Haven't watched 3 Body Problem yet? Here's why the Netflix sci-fi drama needs to be on your watchlist

The show has gripped viewers with its brilliant high-concept plot

3 Body Problem Netflix
(Image credit: Cr. Ed Miller/Netflix © 2023)

"Prepare yourself for something very strange," the voiceover begins in the Netflix trailer for 3 Body Problem, setting the tone for this mind-boggling and politically charged sci-fi drama. 

The eight-episode series launched in late March and has shot to the top 10 of Netflix's most-watched shows in the UK. It's no surprise that 3 Body Problem has garnered a lot of attention, considering it has the creators of Game of Thrones David Benioff and D. B. Weiss at the helm, alongside True Blood writer Alexander Woo. 

The Netflix show is on Liu Cixin’s novel The Three-Body Problem, which is the first in the celebrated Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, and it's fair to say it was always going to be highly ambitious to adapt this high-concept sci-fi story. Still, if anyone is up to the challenge of transporting an incredibly intricate and multi-layered fantasy world from the pages of a novel to the small screen, it's GOT's Benioff and Weiss. 

"We like the same things about the books that so many other fans do," said Weiss (via Tudum). "We’re doing everything in our power to bring this story to life in the best, most impactful way possible. But reading the books is not a prerequisite for understanding or enjoying the show." 

This is everything we know about Netflix's 3 Body Problem, unpacking its multi-layered storyline, political undertones and whether it remains faithful to the original Three-Body Problem book written by Liu Cixin. Warning: Some 3 Body Problem spoilers ahead. 

And if you've already binged 3 Body Problem and are looking for your next gripping TV show, take a look at this big update on You's fifth season, as well as everything you need to know about House of Dragon season two and, for something a little lighter, this is what we know so far about the Legally Blonde TV series in the works. 

What is 3 Body Problem about? 

Caveat: There's a lot to unpack here, with a storyline that takes us from '60s China to a future none of us would recognise. The Netflix show, like the book, is largely rooted in an alien invasion plot, but to tell the story we're firstly taken back to 1960s China at the height of the country's Cultural Revolution in powerful scenes that capture the terror of that point in history. 

As the Guardian's Tania Branigan writes: 'It dares to trace the scars of the Cultural Revolution,' explaining how the series' opening scene of brutality points to 'the lasting impact of this pivotal moment in China’s history'. In the scene, Ye Wenjie, an astrophysics graduate played by Zine Tseng, sees her father publicly beaten to death by the Red Guards after refusing to disregard scientific information discovered in the West. After her father is killed, as an academic Ye Wenjie is exiled and joins a labour brigade in the extremely remote Inner Mongolia, but her calling as an astrophysicist remains strong. 

Ye Wenjie is later sent to prison where she is recruited by Yang Weining and Lei Zhicheng, two military physicists, who are running a covert operation searching for extraterrestrial life. When given the chance to respond to contact from an alien planet, Ye chooses to respond—a decision that has grave implications for the future of humanity. 

What follows is a mind-bending journey that spans different continents and decades, bringing us to the present day where a group of talented scientists, dubbed the Oxford Five, are facing immense pressure to save humanity from a harrowing fate as a result of Ye Wenjie's choice decades ago. 

Who stars in 3 Body Problem? 

Rosalind Chao and Zine Tseng lead the cast as Ye Wenjie, which also includes Perry Yung as Ye Zhetai, Li Fengxu as Shao Lin, Lan Xiya as Tang Hongjing and Vedette Lim as Vera Ye. Mexican actress Eiza González stars as Agustina (or Auggie) Salazar, a nanotech scientist and member of the Oxford Five. 

Eiza revealed to Forbes recently why she took the role, explaining: "Auggie is a slow burn, not your usual character, and I was challenged by the idea of playing a character that wasn’t necessarily likeable from the get-go but had a lot of potential for where she’d go.

"I liked her unusual arc. She’s manic and in a dark place over and over again and at first, I resisted that a bit and was frustrated but the more I discussed our intentions with her the more I got excited about the possibilities. And working alongside such a diverse cast was exciting. I love the books and I love the sci-fi genre, and this is unlike anything we’ve seen on TV."

Is 3 Body Problem faithful to the book?

The original Three-body Problem story was first serialised in Science Fiction World in 2006 before being published as a standalone book in 2008. Since then, the novel has become a cult classic, not just for its exploration of mind-bending physics but also for its powerful depiction of human connection. 

There are, however, some key differences when it comes to the new Netflix show. The original book is largely based in China, but 3 Body Problem moves the modern-day action to the UK, with an international cast. This decision has frustrated some original fans, with one viewer calling the remake "flat and shallow," saying that "the difficult concept of science fiction is roughly transformed into a simple visual spectacle" (posted on Weibo, via the Guardian). The commenter accuses Netflix of "orientalising" the background story with a focus on Western heroism. 

Series creators Benioff and Weiss have defended the decision, calling the Netflix show "purposefully global in nature". Benioff explained (via Tudum), "This is very much a story about humanity and humanity’s struggle with a seemingly unsolvable mystery that snowballs into a full-on existential crisis. 

"So we wanted to represent, as much as possible, all of humanity. We wanted people from all over the world. 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."

The 3 Body Problem creator also went on to say it was important for the adaptation to make sense for those who aren't familiar with the books, as well as those who have read them. He explained (via Tudum): "We have a tremendous love and respect for the books. You can’t devote every waking moment of your life for years on end to adapt a piece of work that you don’t love. So it’s very important to us that the show stands on its own two legs and work for people who have read the books—and for people who haven’t read the books."

So, what exactly is a three-body problem? 

This is where things get a little bit complicated. In simple terms, a three-body problem is when three celestial objects (planets, stars, or suns) are in the same solar system—which ultimately wreaks havoc on their orbits. Dr Matt Kenzie, associate professor of physics at the University of Cambridge and 3 Body Problem’s science advisor, explains via Tudum: " As soon as you have three bodies or more that are all exerting a force on each other at the same time that system breaks down. If you have three bodies or more, the orbit becomes chaotic." Dr Kenzie continues, "There’s no known solutions to the three-body problem," a concept which we see play out in the Netflix show. 

In 3 Body Problem, the San-Ti's planet has a three-sun solar system, which means that its living conditions are very unstable, with extreme heat and cold during 'chaotic' periods that make it impossible for humans to survive. 

Astrophysicist Dr Becky Smethurst, who researches black holes within her work, goes on to say in the Tudum interview: "I feel like scientists look at the term 'problem' more excitedly than anybody else does. Every scientist’s dream is to be told that they got it wrong before and here’s some new data that you can now work on that shows you something different where you can learn something new."

Is there a trailer for 3 Body Problem? 

Yes, you can watch the trailer for 3 Body Problem below. It opens with the chilling words, 'There must 30 dead scientists in the past month,' referring to the disturbing amount of scientists mysteriously abandoning their work and taking their own lives in the modern-day section of the series.  

You can also watch the alternative trailer that appears on the show's hub page on Netflix here.

Watch all eight episodes of 3 Body Problem on Netflix now. 

Lauren is the former Deputy Digital Editor at woman&home and became a journalist mainly because she enjoys being nosy. With a background in features journalism, Lauren has bylines in publications such as Marie Claire UK, Red Magazine, House of Coco, women&home, GoodTo, Woman's Own and Woman magazine.

She started writing for national papers and magazines at Medavia news agency, before landing a job in London working as a lifestyle assistant and covers everything from fashion and celebrity style to beauty and careers.