DI Hillinghead (Kyle Soller), dressed in a suit, tie and bowler hat, walks through a street in Victorian London, flanked by police officers
This image was taken from the official trailer for “Bodies,” distributed by Netflix.

Dystopian fiction, time-travel fiction and police procedurals are three very distinct genres with one commonality: their importance in British pop culture. While there are many immediate differences between the genres, they all reflect an anxiety about the present or the coming future. British Netflix series “Bodies” takes a bold approach, weaving a narrative that not only integrates all three of these genres but does so through four independent stories within its eight-episode run. While the show incorporates aspects from all three genres well, the attempt to tell a story this ambitious results in a struggle to consistently maintain the interest of the viewer.

What makes “Bodies” ambitious is how it attempts to tell four intertwined stories. “Bodies” follows four detectives across four time periods — the Victorian era, the Blitz, the present day and the near future — as they all attempt to solve the murder of the same person. As the story unfolds, it’s revealed that this murder is connected to a time-travel plot by a future dystopian government to take control of Britain. 

The time-travel element of the story opens a new dimension for the dystopian government to exert dominance, and its oppressive nature is one of the most powerful features of “Bodies.” The dystopian government is nearly omnipotent, they know both what is currently happening and what will come to pass. This creates an oppressive and creepy atmosphere that permeates all four narratives. Characters will act and attempt to thwart the powers that be only to realize that they’ve been acting in exactly the way they were expected to. The time-travel aspect gives the dystopian government power over the detectives’ free will: No matter what they do, they will be aiding in the establishment of a totalitarian new world order. The four stories are filled with moments of brightness, hope, love and tenderness, but they are fleeting compared to the dread that the antagonist organization creates. The oppressive nature of facing an opponent that is so confident in their success because they have already won is what makes “Bodies” so compelling.  

The time-travel narrative is sold by the excellent creative direction of the show. It’s a difficult task to tell four different stories simultaneously, but “Bodies” makes each story clearly distinguishable. This is done by subtle creative choices; each time period is lit differently and the set design reflects the development of London over the span of a century. The voice direction is stellar; fans of British period dramas will appreciate the attention to detail taken in making all four eras sound tonally and linguistically different. Part of what makes the tone so creepy is how the conspirators react when confronted about their role in creating the future government. The way that their speech becomes erratic and their prose becomes delusional drives home the feeling that the detectives are over their heads and up against a foe beyond their comprehension.

While the time-bending antagonistic force is a fantastic idea, the execution of the story is hampered by an overly ambitious goal. Telling four interwoven stories is already a challenge, but trying to contextualize all of them within the framework of a time-traversing narrative results in an unequal distribution of content between all four stories. The show shines when it uses time travel to foreshadow events from one story to another; yet “Bodies” spends extensive and unnecessary screen time explaining what the goals of the dystopian government are. All four stories have a theme of navigating marginalized identities underpinning them, but these themes are a lot more realized in settings where the marginalized experience can be contextualized. For example, Alfred Hillinghead’s (Kyle Soller, “Poldark”) story takes place in Victorian-era London, a period that was particularly harsh for gay men. Watching him navigate his own identity and relationship with another man and the tragedy that comes from the antagonist exploiting that part of him is especially moving. In comparison, Iris Maplewood’s (Shira Haas, “Unorthodox”) futuristic story lacks a lot of the powerful emotion that the other stories have. The London of 2053 simply doesn’t have the context that makes the other narratives more grounded. Maplewood’s reasoning for siding with the new world order isn’t particularly fleshed out and makes both her character and her story feel a lot flatter compared to the other stories going on at the same time. 

Despite those issues with the storytelling, the narrative in “Bodies” is incredibly unique, and there is something for fans of all three genres. It is better for a show to be overambitious and not quite reach its goal than to take a safer approach, and “Bodies” does enough right to warrant a viewing for audiences compelled by the unorthodox story setup. 

Daily Arts Contributor Nicolas Eisenberg can be reached at niceisen@umich.edu.