|A ship steams toward destiny in Netflix's 1899.
Just before we are swamped by television’s annual flood of holiday movies and specials, you might want to take a few nights to binge something completely different. Fans of steampunk and classic mad-scientist SF, in particular, will be fascinated by 1899, an eerie psychological paranormal thriller on Netflix from the German creators of Dark.
I’ll admit I’m only about halfway through this limited series starring an ensemble of international actors (the dialogue is delivered in German, Polish, Cantonese, Spanish, Danish, French and I’m sure I missed a few languages) led by British actor Emily Beecham, but I’m definitely hooked. It’s a bit of a slow build, I don’t mind waiting for a show to reveal itself, as long as the characters are interesting (which they are in this case—everyone seems to have a secret and/or a painful past).
The basic premise is that a shipful of European immigrants—some richer on the upper decks, some poorer in steerage—are making the trip across the Atlantic on the symbolically named Kerberos (yes, the three-headed dog that guards Hades). The captain of the mostly German crew (played by Andreas Pietschmann) and his officers remark that, 1) they are grateful they weren’t laid off when the company was bought out by a British cruise line and, 2) they are cruising at only about half capacity in passengers and with no cargo.
Aboard the ship are a mix of odd characters, including a female doctor (Beecham) who specializes in the brain and has studied medicine, but not practiced (which was common at the time for women); two gay men posing as brothers, one of them a fake priest; a madam posing as an imperious society matron; a Chinese mother and her daughter, who is destined to join the madam’s brothel as a “geisha;” a devout Danish family in steerage, the oldest brother of whom is a target for one of the rich gay men and the oldest sister of whom is pregnant; and so on.
About a third of the way into the trip, the ship receives a repeating telegraph of coordinates from a ship of the same line (the Prometheus) that has been lost for four months. There are no other details. The captain determines they must change course to check it out. (I was suddenly reminded of STAR TREK, forced to investigate a mysterious emergency distress signal in the black of space.)
Now, what we have come to understand is that both the captain and the doctor have received black-edged letters from the same anonymous source urging them to investigate the cruise line (owned by the doctor’s father) and the disappearance of the (again symbolically named) Prometheus. On the back of the envelopes was this message: What was lost will be found again. And it’s useful to know that a black-edged envelope in Victorian times meant an announcement of death.
So, despite much grumbling from passengers and crew, the Kerberos is diverted to find the Prometheus. When they get there, they discover the abandoned ship, looking very decrepit (like it’s been abandoned much longer than four months), but no bodies and no evidence of what might have happened. They discover only one survivor—a boy of about eight, locked in a cabinet (from the outside). He doesn’t speak, but hands over to the doctor a pyramid-shaped black object with markings on it. No one has a clue what it is, but immediately all the compasses on the Kerberos go haywire. If it were me, I’d toss the thing overboard, but no one ever does, do they?
Also, while the Captain and his crew (and the doctor) are searching the Prometheus, a young man (Daniel Solace, played by Aneurin Bernard) swims aboard the Kerberos from the abandoned ship, fully clothed, boots and all, and finds an empty room to hide out in. He starts releasing scarabs (another symbol of death) in the ship, why we don’t know. But, pretty soon, people start dying; the captain and the doctor start having visions; and things start going south. (The scarabs, by the way, also unlock doors and portals to other worlds.)
When contacted for orders, the cruise line insists they sink the Prometheus, which is strange enough, but the Captain refuses and makes the decision to tow it back to their port of origin. Passengers and crew are all unhappy—several of the passengers have big reasons for not going back—and the crew fear their captain has lost his mind. But the Captain just knows something is wrong about that ghost ship, and he’s determined to find out what. But a mob blames the boy for the spate of deaths on the ship, chaos leads to mutiny, and Daniel Solace turns out to hold the key to some fearsome new tech on the Kerberos.
But that’s not the end to the wild and inexplicable events on the ship. Manipulation of the new tech places the Kerberos elsewhere, miles from where it had been, back on course for America and separated from the ill-fated Prometheus. Another push of a button starts up the ticking of a spectral clock which sends most of the passengers into a zombie-like state and over the side into the ocean. It’s only much later that we discover the cause of all this may be a mad scientist behind what is a massive mind experiment.
The show has a few faults, the biggest being that Beecham’s character, Maura Franklin (the doctor), is what we in the science fiction world call a Mary Sue. She should be just another passenger—well, with a few connections to the plot, certainly—but for some reason she manages to insert herself in all the action. That would never happen onboard a real ship. Still the show is worth a watch for fans of the paranormal, of steampunk (the Victorian setting, the gears and odd tech—Solace even wears a long coat and boots), and of classic mad scientist SF. They, like me, will want to tune in to find out what happens next in this twisty tale.