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Even if sci-fi isn’t your thing, ‘3 Body Problem’ might be

Jess Hong in "3 Body Problem."Netflix

“3 Body Problem” backs into its main story line, so that for an episode or two of Netflix’s new science fiction series, you may find yourself with a few basic who-, what-, where-, why-, and when-type questions. Before the premise of the show has even been fully established, there are mysterious sequences and big, juicy conflicts about God and science to ponder. But just hang on; it’s a nebulous “Lost”-like approach that, unlike “Lost” itself, soon comes dazzlingly clear. That out-to-sea feeling has been intentionally conjured, to put us in the position of the human characters, who are as mightily muddled as we are by unfolding planetary and cosmic events, including an on-off blinking of the starry dome above.

The farther I got into the first eight-episode season of “3 Body Problem,” the more I trusted the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss from “Game of Thrones,” along with Alexander Woo from “True Blood.” Based on Liu Cixin’s books “Remembrance of Earth’s Past,” the show has been pieced together carefully and intelligently, in the form of a slowly but surely dawning reality about the universe. Benioff and Weiss have been slammed for their unsatisfying final season of “Game of Thrones,” but, so far, “3 Body Problem” reestablishes their reputations as top-notch adaptors. They once managed to pull the mainstream into a fantasy featuring fire-breathing dragons and zombies, and now they’ve opened up another genre — the alien invasion — with the same ambition and all-important character depth.


A scene from the Netflix sci-fi series "3 Body Problem."Netflix

The show opens during the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China with a scene that rhymes with the beheading of Ned Stark in “Game of Thrones.” Young scientist Ye Wenjie (Zine Tseng) sees her father murdered in public as the rabble cheers. Sentenced to death for teaching ideas about relativity and the Big Bang Theory to students, he refuses to renounce science. Then, in present tense London, we see that an investigator, Da Shi (Benedict Wong), is looking into a spate of suicides by prominent scientists around the world. One of those scientists — we see her throw herself into a particle accelerator — is the former Oxford physics professor of five scientists around whom much of “3 Body Problem” revolves. A very sophisticated VR game becomes part of the show, too, and we spend time in it with various players, who are tasked with solving the titular problem.


I don’t want to explain too much about the plot, at the risk of making it sound more complex than it turns out to be. The pieces fit together nicely, and all of the science is explained in dialogue that only occasionally feels a bit expositional. Almost all of the characters are brilliant, so their interactions elevate our understanding of the concepts in play. Certainly the show has a brainy quality, as it pushes us to think about the draw of religion, our vulnerability to technology, and, in ways that made me think of the slowly approaching apocalypse in “On the Beach,” the meaning and the purpose of hope.

From left: Eiza González, Jess Hong, Saamer Usmani, Jovan Adepo, Alex Sharp, and John Bradley in "3 Body Problem."ED MILLER/NETFLIX

But “3 Body Problem” finds its most grounding material in the prominent characters, particularly the five Oxford friends. Jess Hong’s Jin Cheng gets a lot of screen time as a work-obsessed theoretical physicist who becomes an unexpectedly valuable national asset. She has no idea that Alex Sharp’s Will Downing is in love with her. Eiza González is also prominent as the genius Auggie Salazar, who suddenly decides to shut down the groundbreaking work she has been doing that would make her a fortune. The friends are extremely close and generous with one another, which adds a welcome sense of warmth to the show. Some of their performances are better than others, but all together they form an appealing ensemble around which the cosmic chaos spins.


Ultimately, “3 Body Problem” works on a few levels. It’s a detective story, it’s a mystery box, it’s a grand visual spectacle, it’s a friendship drama, and, most of all, it’s an imagination-prodding piece of sci-fi. I’m not sure where it will go, if it is renewed, but the first season stands as a challenging and rewarding set of episodes. I’m on board for the next phase of this provocative intergalactic trip.


Starring: Rosalind Chao, Benedict Wong, Eiza González, Jess Hong, Jonathan Pryce, Liam Cunningham, John Bradley

On: Netflix. Streams Thursday.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him @MatthewGilbert.