3 Body Problem is a digestible remix of the sci-fi books, and that's a good thing

Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff and Dan Weiss return with a new, ambitious sci-fi show. Does it stand alongside their past work? How about the original books by Liu Cixin?
3 Body Problem. (L to R) Eiza González as Auggie Salazar, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Saamer Usmani as Raj Varma, Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Alex Sharp as Will Downing, John Bradley as Jack Rooney in episode 101 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Ed Miller/Netflix © 2023
3 Body Problem. (L to R) Eiza González as Auggie Salazar, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Saamer Usmani as Raj Varma, Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Alex Sharp as Will Downing, John Bradley as Jack Rooney in episode 101 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Ed Miller/Netflix © 2023 /

Warner: SPOILERS ahead!

Netflix is swinging big with 3 Body Problem, an adaptation of Liu Cixin's celebrated sci-fi novel trilogy Remembrance of Earth's Past. I'd outline what the story is about, but part of the fun is uncovering the twists as we go, so let's keep things subtle for now.

I will say that Liu's books are famously technical. They put the "science" in "science fiction." We learn about particle physics, nanotechnology, deep space radiation and more. Will Netflix succeed in adapting all of this for the small screen?

It's an ambitious undertaking, but if anybody's up to the challenge, it's David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the guys behind HBO's Game of Thrones. They serve as showrunners on 3 Body Problem alongside Alexander Woo. Are Game of Thrones fans willing to forgive them after the divisive ending of the HBO fantasy series? Can 3 Body Problem possibly measure up to their previous, genre-defining hit?

There are a lot of questions to ask about this show! We're gonna ask and answer as many as we can as we review each episode, starting with the first: "Countdown."

3 Body Problem review, Episode 1, "Countdown"

Up top, I'll say that I liked the premiere. This is a sprawling story, maybe even moreso than in the book, and the producers have a tall mountain to climb in making it digestible. They make some adaptation choices that may tick off book fans, but ultimately I think they work for this new version of the story.

"Countdown" is divided into two halves. We begin in China in the 1960s, during a period of turbulent upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution. The very first scene centers the perspective of Ye Wenjie, a young academic whose father is being strung up by the militaristic revolutionaries for teaching counter-revolutionary theories like relativity to his physics students. Relativity, of course, is a widely accepted theory of science, but in a revolutionary moment like this, it was deemed heretical. For refusing to denounce his beliefs in science, Ye Wenjie's father is beaten to death while a mob looks on. For Game of Thrones, it recalled the scene towards the end of season 1 where Arya Stark watches as her father Ned is executed, but can't do anything about it.

You'd think this was the low point of Ye Wenjie's life, but there's lots of room to fall. Despite her scientific credentials, Ye Wenjie is sent to perform hard labor in the countryside, punishment for her counter-revolutionary associations. There she meets a cute boy who gives her a book to read: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, an influential book credited with jump-starting the environmental movement in the '60s. Being an American book, it's banned in China at this time. Of course Ye Wenjie is eventually caught with it, the cute boy does nothing to save her, and she's thrown in person, where she's offered a chance at freedom if she'll only sign a statement further implicating her father in trumped-up criminal activity, which she won't do. For refusing to lie, she's doused in icy water in her chilly prison cell and called a stubborn bitch by a CCP bureaucrat.

In short, Ye Wenjie's life is a long parade of ludicrous injustices. She finally sees a way out when she's offered a position working at a remote military base. The only catch is that, because of the sensitive nature of the information they work with here, once she enters, she can't leave. Having become more than fed up with the outside world, Ye Wenjie has zero objection to this. She wants out.

At the end of the episode, Ye Wenjie finds out what they're really doing at Red Coast base, and it involves a search for extraterrestrial life.

Ye Wenjie's story sticks pretty close to the source material, way more than the scenes set in the present do. I thought things moved a little fast through the various low points of her life, but it was all effective, especially that first scene where her father is killed to the cheers of an onlooking mob. Remembrance of Earth's Past is a bleak trilogy; the tone is oppressive, menacing, and mysterious. That all starts with Ye Wenjie. They drove the tragedy of her life home, and I applaud actress Zine Tseng for pulling off all of the very emotional scenes.

3 Body Problem. Episode 103 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024
3 Body Problem. Episode 103 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024 /

60 years later...

Alright, now we get into the parts where they changed everything. The book The Three-Body Problem mainly follows a professor of nanotechnology named Wang Miao. He starts seeing a mysterious countdown floating in front of his field of vision at all times, and soon finds himself caught up in a worldwide conspiracy involving numerous high-profile scientists who are killing themselves.

The show makes the interesting choice to divide up Wang Miao's role among five new characters: There's Auggie Salazar (Eiza González), who runs a nanotechnology company and is the only person to see the floating countdown. There's Jin Cheng (Jess Hong), a theoretical physicist who visits an older Ye Wenjie late in the episode, just like Wang Miao does in the book. There's Will Downing (Alex Sharp), who has a professorship, just like Wang Miao. Then there's research assistant Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo) and comic relief Jack Rooney (Game of Thrones veteran John Bradley), who used his scientific expertise to start a junk food company.

Why did the show choose to take this approach? I think it's because, while the Three-Body Problem books are great at exploring complicated ideas and impressing upon readers the terrifying smallness of humanity in a vast uncaring universe, the characters are kind of boring, especially Wang Miao. There just isn't much to him beyond his role as Protagonist. But remember: this Netflix series is being made by the guys behind Game of Thrones, a show with an embarrassing richness of great characters. Having one kinda dull lead wouldn't do, so they opted to split him up into fifths.

Overall, I think it works. All five of these characters know each other from their days at Oxford, which gives us a team to root for right off the bat. And while Liu Cixin may not have been overly interested in the particulars of conversation, Benioff, Weiss and Woo are. So we get little mini-dramas happening within the bigger arc of the story. There's some sexual tension between Auggie and Saul, and between Will and Jin. John Bradley, a million miles from Samwell Tarly, gets to have fun as the jackass Jack Rooney, who gets all the best one-liners. The show has taken a solo story and turned it into an ensemble piece, and I'm not mad at it.

And it does this without sacrificing the eerie tone of the books. I would have liked to have spent more time on Auggie's confusion over why a bunch of numbers are suddenly floating in front of her eyes, but it's still creepy. What is it counting down to? Is there a way to stop it? We also have the plot where various scientists are mysteriously killing themselves, including an old colleague of the Oxford Five; they convene for her funeral, which is a tidy narrative way to get all of our main players in one place.

One thing the show does sacrifice from the books is some of the dense scientific explanations. The best example of this comes at the very end of the episode, after Auggie is told that the universe will "wink at her" if she looks up at the sky at midnight. In the book, I remember that Wang Miao visited some science person in some science lab and was only able to see the universe "winking" because of readings involving changes in the levels of cosmic background radiation. It was cool, but very technical. In the show, Auggie and Saul just look up into the sky at the appointed time and the stars start blinking on and off. It's still cool, but way more broad. Who isn't gonna notice that?

I never thought a TV show would be able to get across all of the scientific detail of the books, and I'm not sure it should try. A TV series has different strengths than a book. The show can focus more on the emotions and the characters, giving us a new version of The Three-Body Problem that compliments the book rather than replaces it. So far, I think they're off to a great start.

3 Body Bullet Points

  • The present-day section of the episode begins with a police detective finding a scientist who had gouged out his own eyes and written "I still see it" over and over on his walls in what looks like it might be blood, although that doesn't make much sense; the body only has so much of the stuff to spare. I thought this scene reached a little far into ooky-spooky serial killer Criminal Minds territory. They could have pulled back. Maybe he could have written it in black ink? It'd still be creepy, we promise.
  • That police detective is named Da Shi, and he's played by Marvel Cinematic Universe veteran Benedict Wong. Da Shi was one of the few characters from the books who was actually entertaining, although he's more muted in this first episode. Now that the producers have created an ensemble of likable characters, the show might not have to lean on him quite so hard.
  • We're also introduced to Thomas Wade, a government operative played by Game of Thrones alumnus Liam Cunningham. Da Shi is working for Wade. From what I understand, Wade is a character from one of the later books imported into this earlier part of the story. I've only read the first book so far, FYI.

And I didn't mention an appearance from a mysterious oil tycoon named Mike Evans, played by Jonathan Pryce, another Game of Thrones veteran. I like that there's a lot happening in this show. Sometimes I watch a Netflix drama and I think, 'This episode probably didn't need to be an hour long.' 3 Body Problem has the breadth and depth to justify that kind of runtime. I want to dig into more.

Episode Grade: B+

Next. Red Coast. 3 Body Problem review: Episode 2, "Red Coast". dark

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