3 Body Problem S1E1 Recap: “Countdown”

3 Body Problem. (L to R) Yu Guming as Yang Weining, Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie
Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The following recap contains spoilers for 3 Body Problem S1E1, “Countdown” (written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss & Alexander Woo and directed by Derek Tsang). Portions of the novel The Three-Body Problem are also referenced.

Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.   – Liu Cixin, author’s note in The Three-Body Problem

The ambitious adaptation of Liu Cixin’s wildly popular The Three-Body Problem novel debuted today on Netflix. At the helm of this eight-episode first season are the duo behind the Game of Thrones adaptation on HBO, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. After signing a massive overall deal with the streamer, Benioff and Weiss recruited Alexander Woo and convinced the network to give them essentially a blank check to adapt the Cixin trilogy, something others have wanted to do, but eventually decided was too complex. (Though, a Chinese adaptation called Three-Body was released in 2023).

Those perceived shackles—that the books are too heavy on the SCIENCE part of science-fiction—along with some language and cultural nuances, led to this story shuffling around various production offices for years before Benioff and Weiss decided to take up the mantle.

Jess Hong as Jin Cheng, Rosalind Chao as Ye Wenjie
Photo Courtesy Ed Miller/Netflix

Their attempt, from what is portrayed in the first season, stays incredibly true to the story and tone of the first novel (and actually a bit of the second novel, The Dark Forest), while also reimagining the characters and personalities in the show so that they can be slightly more digestible from a Western audience.

For example (and I will avoid all book and plot spoilers in this first episode recap), the book’s main character in the modern timeline is Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher who finds himself in the middle of wide-ranging and largely unexplainable phenomenon that goes all the way to the top of various government and Chinese agencies. In Netflix’s 3 Body Problem, one character appears (at least in the first episode) to be divided into five scientists. The “Oxford Five,” as they are called in the show, allow for more emotional depth and weight to be added to their relationships and their shared histories.

One of the characters, Saul Durand (Jovan Adepo), works at a particle accelerator that has lost its funding because their results have recently started defying all natural laws of science. Jack Rooney (John Bradley) is an Oxford dropout, but was able to start a successful crisps company in the United Kingdom, and serves as the (sometimes literal) black coat and comic relief of the Oxford Five.

These characters are nowhere to be found in the novel, but are proxies for the different states Wang Miao finds himself in through the first book and allow for conflict, verbal exposition, and a shared curiosity for what exactly is happening in their world.

It’s a decision that can easily lead to a loud and expensive swing and a miss considering the rabid fan base of the novels, but it’s a needle that Benioff and Weiss seem to have successfully threaded through the first hour of the show.

1966-1969: Revolutionary China and Inner Mongolia

At a struggle session rally at Tsinghua University in Beijing, at the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution that lasted until 1976, young revolutionaries are bringing scientists on stage before hundreds of angry and blood-thirsty attendees. These scientists are forced to admit their teachings of fundamental principles of physics and chemistry (which Albert Einstein and “Western Imperialists” used to build atomic weapons) are false, or risk beatings and imprisonment.

Struggle Session at Tsingua University in Beijing China
Photo Courtesy Ed Miller/Netflix

One scientist, Zhetai Ye (Perry Yung), refuses to relent, even as his wife is brought on stage and confesses that the science is false and as his daughter, Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng), is restrained by guards in the audience. The teenagers leading the revolutionary uprising beat Zhetai with their belts, ultimately killing him in the process. His wife’s reaction at this moment is shocking as she refuses to watch what is happening to her husband, also realizing her own false confession to save her life is what sentenced him to death. (This moment will come full circle with their daughter later in the episode).

After Wenjie is allowed to grieve her father, she is hauled off to work in logging camps in Inner Mongolia because she was her father’s prized pupil and had become an expert in advanced areas of science such as “phase boundaries within the solar radiation zone.” While at one of these camps, she meets Bai Mulin (Yang Hewen), who is a journalist of sorts for the propagandist literature of the revolution. He, however, does not agree with what is happening in China and with scientists being sent essentially to concentration camps—“you must have considered the consequences of all this destruction”—and gives her a copy of Silent Spring, a book banned by the revolutionists because of its Western ideals and belief that humans are destroying the planet.

This book eventually leads to Wenjie ending up in a harsher prison because her guards discover it, Bai refuses to confess that he is the one who gave it to her, and Wenjie refuses to throw him to the wolves. The silence from Wenjie speaks loudly against the confession her mother gave against her father, and sentences her to a harsher fate all the same.

While in a cold, miserable cell, Wenjie also refuses to implicate several prominent Chinese scientists, a move which could have set her free. Her refusal results in freezing water poured all over her body and all over her blanket and bed. Still, she remains silent.

Two years later (at least in the book’s timeline, it’s less clear in the show), Wenjie is taken to Radar Peak, a large government-run satellite dish station which is promoted as a communication station, but everyone believes it’s a testing ground for experimental weapons the Chinese can use on their enemies (and perhaps even their citizens?). Because of the Wenjie’s advanced knowledge in some of the work being done there, and because the leaders believe they can sequester her there and threaten her to stay quiet, she is allowed to work at the station, quickly earning the trust of base managers Lei Zhicheng and Yang Weining.

Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie
Cr. Ed Miller/Netflix © 2024

When Wenjie sees flocks of birds die one day after a “transmission” is sent, her suspicions are confirmed that Radar Peak is not a listening station, it’s not a weapons station, and that there is something else more secretive happening. Her bosses finally to admit to her that it is, in fact, a communication station, but they aren’t communicating with allies or even enemies. “Who are we trying to communicate with?” Wenjie wonders out loud.

The answer to that question will have ramifications that shape the entire rest of this season: “With whomever is out there.”

2024: London

In this fictional 2024 (not unlike our common reality and perceptions of science), Big Science needs to hire a PR firm or something, because its reputation is in the garbage. Not only are experiments and long-standing truths no longer returning results as they have for hundreds and thousands of years, but scientists all over the world are having breakdowns and committing suicides in alarming numbers.

“All of our theories are wrong.”

“Science is broken.”

Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Alex Sharp as Will Downing, John Bradley as Jack Rooney in episode 101 of 3 Body Problem
Photo Courtesy of Ed Miller/Netflix

These are the common sentiments among the Oxford Five and scientists at large. Saul’s research partner Ye Vera is distraught over what is happening and their loss of funding and takes her own life by throwing herself into a deep chasm at their research station.

Clarence “Da” Shi (Benedict Wong) is former Scotland Yard and MI5 and has been tasked with figuring out what is going on by Wade (Liam Cunningham), a mysterious but powerful figure who has apparently been given unilateral authority by “all of the” governments to figure out what is happening to the practice and the practitioners of science.

Oxford Five attend the funeral of Ye Vera
Photo Courtesy of Ed Miller/Netflix

Among the Oxford Five, Saul’s job has ended, Jin Cheng (Jess Hong) can’t make any sense of her work anymore, and Auggie Salazar (Eiza González) has begun seeing a continuous countdown clock in her field of vision that none of her colleagues, friends, or karaoke-singing desperate guys can see. Jin, a theoretical physicist, and Auggie, who owns a company that produces nanofibers, both are experiencing the horrific circumstances faced by scientists in their own way.

Auggie tries to take a cigarette break, hoping she can make the countdown vision go away, and is approached by a mysterious character with a lighter. Note: never trust a mysterious character with a lighter in movies and television. Somehow, someway, she knows about the countdown in Auggie’s vision and assures her (with a fantastic shocked expression from Auggie) that, “It’s not hopeless, though. Really. The Lord has a better way,” and that all she has to do to make it stop is to stop her work, shut down her company, and walk away from it all. After all, she says, “You don’t want it to get to zero. Nothing good ever happens at zero.”

How is Auggie supposed to trust this mysterious lady, only known in show notes as The Follower? She will show Auggie a sign, the next night at midnight. She will prove to Auggie she is trustworthy by making the universe “wink” at her. After some confused looks and a gift of a Toasty-O-Stars Code Cracker left behind for Auggie, The Follower disappears.

Jovan Adepo as Saul Durand, Eiza González as Auggie Salazar
Photo Courtesy Ed Miller/Netflix

The next night, Saul and Auggie conduct an observation experiment and experience something that they have never seen before. The night sky, full of stars and light, dims in and out. Over and over. For several minutes. Saul realizes it might be a code and uses the gift left behind for Auggie to decipher it. The blinking matches the numbers in the countdown inside Auggie’s field of vision.

“How can it be happening?” Auggie asks. Saul responds: “It can’t.”

But it is. What exactly is “it?” Book readers will know that a tale so fascinating it’s hard to summarize is ahead in the next seven episodes. More to come in my next piece that will take a look at Episodes 2-4.

Written by Ryan Kirksey

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