In Season 3 of Luther, released in 2013, the titular detective chief inspector makes it clear how he feels about technology and social media. His dear ol’ pal, DCI Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley) asks Luther mid-investigation, “Do you understand social networking?” He receives a very blunt “no.” But despite this highly relatable moment of exasperated derision 10 years earlier, Luther’s learning up fast about tech-enabled crime in
Written by Luther creator Neil Cross and produced by Netflix, The Fallen Sun sees Luther teaming up with DCI Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo) to size up against a formidable foe: Andy Serkis creeping us the hell out as villain David Robey. Using a particularly nasty form of online antagonism to stalk, catfish, and blackmail his victims, wielding physical tech devices like GoPros, smartphones, and Bluetooth speakers to terrorise, and with a much larger, more sinister internet-reliant plan ahead, Robey holds the power of shame over his targets.
In one scene, Luther himself speaks about the power of shame and how the internet has changed how fearful we are of exposure, even for the smallest embarrassment: “The problem is these days people live their secret lives on the internet. In the right circumstances, the fear of shame is worth more than the fear of death.” Luther as a series has long delved into the possibilities of tech to terrorise, for example vigilante killer Tom Marwood’s vote-for-punishment website of Season 3.
Credit: John Wilson/Netflix
Mashable sat down with Cross to unpack the technological perils woven through Luther and The Fallen Sun, from the early internet urban legend sitting at the film’s core, The Red Room, a dark web space with real-time violence connotations, to the nature of online vulnerability and the power of shame itself.
The below interview has been edited for brevity.
Shannon Connellan: You’ve always had an element of tech in Luther, but for David Robey, Andy Serkis’ character, why did you gravitate towards his particular brand of online antagonism for this film?
Neil Cross: I’m not necessarily the most technologically articulate person in the world. But I think what unites us as a species, unfortunately, is not peace, love, and understanding — we’re all scared of the same thing. One of the secrets to what people like about Luther is that it kind of articulates shared fears. Although the fear articulated by Robey is of the moment — the vector is technology — the fear itself is older than that. Freud would have called it the super ego, Proust would have called it God. But there’s always a sense that in our most private, shameful, bestial moments, there’s somebody watching and judging us. And that sense of being watched is what keeps us from enacting our worst instincts. Those things weren’t true, because God wasn’t watching us.
But we are now as a species, it seems to me, incredibly willing to act out that shame, those bestial instincts, those secret selves, those aspects of ourselves that are most profoundly private, on what amounts to a public forum: the internet. People do it under a convenient illusion that nobody is watching. But unlike in the past, when there was no God observing us, I think now somebody is watching — and that somebody might be somebody like David Robey, which is an idea I find terrifying, frankly.
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SC: You mentioned shame, which is a massive theme across the film, the power that shame holds. One of your lines that Luther says: “The fear of shame is worth more than the fear of death.” But there’s an irony to this of how much we’re putting of ourselves online.
NC: It’s a familiar trope from Cold War spy fiction, that spies were turned through honey traps and blackmail, through shame. Gay spies were turned because of their particular shame. So it is something which can be profoundly weaponized against us. In more circumstances, I think, than we would imagine at first blush, the fear of shame is stronger than the fear of death. There’s a fantastic short story in The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, short stories which recount his experiences in Vietnam. The central one is that he gets his call-up papers, and in the week before he goes, he goes fishing one of the Great Lakes and the guy who owns the hotel rows him across the lake, and nothing is said — the old guy rows him to the shallows of Canada. All he’s got to do is get out of that boat or walk into Canada. And he thinks about his mum, dad, brother, sister, and his girlfriends and what they’re going to say and think about him. And he decides to go to Vietnam because he’s too embarrassed not to.
SC: It’s a powerful force.
NC: It drives so much of what we do for good and ill.
SC: I was fascinated by the fact that you used a really early internet urban legend to explore, The Red Room. What drew you to that concept?
NC: I maintain that Luther is not really a crime drama so much as a monster-of-the-week story. It has very little to do with the psychology of real serial killers; it takes place in, essentially, a much more folkloric space. London itself is a kind of folkloric Brothers Grimm version of London — and the Red Room belongs to that kind of folklore.
I’m fascinated by…the haunting, three o’clock in the morning, eyes pop open feeling that if you can imagine one terrible thing that one human being has done to another in all of history, somebody has done that thing.
I’m fascinated by that kind of folklore, by the Big Bad Wolf, by the hairy hand with the axe, the hitchhiker, and by Red Rooms. And also by the haunting, three o’clock in the morning, eyes pop open feeling that if you can imagine one terrible thing that one human being has done to another in all of history, somebody has done that thing. Which by logical extension means that there are worse people than you can imagine that have done worse things to each other, things that you literally cannot envisage. That makes me wonder, by some kind of failed syllogism, if maybe the urban legends might not exist in the real world, because somebody’s brought the legend to life. Who knows?
Credit: John Wilson/Netflix
SC: Did you have a hand in designing the Red Room website for the film?
NC: I was very specific about what the website should look like, but one of the great things about filmmaking is that you work with people who do jobs that you don’t understand far better than you could ever do it. So although I was very specific about a lot of the imagery and the inspirations, and I provided a mood board and all that sort of thing, they still made it better than my concept.
SC: I never want to see that mood board. That is terrifying. With the connotations of the Red Room and online voyeurism, this has come up a lot in Luther, this isn’t unique to The Fallen Sun. It reminded me a lot of Season 3 and the For Kaitlyn website and performing for an audience, even Season 2 with Cameron Pell. Is this an extension of those themes through David Robey’s character?
NC: You know, I’ve never really thought about that. I think it’s probably a function of the indisputable fact that I have no friends and I live most of my life via the internet. Physically, geographically, I live a long way away. So I mean, as it’s not now uncommon, I’ve got friends I’ve never met in the world. But I’ve never really thought about that as a linking theme in Luther, but you’re quite right, it is.
SC: The voting element was a little different, but the voting that Robey made available, which was a terrifying element, you used it in a different way in Tom Marwood’s website in Season 3. I found that online participation really terrifying.
NC: Well, I generally find online participation terrifying. It’s very difficult to articulate this stuff without rehashing truisms, but direct participation on the internet strips us of an essential essence of our selfhood. And as individuals and as mobs — and I include myself in this even though I don’t participate, because I know that I am susceptible to the same thing because we all are — we behave in inexcusable and terrifying ways. I think it’s incumbent not simply to fear the mob, but to fear the fact that you might yourself be part of one.
Credit: John Wilson/Netflix
SC: I’ve got to bring in the main man…In a previous season, Shenk asks Luther, “What do you know about social networking?” And he’s like, “Nothing.” When you have this modern landscape of cyber criminals, where does Luther’s character, to you, sit within that?
NC: When Idris and I and Jamie were very early meeting with Netflix talking about the look and feel of the film, we were articulating some kind of discomfort about certain modern cinematography, there’s a certain kind of sameness to a lot of modern cinematography, and then we didn’t want that…But I said during the meeting, that what we’re trying to say is Luther’s on vinyl. Both he (Luther) and I are fundamentally analogue people. Well, I think that all of us are fundamentally analogue beings, except that we’re analogue beings moving through an increasingly digitised world.
SC: It was fascinating to see how many ways you were able to incorporate technology as a tool in this film. You were using Bluetooth speakers and GoPros — the words “to be held at GoPro point” went through my head. I’ve never been afraid of these devices in that way. You took it beyond social media to these devices and asking what is going on here?
NC: There’s a kind of Cronenberg-esque aspect to these devices, they’re popping up like tumours in kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms. I used to work back in days of yore when the world was in black and white, I worked on the spy show called Spooks, and back then it was a subject of some discussion, the number of times that we appeared on camera in any given day, completely without having any say in the matter. But that is now forgotten, and everything in some way is being recorded. I had my first experience with ChatGTP recently — I wish JG Ballard were alive.
Credit: John Wilson/Netflix
SC: There was a scene where Robey wears a digital mask. It felt like another homage to previous villains that Luther has taken on — just there’s so many terrifying masks through the years of Luther. Was that a choice as a result of that, or did that just come from the character naturally?
NC: It comes down to this, it’s summarised in a sentence which is: Neil likes a mask. It goes back to that core folkloric element. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point a full on Herne the Hunter appeared in Lutherland. It ties it into the Brothers Grimm, it ties into the Boogeyman, it ties it into these subconscious fears. Masks are just terrifying.