Amaka Okafor as DS Shahara Hasan, the UK police officer invesitgating a mind-bending homicide in the present


Shira Hass and Stephen Graham in Bodies

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January 29, 2024
Online Originals

Bodies Showrunner on Pulling Off a Wild Sci-Fi Premise

How the creatives behind Netflix's sleeper hit mixed murder with time travel.

What happens when four detectives find the same body in the same location in four different time periods? You get Bodies, Netflix's ambitious, mind-bending murder mystery based on the DC Vertigo graphic novel by the late Si Spencer.

Screenwriter Paul Tomalin (Shameless) had reservations when production company Moonage Pictures approached him about adapting Spencer's comic for the streamer. "My instinct was to tell Moonage, and the executive producer of the show, Will Gould, 'Sorry, this is just too much. I can't do this. It's too big,'" Tomalin says.

Then Moonage's head of development, Thom Hutchinson, suggested that adding time travel might make the expansive story work as a limited series. 

"Suddenly there was a way to organize the madness," Tomalin says. "Once the setup was clear, we had to narratively diverge from a lot of the graphic novel. But in terms of our role as storytellers, we were spectacularly loyal. The graphic novel has much more esoteric answers, which are wonderful — part of me wishes we tried to tap that. But time travel gave us sort of a safety net and a rail for the audience to hold."

Time travel needs rules, however. The first being if it's interesting and works for the story, it's in. Also: no metal or technology can pass through the series' time portal, which poses an issue for 2053's Detective Maplewood (Shira Haas, Unorthodox), who cannot walk without a rechargeable spinal attachment.

Not surprisingly, given the rigid narrative boundaries, "time travel is not something I'm necessarily racing ever to do again," Tomalin admits. "With time travel, you come up against these absolutely brutal, unforgiving, threatening, malicious plot contradictions, that — from a writer's point of view — can absolutely sink you because you start to feel imprisoned by logic."

Backlash from fans can be equally intense. "It's important to know that you're gonna get torn apart on the internet by time-travel junkies," Tomalin says. "But nobody is dialing in to read A Brief History of Time. You have to throw logic out the window, which is terrifying."

As an example, he points to Maplewood's leap of faith in the final episode.

"Maplewood going back to 1890 was the one gonzo bit of time travel we went for," Tomalin says. "At no point could it ever be quick, like 'The only person who can rescue us is the guy we've got to go back in time for!' or it could go Bill and Ted so quickly. It was very important to stay true to the characters and the truth of the setup."

Tomalin and his cowriter, Danusia Samal, made a point to stay narratively faithful to three of the graphic novel's four detectives — 1890's Hillinghead (Kyle Soller, Poldark), 1941's Whiteman (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, The Queen's Gambit) and 2023's Hasan (Amaka Okafor, The Split). But the writers made 2053's Maplewood's world a bit less apocalyptic than it was in the graphic novel.

They used the original source material as a "psychedelic roadmap," according to Tomalin. "There were certain images and moments and story beats in the graphic novel that we knew we had to have but often needed a different narrative route towards. It was not about writing the [four stories] individually, but figuring out the weave — which I think is the most satisfying part of the show. You'd find parallels and ideas and a different kind of rhythm that you wouldn't have got just sticking to a singular through line," he says. "You'd have your 'A' story, depending on which character we were focusing on, and then the satisfaction being the weave and tracking the pulse of the story."

Given Bodies' broad mix of genres — mystery thiller, noir, period romance, future dystopia — Tomalin wasn't sure how it would be received. "We were all extremely wary that people wouldn't bite on the first cut-in from 2023 to 1941," he admits. "Slowly, we started to realize that people loved it, all over the world. It was a global number one [series] for so long. Yes, the novelty of the concept is overwhelming, but people are loving it. It was a relief that they bought into it."

Bodies is now streaming on Netflix.

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