Ghost ships! They’re so cool, right? Especially when they’re ghost ships from 100-200 years ago. Whether the ships are made of steel or wood, just the fact that there was once a gaggle of people in period costumes perhaps haunting the people who find the ship is always intriguing. A new German-produced, multi-language series on Netflix has both ghost ships and people in period costumes. How can it miss?
1899: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: We see clouds and a churning ocean. “The brain is wider than the sky,” says a woman in voice over as she starts to recite Emily Dickinson’s poem.
The Gist: Maura Franklin (Emma Beecham) is on the Kerberos, a migrant ship whose destination is New York. She wakes up from a nightmare that shows a massive black pyramid and the image of the missing ship Prometheus, which has been lost for 4 months with no sign that it sank. On the ship are hundreds of people of different nationalities and levels of wealth, all looking for a new opportunity in the U.S..; the Prometheus was another ship from the same line, so intrigue among the passengers is high.
During breakfast, a steerage passenger busts in looking for medical help for his sister. Maura, who studies the brain, is the only doctor willing to help, and manages to turn the fetus so that its umbilical cord isn’t wrapped around it. Word gets to the world-weary captain, Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann), that a first class passenger like Maura was down in steerage, which isn’t allowed. She challenges him on it, but the argument is short-circuited when the captain gets word that a mysterious signal is coming from a coordinate seven hours away.
Larsen makes a bold choice to go off-course to meet the signal, over the objection of most of the first-class passengers, who just want to arrive in New York and start their new lives. But they go to the signal, which is coming from what looks like an abandoned Prometheus. An away party, led by the captain and including Maura, goes to the darkened ship. They have no idea about what they are about to find.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? 1899 has the same slow pace and sense of foreboding as the first season of The Terror.
Our Take: Showrunners Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar (Dark) have set up an intriguing supernatural mystery series with the first episode of 1899. We get glimpses of some of the other people on the ship who are trying to make fresh starts, and they all seem to have something to hide.
Ling Yi (Isabella Wei), a young Chinese woman, and her minder, Yuk Je (Gabby Wong), are pretending to be Japanese; Ling even wears geisha gear and makeup. Clémence (Mathilde Ollivier) and Lucien (Jonas Bloquet) are Parisian aristocrats who are newly married but seem to have no sex life or any other kind of romantic chemistry. Ángel (Miguel Bernardeau) is a wealthy Spanish businessman who is traveling with his Ramiro (José Pimentão), who seems to be befuddled about being a priest.
That amount of intrigue, plus the mysterious boy they find on the abandoned ship — he’s also holding a mysterious black pyramid — should make up for the very slow-moving first episode. As the away team searches the Prometheus, there’s a ton of darkness, lots of places where they see broken equipment and marvel over the fact that the signal stopped as soon as they got on board. We get a lot of scenes where Maura shows how virtuous she is. But the story doesn’t particularly move quickly.
Maybe as we dig into the back stories of the other passengers, things will pick up. But we get wary of shows that choose long shots of an abandoned ship over character development or plot movement, and 1899 will very easily slip into a too-languid pace if it’s not careful.
Sex and Skin: Some very unsexy sex between Clémence and Lucien, but that’s about it in the first episode.
Parting Shot: As “White Rabbit” plays, Maura looks at the black pyramid carried by the boy that’s found on the Prometheus.
Sleeper Star: Rosalie Craig is Virginia Wilson, a British socialite who is somehow very involved with Ling Yi and Yuk Je. We definitely wonder what their big secrets are.
Most Pilot-y Line: Somehow, Ángel is able to communicate with Krester (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen), the steerage passenger who needed help with his pregnant sister. Is it being in the presence of the mysteries of the Prometheus? That’s the only reason we can think of, else a Spaniard saying “You have an interesting face” to a Dane makes no sense.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Although 1899 starts off achingly slow, there are enough storylines going on that we hope things pick up as the mysteries surrounding the Prometheus deepen.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.