The Lazarus Project: Writer Joe Barton on time-loops and the end of the world

Taking the time-loop premise to new and unexpected places, The Lazarus Project is a dark, action-packed series and we spoke to its writer Joe Barton to discuss the end of the world.

Brand new sci-fi series The Lazarus Project follows George who wakes up one day and finds himself reliving a day from months ago. He thinks he’s lost his mind. All of his recent milestones have been undone, including his success at work and his marriage to the love of his life Sarah (Charly Clive). Worst of all, he seems to be the only one who has noticed what’s happened.

That is, until he meets Archie, who recruits George (Paapa Essiedu, above) for the Lazarus Project – a secret organisation that has harnessed the ability to turn back time every time the world is at threat of extinction. Like George, those who work at Lazarus are the few people on earth with the ability to remember the events that are undone when time goes back.

Alongside colleagues Archie (Anjli Mohindra), standoffish Shiv (Rudi Dharmalingam), and their steely leader Wes (Caroline Quentin), George works to prevent global catastrophe – including trying to track down the formidable Rebrov (Tom Burke), a wanted criminal intent on detonating a nuclear warhead and destroying the world…

We sat down with writer Joe Barton to discuss time loops, secret government agencies and how he predicted the future…

When did you first get the idea for The Lazarus Project?

I’d been reading articles about things like the Cuban Missile Crisis and BuzzFeed articles like ’10 times the world almost accidentally destroyed itself’. I don’t know why I was reading these things, maybe I just like to panic myself? But, how close we’ve come to nuclear disaster and all this stuff. It just struck me as weird in a way that we hadn’t accidentally completely annihilated our own planet (although, I mean, maybe we are slowly with the environment), but in a more immediate sense.

So I guess the idea came from exploring that idea. It seems so unlikely that we as a species hadn’t accidentally killed ourselves already… So what if it had happened and there was a secret society that was put together to undo these massive extinction events?

Then the time travel element came into it… I guess it was an excuse to do a time loop show which I’ve always wanted to do, and to try and come up with new rules and new ways of doing time travel and time loops.

Did you look to any other time-loop projects for inspiration?

Groundhog Day is a classic and I like Live Die, Repeat, Edge of Tomorrow. Those are the main ones. Also Source Code was there. It wasn’t one specific thing but it’s more about taking different elements from ones that interested me. Taking the darkness of Groundhog Day and the suicidal nature or the action beats from Edge of Tomorrow and just putting it all into a big mixer.

Recently, there’s been stuff like Palm Springs, which has been great. There are loads of them and they’ve all got some interesting little elements to them.

The Lazarus Project differs from the usual 24-hour time loop and is instead a variable – why did you go down that route?

I liked the idea that it was a variable, and that there was a time limit on it. The point of the Lazarus Project is that something bad has happened, and they want to undo it. But you have to put restrictions on that idea. The most they can go back is a year.

I think big part of it was because the crux of the show is that George wants time to go back to save one person. But they only turn back time to save the planet. It’s that idea of, is one person’s life important? Or are billions of people’s lives more important? Is one person worth turning back time for?

So he only has a year in which to turn back time and I think that with all of these stories, it’s all about the restrictions you put on the character because if they can just turn back time whenever and at any point they want, then they live in a world of endless possibilities. Nothing matters. But if there are rules and a structure to it, then you create more drama.

There are some real tragedies in The Lazarus Project, was it important to you include the darker elements of time travel?

Yeah, it was all about: What are the downsides of time travel? Because there’s lots of fun. You can have loads of fun with it, they do car chases and explosions and everyone loves that but then it was like, well, actually, what are the realities if you turn back time, even a week?

There are billions of people on the planet and if you turn back your life, even a month or two months, what would you lose or what would change? If you met your partner two weeks ago, and then you turn back time three weeks, would you still meet that person?

We’re constantly making these decisions in our lives that we don’t even know about. I might hesitate when I’m crossing the road, and that means that I won’t bump into so and so, which means I won’t go here or there. But the whole journey of your life can be completely hanging on tiny little moments. It seemed like a fascinating idea about actually, what are the huge negative repercussions of turning back time on people even if they’re not aware of it? Is it still morally dubious to do?

George (Paapa Essiedu) is faced with a moral dilemma…

There are plenty of time lines in the show, that sometimes overlap and cross each other – how did you keep on track with it all?

With difficulty! I’m a very unorganised person and I never quite appreciated just how complicated it would be. We definitely lost track of it at times. I think even to the point where we’d filmed stuff, and we were in the edit room and we were like ‘wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. We have to change this’ [haha]!

If we get a second series, one of the things I absolutely will do is do a corkboard chart like Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s mind map.

The Lazarus Project is managed by a secret government organisation, what can you tell us about this group and their relationship with each other?

I liked the idea that it’s kind of a gang show. It’s the tone of the show as well – one of the things we wanted to do with the Lazarus Project was that it’s a big sci-fi organisation that does these incredible things, but it’s also a place of work. In the scripts there was all this stuff about wanting to get details about their office like, where do they make the tea? Where are the toilets? It’s a workplace, they squabble, they go for karaoke and drinks and stuff like that.

So we wanted to build out these interesting, slightly acerbic, irreverent characters. There’s also a bit of a divide in them because you have the ones who organically, like George, mutated to be able to experience time loops and you have the ones who were chosen specifically. You have Archie or Greta – these people who were very skilled and were chosen. Then you have people like George who just developed this ability organically. So George is essentially a guy who’s a normal who finds himself working for this super organisation and it’s just fun to play with that idea of how he basically feels slightly inadequate!

The Lazarus Project is also a gang show centred around a secret government organisation

The Lazarus Project is only actioned when the end of the world is imminent – how did you come up with the different ideas to destroy the world?

Part of it was sitting down and working out the different ways of doing it. Obviously, nuclear war was the obvious one and there aren’t there aren’t a huge amount of variations. So that’s why we have a pandemic in the first episode. Which then came true, obviously, by the time we filmed it, which is unfortunate.

Wait, did you write the show before the Covid-19 pandemic?

Yeah we did! There was that and then there was a lot of stuff about Ukraine and Russia as well in the show originally, which we then had to change.

The problem with the show is it’s a very dark world at the moment and you’re dealing with these big existential threats and you want it to feel realistic, but also everyone’s obviously sensitive to that because it feels like a dangerous planet, right now. So it’s kind of walking that line between escapism and being depressing.

That’s pretty weird that you included a pandemic and a conflict between Russia and Ukraine before both of them happened…

Yeah, weird. All the actors were looking at me like ‘what did you know?’ and like ‘what else is gonna happen?!’.

I don’t think any of these ideas were that outlandish, that’s sort of scary. If you’ve been paying attention over the last 5-10 years, this kind of stuff was always gonna potentially happen. It’s just unfortunate that it’s still happening to us now.

The world ends in a number of frighteningly realistic ways.

How did you maintain the balance of action, sci-fi and humour in the show?

I think it’s just going where it feels like the story needs to go. We always had an eye on the fact that it’s an action show. So we should have the spectacle in it whenever we can. And the first episode, there should be a big chase.

Then we gave ourselves permission to try and be flexible. I think that the tone of the show is one in that you can have quite a lot of humour, but you can also have really dark stuff as well. And you can have these big action set pieces. It’s quite a fine line, it’s a balancing act. Not every show can do that, but I think if you go in with the intention of this is the show, the lead character can sing ‘The End of the World’ in karaoke, at the same time as you can have, “what would happen if a baby was undone by time travel?”.

It’s difficult. You can’t have them at the same time but you can if you’re careful and if you take care over the plotting. The peaks and troughs of audience emotion is there to be mined. You just have to be delicate with it.

What do you want audiences to take away from the series?

Purely I want people to be entertained by it. That was the fundamental thing.

I think you can watch it on a surface level of ‘here are the stakes, is he going to achieve the things he’s got to achieve? Is the hero going to win the day? Is the world going to be saved?’ All of this stuff, but if people want to, I think there are deeper moral and philosophical questions about the nature of morality and that big question of: What would you do? Do you think that one life is worth altering the course of everyone else on the planet just to save? Or do you think that actually you can’t turn back time to save one person?

There’s big conundrums that the characters go through and I guess it’d be nice if people watched it and were like ‘oh, shit, what would I do in that in that situation?’ Or they might just like the car chases, and that’s fine, too!