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1899 Review – ‘Doomed Ship’ Mystery Runs Out of Steam

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By Sneha Jaiswal (Twitter | Instagram)

After some coffee, breakfast and a two hour long class, I decided to go on Netflix for a bit. But strangely, the homepage didn’t have the series I was watching in the ‘continue watching’ section featured on the top. Annoyed, I looked up the title and scrolled through the episodes to realize – I had streamed them all the previous night. Funny, because the show is about a woman who forgets stuff. And also indicative of how abruptly things ended.

Created by Jantje Friese and Baran Bo Odar, ‘1899’ is set in the same year as the title and follows a certain Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham), daughter of the man who owns the ship she is sailing on. He also owned the ‘Prometheus’, which went missing four months ago with 1500 passengers. Maura is sure her father is up to something sinister and has a hand in the ship’s disappearance, but she cannot remember how.

Titled ‘The Ship’, episode one does a fantastic job of setting the basic plot and building up an ominous amount of suspense. It begins with a nightmare. Maura the protagonist wakes up in a sweat onboard the ‘Kerberos’, a migrant steamship carrying hundreds of mixed origin migrants to America. Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann), the captain is told the crew has been constantly getting signals that could be from the ‘Prometheus’. To the chagrin of almost all passengers, Eyk decides to turn his ship to look for the ‘Prometheus’, with slim chances of finding survivors. When they do find the lost ship, strange tragic events begin to unfold on the ‘Kerberos’. Is it a plague, a curse or something that’s beyond the grasp of what’s known to man?

From episode two onward, ‘1899’ begins to test viewers’ patience. There are more psychological events than actual action. The trailer misleads viewers into believing there will be ample horror, but instead, a lot of the drama hinges on hallucination. Fortunately, the visions also serve as flashback stories, giving a glimpse into each character’s past, so the hallucinations aren’t simply there for jump scares. While the series is largely in English, there’s a lot of diversity in the cast and a lot of the dialogues also unfold in German, French, Danish, Spanish, Polish and Cantonese. Each supporting cast member has a sub-plot to themselves, but most viewers would be a lot more interested in finding out what happened to the ‘Prometheus’ to care much about side-stories, most of which progress at snail’s pace.

Just when you feel like the story is nose-diving into becoming a snooze-fest, the second episode ends with a surprisingly intriguing cliff-hanger, one forces you to look at the whole show in a new light and change your expectations with the coming episodes. However, each episode is laden with tiny morsels of mysterious twists (some predictable ones) and cliffhangers, steadily increasing anticipation, yet never delivering the cataclysmic climax you begin to hope for. There’s no “woah!” moment, even though there are opportunities in the tale for the creators to execute some hair-raising horror. For example, ‘1899’ has a segment which is a dark take on the famous German legend ‘Pied Piper of Hamlin’, but the events that unfold on the ship feel strangely distant and exaggerated. The overall effect is thus not as horrifying as it should’ve been.

Visually, the series isn’t as striking as historical dramas tend to be, especially since it’s a migrant steamship and not a luxury cruise. But going by its dominant themes, the cinematography is broody, gloomy and creates a gothic horror atmosphere. The background score is haunting in parts, especially when they use a piece that sounds like a dying person wailing for help. But a lot of the musical score also serves as either a red herring or a spoiler. Like the track ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane stands out in the series (it also plays in the intro sequence) and depending on how the viewer interprets the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ inspired lyrics, they will have a specific sort of foreboding about where the story is going.

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small

And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all

Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits, you know you’re going to fall

Lyrics of ‘White Rabbit’

Jantje Friese and Baran Bo Odar borrow some tropes from their hit Netflix show ‘Dark’, so those who’ve seen it could feel slightly bummed about the minor repetitions. Just like in ‘Dark’, the creators make up their own little games and rules for 1899, so there isn’t much point in questioning some of the inexplicable things that happen. The cast is fantastic, and while Emily Beecham gets most of the screen-space, the eight episodes are evenly divided into the very many passengers onboard the doomed ‘Kerberos’ and this would become a ridiculously long essay if I were to comment on each one’s performance. The diversity and themes are staggering; religious fanaticism, flesh trade, combat stress, class divide, sexual freedom… the writers try to cover more than necessary really.

When the final episode concluded, I was completely taken aback, not because it was shocking or surprising, but just jarring. Imagine being on a Ferris Wheel, and half-way through the ride, when your seats are mid-air, you are told “hey, the ride is over, get off now”. What on earth? From constructing a massive, larger than life horror mystery, the climax reveals the mystery to be more personal in nature than anticipated. ‘1899’ will need a second season to give viewers more closure, but I am not sure if I would want to see it. This slow-burn horror mystery eventually starts to lose steam and left me disappointed, but for all the efforts put in by the makers, it’s worth a watch for mystery fans. Horror enthusiasts – you’ve been warned – don’t go expecting literal ghosts, ghouls and gore.

It’s a 7/10 from me.

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