Review: 3 Body Problem gets epically prosaic in Episode 3, "Destroyer of Worlds"

The weakest episode of 3 Body Problem so far still has some imaginative set pieces and a healthy dose of existential creepiness.
3 Body Problem. Jess Hong as Jin Cheng in episode 103 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Ed Miller/Netflix © 2024
3 Body Problem. Jess Hong as Jin Cheng in episode 103 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Ed Miller/Netflix © 2024 /

Warner: SPOILERS ahead!

"Destroyer of Worlds" is the first episode of 3 Body Problem to spend all of its time entirely in the present with the Oxford Five. We don't go back to China in the 1960s and 70s to catch up with Ye Wenjie; this one is all about Auggie, Jack, Jin, Saul and Will trying to figure out the mystery of the 3 Body video game, as well as dealing with their various personal problems. Without Ye Wenjie around to lend some weight to this story about humanity's darkest impulses, the show is a little more dull.

And I say that even though "Destroyer of Worlds" spends a lot of time inside the 3 Body game, adapting some of the most spectacular set pieces from The Three-Body Problem book by Liu Cixin. I was surprised how quickly the show burned through these, almost like it couldn't wait to get past them. With this stuff out of the way, what do they have planned for the rest of the season?

3 Body Problem review: Episode 3, "Destroyer of Worlds"

The episode spends the bulk of its time with Jin Cheng and Jack Rooney as they play the 3 Body game against their advice of their friends, who justly worry that such a powerful piece of technology isn't something they should use lightly given that they have no idea how it works, how it came to them, who's behind it, or that it may have something to do with why so many scientists around the world are killing themselves. Good reasons all, Jin and Jack. Good reasons all.

But if your parents tell you you're not allowed to play a video game, you're going to turn it on again the first chance you get, right? Of course Jin and Jack go back in, a contrast the show tries to play for laughs, mostly unsuccessfully, although I did like their banter once they were in the game together. For example: Jack worries that the game might have access to his search history. Jin: "Well, if we see a woman farting into a birthday cake, we'll know why." Quick, simple, good for a snerk, and definitely not something you would have gotten in the book.

The segments inside the game serve mainly to educate the audience on the mythology of this story. Jin and Jack (mostly Jin) put together that the problem with the game world is that it's located in a solar system with three suns. The suns pass the planet back and forth between them in unforeseeable ways, which is why the climate is so unpredictably catastrophic. That is the titular three-body problem, a real-life physical problem that has no solution.

Jin effectively demonstrates this for the audience using an apple and some candelabras before the game world bursts into flame (the suns got too close) and we go back to the real world for a while. In the next game session, we get a famous scene from the book: the ruler of the game world has marshaled millions of soldiers to create a human computer, with each soldier holding a double-sided flag representing either a 1 or a 0. Acting on the advice of other players, the ruler uses this human computer to calculate the arrival of the next chaotic era.

Of course it doesn't work, and we get a pleasantly ludicrous scene where all three suns line up with each other, multiplying their gravity several times over and sucking the army into space. As with earlier episodes, what the show lacks in pure special effects horsepower in makes up for in imagination. You're not going to see anything like this in an action movie. No one's crazy enough to think it up.

Also as in past episodes, the show sort of glosses over the scientific aspects of a lot of this, whereas the book spills a lot of ink explaining it. I don't have a huge problem with this. What I do have an issue with are some of the episode's dramatic decisions. I don't think the script puts the emphasis in the right place.

Emotionally, Jin keeps coming back to the 3 Body game because she wants to save the people in general and a cute little girl who recurs in every level in particular. I felt that. It's upsetting seeing a little girl burst into flame and die, so I saw where Jin was coming from. Later, Jin and Jack learn the truth: that the world of the 3 Body game is a simulation of an actual extraterrestrial world, the same one that Ye Wenjie contacted back in the 1970s. Given that this world regularly tries to kill its inhabitants, the aliens are heading for Earth. "You'll welcome us, won't you?" the little asks creepily.

This is a climactic moment; we find out what's going on with the game, we find out we're not alone in the universe, and we find out that we're going to meet our interstellar neighbors real soon. I wish the episode had built up to this moment and ended on it. Instead, "Destroyer of Worlds" keeps going, as though the writers don't trust in the dramatic potency of these revelations. Instead, we have Jack refusing to believe what he's hearing and turning down an invitation to meet with other players in the real world. Later that night, a mysterious woman turns up at his house, stabs him in the neck, and leaves.

"All you had to do was keep playing," the woman tells him. That line feels like it could have been uttered on any serial killer cop show from the past 30 years. If Jack really is dead for good, it's a waste of a character; we don't know him well enough to miss him, and killing off the comic relief character this early on your self-serious sci-fi show sounds like a terrible idea. The standard-issue murder of an underdeveloped character, even one committed by a mystery woman who can disappear from video feeds, is several degrees less dramatic than learning that aliens exist and that they're coming to occupy our planet. The show rushed through moments of existential wonder and terror to end on a hack scene from Law & Order by way of The X-Files. I didn't like it.


The rest of the episode is mostly spent hanging out with the other members of the Oxford Five. The best scene is when Auggie considers starting her microfiber project back up only for her to panic and backtrack once the countdown appears in front of her eyes again. She calls Saul to come over and comfort her, but he's fresh off a one-night stand, and she hangs up. Once again, the existential horror is a good deal more compelling than what comes after.

It's not that I don't like the characters — the writers are clearly making an effort to flesh out their personalities — but I'm not sure how much good it's doing in a story that's so much bigger than they are. Jin visits her boyfriend Raj's family in a scene that's cute enough; she babbles about physics before Raj's dad tells a very inappropriate story about fighting in the Kargil War between India and Pakistan. It's not a bad little scene. But why?

We also get a quick scene of Jack and Saul visiting Will as he recovers from cancer treatments. High as a kite on meds, Will babbles about talking to his cancer. I think it's supposed to be funny but it doesn't quite hit the mark. Will is the character I'm having the most trouble connecting with. Maybe it should have been an Oxford Four?

The most significant scene not involving the 3 Body game is between Mike Evans and a mysterious voice on the other end of an intercom, someone he refers to as his "lord." The voice sounds like the sword lady from the game. It must be the aliens, who sound like they operate on some kind of hive mind. I think this scene could have been creepier, but it does fill us on in some things, like that Mike is the one distributing the 3 Body game to people the aliens think worthy of joining their organization, whatever it is.

I think there's the making of a good episode here, but this was the weakest hour of the show yet.

3 Body Bullet Points

  • In the English translations of The Three-Body Problem books, the aliens are called the Trisolarans, from the planet Trisolaris. In the show, the aliens are called the San-Ti, which we are told means "three-body people" in Chinese. So far as I can tell, the Chinese version of the books call them "San-Ti," so that's where that name comes from.

Episode Grade: C

3 Body Problem review: Episode 4, "Our Lord". dark. Next. 3bp 4

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