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What You Need to Know Before Watching ‘3 Body Problem’

A quick guide to Netflix’s puzzling new epic sci-fi series

spinner image Several images from the Netflix series 3 Body Problem
Animation: AARP; (Source: COURTESY NETFLIX; Ed Miller/Netflix)

Netflix’s next big bet is a head-scratcher in more ways than one. First off, 3 Body Problem is a complicated sci-fi series that shifts between multiple time periods with characters on different continents. But it also has unusual source material: a trilogy of books by a Chinese physicist turned author named Liu Cixin that includes aliens, philosophy, cosmology and late-20th-century Chinese history.

Before you dive into the buzzy new show, here are a few things that might help.

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Why is there such a buzz about the show?

Liu Cixin’s book, which was first serialized in 2006, has become a phenomenon – first in China, where it elevated the popularity of sci-fi, and then worldwide. The book, the first Asian novel to win Best Novel at the Hugo Awards, won the endorsement of Barack Obama (“wildly imaginative, really interesting”) and even got a shout-out on the animated series Bob’s Burgers.

But much of the show’s buzz owes less to the source material than to its creators, led by former Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who have a $200 million deal with Netflix (and who teamed with True Blood alum Alexander Woo on the project). Netflix reportedly spent a whopping $20 million per episode for the eight-episode first season, making it the priciest series in the streamer’s history. A Forbes article poses the question, “Will Netflix Actually Spend Half a Billion Dollars on ‘3 Body Problem’ Seasons?” There is a lot riding on the show’s success.

spinner image Jovan Adepo and Rosalind Chao at a cemetery in the Netflix series 3 Body Problem
(Left to right) Jovan Adepo stars as Saul Durand and Rosalind Chao as Ye Wenjie.
Chris Baker/Netflix

What’s the show about?

The short version is that the show depicts earth’s first contact with an alien species – here dubbed the San-ti (Chinese for “three body”) because they live on a dying planet that suffers from being in close proximity to three different stars with competing and unpredictable gravitational forces. The San-ti are technological wizards, with capabilities vastly outpacing our own, and their intentions don’t seem to be good as they seek a new home for their kind. Uh-oh.

We follow a group of Oxford scientists just as the scientific world is in crisis – top physicists and cosmologists have been committing suicide, and all of the world’s particle accelerators have shut down after suddenly malfunctioning. These events seem to be connected to a virtual-reality game that these top scientists are all playing – one that’s hyperrealistic and beyond the capability of any known technology. All of these events are tied to flashbacks about a young female scientist in 1967 China who witnesses the murder of her physicist father during that country’s brutal Cultural Revolution, which cracked down on so-called educated elites.

spinner image Liam Cunningham, Jess Hong and Sea Shimooka looking up at two objects in the air in the Netflix series 3 Body Problem
(Left to right) Liam Cunningham as Wade, Jess Hong as Jin Cheng and Sea Shimooka as Sophon in "3 Body Problem."

What are the aliens like?

We never see the actual San-ti, who appear only as humanlike figures in the VR game and communicate in mostly audio communications with various humans. Asked what they really look like, one cautions, “You wouldn’t like it.” Uh-oh again.

spinner image Zine Tseng reading a book at a desk in the Netflix series 3 Body Problem
Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie.
Ed Miller/Netflix

Why is it called ‘3 Body Problem’?

The term is an old one in physics. Very old. Isaac Newton first wrote about the gravitational problems of three objects in space back in 1687 – in his case, he focused on the sun, the earth and the moon. Ever since, physicists have explored more elaborate versions of the idea – including the one in 3 Body Problem, where there’s a planet that keeps getting tugged by the gravitational pull of three different suns. Pretty complicated for a TV show.

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spinner image Benedict Wong stars in the Netflix series 3 Body Problem
Benedict Wong stars as Da Shi.
Ed Miller/Netflix

Is it a typical sci-fi epic?

The sci-fi here is closer to the 2016 film Arrival (starring Amy Adams as a linguist) than it is to more action-driven fare like Independence Day.

We meet a bunch of brainy characters – including a police detective (played by Doctor Strange star Benedict Wong) – who frequently deliver mini-TED talks, complete with charts and graphs on whiteboards, to keep us up to speed on the underlying science.

In addition to science, the conversation often turns to philosophy and even religion. When fancy instruments stop working, some stumped researchers begin asking each other about alternatives to basic science: “Do you believe in God?”

The coolest scenes are probably the re-creations of the VR game, which engages all of the senses, including smell, and involves quests in far-away kingdoms that reflect each player’s backgrounds (ancient China for a Chinese player, for instance, or Tudor England for a Brit).

Are there big stars in the show?

In addition to Benedict Wong and Star Trek alum Rosalind Chao (who plays the grown-up version of the slain physicist’s daughter, who first makes contact with the San-ti), 3 Body Problem includes a bunch of familiar faces. As you might expect, there are several Game of Thrones veterans. Former High Sparrow Jonathan Pryce plays a wealthy oil scion who secretly communicates with the San-ti; Liam Cunningham, who played loyal lieutenant Davos Seaworth, portrays an equally mysterious spy chief seeking to marshal the world’s top minds to prepare for the aliens’ arrival; and former Night’s Watchman John Bradley pops up as a physicist turned tech entrepreneur recruited to the cause.

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spinner image Yu Guming and Zine Tseng with a group of military personnel outside of a metal gate in the Netflix series 3 Body Problem

Why are Chinese fans upset by the show?

Netflix doesn’t operate in China, but pirated copies of the series have circulated widely there and have already rankled many locals. First, many objected to the changes made to the original books, especially the recasting of the book’s almost exclusively Chinese characters with a broader mix of races, genders and nationalities. Benioff has defended the changes: “We tried to make this a very diverse, international cast to represent the idea that this isn’t just one country’s struggle – it’s a global struggle to survive.”

Second, many Chinese protested the brutal depiction of the Cultural Revolution that opens the show – a sequence that Liu admitted he deliberately moved to later in his novel so as not to draw the ire of state censors. Public discussion of the decade-long period, which ended with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, remains taboo in China.

By the way, how do you pronounce Liu Cixin?

Loo Tsi-shin. Liu is his family name, which comes first in most rendering of Chinese names.

Wasn’t one of the show’s Chinese producers murdered a few years ago?

Lin Qi – dubbed the “billionaire millennial” after making a fortune in video games – acquired the rights to Liu’s bestselling trilogy in hopes of producing a global film and TV franchise to rival Star Wars. But he was poisoned to death in Shanghai in 2020, at age 39, by a disgruntled former employee of his company, Youzu Interactive (best known for releasing an online strategy game based on Game of Thrones). Last month, the ex-worker was sentenced to death for Lin’s murder (along with the poisoning of the person hired to replace him).

spinner image Alex Sharp and Jess Hong holding paper folded up into origami in the Netflix series 3 Body Problem
(Left to right) Alex Sharp stars as Will Downing and Jess Hong as Jin Cheng.

Is the ending going to be as big a letdown as ‘Game of Thrones’?

The good news is that unlike the George R.R. Martin saga that inspired Game of Thrones, which the author has yet to finish, Liu’s trilogy has already been published and does tie up all the narrative threads. But Netflix has not yet greenlit a second season of the show – and the first season ends on a cliffhanger with the San-ti heading to Earth.

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