Creating a good mystery show is an art-form unto itself. Given how many mystery box series we’ve had over the past few decades, it’s a delicate balancing act between stringing your audience along and keeping them hooked on a central premise, and actually delivering some answers to what’s happening without showing your full hand.
When Dark released back in 2017, the German series managed to completely change the game when it comes to time travel TV. That’s certainly no easy feat, given the stacked competition that show was up against. From Twelve Monkeys and Legion to The OA and Lost, the heavy-hitters in this field all brought something new to field – and Dark did exactly the same, and then some.
Most importantly, it really made people sit up and take notice. With each subsequent season, Dark expanded out its mystery before eventually bringing everything together with a shocking conclusion. So how does one surpass that moving forward?
That’s the conundrum facing 1899, the new show from Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, two of the brilliant minds behind Dark. Although this is advertised as a German series, the diverse cast at the helm of this one swing back and forth between Cantonese, German, Portuguese, English and more. Honestly, for that alone this show deserves some plaudits. It really is nice and refreshing to find a series that celebrates and explores all these different languages and cultures.
The diversity makes complete sense though and isn’t just here for the sake of making up numbers. This diversity comes in the form of a group of European migrants who leave London on a steamship called the Kerberos. They’re determined to make a new life for themselves in New York.
However, on the way the Kerberos encounters another migrant ship, long-abandoned for months in the ocean called the Prometheus. As they begin to probe deeper into this strange ship, the more sinister, disturbing and horrific the mystery becomes. What starts as a simple voyage soon escalates into so much more, as every passengers begins to question the nature of their reality.
To give much more away would be a disservice to this series and it’s one of those shows you should take your time with – although the desire to binge is strong with this one! It’s also partly the reason why this review has gone out days after everybody else has put theirs up! This is the sort of series that deserves to be spread out, letting the different episode cliffhangers and revelations tantalizing dance over your brain as you try to piece together what’s happening.
Whilst watching you’ll have a myriad of different ideas and thoughts over what’s happening, and 1899 does well to slowly knock down those theories one by one the deeper into this you get.
Thankfully, 1899 gets that aforementioned balance right between revealing what’s happening and keeping you enticed enough to keep watching and tumble deeper down the rabbit hole. There are a fair few characters with long, estranged pasts with one another, and over the course of the first season, this is explored in a lot more detail thanks to a revolving perspective that looks at what each passenger has been through.
The main protagonists here though fall to Maura and Eyk. The former is determined to try and find her brother, who went missing four months ago – suspiciously the same amount of time as the Prometheus. Meanwhile, Eyk Larsen is captain of the ship but he’s haunted by the memory of his family. These guys are joined by a myriad of other players, who are slowly unveiled across the course of the 8 episodes.
Be prepared to fumble your way through the first couple of chapters, trying to remember who everyone is, but By the time you reach the halfway point, it becomes a bit easier to remember everyone. And what a fascinating bunch this lot are!
I could be here all day listing the values and ideals each of these characters hold but largely they all seem to have the same theme in common – a desire to belong. Each of these men and women are looking to either fit in, find acceptance or press on to find fulfilment in their life. The way they each go about that is very different, depending on their walks of life, and understanding how they slot into the bigger picture is one of the highlights of 1899. In a way it feels quite similar to Lost in the emphasis it places on character, and especially those early seasons when everyone felt like they were hiding a whole wealth of secrets.
1899 is incredibly atmospheric and the aesthetic is very similar to Dark too, which is great to see. The little musical montages at the end of every episode are in full force, with a selection of great tracks to choose from. The lyrics all strike a meaning to what’s happening and have been carefully hand-picked to heighten the visuals. And learning that this film was shot almost entirely on a big stage rather than on-location is absolutely mind-blowing. The visuals look great, although there are a couple of sequences that feel at-odds and a little jarring, especially late on during episodes 5 and 6. It’s nowhere near as bad as something like Thor: Love and Thunder but it’s definitely noticeable.
1899 is a fantastic series and a welcome addition to the mystery genre. In many ways it feels like a whole rabble of influences thrown together, and woven through with the heart and soul of what made Dark such a moody and gripping watch. This is one show you definitely shouldn’t sleep on and after watching this in its entirety, you’ll be desperate for season 2!
1899 releases on Netflix Thursday 17th November worldwide!
Verdict - 8.5/10