A star rating of 3 out of 5.

Note: only the three episodes of 1899 were made available to review.

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Set aboard the Kerberos, a migrant steamship travelling from Europe to New York, Netflix’s latest series 1899 follows the ship’s array of passengers who are hopeful for a better life at the turn of the century in America. However, their journey turns out to be anything but plain sailing.

Four months previously the Prometheus, another ship from the same company as the Kerberos, vanished mid-voyage. With this disappearance still very much at the forefront of both the passengers' and crew's minds, there’s a palpable sense of trepidation that shrouds their journey. So when the Kerberos suddenly receives anonymous coordinates, possibly from the Prometheus, and it changes course to investigate, outrage ensues. And it’s here that the mystery at the core of 1899 begins to unfold.

The season opens with some impressive visuals, capturing the grand scale of the landscapes and oceans that provide the setting for much of the story. Even more specifically, the vessel on which the show’s characters find themselves on is brought to life in vivid fashion thanks to the lavish production design. With luxury dining halls and plush cabins, the lifestyle of the first-class passengers quickly becomes fully realised.

Although where there is an upstairs there must also be a downstairs. As would be expected, the lower decks have a much more basic and cramped appearance, showcasing how not all the Kerberos’s passengers enjoy the aforementioned first-class experience. Even further beyond these quarters, the dirty, suit-covered metallic infrastructure of the engine room creates an intense picture of the harsh conditions many of the crew are forced to endure.

With this layered setting, 1899 excels at creating space within the ship for the characters to interact and the story to develop in. The sense of scale is always felt and provides limitless potential for mystery and intrigue. This attention to detail is also carried through in the show’s costume design, which is incredibly varied thanks to the range of nationalities and classes represented by the collection of characters.

Much of the first episode is devoted to introducing this wealth of characters. They are gradually brought together, almost in the style of a whodunnit. They each have their own unique style, characteristics and, most importantly, something to hide.

At the centre of much of 1899’s mystery is young doctor Maura Franklin, played by Emily Beecham. Beecham navigates the first episode confidently, conveying Maura’s determination to solve the mystery of the Prometheus's disappearance. Although, she never dominates the proceedings as the season opener does a remarkable job of evenly establishing its characters, whilst also progressing with the central narrative, all at a satisfying pace.

It’s a shame that the second episode can’t quite live up to this promising beginning. Shifting focus from Maura to the captain of the Kerberos, Eyk, played by Andreas Pietschmann, he takes centre stage and the show establishes its pattern of having a different character be the focus of each episode. However, as 1899 reveals more about its characters, thankfully they begin to become more interlinked and involved with each other and the main mystery.

Though at times this character work can detract from the overall mystery and has the potential to frustrate viewers, audience patience will be rewarded as with the culmination of each episode comes a significant plot development. These cliffhangers are expertly executed and have the exact effect that the showrunners will no doubt have desired.

Nonetheless, 1899 could benefit from more focus on the plot throughout each of its episodes, rather than just in their final moments, as the revelation of character backstories, whilst important for the trajectory of the overall series's narrative, aren’t always enough to sustain interest across an entire episode.

Despite this wrinkle, across its opening three episodes 1899 establishes a strong sense of setting, introduces and develops a large number of characters and progresses with its narrative quickly. Whilst Beechem and Pietschmann assuredly lead much of the drama, there isn’t one standout performance. Instead, the strength of the ensemble as a whole positively contributes to the ever-evolving narrative and character work.

The show might be a little too reliant on episode cliffhangers in creating its most compelling viewing, however these climaxes to each episode undeniably achieve what they set out to: teasing what’s to come and making you want to start the next episode immediately.

Ultimately, this genre-bending mystery set on the high seas has been brought to the screen with much thought and care. At this early stage of the season the story is more engaging than its characters. But with each episode revealing more about them, the two will hopefully align to allow 1899 to power on full steam ahead and reach its maximum potential.

1899 comes to Netflix on Thursday 17th November. Sign up for Netflix from £6.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.

Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide or Streaming Guide, or visit our Drama hub for more news and features.

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