The German sci-fi thriller series Dark, co-created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, is frequently cited as a hidden gem in Netflix’s ever-expanding catalog. Spanning three seasons that aired from 2017 to 2020, the show not only garnered a passionate following but widespread critical acclaim as well. So it’s no wonder why Netflix would have this pair of showrunners come back for 1899, yet another ambitious piece of sci-fi television.
At the turn of the new century in 1899, a group of passengers set sail from London on a massive ocean liner called the Kerberos. Each passenger is traveling across the Atlantic in hopes of escaping their pasts for the new lives they will find in the promised land of America. What separates them all, is their individual backgrounds. Nearly all of the main cast are from different countries, and thus, each of the actors speaks in their native language. This language barrier makes communication between passengers aboard the Kerberos very difficult and their feelings of isolation common.
The open sea voyage seems to be tedious for many of the passengers and crew throughout the ship. That is until they receive a distress signal in the middle of the ocean from the Prometheus, a sister ship that was thought to have disappeared months ago. After its discovery, strange occurrences begin to take place around the Kerberos as the ship’s mystery and the passenger’s minds slowly begin to unravel.
The ensemble of Netflix’s 1899 is what sells this collective descent into madness at sea. Andreas Pietschmann as Eyk Larson and Emily Beecham as Maura Franklin are this season’s clear standouts. Much of the story hinges on Beecham’s portrayal of Maura, and her reasons for being aboard the Kerberos. She more than anyone on deck is determined to figure out what is happening. Pietschmann’s turnout as the morose and intense Captain Eyk impresses as well, giving one of the best performances in the show as he’s haunted by the ghosts of his past. Together, Maura and Eyk are at the center of the season. The pair does a swell job of carrying this complex narrative and bouncing off the other various members of the cast.
As mentioned before, 1899 is an ambitious series, even by Netflix’s standards. Its large and eclectic ensemble all speak different languages and rarely are able to understand one another. At times, this can be frustrating as a viewer because the characters will speak with one another knowing full well the other can’t understand them. However, having the ship’s passengers mainly rely on body language to communicate with one another results in some shockingly tense and moving moments. Isabella Wei’s Ling Yi and Maciej Musiał’s Olek are just two examples from the cast who have touching chemistry despite that lack of understanding, maybe even because of it. Like many elements of 1899, its multilingual aspect is a bold creative decision.
It is with that boldness and clarity of purpose that showrunners Odar and Friese lead us further and further down the rabbit hole of madness they have created. After the discovery of the lost ship, nearly every episode shifts focus to a different passenger, providing insight into their pasts and providing hints about the true purpose of the Kerberos’ voyage. Flashbacks, hallucinations, and reality-defying puzzles present themselves to the characters at every turn and make for an incredibly engaging watching experience as you try to solve the mystery along with the characters. There’s never a moment in Netflix’s 1899 where you completely understand what’s happening or can predict where the plot will go next.
Fans of Dark will of course appreciate this aspect of Odar and Friese’s writing in 1899, but it may be daunting for those coming to this series fresh. There is a lot of information to keep track of and a large cast, all of which have important roles to play within the narrative. Thankfully, the show is in equal parts rewarding to watch, as it is dizzying. Especially when you’ve been paying careful attention and picking up on the clues that the writers have been slowly providing along the way.
Just based on the first six episodes, 1899 manages to pack quite the punch. It’s gripping television and if you make make it this far into the series, you’ll no doubt be compelled to finish for the sake of unraveling the show’s compelling mystery. In that regard, 1899 is already a success for Netflix; this sci-fi thriller demands to be finished. With only two episodes left in season one, it’s hard to say with certainty whether or not the writers will stick the landing here. There are a lot of moving pieces and reveals to come that could potentially sour what was otherwise a great season of television. However, it’s hard to imagine that Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese won’t be able to finish this first run of 1899 on a high note and leave audiences wanting more immediately, as they’ve done before.