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This compelling '3 Body Problem' is well worth your attention

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The 2007 Chinese science fiction novel "The Three-Body Problem" was the first part of a multi-volume story that sold millions of copies in China, and also was adapted there into a TV series. Now Netflix is presenting a new TV adaptation of its own, dropping all eight episodes of the latest series from some of the creative forces behind "Game Of Thrones" and "True Blood." Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The three creators of Netflix's "3 Body Problem" have lots of experience adapting sprawling, unusual book series for television. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were behind HBO's "Game Of Thrones," and Alexander Woo was one of the producers of another HBO series based on popular fantasy novels, "True Blood." Their partnership here has resulted in an eight-part drama that gets increasingly intense and compelling as it proceeds. It tells a story that's as unusual and original as the way it's mounted for TV, with shifts between the past and present, reality and high-tech virtual reality and a lot more. It's one of the most complicated narratives I've ever seen on a TV show, but also one of the most cerebral and ultimately the most captivating.

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No bare-bones plot description can do justice to "3 Body Problem," but here it goes. Start with the title. Three-body problem turns out to be a conundrum of physics - that when you have three bodies orbiting around each other, whether they're planets or subatomic particles, their paths are so affected by each other they can't be accurately predicted. In a futuristic virtual reality headset game played by some of the scientists, one of the tasks they're directed to solve is the three-body problem itself. And in a larger sense, it could be said that three of this show's primary characters, whose stories and fates interweave in wildly unexpected ways, are themselves a sort of dramatic three-body problem.

One of these three characters is Clarence, a detective played by Benedict Wong from "Doctor Strange." He's hired by the head of a top-level British intelligence agency to investigate a series of deaths of prominent scientists worldwide, many of which seem like suicides. Clues eventually lead to a radio signal sent from Earth to a planet several light years away, which may have triggered a return response. The second character is Ye Wenjie, the daughter of a physics professor in China. As a young woman, she witnesses her father's death during the cultural revolution of 1966, then becomes a scientist working on a top-secret project for the state. Much later, played by Rosalind Chao, she finds herself in an interrogation room in present-day England, questioned by the detective Clarence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "3 BODY PROBLEM")

BENEDICT WONG: (As Clarence Shi) There's one thing we can't figure out.

ROSALIND CHAO: (As Ye Wenjie) Just one thing.

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WONG: (As Clarence Shi) Takes four years for a radio signal to get from our planet to their planet - correct? - and another four to get a response. But from what we can tell, Evans spends most of his life on a ship - judgment day. So what's he doing - waiting eight years for a callback? Now, I'm an idiot, never went to uni. But I can't make sense of that, unless...

CHAO: (As Ye Wenjie) Unless?

WONG: (As Clarence Shi) ...There is a faster way to communicate. But faster-than-light communication is impossible.

CHAO: (As Ye Wenjie) Impossible for us.

BIANCULLI: The third character in my "3 Body Problem" is Mike Evans, a mysterious billionaire who also is being investigated by the detective in the present. Evans is played as an older man by Jonathan Pryce, who portrayed the religious fanatic High Sparrow on "Game Of Thrones." Evans has indeed found a way to communicate, apparently, with someone from another world or perhaps another realm. Using what looks like an old-style ham radio setup, he talks to a female voice he calls My Lord. It's like a conversation with a very advanced form of artificial intelligence but with much higher stakes. Even a simple fairy tale reading can turn ominous.

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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "3 BODY PROBLEM")

JONATHAN PRYCE: (As Mike Evans) And she looked at the big bad wolf and said, Grandma, what big eyes you've got.

SEA SHIMOOKA: (As Sophon) We do not understand.

PRYCE: (As Mike Evans) What don't you understand?

SHIMOOKA: (As Sophon) He intends to eat her.

PRYCE: (As Mike Evans) Yes.

SHIMOOKA: (As Sophon) She does not want to be eaten.

PRYCE: (As Mike Evans) No.

SHIMOOKA: (As Sophon) So why does she remain in the house when she knows the wolf intends to eat her?

PRYCE: (As Mike Evans) She doesn't know. The wolf is pretending to be the grandmother.

SHIMOOKA: (As Sophon) We do not understand.

PRYCE: (As Mike Evans) Well, he's dressed like the grandmother. He's wearing her clothes. He looks like her, he sounds like her.

SHIMOOKA: (As Sophon) But he is not the grandmother. He is the wolf.

PRYCE: (As Mike Evans) Yes, but Little Red Riding Hood doesn't know that.

SHIMOOKA: (As Sophon) The wolf has communicated with her.

PRYCE: (As Mike Evans) He has.

SHIMOOKA: (As Sophon) If he wanted to achieve his aim of eating her, why did he communicate with her? After he communicated with her and she learned his intentions, why didn't she run?

PRYCE: (As Mike Evans) Because she didn't learn his intentions. He was hiding them from her. Don't you ever hide your intentions?

SHIMOOKA: (As Sophon) We do not understand.

BIANCULLI: Based on my description, I don't expect a lot of understanding, either. And I haven't even mentioned how this TV adaptation adds a group of new characters, a next generation set of brilliant scientists who were students together at Oxford, and all of whom play key roles in exploring and expanding the story of Netflix's "3 Body Problem." Revealing as little as possible, I can say that the plot goes from solving small problems - a murder here, a scientific abnormality there - to a conflict that quite literally is out of this world and that, again, quite literally, may take centuries to resolve.

The opening episode of "3 Body Problem" is almost all mysteries. But don't be thrown. Things do become clear as the drama progresses. The characters and actors pull you in. Among the group of young scientists, the standouts include Eiza Gonzalez as Auggie and John Bradley, another "Game Of Thrones" veteran, as Jack. And once you're in, you'll be in for all eight exciting, unnerving episodes. "3 Body Problem" is planned as a three-season series to tell the full story from the original books, and I suspect Netflix will have no problem greenlighting the rest. "3 Body Problem" is a mission that must be completed. It's so smart it puts the science back in science fiction.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new Netflix series "3 Body Problem." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how climate-driven migration could change the face of America. Our guest will be ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. He says millions of us may flee to other parts of the country in coming decades to escape wildfires, rising seas, oppressive heat and drought. He's written a new book called "On The Move: The Overheating Earth And The Uprooting Of America." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.