1899 is quite an achievement. Somehow, it contrives to underwhelm in an inversely proportional manner to Dark’s carefully nurtured success. Admittedly, that series didn’t quite stick the landing, but its low-key, some might say grimdark, persuasion and intricate, some might say impenetrable, plotting, were entirely immersive and gripping, even when you couldn’t quite keep track of who was who and how they related to someone else in a different timeframe. 1899 blithely throws such a carefully hewn approach to the storm-tossed seas and in so doing delivers something entirely less commendable.
Message: May your coffee kick in, before reality does.
Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar can claim a so-convenient free pass for their generally slack approach here, be it to plot or all things character, dialogue, modes of behaviour, etiquette and attitude. At no point is an immersive sense of period achieved, but unlike Kenneth Branagh and his pitiful Poirot pictures, this duo’s presentist-with-just-a hint-of-period-oppression attitude to character and behaviourism may be excused; after all, this isn’t actually set in 1899! It’s a simulation. Which means any concerns you had over the rigours of plot are also wiped away in an instant. It isn’t supposed to make sense! Henry Singleton (Anton Lesser, having a high-profile year with this and Andor) says as much: “Our world has rules and they can’t be bent. But nothing in this world follows any rules of logic”.
Maura: The brain is wider than the sky.
By the same token, the final reveal is surely the latest cheap trick. Another simulation. 1899 surely isn’t really set in 2099, not unless prevailing 2022 wokeness is back in fashion in 77 years’ time. So while 1899 began as a bad soap disaster movie, drifting gradually into horror and sci-fi, it was never ultimately very far from the bad soap. Even in the first episode, such zingers as “You need to think straight” and “shit show” rubbed shoulders with oiled-up navvies shovelling coal in the engine room like they’re auditioning for an anti-perspirant ad.
Remarkably accommodating attitudes to race, gender and sexual preference abound in this pressure cooker of a steamship, such that the increasingly absurd interactions, pairings and exchanges barely elicit a flicker of response. Although, when gay not-priest Ramiro (José Pimentão) excitedly plants a smacker on devout not-priest Anker (Alexandre Willaume), only the most resilient will stifle a groan. Likewise, when Virginia (Rosalie Craig) expounds to our heroine Maura (Emily Beecham), a doctor, “I admire… that you stand against the conventions that women face”, only the preceding seven episodes of dialogue mush prevent the platform sermon from inducing myocardial infarction.
Daniel: We’ve never made it this far. Maybe it will work this time.
It’s also immensely fortunate that the makers can excuse the often-ropey effects – they always look like effects, just as the lighting – much of this was achieved via the use of Volume – always looks processed and affected. When it eventually comes to revealing the orbital 2099 was a simulation because, obviously, space is a fake, no one will complain that the space effects look like space effects.
Most of this is more glaring than it otherwise would be because the construction is so saggy. A great deal of 1899 comprises characters running around the steamship Kerberos semi-aimlessly. Or encountering lacklustre reality slips/flashbacks to emotionally fractious moments in their lives as part of the whole ordeal. Or experiencing some degree of high-weirdness in aid of the mystery component. If 1899 largely avoids becoming a chore, its emphasis on the gimmicky in terms of the odd anachronistic component, of black pyramids, portals to different realms, “possessed” crew and infectious agents (even a spot of black goo, albeit closer to charcoal), or persistent déjà vu is very much in aid of a liberally spattered, undisciplined attempt to distract the viewer rather than allow them to focus on how little there actually is in the way of sustenance.
Maura: How can any of this be real?
Eyk Larsen: You think this is some kind of dream?
Indeed, once we get down to the nuts and bolts, the repeated conversations on the nature of reality, be it a tendency to solipsism or outright referencing Plato’s Cave allegory, feel ham-fisted and didactic. There’s no finessing here, and the “shock” that Maura (Emily Beecham) is responsible for the sim is surely to be re-gauged again, in due course (since she’s the lead female protagonist, she must surely be a true heroine and a credit to her gender). Few of the performers are able to lift any of this. Lesser, Aneurin Barnard (as Daniel, Maura’s husband) and Andreas Pietschmann (as he captain, also the lead in Dark) are strong, but too many of the performers are hampered by piecemeal histrionics masquerading as characterisation, which includes Beecham.
Elliot: I can’t tell you. you’ll have to ask the creator.
The other, increasingly irksome, issue with 1899 is just how derivative it is, and that’s before we find out this is a simulation. The haunted vessel with weirdness going on is suggestive of Event Horizon and the recurrence of Triangle (instead of a pile of bodies, there’s a ship graveyard). Throw in some Jacob’s Ladder, even Pandorum. Someone has evidently been watching Time Bandits, not only for the portals/doors (black squares hanging in the landscape) but also the “glass frontier” that conceals the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness (here, there’s a crack in the “vista”).
Daniel: People are oblivious to reality. They only see what they want to see. All they have to do is shift their perspective to see the full scope of things.
Such tricks ought to be evocative, the sort of things a Lindelof would pull out of his hat (or somewhere else), but because there are few options, and because the answer is the least interesting among them, 1899 rather fizzles. The anachronisms – the purposeful rather than woke ones – also heavily suggest someone has been watching Doctor Who. The video surveillance of a less advanced age (The War Games), and more especially Carnival of Monsters, where a sailing vessel is an exhibit in a travelling space “zoo”. Where else do you find holes in the floor of a ship leading to completely different landscapes and/or internal workings of some device? Someone even asks “Do you remember how you boarded this ship?” which is asked in another story, one featuring sailing vessels in space, Enlightenment (besides being generally indicative of the simulation’s rules limiting knowledge: see Dark City).
Daniel: You have to leave now. This is so much bigger than you think. You have to stop him, or everything will be lost.
Had 1899 anything up its sleeve in its umpteenth simulation take, I might be more forgiving, but all appearances are otherwise. We aren’t aware of the true nature of reality because we’re either zombies heading over the side (NPCs) or brainwashed/programmed to accept an illusion. Sure, the ship is the world and the humans are all an experiment, stuck in a loop, much like an extended soul trap. Making Maura responsible suggests she’s some kind of demented demiurge/Sophia figure (she’s doing it to protect her most precious son, as we understand it at this point anyway). That may be subject to refocussing come Season 2, which looks like a done deal as Netflix has reported its higher viewership (had it belly upped they’d have surely kept mum).