The questions The Peripheral asks could well be more exciting than the answers it gives, so let’s just enjoy the ride.
From the makers of Westworld comes The Peripheral – the latest addition to Amazon’s Prime streaming service. Based on William Gibson’s 2014 book of the same name, the sci-fi series debuted last Friday with a two-episode premiere.
Its first two hours represent a quarter of its eight-episode span, and though you’ll spend the first grappling with technobabble, its second serves as a sign of things to come. I hesitate to describe a thing like several other things – and then do it anyway – The Peripheral is like The Matrix, Inception, and Looper rolled into one.
The show opens with a glimpse at London in the year 2099. A man and girl are talking on a park bench about something unintelligible that will probably become clear in time. They are dominated by great colossi that slash up the capital’s skyline as gods. They, in turn, watch something approximating a holographic re-enactment of Trafalgar rocking a waterway at their front. The streets are quiet, an observation vocalised by our characters – presumably to disabuse us of the notion that there wasn’t a sufficient budget for extras.
There are hints that London’s present condition is the consequence of something catastrophic. But the thinning out of its suffocating density, the new-fangled entertainment, and striking architecture makes the post-apocalypse something to look forward to.
Then we are shot across time and space, landing in the USA in 2030. Here we meet our protagonist, Flynne Fisher. She, her brother Burton and a gang of supporting actors inhabit a dystopia. The cost of medicine is prohibitively expensive, and its trade made the dominion of criminal gangs. Some future but not that far future war has left visibly scarred veterans rolling about town in souped-up mobility trikes. This stuff is all a bit played out – oh, you can’t afford medicine? Boohoo – look, I watched Michael Moore’s Sicko; I might have even posted on Myspace about it, and now I’m immunised to terminally ill characters in the B plot.
Fortunately, The Peripheral doesn’t dwell on the Unobtanium tier social commentary and quickly shuffles us into the virtual reality plot. It’s in the world of VR that the citizens of 2030 make their escape from the doldrums. Here, they play photorealistic shoot ’em ups and presumably other games they haven’t shown us, like Farmville and FIFA 30. But it’s not just a source of escapism; it’s an opportunity to make money, too. It’s here that the plot kicks off proper.
Flynne takes a VR job for a ‘sim company’. Initially taking the form of her brother’s avatar, she is projected into the far-flung London future we saw in the intro. She is tasked with works of espionage, which she duly performs, though she can’t shake the feeling this simulation might be as real as it seems. And this, as is revealed relatively early on, is the crux of the show – it is real – her advanced VR headset is transporting her through time, and her actions in the future have ramifications for her present.
With the premise established, the show flies from nought-to-sixty sharpish. Looper-esque time travelling hitmen are dispatched to kill all the characters we’ve got to know but almost certainly not yet like that much. After a brutal firefight, more contract killers are recruited, the death of the first wave merely marking the end of the beginning of a battle not yet fought across different times, spaces and realities. My initial suspicion that The Peripheral would be a made-for-TV version of Ready Player One was satisfactorily debunked.
If you’ve seen Westworld, you’ll be familiar with the cut of Peripheral’s jib. Its makers have carried over their old formula to this new property. The entire show is an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, written in a riddle – typed in Wingdings. By design, the audience is as dazzled as Flynne. When she’s rebuffed in her quest for answers by a ‘we’ll get to that later’ or a ‘we don’t have time for that now’ – we are too. Our shared confusion puts us firmly in our protagonist’s shoes; she becomes our avatar in this new reality.
The mystery box is a tried and tested formula. The spectre of a new tease emerges to tickle us just when we begin to get bored of the last. We are strung along by intrigue, like Theseus following unravelling yarn out of the labyrinth. But we know that the spooled-out line is rattling us toward disappointment.
Those who have watched Westworld, Lost, or any other show that relies on this device will know the payoff can never live up to the setup. In Pulp Fiction, whatever’s contained in Vincent’s briefcase isn’t as satisfying as the mystery.
Similarly, there’s no answer to ‘why is a pound shop Matrix 2 Frenchman soliciting the services of a time travelling agent to find a missing woman?’ that is better than the question itself.
But if you’re content from the outset that it’s about the journey rather than the destination – you can’t be disappointed. Consider it a murder mystery: the appeal is being taken for a ride. If the twists and turns penned by William Gibson eight years ago were that good, we’d have heard about them before this Amazon show. Forewarned is forearmed, so if you’re content to be dissatisfied come the series’ end, the strength of these first two episodes says Peripheral is worth watching.