Roush Review: A Nail-Biting ‘War’ Fought with Bytes and Bots

The Undeclared War
Review
Jonathan Birch/Playground Entertainment/Peacock

Nearly every streaming service has its own personality and strengths, and I’ve come to depend on Peacock for quick jolts of suspense with an international flavor in European imports including The Capture (deep-fake skulduggery), Trigger Point (a bomb squad), and Vigil (murder on a nuclear sub), each six taut episodes a season, providing that 24 vibe of urgency. (They’ve all been renewed for a second season, with The Capture scheduled to return in November.)

The newest Peacock nail-biter, The Undeclared War, is more of an intellectual thriller that tries to get pulses racing by watching code upload. Set in the U.K.’s cyber-focused GCHQ intelligence agency, War presents a nightmare scenario of Russian hackers and bots interfering in an election, sowing chaos through high-tech fakery. This is not meant to be background viewing, a point underscored by setting most of the third episode in Russia (with subtitles), where we follow a young programmer (who’d rather be an artist) who’s as alarmed by the implications of the Russians’ schemes as the British techies desperately trying to stop them.

The Undeclared War

Peacock

The series’ most chilling moment comes when a London-based propaganda producer for a Russia Global News program explains: “Everything that’s reported is fake one way or another. We know that people won’t believe it. … The point is to get people used to the idea that everything’s a lie, that there is no truth. And once they accept that, well, biggest liar wins.”

Somewhat improbably, civilization’s best hope is 21-year-old Saara (Hannah Khalique-Brown), an emotionally immature but brilliant Muslim student intern whose first day at work coincides with the Russians’ initial strike on the Brits’ communication infrastructure. While dealing with family tragedy and, in the most unnecessary subplot, finding herself attracted to a National Security Agency consultant (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), Saara displays an ability to think outside the box that keeps surprising her alarmingly inferior superiors.

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Peacock series is a thrilling cat and mouse game.

Simon Pegg is underused and underpowered as her boss, who spends most of the series shrugging in defeat and warning the COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room) hawks that retaliation could lead to escalation and the doomsday scenario of the much-feared Undeclared War in cyberspace. “Be careful of empty gestures that have profound consequences” is the sort of advice the embattled prime minister (Adrian Lester, also wasted) doesn’t want to hear. The always-wondrous Mark Rylance fares somewhat better as Saara’s mentor of sorts, an elderly professorial scold who’s being underestimated because of his age, much like his young patronized protégé.

With truth the first casualty of this war of bytes and bots, does peace even have a chance?

The Undeclared War, Series Premiere, Thursday, August 18, Peacock