involved. While I’m sure writer/co-director Moran will continue to do well on TV and in cinema, I hope this is a format he returns to. Other filmmakers, such as Sally Potter with Rage, and TV creators - Joss Whedon with Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog - have produced innovative entertainment designed for internet dissemination and mobile consumption, and there need to be more practitioners with a good track record in the format.