Review: Cyberterrorism thriller ‘The Undeclared War’ imagines a plausible 2024 premise — but it’s not as gripping as it should be


A hit in England and now streaming on Peacock, the six-part Channel 4/Peacock coproduction “The Undeclared War” will likely find a smaller fan base here, especially younger ones (it’s rated TV-MA but the sexual and verbal content is aggressively discreet). It’s a frustrating watch, never crass or sloppy, but underpowered.

It works from a scarily realistic two-years-from-now scenario: In the run-up to Britain’s 2024 elections, Russia wages a wily cyberattack and unleashes a brilliantly destructive bit of malware, hiding inside reams of code. In writer-director Peter Kosminsky’s series, Hannah Khalique-Brown plays the 21-year-old Saara, a coding expert whose first day on the job as a university intern at Government Communications Headquarters coincides with the very day of the cyberterrorist attack.


Simon Pegg exhales nervously as Saara’s sympathetic boss; Adrian Lester takes the role of the conservative prime minister, who has trigger-happy advisors in his ear; Mark Rylance, who teamed up with Kosminsky on the Tudor-set “Wolf Hall,” portrays an eccentric GCHQ employee who mentors Saara in the gentle art of code-whispering.

Our protagonist has a lot on her plate. Saara’s boyfriend (Edward Holcroft), her former teacher and a fervent climate activist, watches cautiously from the sidelines as Saara’s American colleague (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) takes up more and more of her time and romantic longing. The sexual tension is on the page, but it’s wan on screen.


Clearly, “The Undeclared War” has no interest in what Saara’s brother refers to as “James Bond crap.” It takes you places where the methods of warfare engagement are played out in blandly anonymous cubicles and office spaces in different parts of a hostile world. (Imagine Bond stuck in a cubicle or in an extended work-from-home situation.)

At a Russian troll farm, workers sow seeds of rebellion and anger online, posing as Brits, turning into influencers with the help of bots and then with the aid of gullible UK malcontents. Episode 3 skips back a year, as a hyperlink to the main story: German Segal plays Vadim, son of a Russian arms dealer, a coding wizard pulled back into his old life in Russia. His story intersects with Saara’s, but this detour feels like a long way back to the main road.

Too often, Kosminsky settles for lines such as “So it’s all made up? The whole thing?” spoken by characters who should know that already. Any espionage yarn risks losing the audience’s interest and bearings. “The Undeclared War” goes too far in the other direction, making sure we’re getting every major and minor thread straight. The pacing’s weirdly groggy; the tone of the material, for better or worse, is aggressively Young Adult, akin (warning: ‘80s reference) to “WarGames” but with somewhat lower stakes and faster algorithms.

The series most recalls “The Queen’s Gambit” in its visualization of the brilliant lead character’s thought processes on the job, under pressure. As Saara works out the coding, with her hostile, suspicious male colleagues side-eyeing her every move, the story establishes (somewhat confusingly at first) this interior fantasy world, as Saara is shown in various Magritte-like settings, solving a puzzle, figuring out her next move.

In her first major role, Khalique-Brown is often affectingly natural; she’s an underplayer by nature, and it works up to a point. The more dramatic demands of the material are a bit of a struggle for her, however. She’s the audience-identification observer figure, but she’s also the driver of this methodical zigzag of a plot.

This is a surprisingly weak entry in Kosminsky’s career in docudramas and dramas of all kinds. The story engine powering “The Undeclared War” needed a tuneup long before the actors got to the set.

“The Undeclared War” — 2 stars (out of 4)


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Content rating: TV-MA


Running time: Six episodes, approximately five hours total

How to watch: Now streaming on Peacock

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @phillipstribune

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