First impressions: 1899

The brain is wider than the sky
For put them side by side
The one the other will contain
With ease, and you beside
The brain is deeper than the sea
For hold them, blue to blue
The one the other will absorb
As sponges buckets do

Emily Dickinson

There’s only one thing more challenging than following up a smash hit television show. That is, following up a smash hit television show that was also critically acclaimed and spawned an almost cult-like fervour. But that’s what the creators of Dark are attempting to do with their new Netflix series, 1899.

As someone who has annoyed others with their love of Dark for a full half decade now, I sat down to watch 1899 with some trepidation. Despite my best intentions, I had what Victorian authors would no doubt call expectations and yet I’m aware that is deeply unfair. Nonetheless I’ve tried to keep them managed as much as possible. Still it’s almost impossible to watch 1899 without mentally considering how the show is similar to or differs from its predecessor.

The first episode of 1899 is laudably slow burn as we meet the passengers and crew of the steamship Kerberos (Cerberus) on its seven day voyage to New York. A picture of late Victorian civility above deck and a hell pit below, the ship is abuzz with rumours about the loss of the sister ship, Prometheus. And for those who know and love these writers, these ship names are unlikely to be random.

Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end

Ling Yi

When the Kerberos receives a mysterious message that it believes is from the Prometheus, its gruff and weatherbeaten Captain, Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann) diverts the ship to intercept it. This is an unpopular decision with a number of the passengers, nearly all of whom are not what they appear.

This may also be the case with our main character, the English neurologist, Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham). While on the surface honest and straightforward, Maura sports restraint marks on her arms and has terrible nightmares about being imprisoned in an asylum by her father whom she suspects of harming her brother who was on the Prometheus when it disappeared.

1899 starts with a Dickinson poem – and a tantalising one at that. It speaks to the mind being greater than the world; being able to absorb and encompass the universe. It also starts with only two thirds of the poem, removing the final stanza that speaks of God. The impression left is one of human thought overcoming reality.

As Dark drew on time travel to challenge our perceptions of reality, so 1899 seems determined to test those limits of our world as well. The first episode is full of liminal spaces; mysterious abandoned steamers; the strange limbo of long journeys; ships off course; characters in between lives; long hallways; and visual and thematic references to the underworld.

At the start, 1899 sucks us down an ocean vortex into the mind of Maura who then wakes up on the steamer. It’s enough to make us wonder whether any of this is in fact real or if that thought itself is merely a red herring. Nonetheless, 1899 gives us enough cause to wonder at least whether this ocean voyage is nothing but a product of somebody’s mind. Is this in fact a voyage of the damned?

As a small group head over an eerie, silent sea to the ghost ship, Prometheus, they find it floating empty on deep waters, except for a strange child locked in a cupboard. He steps out and hands Maura a pyramid. Another liminal space.

Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit provides the suitably psychedelic soundtrack to the almost surreal first episode ending, as we see strange passenger Daniel Solace (Aneurin Barnard) releasing scarab beetles on the Kerberus. The scarab beetle’s associations with death and rebirth in Egyptian mythology merely adds to the densely layered sense of passing between worlds.

So down the rabbit hole we go with 1899 but where to? I’m unsure what 1899’s destination is but it’s definitely committed to the journey. 

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