Strictly speaking, The Lazarus Project isn’t about time travel. Instead, it’s about turning back time, as though physically dragging a vinyl record anticlockwise, to avert extinction level events – like Groundhog Day, but deliberate, intentional, weaponised. The world ended in 1962 with the Cuban Missile crisis, until it didn’t. The world ended in 1971 with the war between India and Pakistan, until it didn’t. The world ended in 2018 after a civil war in Eastern Europe turned nuclear, until it didn’t. The world ended in 2020 because of coronavirus, until it didn’t.
On July 1 2022, George (Paapa Essiedu) secures a bank loan, an investment in a new app he’s developing. A few weeks later, his girlfriend Sarah (Charly Clive) tells him she’s pregnant. A few months after that, they’re married. Everything is going right. But in the background, a new virus is spreading, and people are dying; by Christmas, things are looking bleak. Suddenly, it’s July 1 again, and none of that ever happened – George is confused and disoriented, driven past distraction to the point of obsession, watching his life fall apart the second time over even as he’s sure things went right before.
What George has noticed is the Lazarus Project, manipulating events from behind the scenes. Somewhere between a shadowy cabal and a clandestine military group, The Lazarus Project controls a kind of reset point, able to spin the Earth backwards to the most recent July 1. On July 7, they could go back a week; on June 30, they could go back a year. They don’t work to make the world a better place – stopping 9/11 or catching a mass murderer aren’t concerns, let alone priorities – but instead balance numbers in a coldly utilitarian way, only ever intervening to stop global disaster on the grandest possible scale. As one of relatively few people sensitive to such resets, George is invited to join The Lazarus Project, soon tasked with curtailing a brewing nuclear war before it even begins.
It’s not long, though, before Sarah is hurt in an accident – and suddenly George’s commitment to the Lazarus Project is called into question. If he saves the world, and the calendar rolls on past July 1, Sarah’s fate is sealed; if he drags his feet, and doesn’t stop – or even lets – former Lazarus agent Dennis Rebrov (a commanding Tom Burke) detonate a nuclear warhead, then Lazarus will turn back time to the morning before Sarah’s accident. Even that’s a risk though – so if George sets off the bomb himself, working actively to hasten the end of the world, he can guarantee Sarah’s safety…
What’s striking about The Lazarus Project is its commitment to digging into the emotional implications of its premise. The time loop genre has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years – as bottle-show ballast for episodic series like Doctor Who and Star Trek, to being filtered through the lens of horror, comedy, and blockbuster epics in films like Happy Deathday, Palm Springs, and Edge of Tomorrow – so aspects of The Lazarus Project can, at times, feel a little familiar. There’s only so many ways to do a shadowy cabal, though, and frankly of course the villainous Rebrov is put in a Hannibal-style glass cage. There is, inevitably, going to be at least one thing here you’ll feel like you’ve seen before.
That familiarity quickly gives way to The Lazarus Project’s most obvious strength: it’s reaching for a deeper, rather than a broader, take on time loop stories, with even those most familiar elements rendered with a real care and emotional clarity. The third episode revisits a run of world-saving loops from the second from a different perspective; where field agent Archie (Anjli Mohindra) becomes increasingly blasé in the face of each failed attempt to prevent an Eastern European civil war, every loop is tantamount to sustained psychological torture for Rebrov back in England. The series – always structurally very clever that way – offers clear insight into Archie’s detached moral relativism and Rebrov’s obsessive opposition to Lazarus; the series offers an appreciable challenge to the usual (conservative, dull) time travel ethics of non-intervention, but those on either side of the debate are always painfully easy to understand.
It’s a ruthlessly well-constructed piece of television across the board, in fact; Joe Barton’s writing is emotionally and technically intelligent, while Marco Kreuzpaintner’s direction is slick and stylish (an early chase scene, with a big and bulky camper van roaring in pursuit of a lithe and graceful motorcycle, has a nice fluidity and kineticism to it). The performances too are strong – Vinette Robinson and Rudi Dharmalingam are welcome standouts amongst the supporting cast, while Anjli Mohindra announces herself as another Best Doctor Who We Never Had – though it is of course Paapa Essiedu’s series first and foremost. He’s fantastic as the everyman driven to extremes, quick to rationalise his own worst excesses (a nice touch from Barton here is that the characters are often in their own way deeply hypocritical); Essiedu is constantly making interesting decisions here, sometimes playing against the material rather than leaning into it, always engaging to watch.
If there’s a flaw to The Lazarus Project – really, the only key flaw – it’s that it hinges on what’s essentially a fridging, a tired genre trope that the series struggles to enliven the way it has other archetypes. In its opening episodes, at least, it never quite finds a way for Sarah to be a character in her own right rather than just a spectre motivating George; it’s something that, hopefully, will be addressed in the second half of the series. Nonetheless, though, The Lazarus Project is routinely compelling in its story of second chances, old mistakes and new ones, temptation and regret: well worth your time, more than once.
Sky release date 2022, TV series trailer, and cast with Paapa Essiedu and Anjli Mohindra">The Lazarus Project begins on Sky Max and NOW TV on Thursday 16 June, with all eight episodes available at once as a boxset. I’ve seen the first 4 episodes of an eventual 8 before writing this review (and then immediately went to watch the rest right after that).