Prime Video Sci-Fi Series The Peripheral’s Clever Concept Is Its Greatest StrengthPhoto Courtesy of Prime Video TV Reviews The Peripheral
Prime Video’s new science fiction series The Peripheral is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by William Gibson. Considered one of the founders of the cyberpunk genre, Gibson’s writing has influenced countless other books, movies, and TV shows, but has rarely been directly adapted to the screen. Novels like Neuromancer, written before the public internet was even a thing, read as prophetic decades later. Gibson actually quit writing sci-fi in favor of realistic fiction in the 2000s because reality had caught up with his fiction. The Peripheral was his return to inventing new futures, and watching the streaming version eight years later, his vision feels all too plausible.
I say “futures” plural because The Peripheral takes place primarily in two different settings: 2032 North Carolina and 2099 London. The former is a recognizable extrapolation of present-day America, with virtual reality and 3D printing advancing—and poverty, the cost of healthcare, and the drug crisis worsening. Protagonist Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz, in the biggest role of her adult career) is living with her terminally ill mother Ella (Melinda Page Hamilton) and her brother Burton (Jack Reynor), a veteran who was subjected to technological experiments and now makes money doing jobs in hyper-realistic videogames.
It’s through filling in for Burton on one of these jobs that Flynne finds herself in the further future. She thinks she’s in a simulation, and given both how convincing we’ve already seen her world’s “sims” to be and how gamelike the experience is in other regards (surprising fighting abilities, a city that’s oddly empty and seemingly filled with NPC-like individuals), viewers have reason to think similarly in the first episode. But in this supposed sim, she can actually feel pain, and by the end of the pilot, she’s had the mind-blowing revelation that she’s not actually in a sim at all, but instead inhabiting a robot body (the titular “peripheral”) in the future.
Not her future, however. Essentially, physical time travel is still impossible, but scientists have found a way via quantum entanglement to send data back and forth in time. Once this data exchange with the past occurs, this past by its very nature splits off into a different universe known as a “stub.” Manipulating these stubs is a pass-time for the wealthy elite of 2099—if anything, Flynne’s life is the “game” being played by these people rather than the other way around. Amidst a complicated web of intrigue, there are those dedicated to helping Flynne and her family in their stub, as well as those set on hurting her.
The world-building in The Peripheral is brilliant. The show itself, which has been adapted by screenwriter Scott B. Smith and executive produced by Westworld’s Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, is merely pretty good. It has the common steaming TV pacing problem where episodes tend to run at least 10 minutes longer than they need to. Despite solid production design and a few attention-grabbing moments of action and body horror, the visuals and direction are never are stunning as those in Westworld, and while the story is not as frustratingly confusing as the latter seasons of Westworld got, it is still convoluted enough that one’s interest can often drift in the season’s middle episodes.
There are too many characters who are not fleshed out enough to really care about them all, and in the six episodes available for review of The Peripheral’s eight-episode season, it’s still introducing new important ones. Fortunately, the main leads are interesting enough to carry the story along. Flynne and Burton’s hardscrabble ways immediately grab sympathy, but the most compelling of the main characters is Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr), Flynne’s primary guide to the future who is searching for the missing woman Aelita (Charlotte Riley).
Wilf’s backstory has been changed and fleshed out from the source material in ways that enhance our understanding of his world, and his complicated relationship with Flynne offers a solid emotional angle in a show whose virtues are mostly more intellectual than emotional. Of the stronger supporting roles, there’s a lot of intriguing material involving Burton’s teammate Conner (Eli Goree), who lost three limbs in a tragic accident and has extra reason to be interested in the peripheral technology, while the sadistic villain Corbell Pickett (Louis Herthum) is appropriately scary.
Smith’s adaptation changes enough from the book that both those who have read it and those who haven’t won’t be sure what’s going to happen next. There are enough interesting things going on in the season’s first six episodes (some of which are spoilers we’re not allowed to talk about) that I’m curious how the final two episodes of the season will play out, as well as how/if a second season will work (the book has a sequel, Agency, but dealing with a completely different stub timeline). However, I’m still waiting for the moment when the series itself becomes as compelling as its central sci-fi concepts are.
The Peripheral premieres Friday, October 21st on Prime Video.
Reuben Baron is the author of the webcomic Con Job: Revenge of the SamurAlchemist and a regular contributor to Looper and CBR, among other websites. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndalusianDoge.
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