Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese’s “1899” follows a passenger ship called Kerberos, which is traveling from an unknown location to the United States of America. They are flagged down by a ship called Prometheus, which apparently went missing four months ago. Captain Eyk not only decides to change course and get to the Prometheus to help its passengers but also tow it back to its port of origin. However, after reaching the stranded passenger ship, they realize that it’s in a decrepit state, all its passengers are missing, and its remaining survivors are a boy named Elliot and a man named Daniel. As this weird phenomenon doesn’t dissuade Eyk from abandoning the plan of going back and sailing to the USA, the passengers take it upon themselves to do the needful. This triggers a series of supernatural events that hint at the fact that everything that the characters perceive is not at all real.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Much like their previous show, “Dark,” Odar and Friese inject a lot of Christian and Greek imagery into “1899.” There’s the Danish religious family of Iben, Anker (who is a priest), Krester, and Tove. We see the cross around the mental hospital simulation. Before heading into reality, one of the most prominent things that Maura sees is a cross with a streak of light illuminating it. The fact that people of various ethnicities are going on a big boat across a neverending body of water seems very Noah’s Ark-esque. The name Kerberos refers to the multi-headed hound of Hades, Cerberus, who guards the gates of the Underworld and prevents the dead from escaping. The ship Kerberos essentially holds the souls of its passengers, disallowing them from going anywhere. So, that’s one parallel. Since there was a lot of coding involved in the simulations in “1899,” Kerberos can also be a reference to the computer-network authentication protocol of the same name. There’s Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to explain the concept of reality and illusion. But it’s the title of Prometheus (the name of the missing ship as well as the spaceship) that sticks out the most.
According to Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan god of fire. He apparently played a trick on Zeus by placing two sacrificial offerings: a selection of beef in an ox’s stomach (good food but bad presentation) and a bull’s bones wrapped in shiny fat (bad food but attractive presentation). Zeus ended up choosing the latter, thereby setting the precedent that humans can offer bull’s bones wrapped in fat to the gods and keep the meat for themselves. When Zeus found out about this, he became furious and hid fire (a source of warmth and light) from humans as punishment. Prometheus stole the fire back from Zeus and restored it to humanity. In order to punish him, Prometheus was then bound in chains. His immortal liver was exposed so that an eagle (sent by Zeus) could eat on it every day. The moment the liver grew back to its original form, the eagle would come back and peck it again, keeping Prometheus in eternal agony. Several years later, the Greek hero Heracles (who was responsible for capturing Cerberus/Kerberos as the last of his twelve tasks), after getting Zeus’s permission, killed the eagle and freed Prometheus.
Now, Prometheus’ actions have several interpretations. But since Plato is a major presence in “1899,” thanks to the usage of his cave allegory, let’s run with his take on Prometheus’s story. As per the Greek philosopher, values like “reverence” and “justice” are necessary for the existence of a civilized society. The Gods might’ve been integral to the creation of humankind and all other animals. However, there was nothing to separate humans from animals. It was up to Prometheus (and his brother Epimetheus) to give them defining attributes and make them unique. The act of giving fire to humans was defined by him as Prometheus’s way of enlightening the species and empowering them with the one thing that gives its bearer the ability to craft tools, weapons, and more. Although in the 2nd century AD, Prometheus wasn’t a very prominent figure, largely because he was a Titan, his popularity grew as people understood what he represented. He was worshiped for educating human beings and suffering for us because the gods wanted us to be unscientific and dependent on them. In post-Renaissance literary arts, Prometheus was interpreted as a figure that resisted various forms of institutional tyranny (that was represented by Zeus, of course). Mary Shelley saw her Frankenstein as a modern Prometheus, bestowing life into an inanimate thing via technology and medical science. And then there’s Kafka, who saw Prometheus as someone who tried to explain the inexplicable and became a puzzling myth himself.
Alright, so how does this Prometheus mumbo-jumbo apply to “1899”? Well, the most obvious parallel is the one between Prometheus’s repetitive punishment and the traumatic simulations that the passengers of the Kerberos (who are actually in the spaceship called Prometheus) are subjected to. I can go on a limb and say that Ángel and Ramiro are not afraid of being shamed just because they are a gay couple in 2099. Ling Yi, Yuk Je, and Virginia Wilson are probably not in the flesh trade, with Ling Yi not being her friend’s murderer. Lucien and Jérôme are definitely not soldiers from one of the many battles that took place in the 1800s. Tove is definitely not pregnant with the child of her rapist. Only Maura, Eyk, and Daniel’s backstories have some level of authenticity, but I’m guessing that they’re not as violent and traumatic as they are depicted in the show. But Henry or Ciaran (both of them can be representing Zeus) is disproportionately tormenting them by imprisoning them in their pods (which can be the modern equivalent of the rock that Prometheus was tied to), with the infinite loops representing the indefinitely regenerating liver of Prometheus. Who is Heracles in this whole scenario? Maybe it’s Maura. However, that’s a stretch for now.
The punishment brings up the all-important question: what’s the crime? Continuing the parallels with Prometheus and his act of enlightening mankind, I can shoot in the dark and say that Maura and the rest of his team have made some important scientific breakthroughs that contradict Prometheus the spaceship’s mission. I know that’s a little confusing and a complete conjecture. So, let me elaborate. I am assuming that Prometheus and its members are tasked with finding the next habitable planet that exists lightyears away from them. But Maura and her team have probably learned something along the lines of “there’s no habitable planet around, and they need to let humanity know as soon as possible so that they can start taking appropriate measures.” Because, after a certain point, the time taken to send a message and have it received on Earth is going to take lightyears. And the repercussions of being late can be devastating. Now, in the vein of Prometheus’ (the Greek Titan) myth, this is enlightening. However, this can hamper Ciaran’s Prometheus mission, which is all about using the best technology available in the world and informing humanity that there’s hope for habitable planets in the galaxy. And since he doesn’t want to jeopardize that (possibly because there’s a lot of money involved), he has imprisoned the crew in these pods. Therefore, even though Ciaran is in charge of a spaceship named Prometheus, he’s acting like Zeus.
Since we are all speculating here, I am going to drop another theory: “1899” is a giant homage to Ridley Scott’s movie (drum rolls, please) “Prometheus.” That prequel to “Alien” also saw a bunch of scientists traveling in a spacecraft called Prometheus to find the race that preceded mankind, i.e., the “Engineers.” But what they found there was a virulent biological weapon that one of the Engineers was planning to unleash on planet Earth so that it would cause worldwide extinction or the transformation of humans into monsters. Therefore, Prometheus’s mission became about preventing the Engineer from taking off toward Earth after learning that their possible creators are actually out to kill them. So, just like Ridley Scott, I am assuming that Baran Bo Odar and Jantje Friese aren’t going to go for a very literal interpretation of the myth of Prometheus. They are probably going to give it their signature dark twist and send an ambivalent message about the dichotomy of getting enlightened or searching for knowledge in order to expand human civilization. However, to know that we have to wait patiently for “1899” Season 2.