The Peripheral is two stories, one intruding on the other. In the near-future of 2032, siblings Flynne (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Burton Fisher (Jack Reynor) care for their dying mother, scrounging together money by playing online VR games for cash rewards; in the further-future of 2099, Wilf Netherton (Gary Carr) reaches back in time to make contact with Flynne, looking for her help in tracking down a mystery woman in his own era. The sci-fi conceit that knits the two stories are android-esque vessels called ‘Peripherals’ – an imitation body that a consciousness can be projected into across the decades, positioning The Peripheral as less about time travel and more about a kind of livestreamed data transfer.
It is, basically, fine. Much of this you’ll recognise, if you’re au fait with the genre as a whole – the Peripherals themselves are a neat little twist on the basic time travel idea, but they’re only one step removed from concepts that have cropped up in Black Mirror, in Doctor Who, in Westworld, in Blade Runner, etcetera etcetera. That’s rarely an issue in and of itself – it’s the execution that counts, after all – but here at least there’s a sense that The Peripheral is a little too convinced of its own mystique. “You’re inside what we call a Peripheral, piloting that body as though it were your own” explains Wilf to Flynne, not realising the audience had put that together two hours prior.
What’s frustrating about The Peripheral is how broadly listless and uninspired the whole thing feels generally. A brief perusal of the Wikipedia page for the William Gibson novel this is based on – I confess I’ve not read it – suggests The Peripheral has sanded down a lot of its source material’s more interesting details, from Flynne’s hypercapitalist near-future to Wilf’s image-obsessed, voyeuristic post-apocalyptic future. Here, everything feels clangingly familiar: a conventional heroine in Flynne, a nondescript fixer in Wilf, tensions and character dynamics that have played out a hundred times before.
“I could really use some intel right now,” one character demands of another midway through the third episode. It’s perhaps unfair to put too much emphasis on eight words out of six hours of television, but it feels a little emblematic of the general vibe of The Peripheral – it’s a line that doesn’t sound like something a real person would say to another, but it’s not especially arch or stylised either. There’s a kind of cliched unreality here, but The Peripheral is unable to even at least lean into it in an interesting way.
That’s compounded by the performances offered by its leads. There are bright spots – it’s always nice to see T’Nia Miler, and Eli Goree continues to excel in his post-Riverdale ascent – but for the most part, the casting that forms the key architecture of the show doesn’t quite work. Chloe Grace Moretz is striking in particular, hamstrung by a decision to play Flynne with a straining Texan accent that… well, perhaps the politest way of putting it is simply to say that it limits her performance considerably. (You get shades of what she can do – playing the Flynne peripheral as inhabited by someone else, for example – but it is generally not a particularly impressive showing from an actor who’s done better work elsewhere.)
Clearly, there are elements of The Peripheral that work. Gary Carr – for all that Wilf is a bit of a blank slate – proves a compelling screen presence, not quite enough to elevate the project as a whole but always making his own scenes stand out in contrast; it’s easy to wish for a version of The Peripheral that pivoted more closely around him and his character. His narrative thread is more engaging, too – where Moretz largely finds herself in stilted action scenes, Carr moves through 2099 London’s powerbrokers, with time travel posited as another outreach of atavistic colonialism.
Stripmining the past to pay for the excesses of the future? That’s an immediately engaging idea. But it’s also one that The Peripheral places on, well, the periphery – all its most interesting and most compelling attributes are pushed quite firmly toward the margins in favour of a much more languid, by-the-numbers science fiction plot.
The Peripheral begins on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 21 October, with new episodes released weekly. I’ve seen four of an eventual six episodes before writing this review.
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