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  • Mike O'Driscoll

Not Peripheral...

But something more - maybe the best SF show on TV right now.


Judging from the critical response to the first two episodes of Prime's new SF series, The Peripheral, you'd think the show was both too complex and too simplistic, that it's derivative, dull, and unimaginative; that it comes overburdened with action, or suffers from too little; that it is, in other words, a complete dud. Take a deep breath and listen to what IndieWire had to say: "It has time travel, gaming, and the lure of a post-apocalyptic backdrop, but manages to suck the thrill out of these promising elements and deliver something decidedly mundane." CNN Entertainment, think that it deals with "themes of virtual reality and sort-of time travel, but in a grinding fashion that should push it to the periphery of one’s “watch” list, if not off it entirely." I wonder how long it took the writer to come up with that gem. To their mind, it "feels like a mashup of sci-fi ideas put to better use elsewhere, from Avatar to Free Guy, with a lot in between." The Playlist calls The Peripheral "a cluttered mess of a show, one that gives viewers almost no actual characters to care about and doesn’t have interesting enough ideas or style to make up for its hollowness."


Perhaps a little context is in order, particularly for those unfamiliar with the source material and its author. William Gibson established his reputation as a science fiction writer with Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)--known collectively as The Sprawl Trilogy, works that, if they didn't invent it, at the very least gave the cyberpunk genre its defining characteristics and its most complete realisation. After collaborating with Bruce Sterling on The Difference Engine, a progenitor of what became known as Steampunk, Gibson focused on novels set in the near future, or, with the Blue Ant trilogy, works that are set in a universe that is, according to the man himself, "more or less the same one we live in now." In the late 90s, The Guardian described him as "probably the most important novelist of the past two decades", while Laura Miller, writing in Salon.com, said about his work, "readers found startlingly prophetic reflections of contemporary life in [its] fantastic and often outright paranoid scenarios." Is it possible that The Peripheral's makers can really have hollowed out Gibson's text to the extent that it is devoid of interesting ideas and offers no characters for us to be invested in?


What of the original text? The Peripheral, published in 2014, marked a welcome return to SF for Gibson fans, utilising many of the cyberpunk tropes he had established 30 years previously. At its simplest level, the book is a murder mystery that grafts a noir sensibility on to a politically informed--and at times frenetic--narrative that posits what feels like an authentic near future, alongside a decadent but visionary post-apocalypse early 22nd century. The novel, though not without its flaws. It takes fifty or so pages to get a handle on what's going on, and for the reader to feel comfortable with the rhythms of Gibson's language and neologisms; there's perhaps a few too many characters, and the ending feels a little rushed. Yet it remains a dynamic, and at times unsettling vision of a near future world whose political, social and economic mores are not difficult to extrapolate from our present. The technology it presents is convincing enough that it seems almost within grasp, and it offers what may be the most plausible mechanics for time travel yet portrayed in fiction. Just as important, Gibson seems to be having a lot of fun in playing out all this craziness, with the narrative ripping along at a furious pace.


Given Gibson's pedigree, not to mention the track record of the show's creator (Scott Smith--author of A Simple Plan and The Ruins--and executive producers, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan--Westworld--it's fair to say that one might have high expectations for The Peripheral. And, despite the barrage of hostility that greeted the first two episodes, the show more than realises it's potential. After the crushing disappointment of fantasy's bastard idiot twins, House of the Dragon (HBO) and Rings of Power (Prime), and the superior, albeit flagging toward the end, Sandman (Netflix), The Peripheral gives us a masterclass in intelligent, sly, provocative and dazzling near-future SF. It's worldbuilding on an intimate and authentic scale, with a deft interplay between its main characters as they negotiate the sinuous and potentially fatal connections linking two distinct timelines.



Chloë Grace Moretz as Flynne Fisher


The first two episodes (all that I've seen at the time of writing) pretty much follow the course of the novel. In summary, in a small Appalachian town that could be a version of the milieu depicted in Graham Yost's Justified, updated to 2032, Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) cares for her sick and blind mother and works at a 3D printing store. Her brother Burton (Jack Reynor) is ex-miltary, having served with an elite US Marine force, from which some kind of related trauma curtailed his service. Burton makes his living as a freelance VR game player, touting his services to richer, but less skilled players, in order to get them up to the next level. Flynne, whose gaming skills surpass her brother's, earns extra cash sitting in for him on more complex and demanding sims. Burton is sent an unusual headset by a Colombian organisation called Milagros Coldiron and asked to beta test a new sim. He asks Flynne to do it as it's because of the high score she achieved whilst standing in for him, that he received the commission. For reasons that aren't quite clear, when in a sim she uses an avatar of Burton's body rather than of her own, which makes for some interesting gender dynamics when she takes his place in this new game.


Jack Reynor as Burton Fisher


The scenario into which she's projected (in Burton's avatar, in the guise of a suave James Bond type spy), is a future version of London, where she's tasked with infiltrating a corporation called the Research Institute and stealing company secrets. She's guided through this task by Aelita West (Charlotte Riley), but in the process of breaking in, their presence is discovered, Burton's avatar is neutralised, and Aelita disappears. A senior figure at the Research Institute, Cherise Nuland (T'Nia Miller), tells a subordinate that the break-in poses a serious threat and instructs that a contract be put out on Flynne and anyone else connected with the break-in. Back in the real world, Flynne attempts to purchase medication for her mother on the black market, but the dealers, working for local crime boss Corbell Pickett (Louis Herthum), attempt to double cross her until the violent intervention of Connor, an alcoholic, multiple amputee and ex-vet friend of Burton's, who's kitted out with a specially adaptated motorised trike that functions like a hybrid exoskeleton and sophistcated weapons system. Pickett is mightily pissed off that three of his goons were bested by a Flynne and Connor.


T'nia Miller as Cherise Nuland


Burton spends much of his time hanging out with a bunch of his local pals, all ex-vets who served together in a US Marine Haptic Recon unit. Haptics are a key component of VR technology, one that exploits the sense of touch. They allow Burton and his buddies to connect with each other in conflict situations and function as though they were a single entity. Flynne, who after the failed break-in at the Research Institute, has been reluctant to return to the game simulation, soon finds herself receiving messages via various pieces of tech at her workplace, urging her to return to the sim. These communiques come from Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr)--who we've already glimpsed in the opening scene talking to a young girl on a park bench in London in 2099. Wilf, it turns out, is a kind of fixer employed by super rich Russian emigre Lev Zubov (JJ Feild), who has an interest in exploiting 'stubs'--digital conduits to past computer systems, connections that allow users, through quantum tunnelling, to influence and manipulate the past, such that, once impacted, that timeline breaks away from its predicted future into an alternate timeline, or 'stub'.


Wilf manages to warn Flynne about an imminent threat to her life because of what she witnessed in the sim. It's not long before a small army of professional killers close in on the Fisher home one night, where Burton and his pals hang out around a campfire at his trailer. Reece, one of Burton's buddies, through his embedded haptic sensors, picks up on their approach and the bunch use their haptic abilities to engage with and kill most of the hitmen. A couple evade them but are taken out by Connor, who arrives unexpectedly and uses his bike/weapon, to kill them.


Gary Carr as Wilf Netherton with Flynne.


Lev summons Wilf and tells him he has built a physical avatar--a peripheral--for Flynne's consciousness to inhabit when in their present. Although reluctant to re-enter the game, Flynne needs answers as to why her family was targetted, and so decides to return to the simulated London. Once there, this time in the form of the peripheral, rather than in her brother's avatar, Wilf reveals the truth: that what she thought was a game is in fact the future, specifically, a strangely depopulated London in 2099, where huge, neo-classical statues dwarf the towers and shards of the city's familiar skyline. To counter her disbelief, Wilf tells her her mother is dying of cancer--a fact her mom has hidden from her--and that she'll be dead within 4 weeks. He shows her an obituary from her own timeline and says he can provide new drugs that will save the woman's life, and that he'll arrange for the chemical formulation for the drug to be sent back to her stub.


Returning to her own time, Flynne picks up the medication from her local Pharma John (think a future Walgreen's where medications are formulated on site according to prescription). She injects her mother with the drug, and afterwards reveals to Burton the truth about the sim and her involvement with Wilf. When she next returns to 2099, Wilf introduces her to Lev, who tells her that as she was the last person to see Aelita alive, she's the only one who can help them find out what happened to her. Flynne is more concerned about the men who attacked her home. Lev says the killers were contracted by the Research Institute for $9 million, and that they won't stop until she and anyone connected with her and Burton, are dead. Flynne agrees to help them in return for their assistance in defending her family and friends from further attacks. Lev arranges to transfer $250,000 dollars to Burton's account to finance the purchase of weapons.


In the meantime, back in Clanton county, whilst indulging himself in a VR sex game, Corbell Pickett receives a communication from an agent of the Research Institute, offering him $10 million to get rid of Flynne. He thinks it's some sort of hoax, but later finds that an advance payment of 25% has been transferred into his account.


JJ Feild as Lev Zubov


Clearly, there's an awful lot going on in these first two episodes, just as there was in the dense first 100 pages or so of Gibson's novel. And clearly it's this blitzkrieg of ideas, themes and incident, which has prompted many commentators and critics to dismiss the show as too complex, too convoluted, and too burdened with characters. What this suggests is overfamiliarity with many of the tropes of cyberpunk, particularly as depicted in films ranging from Blade Runner and it's sequel, to the Matrix films, Ghost in the Shell, Strange Days and 12 Monkeys. Fair enough, but Gibson is the guy who invented most of those tropes, and it's a fact that in the Sprawl series, as well as in The Peripheral, the ideas and physical paraphernalia of his world-building come thick and fast, with the author largely eschewing significant infodumps, trusting in his readers to do some of the heavy lifting for themselves. Who wants to read fiction or watch a show that leaves no space for the reader or viewer's imagination to come into play?


I recall David Simon, when questioned about the novelistic structure of The Wire and how it made few concessions by way of recap or explication for the average viewer, responded, "Fuck the average viewer." Like Simon, The Peripheral's creators avoid great wodges of explication, at least in these opening episodes. As with The Wire's slowly evolving plotlines and the Baltimore street patois, where it is character and context that give the language its meaning, so too with The Peripheral's multilayered narrative and the cyberpunk lingo Gibson deploys--haptics, klepts, stubs, peripherals and so on--where it's the patient accretion of details that allows us to intuit the terminology and understand what's going on without having to endure a tonnage of exposition.


As an example of how the writers trust the patience and intuition of their viewers, take the scene in episode 2, where, Wilf, in attempting to explain (and making a hash of it) the concept of stubs to Flynne--as being akin to a separate "continuum or a parallel timeline"--is interrupted by Lev, who comments, "It can all be rather confusing, even for us. Perhaps we should stick to the most urgent matters at hand and trust that the secondary details will fall into place." There's a large element of tongue-in-cheek here, which is present in much of Gibson's writing. For the most part, trusting his viewers is precisely what Scott Smith does--giving us just enough of the fictional technology's framework to allow the narrative to maintain momentum, knowing that incident, context and language, will allow us to fill in those secondary details.


Because the truth is that all these techonological wonders--the VR gaming, sims, quantum tunnelling, mobile tattoos, sonic knuckledusters, and peripherals--are not what the show is about. They are simply the incidental details that add colour and authenticity to both Flynne's and Wilf's timelines. The emphasis in the show is more on the tightly plotted SF noir narrative, and the relationships between Flynne and her brother, and--although only hinted at thus far--the shared history of Wilf and Aelita. At times the story is propulsive and full of imaginatively rendered action, yet it is not afraid to slow things down when necessary, allowing viewers to trace barely perceptible connections, and to let the implications of certain plot strands reveal themselves. Visually, the show is a feast for the eyes, with inventive and at times, particularly in its future London scenes, hauntingly surreal set pieces.


It features a convincing performance from Morentz as Flynne, capturing both her confidence and belief in her abilities, as well as her disorientation and scepticism when confronted with the truth about the sim. Reynor plays Burton in a more conventionally heroic vein, as a man carrying the scars of a violent past. Gary Carr gives a carefully modulated rendition of Wilf, giving us hints of a more a more nuanced and complex character beneath the tightly controlled fixer he at first appears. Perhaps what we're glimpsing is the flawed, alcoholic protagonist that he was portrayed as in the novel. As the physically and psychologically traumatised Connor Penske, Eli Goree is a revelation. There's a rawness in the way in which he conveys Connor's anger and his refusal to accept the pity of friend or foe, and an emotional heft to his need to be accepted on his own terms.


Eli Goree as Connor Penske


How the show plays out over the remaining six episodes remains to be seen. No doubt more will be made of how the London of 2099 came to be the way it is, and of the extent to which Lev, Milagros Coldiron and the Research Institute, have been intervening in Flynne's timeline, as well as other stubs. I hope it gives more room to Gibson's exploration of the emotional consequences of our ever closer interface with and reliance on technology, as well as his fascination with celebrity and power relationships, and with how social and cultural behaviours are dictated by ever shifting and superficial trends in art and fashion. But given the book is around 500 pages, I suspect that these are aspects that may be sacrificed in favour of a more streamlined narrative. Still, what works on the page doesn't always translate to film, either on the big screen or TV. I doubt that a film that was more faithful to Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, would have made for one as memorable or influential as Blade Runner. At least in its opening episodes, the makers of The Peripheral have given us a science fiction show whose dazzling visuals and kinetic set pieces are matched by its intelligence, wit and willingness to confront the consequences of our current social and political bewilderment.

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