Warning: contains some plot details for The Lazarus Project
Writer Joe Barton (Giri/Haji, The Ritual) came up with the idea for new Sky series The Lazarus Project in 2016 after reading an article about a Russian submariner narrowly averting the start of a nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. 2016 was also the year of the UK’s Brexit referendum, Donald Trump’s US presidential election, and the death of David Bowie, so it’s probably no accident that Barton was thinking about the end of the world.
By the time the seven-part sci-fi thriller began filming in January 2021, Coronavirus had changed the global situation so thoroughly that our 2016 fears seemed almost quaint. “It was the height of lockdown,” Barton remembers, “and the show was originally called ‘Extinction’. They gave all the crew members face masks branded with the name of the show, so we had all of these people walking around South Wales with ‘Extinction’ written on their faces in the middle of a pandemic. It was very… dark.”
The Lazarus Project – as the series is now called – is very dark. It’s about a top secret organisation that uses a singularity in space to reset time by up to one year on the many, many occasions that humanity destroys itself. Episode one kicks off the multiple apocalypses with… a novel virus pandemic.
“It was a pre-pandemic idea, and then we worried because the whole first episode is a pandemic! It was this surreal thing of having planned the series and written it as a sort of sci-fi concept – well, not a sci-fi concept because there have been multiple pandemics in the past and there was always going to be another one. It seemed heightened but realistic, and then obviously it turned out to be very realistic.”
The question became whether or not to acknowledge the real-world Coronavirus situation in the series. “We’d referenced other real-life events like 9/11 and the war in Iraq, so we thought we should probably nod to it” A scene was shot in which Paapa Essiedu’s everyman character George questions Lazarus agent Archie (Anjli Mohindra) about the project not having reset time due to COVID-19. Archie looks at George witheringly and says “You got a vaccine in nine months. Do you think we didn’t go back?” That line was shot as a maybe, explains Barton. Whether it would be cut out or left in would depend on the global situation at the time of the final edit.
The overlap with current events didn’t stop there. A major plotline in the later episodes involves military tensions between world powers, including Russia and specifically, Ukraine. “In the second half of the series, there’s a lot that was set around that part of the world. It’s still set around that part of the world, but it originally name-checked Ukraine and Russia and NATO. So as well as doing a whole lot about the pandemic, we then had done all this Russia/Ukraine story, so we went back and changed a lot of that.” National flags were edited using CGI and dialogue was re-recorded over people specifically mentioning Ukraine. “It all felt very prescient,” says Barton, “depressingly depressing.”
For such an entertaining, action-packed series, The Lazarus Project doesn’t shy away from depressing concepts. To do their jobs, says Barton, Lazarus agents need to swallow the bleak truth that they, and all individuals “are absolutely surplus to requirements. The Lazarus Project is about the big thing and the biggest idea, which is that the planet has to survive, and they are just tiny cogs, tiny little ants. The whole idea of the show is that one person isn’t meaningful enough to turn back time for. Or are they?” That’s the question faced by George’s character as he’s initiated into the project.
“Hopefully people will engage with that idea and ask themselves what would they do? And I think most people would do what George does, which is ‘fuck it, I’m doing everything I can to turn back time and save the person I love’, even if it’s proven to him that he will be ruining loads of people’s lives and changing the course. It doesn’t matter to him, to us, if it’s the person you love, you’d do that.”
The Lazarus Project is airing weekly on Sky Max and is available to stream in full on NOW in the UK.