Ican tell you the exact moment I stopped understanding time travel. Or at least, when I started understanding that I would never understand time travel – no way, no how, not never. It was in the Cannon cinema, Catford, in 1989, about an hour into Back to the Future II, when Doc turns to his blackboard and draws a diagram of branching timelines and loops explaining to Marty what’s going on. As my mathematically minded younger sister leaned forward, agog at this intoxicating glimpse of a new world to conquer, I began to wave a sad goodbye to a body of knowledge I had barely known existed until then, but knew in the same moment would never be mine. These days, I struggle with the mere fact that the time depicted as the future in that film – 2015 – is now seven years in the past, although it is the intimations of mortality it brings, rather than the maths, that mentally crushes me now.
But oh, how I love a timebending anything: film, play, book, TV series! Although the mechanics will forever elude me, I have learned you don’t have to understand them to enjoy the slaloming freedom that the disapplication of all known laws provides. Just go with it. It is in this spirit that I embrace The Lazarus Project (Sky Max), the new offering from Giri/Haji’s creator Joe Barton, and beg forgiveness from him and you, readers, for any misunderstandings, misinterpretations and mistakes in what follows.
App developer George (I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu) wakes up on 1 July, bounds off to a meeting with the bank, where is he approved for a loan for his latest idea, then comes home to the happy news that his girlfriend Sarah (Charly Clive) is pregnant. They get happily married and stay happy for about six months, until a global Mers pandemic breaks out and Sarah sickens.
He reawakens on 1 July. Panicked and disoriented, he blows the meeting and instead of an app and a baby, spends the next six months researching hazmat suits and developing what looks like paranoia about an impending virus sweeping the country. He meets a mysterious stranger, who seems to understand what he is going through and hands him her card. If it happens again, she tells him, look her up.
It does, he does, and then we are properly away. She (Archie, played by Anjli Mohindra) is part of the Lazarus Project, a secret organisation made up of people who can travel through time and remember they have done so. Most have this ability induced in them, but Shiv (Rudi Dharmalingam) – like George – is a “mutant” who was born with it. They are led by kindly yet steely Wes (an unexpectedly and brilliantly cast Caroline Quentin) who – uh – harnesses the power of a singularity in space to reset the world whenever its annihilation is imminent. The latest was when the Mers outbreak reached tipping point. Before that, it was our own pandemic. “You got a vaccine in nine months,” says Archie. “Do you think we didn’t go back?”
At first, George throws himself into this new, heroic life and is all exuberant training montages and tracking down bad guys with stolen nuclear missiles. But, of course, cracks begin to appear in the apparently virtuous setup. The veteran Shiv warns him that everything they are seeing will catch up with him eventually, and the question of how much reality – how many layers of the stuff and how many repeats of it – a man can bear gains traction as the near-misses mount.
There is also Revrov (a great performance from Tom Burke, who appears from episode two onwards), a former Lazarus Project agent gone rogue. He is the catalyst for the show’s exploration of the ever-pertinent matter of what a terrorist is and who gets to define them. The Lazarus Project declares itself an unfettered good. Should we always take those convinced of their own righteousness at their word?
When tragedy intrudes upon George’s life, the tensions are torqued further as the question of individual happiness versus the collective good, that staple of the time-travel genre (would you, should you, go back and kill baby Hitler?), comes into play.
It is as gripping, fun and stylish as the acclaimed Giri/Haji, without quite its narrative innovation. But it is stuffed with good performances, knotty problems and is compelling enough to keep even those of us who, much as we may wish otherwise, don’t quite understand what’s going on coming back for more.