This highlights the difficulty of reviewing a property like 1899: as a traveler, we have absolutely no idea of where we’re headed until we get there. Yes, yes, and yes: we may be able to close our eyes and reach out in the darkness, and maybe by feeling around and touching a bit of this or that we just might imagine what a twist or turn implies … but because the framework is built in such a way as to maintain ultimate secrecy surrounding the end of our trip, I’d still suggest that this is a journey likely to disappoint as many as it endears.
TV’s Lost ventured into similar thematic waters.
Across its six mystery-fueled seasons, its creative behind the curtain worked very hard to continually redefine the structure of its intense storytelling. For a time, viewers were treated to flashbacks that tied centrally back to characters in their current predicament. Then – perhaps when that format exhausted its usefulness – they turned their sights into the future, cultivating a look at where the program might be headed, though never quite ignoring the TV present. Finally, the showrunners engineered a little something something they liked to call a – ahem – ‘flash-sideways,’ in which popular characters found themselves in a somewhat parallel existence … only to inevitably reveal what many still in the viewing audience had long suspected, that being everyone had passed on and what was being explored was a loose afterlife. Sigh. I still want my money back for what I wasted on that finale.
Thankfully, 1899’s creators – Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese – have a background that demonstrates perhaps a better reason to ‘trust the maker’ than did Lost: their previous show – Netflix’s stellar Dark – lasted three intriguing seasons, perhaps just long enough to sustain an audience’s level of disbelief effectively and honestly with such make-believe as time travel, temporal paradoxes, and parallel existences. Though I’ll admit that I thought the bloom came off the rose quite a bit with its third season, Dark still rather efficiently wrapped up its narrative – far more successfully than did Lost – even if viewers weren’t all that enamored with the final solution. (Hint: I wasn’t … but it still functioned as a reasonable and prescient conclusion.)
Still, 1899 is not without some shortcomings.
However, Odar and Friese’s program does and doesn’t cover a lot of ground in its first season, a total of eight episodes. This isn’t to say that it’s either too long or too short; rather, the installments – roughly about midway through their run – begin to overlap themselves thematically. Things happen that – narratively – make little sense until you get a bigger picture, requiring you – the viewer – to carry a lot of information with you to that point. Once you do know what’s going on with respect to the show’s world-hopping, I’m still not convinced this was the easiest means to an end. I’m inclined to suggest – though I do hate doing this – that there has to be a slimmer edit to all of these events that would make vastly greater sense … but at the end of the day it’s still my job to react to art as it’s presented and leave the revisions to the artists.
Lastly, once the – ahem – final reality to what’s actually taking place is clearly established, I find myself still questioning whether or not this reveal is authentic. The scripts invest an incredible amount of time in misdirection (to a point), all of the twists and turns intending to heighten the tension, drama, and suspense. But I’m not sure that’s always the case here. Some of it is indeed inventive, but when an audience is treated to so many surprises at a consistent pace it becomes only natural to suspect a big discovery really might be doing little more than housing yet one more mystery. The season ends with (I won’t spoil it) a pretty dramatic repositioning – one that might have half the audience scratching their heads and the other half trying to figure out just what it means for everything that took place across these eight episodes – so please if anything keep your thinking caps on tight, folks.
What all of this still does in the end is position me with a variation of the question that I asked at the opening: “What did I think about what happened when what happened might not be part of the final destination?”
On a production level, 1899 is exceedingly well-crafted, excellently staged, and exceedingly well performed.
In the guise of our lead heroine ‘Maura Franklin,’ the award-winning Emily Beecham gives a compelling performance. Though her character is couched in the writing in such a way that we don’t truly know if she’s a protagonist or an antagonist, she makes the program watchable by conveying the desire of a woman to both unravel the mystery her life has somehow become as well as the desire to set things right, even perhaps at the cost of her own existence. There’s an earnestness to her plight, making it easy to root for her along the way. Here’s hoping she can hold it all together even though the program – if renewed – promises to take her in yet one more challenging direction.
As ‘Captain Eyk Larsen,’ actor Andreas Pietschmann is, thankfully, a familiar face: he was last seen as the mysterious stranger through all seasons of Odar and Friese’s Dark … so, yes, it’s nice to recognize a player! As 1899’s convoluted plot develops, it becomes increasingly clear that – like the lady Franklin – his fate is somehow tied in with this bizarre history; but the second half of the season kinda/sorta shelves his character in a way that slows down the progress more than a bit. (What can I say? In times of crisis, it’s comforting – even for the audience – to have a person of authority present, but Larsen is absent for much of the plot, so I think this was a mistake.) His ‘blue collar mentality’ fuels some good scenes as needed, and his presence is an asset to the show.
Beyond those two leads, the cast benefits from some other strong players, but – alas – as can happen with having so many actors and actresses no one really gets any pivotal or instrumental scenes to the central plot. While there are clearly a handful of several subplots all swirling around the program’s highs and lows, they inevitably appear inconsequential when you reach Episode Eight and all is revealed (somewhat). Because of this, I’ve no idea what to make of them – superficially, they appear to have little to nothing to do with where the franchise is headed, should Netflix pick this up and push it to fruition.
In case you’ve missed it, 1899 has a premise that’s somewhat difficult to decipher without spoiling it for audiences, and that’s something I work hard to avoid on SciFiHistory.Net. A bit long – and more than a bit confusing at times – it’s still an interesting idea perfectly suited for long-form storytelling … though those who like to binge might wanna space out the episodes a bit in order to avoid the possible mental exhaustion.