"The street finds its own uses for things," William Gibson wrote in his 1982 short story "Burning Chrome," one of the foundational texts of science fiction's cyberpunk branch. (In the same story, Gibson coins the term "cyberspace.") The line concisely summarizes how technology gets repurposed and used in ways its inventors never intended. It also now sounds prophetic. We are, in many respects, living in the world Gibson envisioned, including the way every innovation gets redirected to new ends, some inventive and some destructive.
Adapted from Gibson's 2014 novel of the same name (the first in a proposed trilogy), The Peripheral expands the notion of what "the street" means. Unfolding across two timeframes and two continents, the series' settings — a rural Appalachian community in the near-future of 2032 and a strangely quiet, seemingly underpopulated London of 2099 — are far removed from the crowded, cluttered near-future spaces found in Gibson novels like Neuromancer. But from an economy that allows for a decent living to be made helping gamers advance levels in immersive VR games to the concept of a remote controlled androids that mimic the human body in every respect (the "peripherals" of the title), the series is set squarely in Gibson territory. Technology advances, but those advances seem never to bring humanity any closer to utopia or push it away from its baser instincts.
Sometimes they even invite disaster. On the outskirts of a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz, nicely mixing sunniness and toughness) splits her time working for a small-time 3D printing shop and helping her brother Burton (Jack Reynor) make a living as a kind of a VR sherpa for rich-but-unskilled gamers. It's a beautiful place with a troubled community. Some, like Burton and his multiple-amputee friend and former squad mate Conner (Eli Goree) suffer PTSD from serving in a recent war, a feeling enhanced by some of the technology used to make them a stronger fighting unit. Others depend on the drugs peddled by local pushers, whether out of an addictive need or, like Flynne and Burton's mortally ill mother, because their needs go beyond what insurance can provide.
The Fishers are granted an unexpected windfall, however, with the arrival of what seems to be a cutting edge VR from a Colombian company interested in using Burton's gaming skills to test the tech (unaware that Flynne is the better gamer and the source of much of Burton's reputation). Or so it seems. Volunteering to try it, Flynne finds herself partaking in a dangerous adventure quest in a futuristic London, one that feels more real than any gaming experience she's had before. There's a reason for this, one Flynne begins to grasp after she's contacted by Wilf (Gary Carr), who warns her she's in danger and, in time, reveals that he's speaking to her from the same London she visited via the headset, as impossible as that sounds.
There's more than time travel to what's going on, but exactly what falls into spoiler territory in a series whose twists force viewers to reorient themselves and reconsider what they've been watching. That's familiar territory for two of the series' executive producers, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, best known for their work on HBO's Westworld. The Peripheral shares that series' sleekness and tendency to break out into hard-hitting action scenes at least once per episode. But Gibson's novel and the guidance of creator Scott Smith (a novelist in his own right, responsible for A Simple Plan and The Ruins) give it a stiffer spine. The series feels like it knows where it's going and doesn't mind taking some time to get there.
The Peripheral streamlines Gibson's narrative but also expands on the world of the novel and diverges from it in some crucial aspects. Subsequent episodes reveal bits of Flynne and Burton's past and sidetrack to depict the backgrounds of increasingly consequential supporting characters like Corbell (Louis Herthum), a local crime boss whose viciousness gives him a competitive edge and gentle manners give him an air of refinement. On another front, the series slowly reveals both Wilf's origin story, the political divisions of his world, and the reasons he's enlisted Flynne to search for a missing woman named Aelita (Charlotte Riley). But the pacing never makes it feel like padding. We get teasing glimpses of a larger world that the series may or may not explore. A major character, Ainsley Lowbeer, an inspector in Wilf's London, doesn't show up until the sixth episode, but Alexandra Billings' sly, commanding performance makes it worth the wait.
For all his influence, Gibson has proven difficult to bring to screens in the past. (The 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic remains the best-known adaptation to date.) This particular novel provides a fine base for a slow-boiling TV series in both of its settings, but particularly in the scenes set in 2032. Depicting a world just a few degrees off from our own, making it look like a plausible result of the continuation of recent trends, it taps into Gibson's ability to use the future to comment on the present, and the notion that human desires and failings remain the same even if the tools used to realize them change. Once technology reaches the street, it can wind up anywhere, sometimes dragging those who use it into dark places from which they might never escape.
Premieres: Friday, Oct. 21 on Prime Video
Who's in it: Chloë Grace Moretz, Gary Carr, Jack Reynor
Who's behind it: Scott Smith serves as showrunner, working from a novel by William Gibson
For fans of: Gibson's fiction, twisty stories, science fiction concepts
How many episodes we watched: 6 out of 8