A melodramatic feast for puzzle box fans
When Netflix announced it would not renew the mind-bending historical series 1899, disappointed voices rang out across the internet. The single-season status made some of us wonder if it would still be worth watching. However, if you are in the mood for a sci-fi mystery dressed up as a steampunk period drama, then 1899 might be just what you need—a show to fill the time until your next binge-worthy series comes along. From the producers of the television show Dark, we have another twisty, angsty, German puzzle box series.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the luxury steamship Kerberos sails from England on its way to New York. On board the transatlantic cruise ship is a diverse, international group of passengers, crew, and stowaways. The set design immediately evokes the Titanic, a luxurious but doomed period piece. But the opening scene of 1899 quickly lets viewers know they are headed deep into Twilight Zone territory. After some heady, off-camera narration about the largeness of the brain and the sky, the main character, Maura, a young British physician, is shown being dragged away and restrained in an asylum-like setting. A few moments later she is in her cabin on the Kerberos, and adjusts the sleeves of her elegant dress to cover the strap wounds on her wrists.
We get a quick overview of the other characters (the wealthy but unhappy passengers above deck and the oppressed and even more unhappy working-class passengers below deck). In addition to the protagonist Maura, we meet Eyk, the moody, grief-stricken German captain of the Kerberos, whose wife and children were killed in a fire. Other passengers include the wealthy and unhappily married French newlyweds Clemence and Lucien; fake brothers, playboy Angel (from Spain) and priest Ramiro (from Portugal); Ling Yi, a purported young geisha traveling with her older companion Yuk Je. The lower-deck passengers include the Danish siblings, pregnant Tove and brother Krester, their little sister Ada, and their overbearing parents. Additional key characters are Olek, a Polish worker who spends his days shoveling fuel for the steamship’s fire; and Jerome, a French soldier and stowaway with a connection to Lucien.
Several of the passengers and crew have a mysterious envelope which creates concern for them and which they hide from the others. Then the main plot gets going when the long-missing steamship Prometheus mysteriously reappears. Eyk, the emotionally tormented captain of the Kerberos, must decide whether to continue to America or go back to investigate the ghost ship. The longer they hover near the Prometheus, the more unexplained occurrences happen. Although 1899 is a series from the team behind the German series Dark, it is much more of a callback to Lost, with an ensemble cast trying to solve the mystery of their circumstances. Like Lost, 1899 is a puzzle you will never really solve but hope to have fun trying. But will you have fun trying? That depends on what you are in the mood for.
Also like Lost, 1899 has an appealingly diverse ensemble cast of characters, all with haunting, traumatic backstories that inform their current choices on the ship. Or so we think. On multiple levels, no one is who they seem to be. This is an important difference from Lost. In Lost, flashbacks revealed each person’s true character. In 1899 many of the flashbacks are unreliable red herrings. As the story progresses, the ship’s occupants experience both temporal and spatial shifts that make them question their sanity and the wisdom of staying near the Prometheus. Robotic beetles, portal-inducing pyramids, and mass suicides complicate things as life on the Kerberos becomes increasingly deadly.
1899 is best enjoyed with a willing suspension of disbelief, not just in the puzzling occurrences but also in the protagonists' extremely emotional behaviors. Without that willing suspension, viewers will find themselves frustrated by the repeated poor choices made by otherwise sensible characters. The main theme of the show is the power of the mind and the power of heightened emotions in determining our behavior. Secondary themes include classism, bigotry, extremism, oppression, love, and betrayal, and the universality of those themes across various cultures.
In terms of culture, the show’s characters are international and speak in eight different languages to each other onscreen. Watching this in its original format immerses the viewer in an environment where the lead characters often cannot understand each other’s words but manage to communicate in other ways. The effect is charming and intriguing but also a bit unbelievable, especially at moments of crisis. The English version dubs all the characters into English and creates a very different effect because the characters' difficulty in understanding each other disappears. Once the very big twist is revealed in the last episode, we are left with as many questions as we have answers.
1899 is entertaining for those who like character studies in an offbeat setting. Viewers looking for a point will find themselves frustrated. The show’s haunting opening song White Rabbit lets us know that ultimately none of this will make sense; you just have to enjoy (or endure) the ride.
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10
- Fun dueling languages
- Exhausting melodrama (and I am someone who loves melodrama)
- A puzzle with so many red herrings
POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – multitasking, fiction-writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.