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Entry updated 10 November 2023. Tagged: TV.

German tv series (2022-current). A Dark Ways production for Netflix. Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. Directed by Baran bo Odar. Written by Odar and Friese. Other writers are Emil Nygaard Albertsen, Jerome Bucchan-Nelson Dario, Juliana Lima Dehne, Madrona López Gallego, Emma Ko. Cast includes Emily Beecham, Aneurin Barnard, Jonas Bloquet, Miguel Bernardeau, Fflyn Edwards, Yann Gael, Anton Lesser, Maciej Musial, Matthilde Ollivier, José Pimentão, Andreas Pietschmann, Isabella Wei, Gabby Wong. Eight 50- to 62-minute episodes. Colour.

With Odar and Friese's previous German-language Time Travel epic Dark (2017-2020) having proved a cult success, Netflix upped their budget for this similarly bleak and mysterious follow-up project set (apparently) on a transatlantic ocean liner in the titular year.

Progressive British doctor Maura Franklin (Beecham) is sailing to New York aboard the steamship Kerberos (guardian of Hell) in search of her brother, who disappeared along with the sister-ship Prometheus (bringer of knowledge) four months earlier. Responding to a distress call, the Kerberos' German captain (Andreas Pietschmann) locates the Prometheus which is now completely abandoned except for a mute ten-year old boy who crawls out of a cupboard holding a mysterious black pyramid.

In the days/episodes following, surreal events mount. The multi-lingual occupants of the Kerberos begin to suffer from hallucinations, passengers hurl themselves lemming-like from the rails, and some discover impossible tunnels that lead to outdoor landscapes drawn from their memories. As reality breaks down, Maura realizes that she and her Ship of Fools are trapped in a computer simulation (see Virtual Reality), that the Prometheus was a previous instance of the same program, and that the passengers have been reliving this week of shipboard hell innumerable times. By collecting items that function as metaphorical "keys" to the simulation, Maura manages to break the loop and escape into a new world. In the final scene, Maura awakes to find herself a passenger aboard the twenty-second-century Starship Prometheus. Whether this last reveal is reality or a further layer of simulation remains to be seen, but with two more planned series it is sure that 1899 has plenty of surprises left to come.

Stripping away eight hours of ominous foreshadowing and puzzle-box mysteries, 1899 is a relatively simple story of Conceptual Breakthrough, especially in comparison to the time-tangled Dark. Those who prefer the relatively standard Bermuda Triangle-style antics of its early episodes may be disappointed by 1899's turn towards sf; but just as Dark applied a rigorous logic to its tale of small-town time travel, so 1899 seems determined to push its story of nested Virtual Realities beyond the usual limits of Hollywood sf into something more complicated.

1899's impossible ship, with its physical connections between memories, is openly compared to the human brain. The characters' exploration of these connections (as they search for plot device tokens) is akin to a player navigating the ouroboros maps of open-world Videogames such as the Dark Souls series (2011-current). The parallels with videogames extend to 1899's production. To sidestep logistical issues arising from filming the Covid-19 pandemic, the seafaring tale was filmed almost entirely on a sound stage in Berlin. The Unreal video game engine was used to simulate realistic backdrops across a wraparound LED screen, and the actors performed against them in real time.

1899 is headed by a pan-European cast who speak at least seven languages among themselves, subtitled for viewers. The weakness of the show's first series is its struggle to make this large cast's struggles meaningful when their remembered traumas are apparently imaginary and their deaths-followed-by-rebirths have all the finality of a monthly Comic book. [JN]


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