When Dark came out, more than one viewer would have found themselves scrambling for a notebook and pen in order to try and keep track of the characters, the links between them, and the sequence of events. The German series turned out to be an absolute puzzle box, even for lovers of mind-bending series. So the return of its creators, Baran bo Odar and Jantjse Friese, with this new series on Netflix, was keenly awaited by those who enjoy series that fire up their neurons. Entitled 1899, it is set on a ship carrying both first-class passengers, who’ve paid a lot of money for their tickets, and second-class ones, who are crammed in together. Hailing from various European countries, they are all desperate to get to America. It’s clear from the start that many of them harbor secrets or are fleeing something from their past. Why would they otherwise leave their motherland to sail to another part of the world if they didn’t want to start over from scratch? And what are they running away from? These kinds of questions begin to arise from the get-go, starting from the perspective of one of the lead characters, played by Emily Beecham, who stands out because she is a woman traveling alone, and it turns out she also has her reasons for being aboard. In the first few scenes, the series gradually introduces all these characters, including the ship’s crew and, of course, the captain, played by Andreas Pietschmann, who appeared as one of the versions of Jonas in Dark.
On this premisealone, the series already has the ingredients for a decent mystery. Add in a corpse and it could be the makings of an Agatha Christie novel. However, what insteadarrives is a message containing some coordinates that might be those of a ship that disappeared months ago. The captain decides to change course in order to go to the aid of any possible survivors, thus steering the series into territory more akin to that of The Terror. During the first few episodes, 1899 takes advantage of the tension generated by the captain’s decision, which was to the dislike of various passengers, and which is fed by class and personal conflicts brewing in the ship’s close and almost claustrophobic confines. At the same time, other mysteries are added to the plot (possible spoilers for the series from here on) such as a stowaway who boards the main ship, the discovery of a child on the ship that had disappeared, and a strange pyramid-shaped object. At this point it is already obvious that 1899 is partly inspired by the legend of shipwrecks in the Bermuda Triangle region, with the obviously ominous implications of this for the protagonists.
For much of the series, 1899 taps into this sense of foreboding in order to provoke conflict between the different groups of characters. The fact that they speak different languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish) is artfully used to dole out clues. Only the viewer knows everything about the characters and their stories. The script contains at least one reveal per episode, so viewers have the sense they are making progress in solving the enigma. All this unfolds to the tempo of distorted synthesizers and as the ship is tossed about on stormy seas, producing a kind of dizziness akin to the idea of the riddle that has swallowed you up and of reality as something that can warp and vanish from beneath you. In the latter part of the series, the period drama facade fades away completely and in its place is revealed the science-fiction it really was from the start. Via monologues by various characters, the series very effectively addresses its main theme, which is the attempt to escape from a reality, a life, that has ensnared you and of which you are a prisoner.
The use of Plato’s allegory of the cave, although a bit overused these days, is effective in explaining the Matrix-like simulation in which the characters of 1899 turn out to be caught up in. From this point the series goes from one massive revelation to another, with what appears to be the end turning out to merely be the prelude to another twist. In the end, instead of completely wrapping things up, the writers leave the story open for a second season in a similar way to what they did with Dark and in keeping with their method of framing one mystery inside another mystery, which turns out to be within yet another mystery. In a similar way to Lost, this hooks in those viewers who love to solve enigmas. In this case the reality is that it is us, the viewers, who are the ones tossed about and plunged into the swirling vortex of this fictional Bermuda Triangle. Of course, no one jumps on the ship of the creators of Dark expecting a smooth ride but probably the ending of 1899 will divide the audience between those eagerly awaiting a second season and those who, after so many twists and turns, would have preferred the miniseries to have been brought to a close.