At last, the first live-action adaptation of Liu Cixin‘s epic science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem has premiered on Chinese television and streaming worldwide on the WeTV and Viki streaming services. A lot is riding on the show. It’s a point of pride for China to show they can make a Science Fiction series as compelling as any from the US and UK. It’s as big a deal as the premiere of The Last of Us or a new game of Thrones show in the West.
The first book in the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, was more of a murder mystery and conspiracy thriller, so it suits the format of a TV series. The thirty episodes of the show will cover the entire first book. The pilot of any show is usually all set-up, and a serial often takes the slow-burn approach to the story. Thus, it opens in 1979 at an observatory in the snowy mountains of Northern China where a mystery woman prepares to send a signal out into space. Then we jump to 2007 with China about to sponsor the Olympics, but there’s trouble afoot. Nanotech engineer Wang Miao gets a visit from the cops and the Army asking him to join a secret government group investigating the apparent suicides of over a dozen scientists – specifically physicists – worldwide. Their only link is a Scientific think tank they were part of that Wang Miao has been invited to join, and the latest death is a female physicist he might have been attracted to. The dead Scientists died leaving behind the cryptic message that everything known about Physics is false.
Yu He Wei is the standout performance as Shi Qiang, a detective who relishes playing the asshole bad cop way too much to hide his skills as an investigator and anti-terror specialist. However, his performance feels like it might be too broad, mugging and shouting where everyone else is still and restrained like he wants to eat up all the scenery and run away with it, but at least he’s entertaining to watch. Shi Qiang’s loud sarcasm forms to contrast with zhang luyi‘s portrayal of Wang Miao’s shyness and unbending stubbornness. These two are probably going to form the buddy-cop heart of the show as it goes along.
The pilot seems terrified of looking dull, so it keeps flashing slick images of past events and hints of what happened or will happen. The Three-Body Problemlike every Chinese crime or thriller, now insists on looking like CSI with its high-contrast, shadowy cinematography and quick cuts to make it look like it’s speeding along. It’s written with a sense of portentous foreboding, hinting that Something Big and Bad is Going to Happen and hoping viewers will keep watching to find out what that will be. Yet it’s also low on action. It keeps cutting away before something happens and then enters the story after something has happened, ending up with scene after scene of people just talking to each other. Oddly, it feels like a 1970s BBC crime thriller where the characters explain the plot to each other through dialogue more than action. We can already think of all the ways the upcoming Netflix adaptation will show more than tell, with more action than dialogue where possible.
The question is, is there anyone left in China who hasn’t read the books? Virtually everyone in China would be watching the pilot, knowing who every character is, why they do what they do, what the answers to the mystery are, and where the story is going. The thrill for fans of the book is to see how the story unfolds, and the characters are realized in flesh and blood.
If there’s an advertisement message in The Three-Body Problem, it’s to trust in the government, specifically the Chinese government, as it spearheads a worldwide preparation for war against an invading alien species intent on colonizing the Earth & extinguishing all life so they can take over the planet. You could read the story as an allegory for China fighting a Cold War against a vastly powerful superpower that’s intent on invading, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves with just this pilot. If we continue to review The Three-Body Problemwe’re going to react to it as a TV series that has to stand or fall on its own.
The first four episodes of The Three-Body Problem are now available to stream, but only the first one is free (we’ve linked the YouTube video above). You have to subscribe to watch the rest.