3 Body Problem Explained: All Your Season 1 Questions, Answered By The Showrunners

3 Body Problem

by Helen O’Hara |
Published on

SPOILER WARNING: Contains major spoilers for 3 Body Problem Season 1... obviously

Have you just binged Netflix’s epic new sci-fi show from David Benioff, DB Weiss and Alexander Woo? Are you now trying to figure out the details of what you just saw? Fear not, Empire is here to help, with a handy, spoiler-filled explainer solving the insolvable 3 Body Problem… If you haven't seen the show yet, this is your final warning – look away now!

3 Body Problem

How similar is Season 1 to the first book?

No spoilers for what is to come, but elements of this season come from the second and third books. “One of the things we decided quite early,” Benioff told Empire, “was we were going to take all three books, put them together so it's one story and spread it out the way we decide to work. So even though the first season starts in the same place the first book starts and ends, there are characters who won’t appear until book three, like Wade and the Wallfacers.” They then took several important characters throughout the series and sort of blended and rejigged them into the Oxford Five, the friends who form the emotional spine of the story and who are, more or less, its protagonists.

And the characters are completely different too?

The “Wallfacers” first appear in book two, and for what it’s worth so far Saul (Jovan Adepo) appears to parallel the character called Luo Ji in the book. A character called Wade (Liam Cunningham here) makes his debut in book three, where he’s a former CIA chief and not a Dubliner with a mysterious international brief. Raj (Saamer Usmani), Jin’s boyfriend, bears a certain resemblance to second book The Dark Forest’s Zhang Beihai, while Alex Sharp’s Will resembles a physicist called Yun Tianming from third book Death’s End, who suffers a serious illness and volunteers for a posthumous mission. Jin (Jess Hong) will remind readers of Cheng Xin, also from the third book. Augie’s (Eiza Gonzalez) work recalls bits of Wang Miao’s character, though other bits of his arc go to Jin. So far, the characters most closely related to those on the page are Rosalind Chao’s Ye Wenjie, Jonathan Pryce’s Mike Evans and Benedict Wong’s Da Shi.

3 Body Problem

Why did Jack have to die?

The way Benioff and Weiss see it, John Bradley made it the whole way through Game Of Thrones without being beheaded once, so if they killed him off this time, so be it. “Killing off your friends onscreen is one of the great joys,” laughs Benioff. But Bradley had more time on set than you might think. “I feel like almost the last thing we shot was him,” said Woo. “We kept bringing him back to shoot; he was with us the whole time.”

Explain all the science to me

You now know that the title of the show refers to both a theoretical problem here in Earth physics and the very real issue that the show’s aliens face. Their planet is pulled unpredictably between three different suns, freezing one minute and boiling the next. Their rather elegant solution is to say ‘bugger that’ and head straight for Earth, which due (thankfully) to the absence of warp speed will take them 400 years to reach. In the meantime, they have unfolded protons into higher dimensions, programmed them as vast computers and sent them to Earth to muck up any scientific experiments that might allow us to overtake them in the meantime. As you do. These are The Sophons.

The Sophons?

Simultaneously the weirdest and coolest element of the first season of the show, it’s these unfolded protons, called sophons, that enable much of the sci-fi goings-on. They mess with human physics experiments, create vivid hallucinations and horrifying countdowns that only their victim can see, enable faster-than-light communication with the alien homeworld and unfold to huge and spectacular effect in Earth’s sky. But it’s worth remembering something that there are only two of them. “It’s something we've talked about endlessly,” says Benioff. “What exactly what are the sophons’ capabilities and limitations? Even being able to travel at the speed of light, there are only two of them.” Woo added that they mapped out all the sophons’ movements during the season’s run. So the guy who gouges his eyes out at the beginning of the series had been keeping one sophon busy for all the time he was tormented; only once he was dead did that sophon move on to attack Augie.

3 Body Problem

Can you explain the visions?

The terrifying attack on Wade in the final episode may make you wonder why they wouldn’t just distract all the most threatening humans with visions all the time. Benioff explained to us that, “Creating a hallucination means that that sophon is occupied for the real time that it's doing that thing. That's part of the reason they stopped messing with Augie; it's part of the reason that they're not attacking Wade all the time.” The two sophons sent to Earth, quantum-entangled with their mates back home, were the product of amazing San-Ti engineering but also looked like the product of a vast expenditure of power, so if there are only two then perhaps they can be worked around.

So what’s the deal with these aliens?

In the book the aliens are known as Trisolarans, after their three-sun system. Here they’re called San-Ti, which means “three-bodied”. It’s a little snappier, perhaps, but carries the same basic idea. One thing worth remembering is that we currently have no idea what they look like. The projections we’ve seen in the 3 Body game are all filtered to make sense to humans, via the people of Mike Evans’ secret group – called the Earth-Trisolaris Organisation in the book – and the human-like avatar Sophon in the game (played by Sea Shimooka) makes it clear that they look nothing like us.

Who are the traitors?

No, nothing to do with Claudia Winkleman. But the humans working with the aliens are a serious threat in this series and a disturbing element that has been significantly developed from the book. If Pryce’s Evans and Rosalind Chao’s Ye Wenjie are the movement’s leaders, Marlo Kelly’s Tatiana is the most formidable of its operatives so far. “Marlo, from the very first moment she appears on the screen, brings a whole new level of menacing energy to the proceedings,” says Weiss. “She personifies what these characters are up against. But it's really important to the story that Tatianna doesn't think of herself as a villain. There is a strong thread of idealism that bonds that the people who support the aliens, and it's not a completely irrational idealism.”

3 Body Problem

The Judgment Day sequence was very cool but why exactly did the ship fall apart?

That brings us to what is perhaps the show’s standout scene: the attack by Wade’s pro-humanity forces on Evans’ ship, the Judgment Day. They use Augie’s nanofibers, near-invisible threads that can cut through anything (presumably they’re anchored by other nanofibre moorings that they can’t cut through), to string at intervals of a foot or so across the Panama Canal. They neatly slice Evans’ ship and enable Evans to retrieve most of his data, even if it is encrypted at first. Does that make these fibres the best invention since sliced bread, or the most terrifying? “We were very excited about Judgment Day,” says Benioff. “But anytime there’s action and special effects, you’re dealing with hundreds of hours of meetings.” It was a combination of practical and special effects. “The objects being cut are being cut practically, that’s all in-camera,” says Woo. “But obviously the people being cut are not.“

“Except that one guy,” jokes Weiss.

What about Project Staircase?

In the book the staircase project goes exactly the same way that it goes in the TV show: off to a good start, and then wildly off course. But there’s a reason that those scenes are in the show, and one of them concerns Liam Cunningham’s Wade. “Wade is completely operational: as he says in the story, always advance,” Weiss tells Empire. “What was fun on a story level was to take that person all the way to the end and then have him lose in various ways. When the staircase project, which was his project, for which he marshalled trillions of dollars of resources, goes south, that is a big ding in his armour. When an alien presence shows up on his plane, that rattles his sense of who he is in the world. Watching somebody win in every scene becomes repetitive and boring. He’s an asshole and very blunt, but is often also gratingly right.”

Will there be a second season?

A second series has yet to be officially greenlit, and regular Netflix watchers may be worried that this will be another unjustly cancelled, one-season wonder. For what it’s worth, the three showrunners are at least planning the next season. “When you read a book, there are certain scenes that you're thinking like, oh, I can't wait to get to this,” says Benioff. “So we were very excited about Judgment Day [the scene with the ship in the Panama Canal]. And, you know, as in in season two, if we're lucky enough to have a season two, I'm sure we can imagine, like what scenes we're really excited about.”

3 Body Problem is streaming now on Netflix

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