Amazon has adapted William Gibson’s The Peripheral to a streaming show. To my disappointment, after three episodes, the show is like one of the book’s eponymous creations, an unpiloted peripheral; glossy, elegant, smart even, but lacking any spark of life.
The Peripheral takes place in two different timelines. One is set in 2032 in a world very much like ours, in a small town in the American southeast. The other is set in London in 2100, in a post-Jackpot world (the Jackpot is a convergence of natural and human-caused disasters reaching nearly extinction levels); one of far, far fewer humans (and animals, for that matter) and a lot of wealthy people working to amass even more wealth. In 2032, the Fisher family somehow gets caught up in the schemes of people from Future London, with potentially fatal consequences for the Fishers. It will be up to Flynn Fisher, her Marine brother, and his band of veteran friends to save themselves in both timelines.
To be fair, Gibson’s books are famously hard to adapt successfully, which seems counterintuitive. They’re all slightly futuristic with lots of cool tech; they are highly visual—it seems like a no-brainer that they’d translate to the screen with almost 100% integrity. They don’t. I think there are a few reasons for this. Gibson favors a close third-person point of view, often (in later works, anyway) from someone outside of whatever conspiracy, mystery or plan drives the plot. Secondly, while Gibson’s worlds are vivid and shockingly prescient, he doesn’t road-map his world in his books—he evokes it with tiny visual and sensuous “bits.” Last, and most important, a huge part of Gibson’s books is his amazing prose style, and most of that does not make it onto a screen.
Amazon’s adaptation captures the hi-tech beauty and weirdness of Future London with a shining burnish that makes it a joy to watch. In 2032 there are great moments, like the one where a local cop finds a coffee cup apparently suspended in midair. The cast is excellent and does a great job with the writing they’ve been given. Future London excels—2032 looks a lot like 2022, but again, to be fair, it did in the book too.
Gibson used two viewpoint characters. Future London’s Wilf Netherton, a wealthy man who tended to drift (I think he’s a publicist or something), is closely aligned with school friend Lev Zubov, who is the scion of an oligarch family. He “knows things,” but still functions as an outsider. In 2032, twenty-something Flynn tries to keep her family together, caring for her sick mother, working at a 3D printer salon, and riding herd on her veteran brother Burton. Burton, like all the others in his squad, had haptic implants during the war he fought in. They connect him with his squad. They also cause health problems. Burton makes extra cash by playing in video games for other players who want to win but don’t want to do the work of playing the game. When he needs a break and asks Flynn to cover for him (there’s a hint in both the book and the adaptation that she’s slightly better than him) she makes contact with Future London and sees something that makes her a risk to powerful people there.
“Viewpoint characters” don’t exist in visual media the way they do in print. While Wilf is our main entrée into Future London, Flynn has been aged down and relegated to the “gifted kid sister” role. She is constantly lectured by Burton, and by episode three, the story has set her up to make stupid choices to move the plot. While the biological/mechanical android body she inhabits in Future London has a sleeker hair style and red lipstick, aging her up slightly, the show overall has demoted Flynn in favor of Burton. The “aging down” is accentuated by an emphasis on her “crush” on the married local cop in Episode One, and her infatuation with Wilf (due to a haptic connection with him) in Future London—which not only makes her look sixteen instead of twentysomething, but flips a perfectly good plot element from the book, Wilf’s infatuation with her.
Generally, the show itself demonstrates an infatuation with the romantic “band of brothers” trope of Burton’s friends, with videogame-style fighting scenes, at the expense of the smart, hardworking, civilian Flynn.
In Future London, Wilf has a new background; he’s a street kid with a found sister and a history of violence, who was adopted by a wealthy upper class family. He is a “fixer” for the oligarch family, Lev’s employee rather than a friend.
The ”scheme” of the “bad guys” is sketchy at this point, and character development of the apparent Future London villain is driven mostly by her wardrobe choices. She wears haute couture, so we know she’s bad. Okay, well, she does kill a couple of people, too, but still, mostly wardrobe.
Episode Three has the most cringeworthy scene so far. Connor, one of Burton’s bros, is a triple amputee who doesn’t use prosthetics. He drinks heavily; he’s a loner with a bad attitude. At Flynn’s insistence, Burton invites him to be part of the protection party, saying he needs a good staff sergeant, but Connor must stop drinking. In Ep 3, Connor shows up, sober, and agrees to help. Burton accidentally asks Connor if he “needs a hand” with something (Conner lost one arm at the elbow). He’s horribly embarrassed until Connor starts laughing. Burton then unleashes a barrage of body-part jokes, which are meant to be funny and show that these men have a deep bond and don’t need to be careful around each other and blah, blah, blah. Not only is the scene clunky, it is almost exactly like a scene in the Will Smith Wild, Wild West movie, with Kenneth Branaugh and Smith. It’s predictable, old, unfunny and actually just embarrassing for two excellent actors.
Will I keep watching? I dunno. It becomes available on Fridays on Amazon Prime. I might hang in until the episode named “Jackpot,” just to see how they describe it. Or… maybe not. Right now, there’s no spark of life there.