Bodies review | A bold, time-hopping Netflix TV murder mystery

Stephen Graham in Bodies on Netflix.
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Streaming now on Netflix, Bodies is a refreshing high-concept TV mini-series with a murder mystery that kept us hooked to the end. Our review:

Bodies feels like the kind of science-fiction drama we used to see in days of old, with a high concept idea that goes for it, that doesn’t hold back in what it wants to achieve.

In those days, we might have seen such a project crop up on BBC2 or Channel 4, if the bigger network were not brave enough. Think Joe Ahearne’s Ultraviolet or even Torchwood, Russell T. Davies quirky and ‘adult’ Doctor Who spin-off. That’s perhaps the most apt comparison given this was developed by Paul Tomalin, who started as a script editor on Paul Abbott’s Shameless before graduating to the Torchwood writing staff.

Netflix is behind Bodies, adapted from the DC comic imprint Vertigo after originally coming from the mind of Si Spencer, who sadly passed away in 2021 before he could see his original series be realised. Spencer had worked on various well-known DC and 2000AD series, including Hellblazer and Judge Dredd, both in the UK and the States, but Bodies was designed as a limited run property in graphic novel form, running from 2014 to 2015. Tomalin was at pains to retain the core of Spencer’s concept and themes in his adaptation, as he recently revealed in an interview with Cosmopolitan.

It has a premise that could not be more up my personal alley if it tried. In three different time periods, a body turns up in precisely the same London street. Detectives in present day 2023, blitz-era 1941 and post-Ripper 1890, all discover the body and begin to investigate. Here’s the rub, however – it is the same body. Same guy. Three different time periods. An immediate hook. Are we talking time travel? Clones? That remains to be seen, but Tomalin and Spencer’s story seeds plenty of clues along the way.

In each time period, the street lights either flicker out or explode not long before the body has been found – perhaps a method of transport or travel through the temporal firmament? The body bears a marking on the twist of three lines crossed through, which takes on different meanings in various time periods. In 1890, investigating inspector Hillinghead (Kyle Soller) wonders if the origin might be Celtic, and have Anglo-Saxon connotations. In the present, DS Shahara Hasan (Amaka Okafor) is policing a far-right rally when the body’s found, and dismisses the idea it might have connections to racial action groups.

There is also the matter of a strange organisation lurking behind the scenes, with apparent connection to these murders (or rather murder). In 1941, detective Whiteman (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), a dapper gent of Jewish extraction, appears to be the insider in a police force coming under fire for leaking information to racketeers on the streets of war-torn London, working for a mysterious woman who utters the phrase “know you are loved” in as sinister a manner as you can imagine. This phrase recurs later in a whole different time with different connotations.

Bodies throws at us, is my point, a sizeable amount of mystery and indeed underlying character and social-political subtext. Hasan, in modern 2023, is a Muslim officer still working in a very western world, inside a police force that has never had poorer press in terms of racial and sexual concerns as it does currently. She’s raising a son in a febrile environment, forced to police open racists singing songs like ‘no surrender’. And she finds herself conflicted in hunting down a suspect of colour who the establishment is primed to disbelieve.

In an earlier time period, while Whiteman (named with true irony) appears to be doing the devil’s work, he too suffers antisemitism from the pugnacious, corrupt inspector Farrell (Jonny Coyne), peddling slurs about Jewish wealth that feel right out of tracts the Nazis would have followed. By pure happenstance, Bodies arrives at a point of heightened Jewish tensions given the Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East, which makes these scenes all the more pointed. It is hard to conscience the reality of anti-Semitic police during the fight against actual fascism, but it would have existed.

Further back, in 1980, the issue is less about race as it is sexual identity. Hillinghead is strongly suggested to be homosexual in his dealings with Henry Ash (George Parker), a photographer who finds the body and whose illegal gay connections to high society begin to scare police officers around the inspector. Race was naturally an issue in the Victorian age – indeed this was the period many such anti-Semitic tracts were being laid down ready for Hitler to seize later on – but masculinity and repression fit the age. The intersection between queer people, illegality and the upper echelons of Victorian society are fertile ground on which to build a narrative.

All of this is constructed around the core mystery, balanced in different mechanisms across these time periods and, without spoiling things too much, Bodies looks to explore a time beyond 2023 which adds even greater contextual clarity to proceedings. It suggests a rather dystopian future, and brings the ever-excellent Stephen Graham further into the picture.

There’s an intriguing complexity to the time periods in Bodies, and a distinct visual flavour to each of them. 2023 feels digital and a little more clean. 1941 has a dark glamour redolent of wartime. 1890 has the brooding, old-world chilliness of the Ripper’s age. These are distinct enough to hook us in when the narrative can threaten to become too dense, but Tomalin ensures Bodies remains a compelling mystery as it develops. It’s certainly the kind of science fiction thriller you’re better served knowing as little as possible about ahead of time.

Ultimately, we need more Bodies in our lives. Bold genre ideas, entirely British-made, that look the part and pull us down the rabbit hole. This one is worth the trip.

Bodies available to watch now on Netflix.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his Patreon and books, via here.

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