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The Lazarus Project is about the near misses we’ve had with the end of the world, says writer Joe Barton

Writer Joe Barton, who penned critical smash Giri/Haji, has returned with action thriller The Lazarus Project, where man-made and natural disasters are a constant threat. He tells us about the real-world inspirations behind the show

Imagine a world in which man-made and natural disasters are a constant threat. It isn’t hard to do, right? Writer Joe Barton, who penned critical smash Giri/Haji, returns with smart action thriller The Lazarus Project – a show that’s equal parts high octane car chases, heart-wrenching love stories and a thought-provoking meditation on personal and global apocalypses!

The new show takes the idea that we might constantly be on the verge of nuclear armageddon or extinction-by-global pandemic and runs with it.

His big concept? What if a secretive band of time-travelling renegades were able to reset the world to an agreed date each year if the end of the world was nigh?

Because what sounds like a good fall-back option, a handy way to save the planet for humanity, has huge implications for everyone.

I was reading about how the world’s nuclear weapons are getting really old… and I was thinking, how have we avoided a cataclysmic disaster?! 

Joe Barton

And his other big concept? To set a mindbending moral poser for his main character. If you had the power to turn back time, would you use it to save the person you love most – even if it means changing billions of lives?

Ahead of the series airing on Sky and NowTV, Barton called us to explain how his highly addictive new thriller grew from real-world fears about the end of the world…

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The Big Issue: What sparked the idea for The Lazarus Project? 

Joe Barton: I remember reading about the Cuban Missile Crisis and times where there was an incident, like a Russian submarine whose radar picked up something that they thought might be an American nuclear missile and they couldn’t get hold of their superiors. Only the calmness of one or two Russian soldiers meant they didn’t launch a nuclear weapon and start World War 3. It’s really about the near misses we’ve had, when the Doomsday Clock gets almost past midnight.

Plus I was reading about how the world’s nuclear weapons are getting really old, the systems around them are decrepit and still run off floppy disks – all this depressing stuff. And I was thinking, how have we avoided a cataclysmic disaster?! 

Cheery stuff… 

Yeah, exactly. But then I thought, what if these disasters happen all the time and a group of people have undone them? Then it became a new and fresh way of doing time-loop and time-travel stuff. 

Some stories around pandemics seems very prescient – when did you write those bits? 

I wrote that pre-pandemic. But if you’ve been paying attention there have been plenty of threats like Ebola, just not on the scale of coronavirus. There was even a West Wing episode where Josh Lyman is freaking out about smallpox. He says that somewhere in a lab there’s a rubber cap on a test tube eroding, or someone might be in Times Square and drop a test tube and all these terrifying man-made or naturally evolving things could happen. Anyway, I think about these things and I worry about them a lot. So maybe this series is just a way of me trying to compartmentalise my fears. 

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How important was it that once you had that central idea to really go deep on the multiple implications – the global crises but also hyperlocal ones, babies not being born or reborn as different people or relationships that were broken being revived?

That is what really interested me once we had the big idea. It’s very easy to say it is a good thing that these guys rewind the clock to the previous July because a nuclear bomb went off – but what about the minutiae?

Every moment of your life you make a decision that changes your future – that’s basic chaos theory – so they might be able to stop a bomb going off or a pandemic spreading, but they also change the course of billions of lives. Sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. I wanted to dig into that moral dilemma within a time-loop genre. 

Joe Barton’s new series The Lazarus Project begins on Sky on 16 June 2022

And George, played by the brilliant Paapa Essiedu, lands in the middle of the biggest moral dilemma.

When you’re telling a story you should be able to see both sides of a character’s argument. The best heroes, but particularly villains, are the ones where you can understand their moral argument. Black Panther was a good example recently.

With George, you are asking whether he is a villain, is he a Breaking Bad-type good guy who has had something bad happen to him so you see him make his decisions and you understand why he does it, even if the outcome isn’t good? His basic thing is, why wouldn’t I save the person I love if I could turn back time? And if some people aren’t born or some people don’t do the things they were going to do, is it immoral if they don’t know about it?

A lot of people would be very tempted to use that power in his situation. 

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You also see what is driving your chief villain in this – an ex-Lazarus Project member played brilliantly by Tom Burke…

With the Lazarus Project, one big question is whether they are really the good guys. They think they are. Everyone always thinks they’re fighting for a righteous cause. But a good villain is someone you can understand where they are coming from, could maybe even see yourself doing the same thing if the roles were reversed. It’s rare you get anyone, even a politician, that’s fully moustache-twirling evil. There are politicians I despise but a lot of them do have an ideology and they do believe in it. We are getting more extreme examples – we’re talking just after another horrific school shooting in America and you see people like Ted Cruz coming out instantly and it’s like, there’s no goodness in you.

Did writing The Lazarus Project make you think about any big issues we are currently facing – whether it is war in Ukraine or the environmental damage being left for future generations?

I guess the big thing is doing a show about people that prevent the end of the world when it sometimes feels like we’re living in a world that’s falling apart in an unstoppable way.

I try not to be a catastrophist but I worry a lot about climate change. It’s the defining topic of our time in the same way that people in the ’50s and ’60s would do classroom drills about hiding under their desks in case an atomic bomb went off. Although now with Russia, maybe we’re back to that. But with the environment stuff, it also makes me ask questions about how we live our life with massive existential threats hanging over us. 

Do you see any direct link in terms of themes with Giri/Haji?

It must be a thing that’s on my mind because in Giri/Haji, halfway through the series, there is a whole montage of how all of the little actions that the characters have performed have led them to this moment. Kelly MacDonald’s got a stoned speech, a whole monologue talking about it. So there’s some linked DNA.

This stuff can really get inside your head, can’t it? 

You can have this idea about your life and the people in it, but you could be living a whole different life. Maybe these aren’t the only people for you. Sometimes I look at the people I’m with and think, I didn’t know any of these people two years ago. You can suddenly be in a friendship group of relatively new people and it is great. But you could have made different friends or have different relationships.

So I was really interested in the idea of characters becoming aware of all these different paths they didn’t go down. Or things that were undone. So a big one is George realising that, in the timeline he’s been aware of, he met Sarah, there was an instant connection, they fell in love and were soulmates. But the reality is that any meeting is the result of thousands of randomised events. We are not just destined for one thing – our lives can change in myriad ways.

All eight episodes of The Lazarus Project are available to stream on NOW and Sky Go

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