An odd takeaway from season one of The Peripheral: while recognizably based on a William Gibson novel, it doesn’t feel especially Gibsonian. Perhaps that’s the influence of producers Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, who imbue Westworld-like glitz to Gibson’s cool slickness, ramping up TV thriller rhythms and violent action. At any rate, it’s still a thoroughly compelling show, coherently rendering Gibson’s complex, dual-timeline narrative with stylish verve.
In 2032, former soldier Burton Fisher (Jack Reynor) gets a job remotely beta-testing virtual game environments for a mysterious employer. When Burton hands the job over to his sister Flynne (Chloë Grace Moretz), she’s impressed by the world’s realism—primarily because the world she’s visiting is real. In fact, she’s motivating an incredibly lifelike “peripheral” in far-future London, where the technology to send data through time has been perfected, enabling interactions between people across temporal continuums. Guided by her kindly handler Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr), Flynne learns she and Burton have become unwitting agents of an organization known as “the klept,” one of three powerful factions that maintains a tenuous détente in this future. The people of Wilf’s future have just crawled out of an extensive worldwide calamity known as “the jackpot,” a confluence of multiple crises that nearly derailed human civilization. This cataclysm is on the verge of commencing in earnest in Flynne and Burton’s timeline, but in their case—thanks of the vagaries of time-travel causality—it could be even worse.
The Peripheral may be Gibson’s most impressive novel, layering clever, cerebral worldbuilding over its skiffy big concept: that the ability to transfer data through time enables the people of a future timeline to create “stubs,” pocket universes with historical trajectories that veer off in a new direction. The ethics of creating and meddling in stubs is a point of cotention in Wilf’s world, and the resulting conflict leads to a cold war in one timeline and essential class warfare across the decades. The adaptation, spearheaded by Scott B. Smith, takes numerous liberties with the source material, but gets the important elements right, especially the stark difference between its run-down, near-future North Carolina and its opulent but chilling far-future London. It also sells Gibson’s vocabulary of futuristic neologisms with aplomb. The three-headed hydra of its future world—the klept, the Research Institute, and the Metropolitan Police—leads to all sorts of scheming intrigue, which reaches its tentacles back in time to mess with Flynne and her friends. Moretz and Reynor hold the stage heroically in the 2032 sequences, aided most notably by Eli Goree as disabled war veteran Connor, whose desire to inhabit an undamaged body prompts him to get involved. But the juiciest roles are in the future, where the stub-manipulating factions embody the heartless attitudes of a world rendered harsh by its travails. For the klept, it’s Lev Zubov (JJ Feild), a slick schemer descended from Russian oligarchs and British bankers. For the Research Institute, it’s Cherise Nuland (T’Nia Miller), who oversees a heartless scientific program to use helpless alternate timelines as testing grounds for research and development in her own reality. Then there’s Ashley Lowbeer (Alexandra Billings), a prim, clever detective of future England’s law enforcement faction, attempting to rein in the baser instincts of her rivals. Flynne, Burton, and Connor—and ultimately, the viewer—are suddenly caught in the crossfire of their complicated verbal sparring; unfortunate for them, but highly entertaining for us.
No cinematic adaptation can perfectly render a work of literature, and one could argue they shouldn’t. What makes a good book doesn’t necessarily make a filmable one. So far, though, The Peripheral is doing a riveting job of the work, not quite matching Gibson’s inimitable tone, perhaps, but delivering the goods when it comes to ideas and theme. Overall, it’s a rock-solid science fiction series that I’m surprised hasn’t gotten more buzz.