Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Review: 3 Body Problem Season 1

Netflix's adaption of Liu Cixin's Hugo Award-winning novel succeeds thanks to Benioff & Weiss making necessary changes to the story to make it more human — all without sacrificing the science and complexity of the original text.

Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2015, garnering acclaim the world over for his ambitious and highly scientific ideas. For years, rumors of adapting it to the screen swirled, with many expressing skepticism about the practicality of adapting the worldbuilding, complex technology, and vast epochs of time to the screen.

When Netflix tapped David Benioff and D.B. Weiss as showrunners — known to the world as the wildly successful duo who brought us Game of Thrones — they upped the ante. Bringing in these two was a declaration of incredible intent, demonstrating that Netflix was going to give this adaptation the full weight and force of money, talent, and special effects to the tune of $20 million per episode. But perhaps more importantly, choosing the Game of Thrones showrunners meant by proxy that they would be able do something very crucial: focus on the human aspect of the story — something that Liu's novel was lacking. 

I and my Hugo, Girl podcast co-hosts read The Three-Body Problem a few years back. As I started the first episode, I realized that I only could remember the broadest of strokes of the plot — aliens, the Chinese revolution, and extraordinary extraterrestrial technology. I went back and listened to the episode as a refresher and my initial take back then was "incredible science fiction with mindblowing ideas and concepts, but the characters were as flat as pancakes and completely dull." 

This makes sense why I couldn't remember much of the tiny details. It appears that the showrunners did as well. There are great changes to the smaller aspects of the story in Netflix's adaptation, much like what happened in Game of Thrones. That wildly popular show often succeeded because of its complex characters — the persistence of Jon Snow, the evolution of Sansa Stark from waif to cold-blooded heroine, the incredibly unlikeable yet somehow still sympathetic Cersei Lannister. George R.R. Martin's prose can be divisive (I could never get into it, despite multiple attempts with multiple books), but the show succeeded in many ways because of the adaptation of its characters to the screen. I'm not even much of a fantasy fan, but Game of Thrones hooked me in for all eight seasons. And even though Benioff & Weiss lost the thread by the last season (poor Danerys), the first five seasons are classics of 21st century prestige TV.

A Brief Plot Overview

This first season spans about 50 years, beginning with a woman named Ye Wenji who witnesses her father's death during a struggle session in China during the Cultural Revolution. She ends up at a work camp, but thanks to her background in physics, is sent to an isolated station to work on China's equivalent of SETI. She receives a message from extraterrestrial life forms who warn her not to respond — but owing to her deep dissatisfaction with life on Earth and skepticism of human progress and growth, essentially says "come on down." This sets in motion the approach of the Tri-Solaran species towards Earth.

In the present day, human scientists across the globe are dying by suicide, including members of a tight-knit group of physicists. These individuals receive secretive and suspicious packages containing VR headsets with technology decades beyond what humans are currently capable of. The game features immersive experiences meant to solve a society's three-body problem — because of the setup of their solar system, they live and die according to stable and chaotic eras. 

It turns out, however, that this is not just a game. The society is actually real, and these Tri-Solarans (so named for their three suns), have fled their solar system and are on the way to ours seeking refuge and a more consistent life. They'll be here in 400 years, and it's unclear if there's anything we can do to stop them.

Here on Earth, we've figured out what's happening, and there are two warring factions. One that seeks to prevent this takeover, and one, the secretive Earth-Trisolaran Organization (ETO) that's a fifth column working to aid the aliens in their takeover. I'll leave the plot details here so as to avoid major spoilers, but the story revolves around how present-day humankind must face this 400-year distant threat, including how we act now, how we prepare logistically, and how we look for hope. It's also important to note that season one starts to crib early from the second book in this trilogy, The Dark Forest

What Works

If it's not extremely apparent, a lot is happening in season one, but it never seems overwhelming. But by adding in new characters — and making them likable, complex, and oftentimes funny — it narrows in the scope of huge, world-quaking issues to make them more manageable. Science fiction can sometimes feel cold and sterile, but by slowing the show down and letter characters breathe and be messy, it makes it more human. It makes the dreaded sci-fi infodump less of a one-time discharge and more of an evenly distributed and consistent sprinkling, like how the inmates in The Great Escape get ride of tunnel dirt by the pocketful.

The graphics and visual storytelling are also stellar. The book is filled with huge, galaxy-sized ideas and technology, and a big chunk of the plot occurs inside of a video game. Much like the challenge of adapting Ready Player One, taking parts of The Three-Body Problem and switching effortlessly between a virtual world and the real one took some thought, and they pulled it off with aplomb. 

Another great example of adapting high-tech physics to the screen was with the sophons. The Trisolarans, in a last-ditch effort to control Earth from 400 light years away on their slow approach to our planet, devote the last of their time and resources to creating sophons — an extremely advanced nanotechnology that allows them to create 11-dimensional supercomputers that can control things on Earth. 

Plotwise, they're essentially deus ex machinas, as they're so advanced that they do nearly anything: make humans die by suicide, manipulate camera film, and more. I thought it would be nearly impossible to depict these tiny things visually, but they pull it off. 

There's been talk that this show hasn't quite met Netflix's ambitious expectations, and that because of this, the subsequent production of the planned sequel seasons may be in doubt. I hope that this isn't true, because this has such grand potential of epic storytelling to come. Most TV shows take place over a few years at best., but 3-Body Problem is so grand in scope that it's  building up centuries of planning and anticipation, and I think the story deserves to be told. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: The graphics are fantastic (especially the depiction of sophons); the primary friend group of scientists are very likable; Ser Davos Seaworth the Onion Knight, the High Sparrow and Samwell Tarly are GoT stars that have big roles in season 1; the nanofiber destruction of the ship in the Panama canal is one of the coolest TV sequences I've ever seen; some incredible needle drops help underscore the emotional heft of key scenes.

Penalties: The ideas presented are complex and full of hard science — I think Benioff & Weiss took a big swing reaching for mass appeal beyond genre fans, but it may still be a bit too intense and intellectual for an average TV view clicking around for an easy watch.

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.