Innovation rarely stands alone. To strive ahead means to follow the pathfinding of those who came before you. Yet what seems a brave new world can, on closer inspection, merely be a pale revisit of the earlier trail. Which is a long-winded way of saying that 1899, the mind-bending show from Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar (the makers of hit show Dark), is not navigating unchartered waters.
Mystery television can make for the most compelling – something Dark succeeded at by throwing all manner of time travel plot spirals at us. Even though character family trees and how to link various chains of events got confusing in Friese and bo Odar’s last show, the central ‘time travel’ mechanic anchored it all.
1899, in which a steamship full of European migrants encounters a mysterious abandoned sister ship, instead keeps its secrets in a box within a box.
What Is 1899 About?
When the Kerberos, on route to New York City from London, receives a distress call from the Prometheus, it diverts to investigate. The Prometheus had disappeared 4 months earlier without a trace.
Captain Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann), in receipt of a strange letter from his deceased family calling him to the ship, finds the vessel abandoned and derelict save for one young, mute, boy. But he isn’t the only crew member to have received a letter calling them out to the Prometheus.
1899’s slow uncovering of the rivets of its mystery owe a large debt to Lost. From flashbacks to past traumas of our characters, usage of constant symbolism to denote that its spooky time, through to its technique of, ‘yes!…but–‘ plot device reveals, 1899’s frustrations will be familiar to anyone who got irritated by The Island’s meandering hike through bafflement.
Mercifully, the episode count here is far shorter.
Where Lost often won out despite itself was a decent clutch of characters who underwent development throughout. 1899 struggles to build a cast to care about, given that everyone remains in a state of constant confusion.
The flashbacks provide scripted reasons for their presence, sure. Maura (Emily Beecham) is seeking her lost brother. Ramiro, a priest, and Ángel, a wealthy heir, have left Spain in somewhat of a rush.
Lucien (Jonas Bloquet) fears both his past and future, and his marriage of convenience to exasperated Clémence (Mathilde Ollivier) isn’t working for either of them. And the lower decks are full of Danish steerage passengers, including those fleeing home. These stories provide meat for the past throughout.
1899 Official Trailer
Is 1899 Worth Watching?
1899 keeps you moving by handing out information piecemeal but struggles to actually engage you given that what is happening now is a different ocean altogether.
Characters barrel around discovering things like they’ve been flicked into corners by the script, not because of any internal agency.
It doesn’t help that most characters don’t speak the same language and so have to intuit what others are saying, or that The Boy – with all respect to the young actor – must spend a long time with a stony expression and ignoring questions.
In a film like the dark and hopeless Triangle – in which scary happenings at sea seem unending and inevitable – the horror aspect bolstered the mystery. 1899 toys with an unsettling tone in its more effective moments but ultimately just wants you to turn the page so it can dazzle you with its big bag of surprises.
Success from Dark clearly has caused Netflix to dig into its coffers because 1899 certainly looks superb. The unrelenting sea batters the Kerberos as our cast stagger down gloriously decorated sets, before the scenery warps in service to our patented Strange Goings On.
Thumping 70s tunes close each episode as another jaw-dropping wave crashes a cliffhanger over the screen. The ‘money shots’ are satisfying event television, even if the event is ultimately gone with the tide.
1899’s big reveal at its conclusion suggests that Friese and bo Odar have more aHA! moments to play with, but they will need to develop better playing pieces if we are to return to the game board.
Words by Mike Record