Netflix's 1899 is Fascinating

Posted on May 9, 2023 by Richard Goulter

Netflix’s “1899” comes from the same creators as “Dark”.

I’d watched “Dark” a few years ago; watching the first two seasons in 2019, and then its final third season some time later.

It’s very much a case of “if you like one, you’ll like the other”.
With “1899”, I definitely enjoyed it enough to binge my way through it.

Summary of the Show

I think an apt enough comparison to make is that watching “Dark” in many ways engages the same parts of my brain as programming does.
– I think more precisely, “Dark” and “1899” are probably most entertaining for people who love modelling for modelling’s sake. The shows each provide interesting and dense relations between each of the characters. – e.g. I recall that “Dark”, a show about time travelling, plays with at least two grandfather paradoxes: a classic ‘her daughter is her mother’, and a more fun ‘his girlfriend is his father’s sister’.

I’m not sure if these shows are quite for everyone.
One reason why these shows might not be broadly appealing to everyone is that the aesthetic and the characters generally are ostensibly quite miserable.
Another is that these shows dawdle their way around their mysteries elements, and aren’t in a particular hurry to explain things.

I knew going in to “1899” that it wouldn’t end with everything explained.
Rather, “Dark” takes 3 seasons to tell its story. And each season essentially added a whole other dimension to the world. Or it crawled, then walked, then ran.
So, that, and, I’d heard “1899” wasn’t going to get its second and third seasons.
– Netflix not renewing seasons reminds me of the YouTube channel “Achievement Hunter”, which would not follow through on series they would start because of a lack of views; and so each episode they put out would be immature (since the ensemble were getting familiar with the game they made a video about). The end result (amongst many other controversies) was that people stopped watching the series, and viewership slowly spiraled down.

What I Found Engaging: Its Themes and Setting

I’d say what makes “1899” so fascinating is its setting, and the themes it plays with as part of its story.
I think the plot (and the mystery aspect of that), and the characters are somewhat weaker.

“1899” is set on an ocean liner at sea in … 1899.
Woven throughout the narrative are themes like ‘the mind and what influences it’, ‘perception and perspective and presentation’, ‘dreams of the future, their realization in the present, and thoughts of the past’, ‘exploration and avoidance and curiousity and fear’.

I mean, to give a couple of examples:

I don’t think this is a case of searching for symbolism where there’s none.
Say, “the colour of the carpet” probably has no symbolic value.
But, I think the show densely relates a bunch of things, and doesn’t got out of your way to make sure you notice.

Some of the symbolism I don’t quite get.
We learn the ship is named “Kerberos”. “Kerberos” the three-headed dog that guards Hades in Greek mythology.. but, its symbolism as it applies to “1899” isn’t clear to me.
Triangles and tetrahedrons (simplexes???) are also shown prominently. But, any thematic meaning around this also isn’t clear to me.


The characters, if nothing else, do feel like they’re well suited or situated to play around with these kinds of themes. The story weaves in all sorts of details about the characters’ dreams, regrets, and masks.

The show is fun enough to watch in and of itself.
But, there was a moment where I felt the intention really is “hey, this is fun, huh!”:
Each episode ends with a 60’s rock song. (Or some are the 70’s).
– There’s a ‘risk’ of using pop music in media. The viewer might already associate the song with some feeling or emotion. And it seems clear to me that the writers know that, since the story often makes points about being reminded of the past, or of seeing what you want to see.
One episode ended with “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”.
Or as I know it as: the “More Cowbell” song.

Where the Show Felt Weak: Plot and Characters

The plot?

Well. Each episode will end with a teasing reveal of something mysterious, the effect of which is you’ll want to watch the next episode right away.
This works even if you know it’s going for a cliffhanger; and works even if you’re pretty sure it won’t get explained. (’cause, hey, there’s only so many episodes; some of them will have to explain some stuff).
– I don’t think this is so sophisticated; but it is effective.

Again, not everything gets explained.
But even considering that it’s only one season out of three, there’re still some surreal mystery elements which drive the plot that don’t get explained.
I can’t help but be reminded of that quote from “The Simpsons”: ‘well, anytime you notice something like that, a wizard did it’.
(“The Matrix” was able to do ‘trilogy of stories about weird mystery stuff’ while also having the first part of the story be a coherent whole; I think it’s reasonable that a first part be able to work as a coherent whole).

The show avoids overstaying its welcome… it doesn’t linger on its cleverness or go out of its way to show off how clever it is.
e.g. I did spot the show’s main symbol appearing behind the ear on one character. It’s probably not too hard to spot. But, it’s not emphasised.

I found the characters a bit ‘ehhhhh’.

I’m reminded of what I felt reading R. A. Salvatore’s fantasy stories. Salvatore’s action is excellent: it’s gripping; at the start of the book, the villains seem powerful, and by the end, the heroes manage to make a daring strike to beat the villains, and it’s all very fun. – But Salvatore’s characters sucked, and were a little too self-indulgent. His main character never makes mistakes, everything he does is perfect, everyone who challenges him is a mean pig and a bad person. – It’s … not all that interesting.

With “1899”, my senses are tickled in the same way.
The main character is a women who studied science. And so of course we get such insightful dialogue like “Woman disagrees with me? That’s because she’s letting her emotions affect her” or some such flat thing like that.
The characters feel constructed as if by the morals that would have the Christians all be either naive, crazy, or faking their belief; where the same morality would also emphasise and lament that Muslims aren’t treated with respect in society.
Mostly the show’s characters avoid filling such a sanctimonious role as this.

Woulda Been Nice to See the Rest of the Story

In any case, I did enjoy watching the show.

I think it’s a shame that the series didn’t continue. (I wonder if it’s the kind of story where by the end of season of season 3, the characters come to realise they’re characters in a TV show).

If a storyteller’s able to come up with something as intruiging as this with this set of toys, it’s a shame to not let them go on present the rest of their toychest.

Newer post Older post